“She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.” ~ Alex Tizon, from “My Family’s Slave”

Lola Pulido with the author and his siblings (all images are Tizon family photos)

“Push away the past, that vessel in which all emotions curdle to regret.” ~ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, from Before We Visit the Goddess

Thursday late afternoon, cloudy and cool, 51 degrees.

I’ve had this one tab open on my laptop for about two weeks, maybe more. I haven’t wanted to close it as I wanted it to be a constant reminder that it needed attention on my part. It’s one of three posts that I’ve been trying to write longer than I care to admit. This particular tab is for an article that was published in The Atlantic called “My Family’s Slave,” by the late Alex Tizon, and although I’ve wanted to write a response to it ever since I read it, I cannot seem to find the best way in, if that makes any sense.

Lola age 51

The article deals with a Filipino tradition (for lack of a better word) of the better-off taking in someone not so well-off and offering them the opportunity to live with and work for the family. Better-off is very subjective as it means anyone with more money than you. The only catch is that working for implies receiving a salary of some sort, and these women (mostly) never receive any money. Tizon explains:

Slavery has a long history on the islands. Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection.

. . . Today even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer. The pool is deep.

“If ever I lose
my memory of you, walk beside me
like a stag; like a bird heard, unseen” ~ Anne Michaels, from Correspondences

Let me offer a bit of my own background here: For three summers, starting when I was just 14, I worked for my Aunt Remy, taking care of her five kids. I arrived at 7 in the morning and left at 6 in the evening, and for this I received $50 a week, and I felt lucky to be making such good money. In addition to taking care of the kids, my cousins (a term loosely used by Filipinos to identify anyone close to the family), my daily chores included cleaning the entire house, doing laundry, and attempting to cook. I never saw this as being too much work; after all, they had an in-ground pool and I could spend a few hours every day hanging out in the crystal blue water. I viewed the entire transaction was quite equitable.

Lola passport photo

These were my “rich relatives,” as I always referred to them. I loved my aunt and uncle like a second set of parents, for good reason. My uncle lived with my parents before he got married, and he was one of my frequent babysitters. My aunt lived with my parents when she came over from the Philippines before she married my uncle. They were always a big part of my life, and their deaths wounded my heart almost as much as those of my parents.

When my summers became too full with cheer leading practices for me to continue my full-time summer job with them, my aunt found a Filipino woman to live with the family. I never knew if she was paid, only that she lived with the family full-time. I’m embarrassed to say that I cannot remember her name. But this article immediately called her to mind.

“This memory was not painful to her now. Her life was an open window and she a butterfly.” ~ Simon Van Booy, from “French Artist Killed in Sunday’s Earthquake”

Another memory: When relatives from Newark visited one summer, they brought with them their live-in woman. My aunt asked me not to mention that I was paid because she didn’t want their live-in to feel bad. I realize now that the woman probably wasn’t paid anything. That’s just how it was done.

Lola Pulido at age 18

We never had one of these women in our house, probably because it was just my mom, dad, and me, that and we weren’t well off. However, over the years we frequently had a relative of some sort living with us. Again, that’s just how it is, and it never seemed odd to me. I think that if my parents had wanted a live-in that there were certainly many relatives in the Philippines who would have jumped at the chance, life in the States being much preferred to a life of poverty in the islands.

That being said, I don’t think that my American mother would have ever been comfortable with such an arrangement, not because she was opposed to have help, but more because she was such a very jealous woman and having another woman living in our house would have stirred her monster, which was always seething just below the surface of her marriage to my dad.  Truthfully, though, my father gave her good reason to be suspicious. I can admit that now without feeling that I’m betraying either of them.

“Stare at the monster: remark
How difficult it is to define just what
Amounts to monstrosity in that
Very ordinary appearance.” ~ Ted Hughes, from “Famous Poet”

What has made it so hard for me to write about all of this is that my aunt and uncle were good, generous people, and I wouldn’t want it to seem that I’m criticizing them in any way, but if I am to be honest, then I have to admit that the tradition that they carried on was very much like the slavery the article’s author discusses. It is hard, painful even, to try to think of my relatives in these terms.

Slavery is a hard word—it is filled with negative connotations, rightfully so, and when most American heard the word, they think about that shameful period in our country’s history in which the color of one’s skin dictated how the individual lived, whether or not the person was paid or could vote or even if that individual could have the barest education. Tizon’s article recounts another form of slavery, one that most white Americans know nothing about, but one that most Filipino Americans know about but rarely acknowledge.

Lieutenant Tomhow

But back to the article: Tizon narrates how Lola (an all-encompassing Tagalog word for grandmother or nana), lived with his family after his mother died, and after Lola’s death how he took her ashes back to her family in the Philippines. It’s a bittersweet story, told in retrospect through a child’s eyes and then later through the wisdom that being an adult sometimes imparts, too late more often than not.

Tizon recounts the story of how his maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Tom, a “cigar-chomping army lieutenant named Tomas Asuncion” brought an 18-year-old Filipina girl named Eudocia Tomas Pulido into the family in 1943 to take care of his mother whose own mother had died in childbirth. Pulida, or Lola—a cousin from a marginal side of the family, rice farmers—was a gift to Tizon’s mother, and Lola stayed with various members of Tizon’s family for almost 68 years, 56 or them as an utusan (people who take commands).

Lieutenant Tom had as many as three families of utusans living on his property in the Tarlac province of the Philippines. He had lots of land but little money, and he was shrewd. As Tizon explains how Lola came to be the family’s slave, “The lieutenant was shrewd—he saw that this girl was penniless, unschooled, and likely to be malleable . . . She could have food and shelter if she would commit to taking care of his daughter . . . Lola agreed, not grasping that the deal was for life.”

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” ~ Evelyn Waugh, from Brideshead Revisited

Another memory: My parents and I spent several months in the Philippines after my dad retired from the Navy. The plan was for us to live there, but that didn’t work out as I became ill and found to be allergic to pretty  much everything. But while we were staying at my grandmother’s house in my dad’s village of Gapan, we would visit my great aunt Tiba’s house. I recall that she had an utusan, but that’s all I remember. Later, when we moved to Quezon City, two of my cousins moved with us. They helped out, but I honestly don’t know if they were there as utusans or as family, or even if there is a difference.

We were Americanized. We weren’t rich, but as compared to many in my father’s family, we were well off. We stayed in an air-conditioned apartment in Quezon City at a time in which air conditioning was a luxury. It may still be a luxury—I have no idea. So the opportunity to live in the city with us as opposed to a small village must have seemed appealing.

Lola age 82

My mother, born into a large family during the Great Depression, never had servants, so I don’t think that she would have been able to order people about naturally; at least, that is how I like to remember things. My father made it out of his small village by becoming a Guerilla during WWII and then later enlisting in the U.S. Navy; he was never entitled but he believed ardently in helping out family whenever he could.

If it sounds as if I’m trying to convince myself that for those few short months we did not have a family slave, I am, but I’m also trying to be realistic, reconciling the parents I knew with the parents I couldn’t have possibly known well as a child. What we know of our parents is what we choose to know, and few of us choose to know or to remember that side in which our parents were human beings, with their own likes and dislikes, wants and desires, shortfalls and foibles.

That’s just not how it works. Is it?

Utusan. Helper. Servitude. Long hours. No pay. No personal life beyond the family’s environs. Bottom line: slave. It’s ugly no matter how memory shapes it. If you get a chance, I do recommend reading the article that jump started this post. It is a lovely narrative, one to which few white Americans can actually relate but deserves a wide audience nevertheless.

More later. Peace.


Music by Billie Marten, “Bird”

“The air alive, | memory lifts her head and I nearly | disappear.” ~ Anne Michaels, from “Skin Divers”

Yajuro Takashima Mangetsu 1963
Mangetsu 満月 (1963)
by Yajuro Takashima

                   

My birthday present to myself: I spent two hours doing a practice Literature in English GRE subject sample test. I am woefully unprepared to take the GREs, so I suppose it’s a good thing that I found out today I’ve missed the deadline for submitting applications to the doctoral program at GW.

Ah me. Instead of rambling on and on about something that is bothering me, I’m going to post a lovely poem by Anne Michaels, which I found on  What the Camera Sees on blogspot. Please click here to see the post.

Skin Divers

Under the big-top
of stars, cows drift
from enclosures, bellies brushing
the high grass, ready for their heavy
festivities. Lowland gleams like mica
in the rain. Starlight
soaks our shoes.
The seaweed field begs, the same
burlap field that in winter cracks with frost,
is splashed by the black brush
of crows. Frozen sparklers of Queen Anne’s lace.

Because the moon feels loved, she lets our eyes
follow her across the field, stepping
from her clothes, strewn silk
glinting in furrows. Feeling loved, the moon loves
to be looked at, swimming
all night across the river.

She calls through screens,
she fingers a white slip in the night hallway,
reaches across the table for a glass.
She holds the dream fort.
Like the moon, I want to touch places
just by looking. To tell
new things at three in the morning, when we’re
awake with rain or any sadness, or slendering through
reeds of sleep, surfacing to skin. In this room
where so much has happened, where love
is the clink of buttons as your shirt slides
to the floor, the rolling sound of loose change;
a book half open, clothes
half open. Again we feel
how transparent the envelope
of the body, pushed through the door
of the world. To read what’s inside
we hold each other
up to the light. We hold
the ones we love or long
to be free of, carry them
into every night field, sit with them
while cows slow as ships
barely move in the distance.
Rain dripping from the awning of stars.

Waterworn, the body remembers
like a floodplain, sentiment-laden,
reclaims itself with every tide.
Memory terraces, soft as green deltas.
Or reefs and cordilleras –
gathering the world to bone.

The moon touches everything
into meaning, under her blind fingers,
then returns us to cerulean
aluminum dawns. Night,
a road pointing east.
her sister, memory, browses the closet
for clothes carrying someone’s shape.
She wipes her hands on an apron
stained with childhood, familiar smells
in her hair; rattles pots and pans
in the circadian kitchen.
While in the bedroom of a night field,
the moon undresses; her abandoned peignoir
floats forever down.

Memory drags possessions out on the lawn,
moves slowly through wet grass, weighed down
by moments caught in her night net, in the glistening
ether of her skirt. The air alive,
memory lifts her head and I nearly
disappear. You lift your head, a look I feel
everywhere, a tongue of a glance,
and love’s this dark field, our shadow web
of voices, the carbon-papter purple
rainy dark. Memory’s heavy with the jewellery
of rain, her skirt heavy with beads of mercury
congealing to ice on embroidered branches –
as she walks we hear the clacking surf
of those beautiful bones. Already love
so far beyond the body, reached only
by way of the body. Time is the alembic
that turns what we know
into mystery. Into air,
into the purple stain of sweetness.
Laburnum, wild iris, birch forest so thick
it glows at night, smells that reach us
everywhere; the alchemy that keeps us
happy on the ground, even if our arms embrace
nothing, nothing: the withdrawing
trochee of birds. We’ll never achieve escape
velocity, might as well sink into wet
firmament, learn to stay under,
breathing through our skin.
In silver lamella, in rivers
the colour of rain. Under water, under sky;
with transparent ancient wings.

Tonight the moon traipses in bare feet,
silk stockings left behind
like pieces of river.

Our legs and arms, summer-steeped
slapped damp
with mud and weeds.

We roll over the edge into the deep field,
rise from under rain,
from our shapes in wet grass.
Night swimmers, skin divers.

~ Anne Michaels

                   

Music by Shawn Colvin (with Alison Krauss), “Shotgun Down The Avalanche”

“I can’t exactly describe how I feel but it’s not quite right. And it leaves me cold.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, from “The Love of the Last Tycoon”

Dark Night of the Soul
by David Hepworth (FCC)

                    

“He is like an old ferry dragged on to the shore,
a home in its smashed grandeur, with the giant beams
and joists. Like a wooden ocean out of control.
A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.” ~ Jack Gilbert, from “Refusing Heaven”

Very early Friday morning. Cloudy and cold. 2:30 a.m.

I had thought that after I wrote the last post I might be able to find sleep. I was wrong. Apparently my attempts to purge my grief did not succeed. Each time I laid back and tried to close my eyes, my mind began that headlong rush into a miasma of thoughts, thoughts that I cannot control, so here I am. I can change the channel on the television, or play another hand of spider solitaire, or walk out to the kitchen. But I know what is wrong, why sleep eludes me: There is no warm snoring body curled into the crook of my knee.

Twisted Tree in Mist, Stanmer Park Great Wood, UK
by dominic’s pics (FCC)

Oh, he was smelly, between the ongoing crud in his ear and his perpetual halitosis, Shakes was a smelly dog. But I knew that smell. That smell followed me from room to room, sat patiently as I washed dishes. Daily spritzing with Febreze helped, but the smell persisted. Now that smell is gone.

You might find this an odd thing to think about, but smell does that to me. After Caitlin died I carried the outfit she had worn to the hospital in a plastic bag. I took that bag everywhere with me, and once in a while, when I felt the need to torment myself, I would unseal the bag and inhale deeply. It took a long time for her smell to fade.

“My brother once showed me a piece of quartz that contained, he said, some trapped water older than all the seas in our world. He held it up to my ear.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘life and no escape.’” ~ Anne Carson, from  Plainwater

Shakes could also be mean. He hated to have his nails cut, and his ear problem never fully resolved because he fought attempts at cleaning and medicating. I bear a few scars from when he bit me. In fact, on my right arm, I have a c-shaped scar that I have seriously contemplated having a crescent moon drawn around. Turning a scar into a badge, if you will.

Forest after Fire
by Steve Slater (Wildlife Encounters) (FCC)

So he could be mean, and he smelled. But he was also fiercely loyal, very jealous, and quite funny. I know that I’ve posted pictures of him as he lay with his head upon my pillow, or tented beneath the quilt, or sitting by the window.

In these last few months, I tried to take him on car rides when I could, and I didn’t scold him when he stole a piece of French bread. He knew that he was being spoiled, and he probably took advantage of it. Who cares. I just hope that he had a good life, one filled with memories of cookies and treats, doing army crawl across the grass to scratch his belly, playing games of tennis ball and jumping into the pool. I hope he knew how much he was loved, in spite of his grouchy old man demeanor. I hope that I did right by him.

“There are still days you can catch me
tape recording eternal silence
and playing it backwards for an empty room” ~ Buddy Wakefield, from “Human the Death Dance”

I suppose I am trying to write myself into oblivion. If I type enough words, if I confess enough, if I reveal everything—bad and good and in between—if I do all of these things, perhaps then my soul may find some rest.

Winter Trees in Mist at Dawn, Stamner Park Great Wood, UK
by dominic’s pics (FCC)

Perhaps.

Or perhaps I’ll just keep writing and keep feeling and keep scratching off that thin veneer of a scab that is only just forming, worry it in that way that I do, pull on it until the wound that is bared is deeper than it originally began. If you tear at something long enough, it will fray. Mess with it long enough, the fabric will wear, erode, crumble. Perhaps I will do all of these things enough times that when I finally lay back and close my eyes, I will see . . . nothing. And (one can only hope) be blessed with dreamless sleep.

Too bad the waters of Lethe are not accessible in this sphere. Forgetfulness would be a good thing.

“Even in a place you know intimately,
each night’s darkness is different.” ~ Anne Michaels, from Miner’s Pond

Friday afternoon. Cloudy and cool, 50’s.

So I eventually found sleep around 4 a.m. Awoke around 7 with another headache. Actually, Tillie woke me at 7, then again at 9:30. At 7 she wanted out, but at 9:30 she wanted to play. I asked Corey to wake me no later than 11 so that I could try to sleep tonight.

Blandford Nature Center
by mikemol (FCC)

The headache is gone for now, but my back muscles are like a basket of walnuts—all crammed up against one another and compressed into a space that is too small to accommodate them. In spite of the pain, I feel a bit better emotionally. I haven’t cried once since waking, and I don’t appear to be leaking incessantly. My chest also seems to have loosened, as in it doesn’t feel so constricted and painful. I suppose I have begun the long process of healing yet again.

But we all know not to expect too much of that. Right?

So my dog Shakes was smelly and temperamental and funny and loyal and fluffy in spots where dogs shouldn’t be fluffy, and his mouth looked like it had been lined with black eyeliner, giving him perpetual lipstick. He would do spite pees in the house, as in if I left him for too long alone, he would mark something, usually the end of my iron bed. He was a Jack Russell without spots and with long legs. For some reason, I remember the sire’s name was Simon, from the litter into which both Shakes and Alfie were born. They were the last two pups left, and the woman sold both of them to my mother for the price of one pup, which is how I came to own two male dogs.

“And he told stories about the stars above, about the earth below. He told them to make the night pass, and also because his heart was all reflections in which the soul of the world moved.” ~ Jean Giono, from The Serpent of Stars

I think that when I’m finished here, I’ll curl up beneath a blanket and read. I’ve abandoned NaNoWriMo mostly because I’m so far behind that I know I cannot catch up, especially as it is past the mid-point of the month. However, I have not abandoned the story. As I mentioned, I like my protagonist, and I like the sketchy plot that I have so far. I just know that I’m not in the frame of mind in which to flesh out characters and plot lines.

Macclesfield Forest in Winter, UK
(Wikimedia Commons)

I need to spend the weekend cleaning and polishing silver, getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner. I think because we’re going to have so many people that we’re going to cook a turkey and a ham, at least that’s the plan for now. When I first began planning the meal in my head, I had considered trying to bake a special cake. Not going to happen now. Apple and pumpkin pies from Costco—always a good plan.

Look. I’m just holding on at the moment. I’m better, but not there yet. I’ll spend my time this weekend doing mindless chores, and with any luck, I can burn away the pain. I don’t want to be a complete emotional wreck when Corey’s parents get here.

For now, we’ll just see how the days unfold.

More later. Peace.

Music by Benjamin Francis Leftwich, “Sophie”

                   

A Journal of the Year of the Ox (excerpt)

It is as though, sitting out here in the dwarf orchard,
The soul has come to rest at the edge of the body,
A vacancy, a small ache,
the soul had come to rest
After a long passage over the wasteland and damp season.
It is as though a tree had been taken out of the landscape.
It is as though a tree had been taken out
and moved to one side
And the wind blew where the tree had been
As though it had never blown there before,
or that hard.

~ Charles Wright