It was a big box. We lived in a small nipa hut. I was seven. My sister was two.
She was twenty-three.
I can still remember her selling watermelons one summer day. I remember her selling onions and tomatoes. I remember how she held my hand as she received her Agriculture Education diploma, pregnant. I remember how I always asked her “ngaa nasunod-sunod gid takon ka bulan, Nay?” (Why does the moon keep following me, Mother?)
One day, she gifted me a thick compilation of stories and nursery rhymes – typewritten, hand bound, and heavy. I was five. She gifted me seamless ladders to the vastness of my imagination.
When I was seven and my sister was two, Mother decided to work as domestic helper in Singapore.
I did not feel poor for we had fruit trees and dogs. We had all the time in the world. I flew kites and rode the carabao with Lolo, and I made pillows out of doldol pods with Lola. We had fresh vegetables and dried fish. When I was five, she made a coin bank out of a bamboo pole in our nipa hut. I never found the reason for her to look for money far away.
She was just twenty-three when she took that daring leap. In her absence, a big box would arrive in our small hut. The box was always full of items with labels.
The pair of shoes had this masking tape with the handwritten “Tatay”
All the cute little toys with the handwritten “Kar-kar”
And the notebooks and pens with the handwritten “Tin tin”
When the box first came, my Father had to carry it with two other men. I wondered if my Mother was inside the box, wanting to surprise us. Just like how I always imagined.
I always ran barefooted in my imagination. There were no fences; only ladders.
I imagined she was in there in that big box just like how I imagined the post office mail box as a gateway to a secret tunnel leading to the skies. Each time I mailed our letters to her, the postman would offer me a chair and I’d stand there to raise my little arm. I’d curiously peep into the slice and check if I could see something. At night, I would imagine my very letter flying with birds, passing by the moon and some stars…until one day, my Mother would receive it.
During the first two years, the big box filled with items with labels thrilled me. It was easy to receive toys, dresses, notebooks, and pens. I just had to record my voice into a cassette tape and ask:
- Turn the radio on
- Insert blank tape
- Press REC button
- Speak and ask
- Press STP
- Press the arrow for rewind
- Press play to listen if it’s all good
- Press eject
The next years became different. The big box did not excite me anymore.
I remember how we had to light candles when Flor Contemplacion died. I remember how my classmates teased me “si Nanay mo base bitayon man! Hala kaw!” (Be very scared, your Mother might also get executed next!) I remember how adults would remind me, “Nan eskwela kaw mayo para indi ka mag domestic helper magdaku kaw!” (That’s why you need to study really hard so you won’t become a domestic helper too when you grow up!)
My Mother took brief vacations in the following years. It was bizarre each time, it was strange to listen to her voice straight from her mouth because I had grown fond of the long distance calls – it meant adventure. We had to travel from Barotac Viejo to Pototan (around 40 kilometers) to call her. Her leaves from work meant she would be with us for one week. My sister Karen would always find it strange too and she would hide at the back of our Lola.
When I was around ten, we moved to a cemented house at the town center. We had our first sofa and dividers. I was transferred to a private school. We left our fruit trees, our dogs, and our beloved grandparents. We left our laughter in the haystack with our playmates. We left our innocence hanging among the tree branches. We had electricity and a TV set.
Somehow it made me feel happy because I thought it was a sign that my Mother did not need to look for money far away anymore.
The years passed and the big boxes came again and again. One box brought us jewellery boxes. I can still feel the smooth texture of my box. I was too young to own jewelleries so I hid colourful stones and marbles inside it.
When I felt a bit sad and I missed my Mother, I’d slowly open it. Then, I’d turn the little knob on its back. It would play a very melodious piano music. The ballerina would dance around in one direction. I felt she was the most beautiful girl in the world.
I would stay in that moment for hours.
Sometimes, when I miss my Mother too much, I would turn the knob on its back faster until it could no longer move. When I would release the knob, the music would play too fast and the ballerina would dance too fast as well.
I would feel sorry for her – “ahay galingin na guro ulo mo no?” (Poor thing, you must be very dizzy by now)
She was the most beautiful girl in the world to me even if she had no face.
When I was twenty-five, I sat patiently waiting for my cue at the Department of Foreign Affairs office. I was excited yet anxious of getting my passport. It was a few months before I had to fly to Germany for a study-seminar program for youth leaders.
Sitting as patiently as I, was a young woman from the mountains of Southern Iloilo. She was twenty-three. She was skinny, dark-skinned, naive, and beautiful. I secretly watched her soiled and tiny feet in her almost broken pair of rubber slippers.
“Diin ka makadto, miga?” (Where are you going?)
“Matesting nga makaobra sa Oman” (I’ll try my luck in Oman)
“Ngaa malakat ka haw?” (Why are you leaving?)
“Kapigado guid diri, wala it obra akon bana kag makalolooy akon mga bata.” (We’re so poor. My husband is jobless. I pity my children.)
“Pila edad ka mga bata nimo haw?” (How old are your children?)
“Ang isa anum ka tuig, ang isa apat, ang isa duwa ka tuig pa lang.” (One is six years old, the other four, and the youngest is two)
“Si Nanay ko sang una naglakat man sang pito pa lang ako kag ang manghod ko duwa ka tuig. Kis-a matyag ko wala na gid sya ka balik nga siento porciento bala. Pero indi ko sya mabasol. Indi ko man ikaw mapunggan.” (My Mother also left when I was just seven and my sister was just two years old. Sometimes I feel that she has never returned fully. I can’t blame her, and I can’t stop you.)
I invited her for lunch.
We sat in front of each other and ate quietly.
I looked at her face before I had to go.
She was the most beautiful girl in the world.