Grandma Inang was nine going on ten when her mother Inay went completely blind. That first morning when Inay saw only darkness, Inang took her hand to use the outhouse. Along the bathroom’s bamboo slats, she washed Inay’s hands and face, and changed her sleepwear to a daytime saya and kamisa. Gently she talked to her mother and eased her into the dining table head chair. Patiently, she took her younger siblings’ hands and faces and washed them one by one, changed them to school clothes, and sat them at their respective places around her Inay’s table. Without missing a beat, she also doused her own hands and face and dressed not for school but for the labors ahead. In open kitchen pots, she warmed yesterday’s supper: leftovers stored in a wooden aparador afloat water bowls that served as “moats” to keep ants at bay overnight. At breakfast’s hurried end, Inang shooed her siblings to the local public school. Her young hands were forced to take over everything the only adult could no longer manage, though she could not manage a cry to wash away her young girl’s fears and sadness.
At the crack of dawn on the second morning, before her household awakened, Inang headed to market basket in hand to replenish the family’s supply of fresh food. She carried a kerchief bundled with only a few pesos and centavos her mother had given her. She knew when she counted she had to hard-bargain for rice, kangkong, guavas, fish and kalamansi. At the market, she learned to speak louder to convey her sincerity and get the goods she wanted to take home. Once home, she lit the fires and filled the pots with water to cook the rice and boil the sour sinigang soup, and doused the pan with lard to sauté a stew with garlic and onions.
Every morning thereafter, Inang made meals for her mother and younger siblings. When they were almost running out of pesos and centavos, she dashed out before dawn to stand in line with vendors waiting on the karetelas trotting in from the farm fields. She bought fruit and vegetables in bulk; hurried home to make breakfast; then rushed back to the marketplace to sell the remaining fruit and vegetables, at a profit. Her siblings headed to school, but Inang had to drop out at second grade.
When Inang’s mother became more and more sick, and her younger siblings outgrew school clothes, Inang took on more and more odd jobs. Eventually, she started her own business. She rented a karetela and journeyed to the big Divisoria wholesale market, bringing back merchandise she sold at her own stall at the local market.
At age nine going on 10, the day her Inay turned blind, my grandma Inang completely stopped being a child.
I was 11 on the day the endless rains let up, and I braved the floodwaters outside my wooden birth home in search of a red delicious apple. Mom could not keep anything down, vomiting relentlessly as if her insides could not stomach the foreign creature within. “Giving birth to another life is excruciating!” she’d say, a teacherly emphasis on that word, excruciating.
Shhhhh, I repeatedly whispered, as I caressed her emaciated hand and arms, giving her sips of water, measured ever so carefully as I gently lifted her head, and pressing cool compresses on her dripping forehead and cheeks. She was wretched, retching and moaning to no one in particular. Her frame had shriveled to skin and bone, her beauty-pageant face twisted in pain. I thought how she must have been pampered as an only child; first to be served at the table, dressed and tresses combed by a maid. Over hill and valley, through the raging river at times, Mom was escorted to and from school, excursions she endured during bad weather with the aid of a beautiful red parasol gifted her by my Lola. In Lola’s mind, and mine, red carried Mom through hard times.
I felt water on my knees as I exited the back gate of our house. The heavy rain had left in its wake tributaries that connected our San Juan street to the wet market. One unsteady wooden plank overlaid into another, over the floodwaters that flowed further out into the main street of N. Domingo, where young men hand-paddled boards to take townspeople from house to house, house to church, house to hospital.
Over the market entrance gutters, past squatting mothers and daughters tending baskets of sour kalamansi and devil-hot sili, beyond the makeshift bamboo stands heaped with sineguelas and guayabano, eggplant and cabbages, my slippery rubber slippers navigated the watery labyrinth of tiled stalls, dripping chopped goat and pig and gutted river fish at the market’s deep interior. There, on an elevated platform, stood the well-lit international store, its wooden shelves stocked with corned beef and spam, by-the-ganta white rice hand-cleaned of errant brown husks, red grapes and apples. I tucked in my belly upon ascending, very much in need of a taste of hope.
Shhhhh, I repeatedly whispered, thinking of my mother’s dark fight; alone without me at her side.
Back in our small kitchen, I unpeeled the apple’s delicate wrap and pressed it to my nose to inhale its richness. Upstairs was Dad in bed, in his usual drunken stupor. My Inang was summoned away to care for another grandchild. Each day I had turned instead to the stony likeness of the Virgin Mary whose once-blue cape draped ashen like Mom’s face. I knelt and laid my questioning heart at her immaculate feet. Why would my mother with child be suffering so? Hail Mary full of grace. Knife on plate I carefully dissected the precious fruit, scooped out the seeds and proceeded with my fractions—one quarter, one eighth, one sixteenth—estimating my ward’s mouthfuls. I decided to leave the skin. Mom loves red.
She pushed and screamed, pushed and screamed, for hours long after a sudden gush of water soaked the banig mat. I recalled Mom telling me how she had pushed and screamed, pushed and screamed until I had cut through her, and she dropped the bloody mass of me into a pail. Her eyes closed, shaking uncontrollably, I held my mother until the midwife arrived to clip the umbilical cord. No one, not even Mom, has told me who cuddled me upon arrival. But at 11, I felt alone to catch the emptiness of my mother’s stillborn child.
When my daughter was 11 going on 12, she drowned in daily crying fits.
Shhhhh. I quietly held on to her, closely to my chest.
She was sad because she had to miss a midtown concert with her middle-school friends. She was sad because she had to say no to impromptu pizza after school. Because she dreaded the longer commute from the Upper West Side to our new home. Because she had none of her old friends to talk to. Because her New York City home became the less desirable outer borough of Queens. Because her mother had abruptly decided to pack up and leave the family’s Manhattan apartment, and separate from her father.
Shhhhh, I whispered, throughout her each day, my focus on her dark fight within.
Only many years of silence later would my daughter share how worried she was. For me. For her mother. And how hard she had tried to gather strength. To stop the fuzzy feeling of helplessness; at being unable to prevent my imminent collapse from deep pain.
Shhhhh. Each night, each day I reach out to my children—to my daughter and to her young daughter—on FaceTime, by phone, holding on to them. Tightly. To be my children’s anchor. To be each other’s anchor.
Rosario Rosario carves (her)stories shaped by swerves of uprooting and second chances, which move the historically-suppressed female experience towards a magically sanctioned reality of empowerment—a creative quest necessitating exploration and expansion of storytelling voices to bridge meaning across the author’s culturally lived experiences as an American immigrant spiritually nurtured and influenced by her Filipino ancestral teachings. Rosario is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Goddard College (MFA, Creative Writing), and Founder of Writing on Water (WoW), an international creative cultural travel company. Rosario Rosario resides on Munsee Lenape land, also known as New York City.