When I had my one-on-one with my mentor, M. Evelina Galang at VONA, I was bout to piss my pants. My manuscript was scattered with no real plot or cohesion. The one story that did have promise was, “A Christmas Robbery,” the one thing I actually worked and re-worked (and re-worked) so that it won me that place in Tayo Lit Mag. I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the one piece that I actually spent the most time perfecting was the one that had the most potential.
She gave me some interesting feedback and asked me to write the story from the perspective of the mother. I had never thought to do it that way because I had always been so busy trying to capture it from my point view, the point of view of the little girl, because it’s the way the story has unfolded in my memory.
But Evelina taught me an important lesson in distancing myself from my work. I had been so invested in staying “true” to story that I had missed the potential in exploring the mother’s complexity. No, not my mom’s complexity, but the woman in the story. (Although, admittedly in writing it, I did begin to empathize with my mother during that difficult time in our lives.) In taking this step back I was able to find new paths in developing the character and the conflict that propels her forward through the plot… and I’m still not done yet! Here’s the revision of the story I made while I was in Miami.
I didn’t want to take her into the city, but I had to. Her yaya fell ill and I had no one to take care of her. Before the jeepney arrived I slowly bent down and told her, “Huwag mo bitawan yong kamay ko.” She obeyed and took my hand. Manila was dangerous so I pressed on, “If you let go of my hand, walang ka nang nanay.” Tears filed her inchik eyes. She always did look like her father more than me. I wanted to comfort her and apologize for my harshness. She was only 4 years old, but I knew she had to learn. If she let go, she would be lost.
It broke my heart to utter the words, but how much more if something should happen to her? She needed that fear to survive out there.
We moved quickly down the streets, her little feet struggling to keep up. I had so many errands to run and I wanted to get her out of the city as quickly as possible. We were stopped on the sidewalk and I looked down to check on her. Her cute mouth agape, staring at a banana-q stand. I wish I had a camera to snap a photo and send to her father. I asked her if she wanted one but she shook her head. Her eyes though, always betrayed her. You could see and know everything by them. I was always at the hospital with J.R’s constant illnesses. The Philippine pollution and heat were difficult on his fragile body. Every month he would be in there for a new illness. I’d have to leave her with the yaya every time. During those difficult times I would ask her how she was doing and she would lie. She was so small, but so brave. She had learned to put on a face for me, while I tended to her brother. I knew I had to do better by her. I bought her two banana-q and promised we’d go to Magnolia ice cream shop before returning home.
Paroles brightly lit the streets and this gave me hope. Soon, Virgil would be coming home to visit and stay for a couple of weeks. A few months ago, the kids had a small recital at school where they learned “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It was their first English production. Ginette vigorously rowed her arms just the way the teachers taught her. Her sherbet colored sailor dress bobbed on the papier mache waves. J.R. gallantly wore a miniature navy man’s uniform and sharply saluted the crowd. His arms were covered in mosquito bites, ones that I tried to cover with makeup. “Iwanan mo, mommy, they make me look like a real sailor!” I had never been so proud. After the show I saw both moms and dads rushing to their children. JR and Ginette could only run up to me. I didn’t have enough arms to hold them.
Today was a special vigil for St. Anthony. I had to light a candle for Virgil to assure a safe trip home. The paperwork never seemed to end. These 6-month stints were growing more difficult. When would we truly be a family again?
I positioned my little girl in one of the middle pews. She sat forward with her short legs hanging over the side of the pew. The pew was so large, it enveloped this tiny girl. I scanned the church to see only a few worshipers scattered throughout. I didn’t want to leave her there but St. Anthony would grant our family special favor today for his feast day. I needed to pray for us. Reluctantly I handed her my purse and told her to wait there while I prayed.
The walk down the aisle didn’t seem as long the first time. I could almost see Virgil at the altar, waiting for me. I took a padded pew before St. Anthony. I hated the idea that St. Anthony was the patron saint of the lost. My husband was not missing, but in those agonizing months apart, I felt lost. Could I be both mother and father? Was I enough? Ginette was 4 and JR only 2. Would I lose my family even before we had had a chance to begin?
Hot tears cascaded down my rosary. And then I felt a tug on my on sleeve.
“Anakko! Are you ok?” I struggled to stand up and wipe my face with a pano.
She lowered her eyes and faintly whispered, “Kunin nila yong purse mo…”
My heart stopped. I looked toward the empty pew. I looked to her small empty hands. And in the distance, I could hear a rapid click clack of footsteps against the marble floor. I took her hand and we raced through the church, and out onto the street.
I raced to the Carriedo Fountain just in front of church and climbed onto the edge. I paced the perimeter of the fountain, feverishly scouring the busy street, searching for anyone with the purse Virgil had given me. I looked down to my little girl below, fighting back her tears. What had I done?
I spotted a policeman nearby and explained what had happened, but he hadn’t seen a thing. It hurt for me to beg for money but I had no other choice. Somehow I had to find away to get us out of there. We took the first jeepney to the nearest bank.
I explained the story to the tellers and tried to hide my shame for doing something so foolish. How could I leave my daughter like that? How could I risk making her lost? Her head hung low all day. She hadn’t said a word since we ran out of the church. All the bank employees marveled at her bravery. I did too. They all offered her candy but she refused. My child was needlessly hard on herself. She needed something more. I was going to make good on my promise.
We walked out of the bank and down a few blocks. Ginette’s shoes were scuffed from our tear of the city. It was much more of Manila than I wanted her to see.
I turned the corner and said to her, “Ah, dito na tayo.”
I pointed to the shop window and her cute mouth opened in awe. Mango, macapuno, jackfruit, and her favorite, ube ice cream melting before her eyes.
“Gusto mo ba?” I asked.
Tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t bring herself to look up at me. I bent down to wipe them away and took her gently in my arms.
I pulled out pesos from the bank, “See? Wala lang.”