by Beatriz Tilan Tabios
Editor’s Note: Nearly two years after Beatriz Tilan Tabios passed away in 2012, this unpublished memoir-essay was found among her papers. It is estimated that she wrote this essay around 1998.
My daughter, Eileen Tabios, was five years old when she wrote her first book. I have been smiling over this memory recently as our family celebrates the publication of her two books: a poetry collection, Beyond Life Sentences (Anvil, 1998), and a group of essays and interviews about Asian American poets, Black Lightning (Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998).
I still remember how, as a little girl, Eileen visited me in my bedroom one day and pointed to a red box where I kept pens, paper clips and pencils. “I need a box for my books—that’ll do,” she announced.
“I’ve been keeping my books in this,” she explained as she held up an envelope bulging with little folded papers, “but it won’t close and I don’t want to lose them.”
She put the envelope on my desk. “I’ll show you the last book I made,” she offered, taking one of the folded papers and unfolding it. Her “book” was a strip of paper cut from her brother’s school supplies. I imagined her little hands cutting the paper with sharp scissors and felt alarm. I was about to say something about being careful with scissors, but she proceeded to “read” her book to me.
“The grass in the park is wet,” she said, pointing to the bottom of the first space of the folded paper. I saw a green smudge.
“See the little raindrops,” she said, pointing to penciled dots, “but I was not wet because Manang Rosing held the umbrella over me.”
“This is Trixie,” she said as she touched a little horizontal stick figure that had a circle on one end and a line that curved downward on the opposite end. I noticed that she depicted her puppy’s legs with two little lines below the horizontal line.
“And this is me,” she said as she pointed towards a stick figure beside Trixie.
“This is Manang Rosing. She’s holding an umbrella so I won’t get wet,” she continued as she touched the taller stick figure beside her. One arm was connected to a short line that, in turn, was connected to a half circle above the shorter figure. I made a mental note to tell the maid not to take the child out for a walk when it was raining.
“We watched some boys marching around in the park,” Eileen continued, touching another space on the folded paper. I saw a row of stick figures. Each figure had one arm raised and extended forward. The row of figures managed somehow to look like marching soldiers. Then it dawned on me that she must have seen the students who were in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp.) of the local college. They usually had weekly drills in the park near our house.
“This old man was angry with the boys,” my daughter added, touching a tall stick figure who stood slightly apart from the row, “because he kept yelling at them.”
“The rain did not stop so Manang Rosing said we should go home before we got soaked like the boys,” my little writer went on.
“Then, we are home,” she said as she touched the last space on her book. “This is you,” she touched the shorter of the two figures, “and this is Daddy,” she touched the taller one.
“What’s this?” I asked, touching a red smudge at the end of my husband’s arm.
“That’s the bag of cookies that Daddy brings home,” she replied.
“And what’s this?” I touched one of two squares which I thought were boxes.
“That’s the church next door. Don’t you know? And this is our house,” she added, touching the other square. She sounded like I should know our neighborhood better.
“My daughter, the writer,” I thought fondly. Then more hopefully, I thought to myself, “Why not?”
“My daughter, the writer,” I thought fondly. Then more hopefully, I thought to myself, “Why not?”
“Can I have the box now, Mama?” she reminded me as she folded her “book” and placed it in the envelope. After I emptied the box, she took it from me and proceeded back towards her room. I heard a “Thank you” before she closed the door.
I sat down on a chair as I mused, “My daughter, the writer.” I was delighted by her early leaning towards scholarly pursuits. I was impressed with the originality she showed in making her books. “My daughter cuts paper books, not paper dolls!”
Then I thought, “I should teach my little writer some words that she can use when she talks about her books. Words like “paperback” for her book, “library” for her box, and “page” for the spaces of the folded paper. I could teach her to number the pages of her book with one short line for page 1, two short lines for page 2 and so on. This also could help her understand the concept of numbers since she already could count from one to ten on her fingers.
I began to become more excited as I fantasized further. There would be my little writer talking to our friends in the living room. She would be “reading” one of her books, and the guests would be under her spell. She would finish her book and fold it. Then she would hold up the folded paper and ask no one in particular, “Do you know that my book is called a paperback?” And she would answer her own question, “It’s because it does not have a hard cover.”
“And I have my own library,” she would continue, holding up her red box for all to see. “My Daddy and Mama have their library, too,” she would add, pointing to the tall bookshelves against the wall of our living room.
I laughed quietly, imagining the looks on our friends’ faces. I thought some would look incredulous and others impressed. They would ask, “Where did this little girl, this baby, get her ideas? What five-year-old says paperback or library as easily as she says ice cream or candy?”
“My little writer,” I would answer proudly, looking fondly at my daughter who would be returning to her room, oblivious to the surprise she would have caused.
As I ended my fantasy, I noticed my husband had arrived and was standing in front of me with a quizzical look.
“You’re laughing all by yourself. That’s not a good sign. What’s so funny?” he asked.“Your daughter has a surprise for you,” I replied. “Did you remember to drop by the bakery for something?”
“What were you laughing about?” my husband persisted as he sat down. “I brought home some doughnuts. They’re still warm.”
“I’ll let your daughter tell you her surprise. I’m glad you remembered to bring home something to eat. It seems she expects that of you whenever you come home,” I said, rising to tell Eileen of the doughnuts.
Today, I am reminded of an old saying that a child’s actions, interests and preferences are usually reliable indicators of the adult that the child will become. In the case of Eileen, I concur and would share that she did not play with dolls very much as a child. She preferred her “library.” My little writer also loved school. It was during one of her enthusiastic talks about one of the days in nursery school when I found out how she started making her books.
Eileen said that she often would watch her brothers as they did their homework and her father and me as we worked on our students’ papers. And she said she felt very uncomfortable because she was the only one who was not doing something “useful.” She said, “All I did was play with my toys or look at my picture books. I felt useless. I felt I was not important.” These were my child’s revelations.
“Why do you feel that you should be doing something? You are still young. And you are important to us, to me, to your Daddy and to your brothers,” I replied. “Did your brothers tease you?”
“No, and nobody said anything, but I still felt like I was useless,” she said. “So I started making books.
“One day, I watched Boying fold and cut a piece of paper into smaller pieces. He gave me a big paper to play with. So I folded it, not like the way he was folding his paper but the same way I saw Daddy fold a piece of paper one day. That’s why I was able to fold the paper so I can unfold it like a book.”
“How did you learn to draw stick figures?” I asked.
“I watched Boying draw those figures with long guns on their shoulders. And he used to hold my hand and draw some figures for me. He showed me how to draw flowers because he said they are easier. But I like his stick figures so I did them in my book.”
She looked at me, then asked, “Do you like my books, Mama?”
“I like your books. You can read them to me any time,” I replied, my simple answer understating my emotions.
She seemed to have another question, so I asked, “Do you want some more papers for your books? I could buy some colored paper for you.”
“Books are written on white paper, Mama,” she said sounding very knowledgeable. “I was going to ask if I should show my books to Boying since he gave me the paper for my first book.”
“Show him your books when he sits down to do his homework this afternoon,” I said, making a mental note to talk to my oldest son to be sure he continued to encourage his sister. Later, I thought about what my daughter was revealing about herself. Why does she feel she has to be “useful”? Does she have any idea about the maturity of her line of thinking?
Surprisingly, the number of paperbacks that my little writer turned out started to decrease as she progressed through school. One day, I asked her why she has not read me any new book. She answered, “I need to learn to write words, really write, not just draw stick figures and flowers and hearts. And my teacher said that we have many things to learn first before we start to learn to write words.”
Eileen was in fifth grade when we immigrated to the United States. In high school, my little writer returned and flourished. She edited Smoke Signals, the high school newspaper for Gardena High School. She also wrote numerous essays that won a number of essay contests and speeches that she delivered in speech tournaments. Today, there remains a row of trophies in her former bedroom, mute testimonies of her earlier accomplishments. One essay she wrote about human rights won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Los Angeles. I’ve often wondered how her Dad and I have been so blessed. Again and again, the memory of that talk I had with a little girl who wanted to be useful and important invades my mind. And I usually whisper to the girl in my memory, “You are important; work at being useful.”
And I am not surprised that Eileen ended up in New York City where she has flourished, perhaps specifically because of the rigorous challenges provided by this city. She first went to New York to attend Barnard College. I remember thinking when she informed me of her decision to attend Barnard: *Of course!* Because as a college student at Siliman University in Dumaguete, Philippines, I had heard even then of Barnard. Siliman’s last American president, Dr. Arthur Carson, had a daughter—Ruth West—who graduated from Barnard. Thus, I was proud that Eileen would be attending one of the Seven Sisters’ schools whose prestige I first heard of as a college student, an ocean away.
I’ll also never forget her graduation ceremonies. Her father and I, together with other parents and families sat on a specially-designated area on the college campus waiting for the graduation ceremonies to begin. We sat there, eagerly waiting to see and hear our beloved offspring officially declared ready to face the world. There was an interesting part of the ceremonies that made the crowd quiet down: the announcement of the graduates’ names and their future employers. Soon, Eileen’s name was announced, along with the news that she was going to work with The New York Times. By then, we were really a Barnard College family. Her father and I were not the only ones clapping for our daughter. The whole crowd was cheering and applauding. I whispered, “Go, my little writer. Go and be useful.”
Detours. Unforeseen as they are, they do exist. My little writer faced a detour sign on her way to her writer’s cove. From The New York Times, she took a detour (for financial reasons) through the unfamiliar world of high finance: Wall Street. She must have done well as she was given increasing responsibilities and her first business employer encouraged her to return to graduate school for an MBA. And she did obtain an MBA with a double degree in economics and international business at New York University’s Graduate School of Business.
My daughter, the banker continued to do well, but there came a time when she could no longer deny her writer-self. Unknown to me, she had kept up with her creative writing. It came as a pleasant surprise, therefore, when she told me ten years after beginning her finance career that she was going to retire from a position as a vice-president at Union Bank of Switzerland. She wanted to become a full-time writer.
Given her detour, I was happy to hear only two years into her writing career that her first books will be released. But it also doesn’t surprise me that Eileen today takes more pride in a book she wrote about other poets, Black Lightning, and the literary journal she edits, The Asian Pacific American Journal, than she does in her own poetry collection. For Eileen says Black Lightning was a way for her to expand the discussion of the beautiful poetry generated by Asian American poets, and The Asian Pacific American Journal a way for her to encourage and support the efforts of emerging Asian American writers. Both projects, I believe, epitomize her life-long wish to be “useful.”
Similarly, she tells me that her third book will be on Jose Garcia Villa entitled The Anchored Angel (Kaya Production, 1999), a book that will reintroduce the Philippines’ leading 20th century English-language poet to the American literary market. Villa was part of an elite circle of highly regarded poets in New York. His first book of poetry Have Come, Am Here won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1942. His writings garnered lavish praise from contemporaries such as Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, and Mark Van Doren, who wrote that “Mr. Villa seems to me to possess one of the purest and most natural gifts discoverable anywhere in contemporary poetry.” He was also named a National Artist in the Philippines, and I remember reading his works as a student. When I asked Eileen why she was editing a book on Villa, she said that she considered it “a good deed for the poetry world” and a way to resuscitate the reputation of a poet who doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Again, my daughter has chosen a project in which she will be “useful.”
“There is a season for everything.” I’d like to paraphrase this to say, “There is a season for writing, there is a season for detours, there is a season for publishing, there is a season for rejoicing.” Our family is currently sharing a season for rejoicing. And, once more, I see the little girl in my memory with her folded papers: “paperbacks” in the red box of her “library.” I can hear a little voice saying, “I felt I had to be doing something important, too.” And I whisper back, “You are important. You are doing something. Just make sure it’s useful.” For, by doing something useful, she has become important.
© Beatriz Tilan Tabios