“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”

“Anyway this is just a note to tell you I’m in a new shell or an old one, like a hermit crab and the ink is now out of two of my pens and this is the last one. I have no more ink in the house tonight. I’ll keep you posted.” ~ John Steinbeck, in a letter to Pascal Covici, September 1948

Sibutu Island, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines* 

“Dreams are the unfinished wings of our souls.” ~ Simon Van Booy, The Secret Lives of People in Love

Tuesday evening. Hot and humid.

Coral Reef, Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines

Two dreams from last night that have stuck with me:

First, I dreamed that I was with Jammi. She and Austin (her ex) had bought a home, but the house itself had to be moved. Jammi was driving the truck that was pulling the house on a trailer. I was in the truck with her. We moved through the streets of Norfolk very slowly until we arrived at the location in which the house would be placed. It was on a hill.

Great, I thought, but Jammi backed the house onto the hill, and it slid into place. We went inside, and there was a lot of work to be done. We worked on painting and putting up wallpaper, but the next day, it all had to be done again. I didn’t feel that I could do all of that work again.

Austin had to leave that day to go back to the war. I asked Jammi if she ever regretted her decision. It was a question that had been on my mind. She looked at me a long time and then looked at the floor as she answered me, “It was the right thing to do for the kids.”

In the second dream, I am embarking on a cruise with my mother, father, and my two sons; my sons are about eight and nine. It is very crowded getting on the ship, and my mother and I become separated from my father and the boys. I tell my mom that we need to follow the line to get to the dining room. We go down a long hall full of people, and then we are in line for dinner, but it is cafeteria style. I’m wondering what happened to the dining room and the wonderful food.

I get in the salad line first, and the lettuce is frozen. I’m already disgusted and wondering where my father is. Then I get in a line for sushi, but the sushi is like the nasty kind that is prepackaged in supermarkets. I order something that will take 15 minutes and am told that it will be brought to me. I wonder how they will find me.

A steward approaches my mother and me and tells me to follow him. He takes me into a room where my dad and the boys are lying on a blue bed; the boys are playing a video game. They’ve been there the whole time waiting for me. The boys are wearing communication devices on their wrists, and they could have sent us a message using those, but they didn’t think about it.

The whole cruise sucks already.

“I write this very decidedly out of despair over my body and over a future with this body . . .” ~ Franz Kafka, from The Diaries, 1910

Friday night. Cool and clear.

Bongao, Capital of Tawi-Tawi Province

So I didn’t get back to this post until now. On Wednesday, I saw my pain doctor and got trigger shots all over my neck, back, and lower back. I lost count. My doctor said afterwards, “Wow. That’s a lot of shots.”

No kidding. I actually thought that I might throw up on the way home. I guess they bothered me more because it’s been several months since I’ve had any trigger shots, and I was one giant muscle spasm. I woke up every three hours or so and took another muscle relaxer (no worries, I’m supposed to take two at a time, and I only take one usually). By Thursday morning, I still hurt.

Fortunately, to take my mind of my excruciating back pain, I got to have my breasts smashed. Yes, the annual mammogram, which, it turns out, I have not had since 2008. I’ve been—shall I say—neglectful of my ta tas. Anyway, let me explain this to those of you who may be unaware: Mammograms hurt more for small-breasted women because the technician has to take your champagne-glass full (before flutes) and pull it onto the platform. I feel like saying, “I’m not Gumby. I don’t stretch that way.”

Not to mention, I went to the wrong building for my appointment and was told to go to the first floor of building 880. I went into the office in building 880, and the woman says, “We don’t have you on the schedule.” Finally, I take out my appointment sheet, and I say, “Am I here?” like I’m some kind of moron. The woman says, “No, that’s next door.”

I’m hot, and the little bit of makeup that I dared to put on is running down my face, and I’m afraid that I’ll be late for my 3:30 therapy appointment. I ask the woman if they can just do my boobs there. She checks with the people in the back (those ominous faceless people one never sees in a doctor’s office), and then tells me that sure, they can work me in.

Done and done. Of course now, I hurt on my back and front . . .

“We hear in retrospect what we have understood.” ~ Marcel Proust

An Island in the Tawi-Tawi Province, Philippines

Well, the computer is going so slowly tonight that I feel sort of like I do in a traffic jam: that I could make more progress if I got out of the car and ran alongside the cars, only in this case, it would be faster if I turned pages by hand instead of searching through files. I fear that I may have to abandon this post once again and come back to the computer possibly in the morning after running a scan; I know when I’m defeated.

Saturday evening. Hot and humid.

After removing spyware and adware, deleting unwanted files, and scanning, the computer seems to be working a bit better, seems being the operative word. I did get this funky black screen when I rebooted, one I have never seen before, so that was a bit scary . . . So where was I?

“The color of truth is grey.” ~ André Gide

Tawi-Tawi Archipelago, Philippines

I find that my mind is not even anywhere near the track I was on when I first began this post, and I probably should have scrapped the whole thing except I hate to do that. I feel as if it’s wasted time. I mean, I’ve picked out the quotes, and I have an idea as to the theme that I’m going to use for my images. I usually already have my poem and song picked out, so to scrap everything because the post is all over the place is a bit disingenuous, especially since that’s exactly how my mind works most of the time anyway—all over the place.

So I’ll finish on this note: I went with Ann, my s-in-law to see her mother today. It was not the best visit as she was in and out as far as being able to converse. We had stopped at McDonald’s to get her a cheeseburger and fries for lunch, which she seemed to enjoy, but she turned down my offer to paint her nails, and didn’t really seem to want me to put lotion on her legs. A few other things happened while we were there which caused me to get rather brusque with her nurse, but I don’t want to get into it.

The other news is that my ex father-in-law, who was admitted to the hospital about ten days ago after falling and breaking a couple of ribs, will also not be coming back home. Ann went to see him on Friday, and she said that while he is more coherent than m-in-law, he seems to know that he is dying.

I texted the kids to let them know the status on their grandfather. Eamonn got back to me right away. Alexis got back to me eight hours later with more of the same: Sorry, will be over soon, ya da ya da ya da. I didn’t bother to reply. I’m going to try to take Eamonn and Brett to see their grandfather this coming week.

This is all too depressing.

More later. Peace.

Music by Aimee Mann, “Save Me”

                   

The Tawi-Tawi group of islands is located at the southwestern tip of the Philippine archipelago. It lies along the earth’s equatorial zone and is composed of 307 islands and islets, 88 of which are characterized by extensive reefs. Tawi-Tawi is an island province of the Philippines located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The capital of Tawi-Tawi is Bongao. The province is the southernmost of the country sharing sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian Kalimantan province.Tawi Tawi is a province that consists of 107 islands in the Sulu Sea, once part of a land bridge linking Borneo

                   

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to
grow)
forgetting why,remember how

in time of lilacs who
proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting
seem)

in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes

in time of all sweet things
beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting
find)

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us
free)
forgetting me,remember me

~ e. e. cummings