Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.
– Ambrose Bierce, American journalist, from The Devil’s Dictionary
At the age of 85, surrounded by her three daughters, my mother took her last breath in the early morning of January 3rd, 2012. We are journeying to our hometown this weekend to celebrate her one-year anniversary with our relatives.When I think of my mother’s life, I think about the decisions she made and the decisions made for her through the years. After World War II, as a teacher in a mountain province, she fell in love with a Filipino soldier who was enlisted in the U.S. Army. He wanted to marry her, but her strict parents demanded that she choose between them or him. She chose her parents because, she explained, they loved her and she loved them. It was as simple as that, she told me when I was home from college on winter break, in a years-removed, matter-of-fact tone of voice. My mother, the oldest daughter, in a family of seven siblings (two others had died during the war as a result of malnutrition), continued to help support her younger brothers and sisters through school.
By the time my father’s cousin – a co-teacher of my mother’s at the school where they both taught – matchmade my parents, she was nearly 32 years old. The local priest had to convince my grandfather, my lolo, who was a layman at his church, to let his daughter go. My father, who was 19 years older than my mother, had been in the States with his cousins since the 1920s. After a short courtship, which my mother described as an exchange of photos and letters, they got married in the Philippines and he returned to Los Angeles. She followed him months later on a ship. My parents lived in a house that my father and his brother bought in Los Angeles. My mother not only took care of her three daughters, born within four years, but also kept house for my father and her brother-in-law and his wife, who all three worked outside of the home. My mother did not want to raise us in an urban environment, especially during the time of civil unrest in Los Angeles, and longed for a home of her own. Some of my father’s relatives had settled in Terra Bella, which my father likened to a camp (New York was the city, Los Angeles was the country, my father reportedly told his cousins). Nevertheless, in 1965, we moved to the small Central Valley town, two-and-a-half hours away, and my parents bought a gray-brick house for $7,000, paying it in full. By 1968, my mother had a ranch-style house built next door on our lot, and paid that house off within five years.
My mother didn’t work while in Los Angeles. In Terra Bella, however, she eschewed becoming a teacher, unlike a couple of Filipino townmates who did go back to school and secured teaching positions at our local elementary school. My mother felt that she couldn’t take the time off to get her credentials. She needed to work right away. And so she spent three seasons at the packing house, which required her to be on her feet for 12 hours a day, sizing or packing oranges and other citrus fruit. In the wintertime, at the height of the season, she would be at work at 6 in the morning, come home for dinner, and then return to the packing house. In the summers, she picked table grapes in the nearby farms. I remember how she would wake us up early in the mornings to ensure that we had a good breakfast, and then leave the house while it was still dark outside. I remember watching one of our relatives rub tiger balm on her swollen fingers and the long steaming baths she took when she came home in the summertime, leaving a pile of dusty clothes that smelled of dirt and sweat outside the bathroom. I don’t recall when she retired. But she packed oranges and picked grapes somewhere in the range of 30 years.
School was very important to both my parents. My father only had a second-grade education. Of course, only A’s were acceptable grades. We would attend and graduate from college and our degrees would provide us with solid careers. When I was a senior in high school, my mother helped me fill out financial-aid documents. She had to disclose her yearly salary in one of the forms, and when I looked at what she’d written I was stunned. Wasn’t she missing another digit, I asked. I still remember how she leaned towards me, her eyeglasses perched at the edge of her nose, her hands anchored on the kitchen table. “No,” she said, smiling. She had made sure that we were never for want of anything. Not food or shelter, clothes or non-necessities.It made me think of the time I was into sewing – back in the day when girls took home economics in elementary school. It was summertime. I had waited for my mother to come home from work because I wanted to go into town and buy some fabric to make a blouse. She came home too tired to eat lunch and in want of a nap. She berated me, telling me I always sewed a garment that I would either never wear or discard soon afterwards. In truth, it was rare that I liked something I had made, though I enjoyed sewing itself. I went to my room, lay prostrate on my bed, and cried. Soon afterwards, she came into my room and curtly announced that we would go to Montgomery Wards and look for fabric.
This past year, I have gravitated towards listening to music from the 1970s and 1980s – thanks to Pandora radio. While I have always had a weakness for music from those decades (and go through the motions of apologizing for my bad taste in music to friends), as I listen to the songs now, it brings me back to a time when you never ever doubted that your parents would always be there to protect you. They would always be this age, full of vitality even when they were weary of their lives.
I have found that when you discover your parents’ history – and this oftentimes only happens when you are an adult, and for me this happened when I was in college, after taking many Asian American Studies classes – you understand the root of their actions and decisions – good and bad, hurtful and big-hearted. And in that understanding, you receive the power of forgiveness, the weight of sacrifices, and most importantly, the burden and comfort of unconditional love with open arms.