[Dash of SAS] A village of aunties
I have 5 mothers. One is my birth mother. The other 4 are the sisters of my father. I was raised by a village of aunties. Our village was Daly City – San Francisco Bay Area.
I don’t remember feeling different as a Filipino growing up in the Bay Area, even back in the 80s. But I do remember feeling different being raised by 4 women, who were all, in one way or another, my mother, while all my classmates had their “real” parents or, in the case of divorced families, a parent.
It was very confusing for when teachers asked to see “my mother.” I didn’t know which one of the Aunties to call on. Teachers were always puzzled and occasionally, this look would cross this face, a look that I later on recognized as pity.
I couldn’t quite understand why they would feel sorry for me. I couldn’t see what the big deal was about having 4 aunties instead of two parents.
I struggled more with the aunties’ conservative Filipino upbringing, which even against the 80s era backdrop of San Francisco, was outmoded. Occasionally, I would think of them as my evil stepsisters who served reminders not to talk to strangers along with breakfast, that there were bad people everywhere and if I was not careful, I might end up like one of this missing children pictured on milk cartons.
One threatened the first boy who called me at home, telling him that she would call the police if he called back. I was the laughingstock of the class the following day and I turn beet red with embarrassment at the recollection even today.
One auntie whom I called Ate like everyone else did, brought me to the US. My childhood bedtime stories were a mix of children’s books interlaced with stories about how the lines at the US embassy were as long as Roxas Boulevard itself and how she spent the night in the queue so as not to lose her place.
She would always buy me children’s books on her way home from work and gave me my lunch money – strictly $4 a week, augmented only if I wanted to buy a new title from the school’s book program. To Ate, I owe my life in America and my love for reading.
The second auntie, Tita Meding, was a dentist. She made it her life mission to take care of my teeth. Every 6 months, on the dot, I would sit in her dentist’s chair and listen to her tell me, “No boy likes a girl with yucky teeth.”
Gritting my teeth, biting into the spicy cold fluoride gel that would end each cleaning session was my first lesson in beauty. “Tiisin mo!” (Bear it) she would say in a tone as icy as the fluoride. Tita Meding championed “tiis-ganda” long before it became a catchphrase.
My second beauty lesson came from her, too. She would always tell me to stand up straight because “you can’t be Miss Philippines if you’re kuba (hunched)."
Like most mothers blind to the genetic misalignments of their child, Tita Meding never mentioned that my height – among other things – would forever ruin my chance at the crown.
The two youngest were an odd mix.
One, I called Ninang. At the age of 4, I learned the solemn responsibility that comes with being someone’s godmother. “She was chosen by your parents to be your guardian. In case anything happens to them, she is the one who will take care of you,” Ate told me.
It was a role I think she took seriously, too. She was the disciplinarian of the bunch, always telling me that being propriety and politesse were just as important anything as I would ever learn in school. It only took Ninang widening her eyes and giving me “that look” to keep me in line.
The youngest I called Mommy for a long period of my childhood. No one told me to do that, it just came instinctively. I guess it came from all our time spent together on long drives during the summer break to some new place she wanted to explore. There were trips to the zoo, to the amusement park, the campsite even if we had no idea how to pitch a tent. She thought I should see the world and bought me experiences rather than things – although we did go shopping from time to time and she would ask 10-year-old me for fashion advice which was either a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
When I think of what I am now as a mother, I see traces of the 4 of them and bits of my birth mother.
Unconsciously or not, I pass on what I learned from them to my own daughter.
I invest more on books and experiences rather than material things. Now that she’s 13, I hear myself telling her to stand up straight and moisturize but the feminist in me has replaced the part about attracting boys or winning a beauty title with doing these things for herself.
I’m tough when it comes to manners like Ninang and every year like Tita Mommy did, we go away together. Where, doesn’t really matter, making our way around a new place, just the two of us, is more important. (READ: Every Year, Once a Year)
I was raised by a village of aunties. I have 5 mothers – 4 aunties and my birth mother – who I owe so much of who I am today: The reader, the vagabond, the fiercely independent and often proud to a fault self.
I’m all grown up now and the aunties have started to grow old.
Tita Meding was the first to go, still with her original teeth and looking 60 instead of 80, because as Ninang told me, “she religiously moisturized.”
Then my Father followed.
Ate cried a lot then. “Your Daddy is gone,” she whimpered. “I still need him.” The family matriarch and stronghold still needed her baby brother.
And now, Ate has gone to join her little brother.
The village of aunties is becoming smaller. I am left with memories and their little legacies that were bequeathed to me.
I grew up with people always telling me that I was lucky because I was loved by so many. But no one told me it would be like losing a parent each time one of them passes. No one prepared me for the feeling of slowly being orphaned as a little bit of me dies along each time.
Para kang paulit-ulit na nauulila at tila walang hangganan ang pangungulila. (It's like repeatedly being orphaned and the longing for them never seems to end.) – Rappler.com
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