Men and their mothers

As they sat on a bench in the crowded courtroom, she began to wipe the sweat on his face with a crumpled handkerchief.  He lowered his head and leaned slightly toward his mother.  She hadn’t seen him in a while, and now he was back in her arms, her son, her little one.  It was 1954. The man was Luis Taruc, the 41-year-old dreaded Huk Supremo, who was being tried for rebellion. His mother, Roberta, kept him company every single day of the trial.

It was an image that stayed a long time with my father, Pedro David, then a young assistant provincial fiscal assigned to prosecute the legendary hero of Central Luzon’s peasantry. He remembered being transfixed by that scene. At that moment, my father said, he knew in his heart he was prosecuting a good man.  In the evening, over supper, he shared with my mother his misgivings about the Taruc case.  My father had a deep sense of social justice.

But he had a job to do, and it wasn’t an easy one.  Pampanga in the 1950s was a hotbed of rebellion.  Cane fields were being torched daily by landless peasants.  So-called “civilian guards” funded by the landlords roamed the barrios in search of Huk rebels.  We were not a landed family, but being a government lawyer, my father found himself upholding the laws of a government that took the side of the landlords.  I was in grade school. I remember sharing our home with soldiers who had been sent to provide us security for the duration of the trial.  My father won his spurs in that celebrated case.  Luis Taruc was convicted for the crime of rebellion complex, under a law that, if I recall correctly, was later declared unconstitutionalHe spent 16 years in prison.  Marcos freed him so he could parade him as a symbol of his commitment to agrarian reform.

Many years later, I met Ka Luis at a function in the University of the Philippines.  I introduced myself as the son of Fiscal Pedro David. The name quickly rang a bell.  He looked at me as if searching for the face of the young man who had sent him to jail.  Then he smiled warmly and shook my hand.  “Your father was a good lawyer, and he was always fair,” he told me.  “I hold no grudge against him whatsoever; he was doing his duty.”  “But,” he added with a chuckle, “I am glad his son and I are now on the same side.”

It was the beginning of a long friendship.  I invited him a few times to my TV program.  He would ask me to accompany him on his visits to remote barrios in Nueva Ecija and Pampanga, where communities of Hukvets revered him as a hero. Two years ago, he came to our home in Betis.  He met my brothers and sisters and regaled them with stories of the Huk years.  Even in his late years, Ka Luis never lost his fire.  He was articulate in three languages.

Ka Luis died this week.  He would have been 92.  At his wake the other night, I saw a picture of his mother beside the coffin.  It was a photo taken in 1953 when he met his mother for the first time after he came down from the hills.  In my mind’s eye, I had imagined his mother, Roberta Mangalus Taruc, to have the same build and appearance as my father’s own mother, Epifania.  She did look like her.  And I am certain it was exactly how my father had pictured her in that crowded courtroom in Pampanga more than fifty years ago. He saw his own mother in her.

Men are lambs in the presence of their mothers. They lose their hardness, and their public stature becomes irrelevant. Think of Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino.  Think of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. They are children all over again in front of Mama.  Before their fathers, they are achievers.  But before their mothers, they are nothing but human beings longing to be loved.  For all their gentleness, it is mothers who loom as the tough figures in men’s lives.

The Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez opens his autobiographical work, “Living to tell the tale,” with tender recollections of his no-nonsense mother.  Every son will easily recognize his own mother in these lines: “Her most conspicuous virtues had been a sense of humor and an iron good health that the sneak attacks of diversity would never defeat over the course of her long life.  But her most surprising trait, and also since that time the least likely to be suspected, was the exquisite skill with which she hid her tremendous strength of character: a perfect Leo.  This had allowed her to establish a matriarchal power whose domain extended to the most distant relatives in the most unexpected places, like a planetary system that she controlled from her kitchen with a subdued voice and almost without blinking, while the pot of beans was simmering.”

My mother was very much like that.  She had spent more than half of her life carrying 13 pregnancies, and the other half looking after the myriad needs of her large brood.  Yet she found time to regularly visit her relatives and to be active in the local barrio council. And if she had not been ill, I believe she would have gone back to school to finish a degree. My mother had good survival instincts, and her dependable inventiveness saw us through very hard times.

Nature is wise; she blesses women with longer lives. My father was barely sixty when he died.  My mother outlived him by a good twenty years.  I cannot imagine what kind of life he would have had if it had been the other way around.  He would not have known what to do with himself.  I can feel my mother’s strong influence in our lives especially when I am with my brothers and sisters.  Her spirit continues to guide our relations to one another and the way we conduct ourselves in the world.

I’ve always suspected that perhaps, at the peak of their powers, men think themselves to be ultimately answerable to no one else but their mothers.

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