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Letter to My Mother

From the time I was born to the time I left Manila to try my luck in North America my mother wrote Tagalog scripts for television and radio, sappy soaps where the characters don't talk the way real people do.

My mother writes to me in Taglish, her words shifting between Tagalog and English the way I cook Filipino food with American ingredients" broccoli in tinola, potato in adobo. This was how I learned to speak and read, mixing up my p's with my ph's and f's, spelling as I pronounced and pronouncing as I spelled, not knowing that English is such a sly language, never showing its true colors, the words never meaning the way they sounded.

"Kumusta ka na, anak? Okay ka ba diyan? Is it Summer there already?"

From the time I was born to the time I left Manila to try my luck in North America my mother wrote Tagalog scripts for television and radio, sappy soaps where the characters don't talk the way real people do. The language is archaic, romantic, the kind revolutionary poets used to veil seditious messages with. But in peacetime the intent is lost in the bid for ratings and advertising spots for Tide and Ajax detergent bars. When she stopped writing regularly, she focused more on acting, first on the radio and then on television.

My dad is an actor, too. But as my mother's career soared—her sitcom name gaining household recall—my dad's faltered. My father couldn't stand the pressure of being a stay-at-home dad. He drank, gambled and cheated on my mother. I remember waking up at night to the sound of my parents fighting, my mother's words sharp and fast like Typhoon Miling demolishing shanties along Roxas Boulevard, my dad's voice like sodden lumber, bobbing up and down the floodwaters.

My mother writes to me now from 10,000 miles to tell me about her new work supervising the dubbing of Mexican telenovelas into Tagalog. "This is the in thing," she writes. "The networks are making big bucks off of imported soaps, and promoting foreign actresses. Meanwhile, local talents like your dad and me are losing our jobs. What about you, anak? Do you like the place you moved to—again?" (Subtext: why do you keep moving?)

I told her that I live in Albany Park, one of the few mixed neighborhoods in Chicago, where you can see restaurant signs in Korean side by side with the Latino carnicerias and Filipino video stores. I had bought a video of the movie dad appeared in at Charity's down the street, I wrote to her last month.

"Are the Mexicans in Chicago as beautiful as they are on TV?" she wants to know.

Fifteen years living in North America and my heart still leaps at the sight of Jose Rizal on a postage stamp. It is a comfort to see the familiar loops of my mother's l's and d's on the envelope. She tells me she has retired her typewriter long ago, but the PC she got for my brother exasperates her with its constant crashing and erasing of her writing. She can never grasp the concept of saving her work with a mouse-click.

I remember there was a time when I envied the intimacy she shared with her hardy Underwood'the way she'd throw a fit when the lower t would not rise after she tapped it with her powerful index. When I would get sick as a child, it was my father who put the cold towel on my forehead to bring my fever down, and rubbed Vicks against my back to ease my coughing.

She was not like any of the mothers I knew. She didn't cook nor cleaned the house—we had my dad and the housekeeper for that. She didn't speak in sweet lullaby tones to put us to sleep, but mumbled urgent lines under her breath as she typed her scripts late at night...

Mom's letters are half greeting and concerned talk about my health, and half passages she lifted from the Bible. "Thank you so much sa padala mo. Malaking tulong ito," she wrote when I sent her money for her car insurance. Sometimes it is for my nephew's medical bills, my cousin's graduation dress, my sister's surgery. "Don't worry about us, here," she would say when her work is steady and she knows I'm hurting, too. "God takes care of us. Sabi nga sa Psalm 91:7, a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you because God is with us always."

She had become an avid Christian since I left, and seemed to have finally found the perfect manual for living and being. For most of my life, I did not think my mother knew what to do with us her children. She was a prolific writer and a versatile actress, and we just happened to exist. She was not like any of the mothers I knew. She didn't cook nor cleaned the house—we had my dad and the housekeeper for that. She didn't speak in sweet lullaby tones to put us to sleep, but mumbled urgent lines under her breath as she typed her scripts late at night, oblivious of the coming of day. The banging of metal keys against stenciled paper, the tinging of the bell at the end of a line'they hymned me to sleep back then.

In my pubescent years she did not regale me with stories of how she and my father met, the way my best friends told me their mothers did. She only warned me about the evil men bring. "Don't ever trust boys," she said, even before she knew I didn't really care much about them. "Don't let them touch you and get you pregnant."

I wondered then about the scripts she wrote—the spineless men, their hard luck women. How much of those stories were hers?

Everything I know about my mother my aunt had told me when I went to visit her in Chicago as an adult. Aunt Nel insisted on riding with me on the train to O'Hare from Forest Park. It was a long ride, about an hour, and my aunt brimmed with stories. I was only a child when she had left the Philippines and so she marveled at how I'd grown, how exciting that I was traveling around the States on my own. "New York? Be careful there, hija. You"re so adventurous just like your mother. And how like your mother you are built."

I told her I wish I had my mom's finer features—her chiseled cheeks, slender nose, deep-set eyes, the sockets carved so deep they used to scare me as a child. "Naku, your mom and I, we were inseparable," my aunt said smiling, her eyes faraway as the landscape changed from snow-covered trees to tight slushy highways. And in my head I saw my mother as I had never imagined her before—a young girl going to fiestas to check out the boys, singing in the choir, writing love letters, sharing stories giddily with her best friend.

That night, I cried on the plane to New York. I wanted to write my mother and ask what gave her strength then. What was it like to lose a mother when she was twelve, and to be expected to take care of six siblings when she barely knew how to take care of herself? Was that why she ran away with a married man when she was nineteen? I wanted to tell her I understand now why she had always been so protective of us. "You can tell me, ma," I wanted to write to her. "I will not judge you and maybe I will love you more. I will not make you feel rejected, the way you made me feel when you found out I liked girls in high school."

But we had never had conversations like these, not even on paper. The last time I wrote to her about my true feelings, I was eighteen. I left the long letter on the dining table before sunrise and ran away with my girlfriend. The night before, she had chased me with a slipper around the house like a madman. I had come home drunk from a night out with friends she deemed unworthy of my company. The skin on my arms and cheeks were red, her bitter slaps like sparse applause in an empty house, but it was her words that pierced through my head: Why do you punish me like this? I did not raise my child to be abnormal. Why do you hang out with creeps? Such helpless sinners, you and your friends are. Such creeps!

In my letter I apologized for being different, for not wanting the same things she wanted for me. "Don't worry anymore," I wrote. "I will find a way to fend for myself." When I came back two weeks later, betrayed by friends who saw my mom making an appeal on a noontime variety show, she didn't even mention ever reading my letter.

And yet she writes to me now like we had known each other all our lives. So casual with her greeting, so sweet yet still so distant: "How have you been my child? Do you still go to church? What are you busy with nowadays?"

Sometimes I wonder if she really wants to know. In my head, as I ride the brown line past Chicago's skyscrapers, I write to her in Taglish:

But I do not write her this. I tell her in English about how cold and long the winter, how my joints hurt in anticipation of the wet spring, how exciting that my theater group is staging my new play.

"I'm doing fine, ma, though jobs are scarce and I'm forced to work as a babysitter despite my master degree. Even here in the First World, the lighter-skinned person gets the better deal. And yes, ma, the Mexicans I've met and seen here are beautiful. But most of them look like me—not blonde and fair like you said in your letter. I don't mind taking care of kids though. It'll be a good training. See, I'm thinking of having a child of my own. Are your eyes popping out now? It's true. There's another thing, ma—I have fallen in love with a man, and this after years of trying to make you accept me as a lesbian. I've come to terms with my bisexuality, ma. But things are okay. Really. I know this is all very difficult to understand. Even I never imagined. But he is a beautiful man—my friend of many years. I might have mentioned him to you in my letters. I know you will like him. Maybe you will like him too much. Maybe you'll think your prayers have been answered, the Bible verses hitting home at last. But I'm still queer, ma. You never liked this word "queer"—why would anyone wanna call themselves queer? Kakaiba—different, a creep, or just plain crazy—may tililing, sira-ulo. And maybe I am, ma. Insane for thinking I can have it all like you did back then when you left home. Aunt said you wrote letters to your ailing father but he never read them, crumpled and threw them away like a limp manuscript. What were you thinking then, ma? Young and alone, a small-town girl in the big city, running away with a married man twice her age only to come home to her father's funeral, big with child and with no husband by her side. I feel your pain even now, ma, forty years later. But don't worry about me, ma. I am not alone. Remember my girlfriend B? I brought her along when I visited you in Manila last year. I haven't thanked you for being nice to her—making adobo for her when you never really liked cooking. Well, she's still in my life, ma. I still love her very much. And she understands. At least she's trying to. We are creating a family that defies stereotypes. Different, just like our family, ma. Wouldn't this make a great soap?

"There are times I wish you and I are truly friends and you live just down the block from me. I knock on your door and tell you all about my troubles, and you comfort me, say everything's gonna be alright and it will all come to pass—the dagger stares, the tongues wagging like paper fans at Sunday mass. 'I made it through back then,' you'd say, 'you'll make it through this.'"

But I do not write her this. I tell her in English about how cold and long the winter, how my joints hurt in anticipation of the wet spring, how exciting that my theater group is staging my new play. And I know she will write me back, congratulate me about the play, say how she knows it's going to be good because I take after her. ("In more ways than one," I would want to say to her.) But still, I know she will not want to know what it's about. Not if it's another story about a woman falling in love with a woman, or a domineering mother who refuses to see her daughter for who she is.

My mother writes to me like I am a character in one of her telenovelas—like we had had intimate conversations about crushes and juvenile betrayals on her and dad's queen-sized bed while she braided my hair. And in my letters I play my part, I tell her everything's fine. I write "I love you" like I mean it, and I do, except I sometimes am not sure why or how.

© Lani T. Montreal

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