The work of mothers

Anna Jarvis, the American activist who started it all in 1908, became so incensed by the commercialization of “Mother’s Day” that she wanted this special day scrapped for the meaningless ritual it had become. This was supposed to be, she said, an occasion for warm thoughts and sentiments, and not for profitmaking. She, of course, did not succeed. With modernity, the market has penetrated nearly every aspect of our lives, offering commodities meant to express our fondest memories and deepest affections in the most effortless way.

I personally do not recall celebrating Mother’s Day when my mother was alive. Yet, there was not a day, after she fell ill, that she was not in my thoughts. Long after she passed on, I would find myself visiting her grave on no particular day. I would stare at the dates of her birth and death, and reflect on the 78 years that constituted her life. It was a life completely spent for family. I often wondered on such occasions if she ever thought what her life might have been if she had not married my father and become a full-time mother to 13 children.

She was a bright woman who hitched to every purpose a steely determination. But she was also very emotional: Fiery when angry, and almost inconsolable when hurt. Yet she never despaired. She was always strong for her family. Her capacity to quickly pull herself together and not wallow in resentment deeply impressed me as I was growing. She was a lesson in selflessness and in what it means to assume responsibility in the Filipino family.

In retrospect, I now believe that what my mother, by her everyday example, was passing on to all of us was a whole culture of taking responsibility under conditions of scarcity. I use the word “culture” in more or less the same sense the social anthropologist Clifford Geertz understood it. Culture, Geertz wrote, tells us who we are, what we think we are doing, and to what purpose we do what we do. Guided by these questions, I offer a portrait of my mother as Filipino.

Her name was Bienvenida, the eldest of nine children. From the stories she told us, it was clear that, from an early age, she took charge of her parents’ household. Everyone looked up to her for her superior ability to make decisions and find solutions to problems. She was entrepreneurial and resourceful; she did not think there were tasks that women like her could not do as well or even better than men.

After she married my father, she continued to keep an eye on her parents’ household, mindful of her father’s wish to spare her sickly mother the rigors of keeping house. At the same time, she felt it was her duty to look after her husband’s parents because he, too, happened to be the eldest in their family. She managed to attend to all these duties while raising her own family because of the methodical way she budgeted her day.

My siblings and I came one after the other, often separated only by a year. Except for me, who had the privilege of being born in a maternity clinic run by an obstetrician, my brothers and sisters were delivered by a comadrona at home. I remember witnessing many of these natural deliveries, mesmerized by the cutting of the umbilical cord that linked the newborn to the mother’s womb. Still feeling weak from the labor of heaving and pushing, my mother would unfailingly break into a welcoming smile, as though the infant beside her were her first.

Who did she think she was? I think, to use managerial parlance, she thought of herself as chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, executive secretary, logistics and purchasing officer, janitor and cook all rolled into one. She was our teacher, confidante and mediator. She was our doctor, guardian angel and protector. “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. But even this effusive tribute sounds like an understatement when I think of the role my mother played in our lives.

What did she think she was doing? I think she thought she was raising a nation—not as a matter of duty but as an instinct wired into her nervous system. What she and my father constantly talked to us about was how we must develop our gifts and talents so we could be useful to our country and to humanity, and thus be a source of pride to our family.

To what purpose did she think she was doing all these? I do not recall that my mother ever once hinted that the time and the effort she gave to raising her children formed an investment, whose returns she hoped to reap in her old age. When the last of my sisters married and moved out of the ancestral home, my mother insisted on living alone in the house in which she raised all of us. Conscious of not being a burden to any of her children, she declined all attempts to get her to live with any of us. So she would be near all of us, she put her savings in a small town house that my brother built, and stayed there whenever she was in the city. But, the house in the province remained her true home. Only then did I realize what a fiercely free spirit she was.

She did it all out of love, but also in fulfillment of a mission that fate had given her, which she gladly and willfully embraced. I vividly remember the last chat we had as I drove her back to her place in Quezon City. “It’s time for me to go,” she said calmly, wearily hinting that the regular dialysis she was undergoing was not giving her relief. She died shortly after, at age 78.

A passage from Nietzsche’s “The gay science” made me understand later what that final conversation was about. “This is not the expression of weariness—rather of a certain autumnal sunniness and mildness that the work itself, the fact that the work has become ripe, always leaves behind in the author.” Happy Mother’s Day!

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