The old woman wrapped in a refrigerator mantle

Frtizie Rodriguez
The old woman wrapped in a refrigerator mantle
Already in her 70s, she fights the bitter cold as Nene waits for the arrival of Pope Francis at the University of Santo Tomas

Manila, Philippines – She is in her 70s like Pope Francis.

The old woman is wrapped in a refrigerator mantle (a cloth covering the top of such appliance) lent by her employer, “Giginawin daw ako eh, sabi ng amo ko (I will get cold, my employer told me),” she said. 

Nene, as she likes to be called, got off work at 5 pm on Saturday, January 17. She rested for around two hours before heading to the University of Santo Tomas to fall in line alongside others waiting for the Pope.

Francis is set to have a dialogue with religious leaders and the Filipino youth at UST on Sunday morning, January 18.

The university gates, however, would not be open until 4 am, people were initially told. (The gates were opened at 6 am.) People started flocking to UST as early as Saturday, staying in nearby dorms or hotels.

A policeman observed that people started lining up as early as 6 pm on Saturday, and that the queues started to get long at 9 pm.

Nene’s hands were a bit shaky as she pulled the mantle closer to her body. She sat on flattened cardboards, with her feet sliding from slipper to concrete.

Next to her was a small plastic bag of packed meals her employer had given her.

She was not alone on the streets; every other person who wanted to see the Pope was there with her, mostly a lot younger than Nene.

It was a cold night. The grandmother was nearly asleep, but the cold bars where she rested her head kept her awake. Despite her wrap, every other part of her body remained cold.

Not stopping

Nene has been washing clothes all day; she had been washing other people’s clothes for decades.

In her younger days, Nene romped the streets of Manila, selling drinks and snacks from a cart. In the last 10 years, she has been working as a laundress for a family.

“Pinanganak ako 1943; nabiyuda 1970, pagkatapos noon nagtitinda na ako at naglalaba sa Maynila  (I was born in 1943; widowed in 1970, after that I started working as a vendor and laundress in Manila),” Nene said.

Soon after her 4 children got married, Nene started living alone, saying that she does not want to bother her children. “May pamilya na rin sila eh, ayoko umasa (They have their own families too, I don’t want to depend on them).”

She takes a two-hour bus from Bulacan to Manila every day. At the end of each day, after washing clothes for 7 hours, she earns P450 ($10.07*); a huge chunk of it goes to bus fares.

“’Di ko alam kailan ako titigil magtrabaho, ‘pag gusto na ni Lord tumigil, wala akong magagawa (I don’t know when would I stop working, if it’s the Lord’s will that I stop, I can’t do anything about it),” she said.

Her back never hurts from a whole day of labor, it is only her pockets that always hurt, she quipped.

Nene no longer supports her children since they are all adults with their own lives. She works to support herself.

On that day, despite the cold and discomfort, Nene was determined to see the Pope.

Hindi ko naman hinihingi sa kanya na ako’y yumaman, bigyan niya lang ako ng lakas (I’m not asking that I get rich, I only ask that he give me strength), she said. 

She believed that her prayers have helped her all these years. The grandmother proudly shared how she had been going home alone late at night for most of her life, and yet nothing bad has ever happened to her.

“Lolo Kiko” is only a few years older than Lola Nene.  She admitted that she only heard of the Pope quite recently, and yet she already felt a close connection with him.

She could wait for the UST gates to open, thinking it may be more comfortable inside, enough for her to nap for a few hours before battling her way through the crowd.

Pagkatapos nito, uuwi na ko. Baka bumagsak na ko kung tutuloy pa ‘kong Luneta (I’m going home after this. I might collapse if I go to Luneta after this),” she said, laughing. 

It was a little past midnight. Some were in sleeping bags, some were lying on newspaper, and there was Nene, wrapped in a refrigerator mantle.

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