I could still remember Nanay shared once over a family dinner that she had the hardest time giving birth to me. The youngest among her three boys, I, she recalled with an evident memory of pain and some sense of achievement, simply had the largest head. For hours, she endured the arduous labor, but when given the option to go to the hospital for cesarean procedure, she still politely declined.
Probably she thought it would be a rather easy delivery – my brother Bing-Bing was born the easiest, she said, and our Kuya Bong-Bong, being the first born, was a rather difficult delivery for starters, yet somehow within her threshold. The thing was, I surpassed that threshold.
And so one sunny morning of March, I was born through Nanay’s agony.
“You were really big,” she would tell me, “…8.8 pounds. Your brothers were only around seven. I really had no idea how you were pulled out of me.” She also told me the midwife could not get me fixed into a position for easy delivery because I moved a lot inside her womb as if I did not want to be parted with her. “That’s why forceps were used, and that is still evident even now. If you put a light on top of your head, you will notice some sort of a ring, like an angel’s halo…so you should start behaving like one…” she musingly said once or twice.
Being the youngest had its perks. I was always at the receiving end of everybody’s love and affection. I could almost always get what I wanted and for the things I would die to have, I turn on the waterworks on Nanay. This way she would really sense that I would love to have a particular toy because I usually did not cry. So even if cash-strapped, she bought me the toy robot I was crying for during one of our town fiestas. The next day, she found my newest toy broken into two while I went back outside playing with dirt.
Even so, my Nanay never laid a hand on me. Even if I was the little devil, it was very seldom that I got her beating…but I did get a lot of scolding. She would say it again and again and even remind me months after of her nuggets of wisdom: “Respect your elders and follow their wishes”, “Save your money to buy what you like”, “Buy only what you really need”, “STUDY HARD”.
We should all study hard, she said, because she would not be able to give us a better legacy than education; maybe because she never finished her education. She was in her second year in college when she found out she was pregnant with my Kuya Bong-Bong, her beautiful disaster. Immediately our grandparents had Tatay and Nanay married. And from then on, she took on her lifetime role.
Initially though, married life proved to be very challenging for Nanay. The youngest in her family herself, she did not know a lot of household chores, like cooking. Tatay told us once that she used to serve him burned tuyo and sunny side up egg. But it was the most delicious burned breakfast he had ever had. After that though, he taught her how to cook, and she proved to be a quick study.
As we grew up, it became harder for Nanay to make both ends meet. Kuya Bong-Bong just graduated from elementary, Bing-Bing had Boy Scout fees and her little Bunsoy kept pulling her skirt, asking for more candies and toys. Tatay only had a blue-collar job in a construction company, earning two pesos –or less– a month. So it was decided: Nanay would help out in the household finances.
She started selling balut and penoy and other home-cooked meals in the then, emerging Makati Central Business District. After selling her food wares, she must immediately go home and cook dinner for us. I can imagine she also stayed up late at night doing laundry and cooking meals for tomorrow for her patrons.
While she was out working, I was left to the care of our relatives. I often cry every morning as I see her walking out of our door, holding two huge plastic bags –her labor of love– but when afternoon comes, I was always excitedly awaiting for her return. And when she finally arrives, I often ask her to carry me, which she always did with a smile, even if her whole body could have been aching out of fatigue.
Years rolled by and things started to get better. Tatay was accepted as a cook in DSWD, Nanay put up her own canteen in Makati and we three kids stayed in school. Bing-Bing and Kuya helped Nanay in preparing the ingredients for the menu while I was the one in-charge of washing all the pots and pans used early in the morning. Imagine waking up to a mountain of dirty dishes at nine years old. Nanay gave us all responsibilities, and it defined our character.
Later on, our business –named after me – relocated and went bankrupt. We had to shut it down.
I believe one of the most admirable characteristics of my mother is her way of building strong relationships with people she meets. Regardless if they were a street sweeper asking for additional chicken meat or a strikingly successful executive asking for a tissue, she did her duty to them with gusto and sincerity. So at forty years of age, she was still admitted by that executive as a janitress in his company, and then promoted to clerk, which she held for more than ten years. She remained friends with the street sweeper.
During this period, my family suffered a tragic lost when Bing-Bing died one stormy night of August. It was most tragic to Nanay, more painful than my birth. Barely months in this first year in college and it had to happen. And it had to happen on a night when the storm raged on across Metro Manila, our house got flooded and Bing-Bing painted a better life for us when he graduates, as we took our last supper with him.
The storm in our family came and passed and Nanay remained resilient even in grief. Slowly, her disposition improved, but did not mean she forgot about her son. It was just that she could now talk about his life, and not his death. He had been a very good son from the start. Little did she know that it was because of her.
On the other hand, Kuya Bong-Bong was admitted to a marine academy to become a seaman. He enrolled during the time when hazing was rampant in Fort Bonifacio. This troubled Tatay and Nanay a lot. Without cellphones or e-mail at the time, Nanay relied solely to Kuya’s scheduled home visits during weekends. I often woke up late at night seeing her clutching her rosary and deep in prayers during these times. Thankfully, her prayers were always favored as Kuya always appeared in our doorstep.
But it seemed that the heavens saw a huge potential on my mother’s character. Tatay got paralyzed after an incident. The doctors said he would not be able to move his body from the waist down. Kuya was diagnosed with hepatitis due to the academy’s poor sanitation and I had one year to go before graduating elementary.
But I did not see her weep. She was always our pillar of strength. She may have cried, even expressed her resentment to the heavens, but she probably kept it to herself. She was not the type who would go down that easily.
She went back preparing meals, this time for her officemates. Every four in the morning, our neighborhood would be filled with a waft of different enticing aroma coming from our kitchen. She did not seem to stop. Not even storms in our life had completely defeated her. But one morning, as she cooked in our kitchen in a knee-deep flood, I saw how Nanay’s spirit got broken.
She was completely done packing the meals all neatly arranged on top of our glass dining table when I woke up. The storm made it hard for her to shop in the wet market and she was just relieved that she was able to have several ingredients reserved for her. Sweaty and tired at the start of her morning routine, she was probably thinking of having our house raised higher than the ground when suddenly our glass table shattered from the heat and all her hardwork fell in the murky water. She could not do anything about it. She just sat back and cried and I could not comfort her. She still did not know I was awake and have witnessed it all. Even now, I still regret the awkwardness I felt when I saw her vulnerable and not the way I have known her to be.
One of the important things I learned from Nanay is that whatever life we will have will all depend on how we cook it. Some may burn it, and other may get burned themselves. There are times that we may be too quick in putting out the fire and have to cook it further. But we should always boil to soften the hard resentments. Peel away pride and cut generosity into manageable pieces to serve as many as it can. Nevertheless, we may flavor our own lives the way we like it, but we should keep in mind the people we will share it with. We should cook out of love.
In her lifetime, Nanay got burned already. Sometimes her cooking turned out to be salty and there were times it is too sour. But it made her wiser. On the other hand, I sometimes disappoint her and I taste it even in her dishes. I also regret the times I told her it did not taste good; this, coming from her son with the biggest head. But through it all, she never fails to fill our needs even if sometimes she gets the smallest portion of/for herself. That is just how my Nanay is. She knows how to cook well.