My three sisters who live in the States used to come home every year mainly to visit our ailing mother. They would bring her everything they thought she needed, and for the whole duration of their vacation, they took care of her, compressing in two weeks what in their hearts they felt was a lifelong duty. They often had no time to go anywhere else or to enjoy the company of the rest of the family. At night, as our mother slept, they quietly wept, rehearsing a deep sadness they would bring back with them to the US. Every balikbayan knows how much guilt there is in these short visits. Coming home under these circumstances always meant saying goodbye to a loved one they might not see again.
For the first time since our mother died three years ago, my California-based sisters came home together last month for a real vacation. My three other sisters who live here thought it was our turn to take care of them. Without anybody’s prompting, they each took out a two-week leave from their respective work and families so they could spend time with their visiting sisters. As I was on sabbatical leave myself, I decided I would join them wherever they wished to go. I suggested Baguio or Boracay where some of them had never been. The rest of my brothers and their spouses heard of these plans and wanted to come along too. Reservations were thus made for what appeared to be a huge family reunion.
None of the trips we planned materialized. My 3 sisters – Leila, Claire, and Lilia – did not want to waste more time traveling. On the same day they arrived in Manila, they decided they wanted to spend their vacation in Betis, Pampanga, where the old house of my parents, now beautifully restored and refurbished, solemnly stood. My brother, Dante, who initiated and supervised the reconstruction of our ancestral home, had sent them photographs of the house at various stages of the restoration process. This is the home they had all been longing to see. They have come home expressly to read the diaries of their youth from the walls of this timeless structure.
The South African writer, Achmat Dangor, captured this spirit well: “I have come to the realization that our history is contained in the homes we live in, that we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled.” My sisters’ recent visit was spent almost wholly in this house. There they cooked the meals our mother had taught them, meticulously reproducing the scents and flavors of dishes they thought they had forgotten. They exchanged stories of how life was after I left home to get married and study abroad. It was eerie listening to them. I could see my mother in every conversation, not as a ghost, but as a living hologram projected in the familiar gestures and mannerisms of her daughters.
In the evenings, the six sisters wore the lovely pajamas our mother had accumulated during the years that she had been very ill. Many of these were presents they gave to her. Thus wrapped in their mother’s clothes, they unconsciously recreated her presence in their midst, the seventh sister they had all been missing. They stayed in one big room in the house, pulled the beds together, and talked, wept, and laughed until the wee hours of the morning.
It is fulfilling to come from a big family. But the fulfillment comes only after the children have all grown and become successful. Life wasn’t at all easy when we were still very young. Our friends and classmates thought we were rich just because we lived in a fairly big house. They didn’t know what an austere life we had. We went through many deprivations whose traces we still manifest in our penchant for towels, bed sheets, and toiletries. We could not wait to finish school and earn our own income so that we could buy the things we could not have as children. Education became important to us because we knew we could not rely on any inheritance to start us off.
I think we were lucky to develop a strong solidarity with our siblings as we were growing up. In the face of adversity, we learned to look out for one another. This meant not only sharing what little we had with a brother or sister in dire need, but also taking responsibility for the other. We took pride in each other’s achievements.
I think each one of us became familiar at an early age with the trials of a hard life. We learned what difference a little generosity could spell for someone in need, and what it meant to be in the throes of a potentially humiliating emergency. In our adult lives, we began to appreciate the example set by our father, Pedro, who until his death continued to provide free legal advice to those who could not afford the services of a lawyer. He was a senior fiscal in the city of Manila when he died. In a more just society, he could have been a Supreme Court justice. His colleagues remember him for his brilliance, honesty, and integrity as a public servant. Our town mates celebrate him as a generous human being, and named the street where he lived after him.
It is unfortunate that our father did not have the chance to see what his children have done with their lives, and with the old house he left behind. Some children pay tribute to their departed parents by building mausoleums to shelter their graves, or by establishing foundations and scholarships in their names. We have honored ours by cherishing the house in which they raised us, by staying together as a family, and by enacting in our lives the same social virtues by which they lived theirs. These are the intangibles my sisters were coming home to.
Comments to <firstname.lastname@example.org>