“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”

“Nothing is free. Everything has to be paid for. For every profit in one thing, payment in some other thing. For every life, a death. Even your music, of which we have heard so much, that had to be paid for. Your wife was the payment for your music. Hell is now satisfied.” ~ Ted Hughes, from Orpheus

Ted Hughes on the first day of trout fishing season in April 1986. Nick Rogers-REX/Courtesy of Harper

“Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil” ~ Ted Hughes, from “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark”

Sunday afternoon, partly cloudy and quite warm, 90 degrees.

Yesterday was the birthday of notable British poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930-October 28, 1998).

I know that I said I would continue the NRA post today, but I just can’t. I need a break. I worked on that frigging post for over eight hours, and my body hasn’t recovered. When I get into intense writing mode, I don’t pay attention to my posture, and I tend to sit with all of my muscles tensed. Of course, the result is that I pay for it afterwards. Today my shoulders are a bundle of knots, as is my lower back, which negates any relief I may have gotten from the trigger point injections.

I’m still awaiting a prior authorization on my Robaxin (muscle relaxer), which is what I take during the day, every day. I really need that. Well, that, or a masseuse. Don’t have either at the moment.

Corey and I both got a lot done yesterday: I wrote a thoroughly researched article, and he finished the fence on the back pasture for the goats. Hoorah, hoorah.

Sylviai Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956

Anyway, back to Ted Hughes, who some of you may know as the husband of the poet Sylvia Plath; their marriage and her suicide negatively colored his reputation as a writer until his death, but he was incredibly talented in his own right. Unfortunately for Hughes, the woman for whom he left Plath, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their 4-year-old daughter Shura after Plath’s death. Hughes spent the remainder of his life writing and farming with his second wife, Carol Orchard.

If you want to know more about Hughes and Plath, the 2008 book The Letters of Ted Hughes is a great read, as is his 1998 book Birthday Letters. I own the latter but not the former; it’s on my wish list. I enjoy reading the correspondence of writers as the majority of them lay themselves bare in notes and letters. It always strikes me as being much more immediate than a biography.

You can find a good biography here on the Poetry Foundation site. The Paris Review interviewed  Hughes for its “Art of Poetry Series” (No. 71) in 1995. You can find the article here. In the following quote Hughes discusses how location affected his writing, something I am always pondering myself:

Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it.

. . . When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place.

I chose “A Woman Unconscious,” the poem below, because once again, its content seems so timely, especially in light of the recent nuclear missile explosion in Russia

More later. Peace.


A Woman Unconscious

Russia and America circle each other;
Threats nudge an act that were without doubt
A melting of the mould in the mother,
Stones melting about the root.The quick of the earth burned out:
The toil of all our ages a loss
With leaf and insect.  Yet flitting thought
(Not to be thought ridiculous)Shies from the world-cancelling black
Of its playing shadow: it has learned
That there’s no trusting (trusting to luck)
Dates when the world’s due to be burned;

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.

And though bomb be matched against bomb,
Though all mankind wince out and nothing endure —
Earth gone in an instant flare —
Did a lesser death come

Onto the white hospital bed
Where one, numb beyond her last of sense,
Closed her eyes on the world’s evidence
And into pillows sunk her head.


Music by You + Me, “Love Gone Wrong”

“See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks. | I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.” ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” Second Voice

“Portrait of Ted Hughes” by Sylvia Plath*
“There is an emptiness.
I am so vulnerable suddenly. ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” Third Voice

It’s been almost two years since my life was upended into total chaos. Two years since my idea of normalcy faded into a new normal that is anything but. Two years since I felt like my life and those within it might be moving back into some semblance of everyday existence.

I was so very wrong.

“Boats off Rock Harbour, Cape Cod”

Any approach to normalcy that we may have been nearing exploded into shards of glass in one afternoon, and there was no chance of normalcy after that. Not one second passes when I don’t ask myself what if . . . what if I had done this or hadn’t done that . . . what if I had never, or if only I had . . .

“What if” is a phrase that will kill you, you know. My ability to blame myself for everything is a long-standing state of being, as long-standing as my love affair with guilt. I honestly don’t know where it all started, if I was just a child and felt such profound guilt that my parents’ marriage wasn’t the storybook kind, that somehow it was my fault. Kids take on a lot more guilt than adults give them credit for. But it started long ago, and it has never abated, this consuming sense that I am the one who could have prevented this or that tragedy, that I am the one who should have seen the signs before this or that happened.

It’s pretty frigging arrogant, right? This sense of omnipotence and omniscience with which I feel I should be imbued. Only children are great at seeming arrogance. It hides their insecurities well.

“I have had my chances. I have tried and tried.
I have stitched life into me like a rare organ,
And walked carefully, precariously, like something rare.
I have tried not to think too hard. I have tried to be natural. ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” Second Voice

If left alone with my thoughts for too long, I inevitably begin a deep dive. It matters not how well I know exactly where I will land nor how badly I will fall. That never even factors into it. The truth is that I really have very little control over these dives.

“Citronnade Stand in Tuileries”

My mother never understood this, nor did my first husband. They were both of the school of think happy thoughts to fix whatever ails you. He saw my depressions as self-absorbed; she saw them as completely perplexing. What did I have to be depressed about? What, indeed. I lived in a nice house in a nice suburb. I had friends, family, seeming popularity in school. I could go on and on, but it doesn’t really matter.

Ask a person suffering from debilitating depression why, and the chances are very good that they cannot answer you; just as if you begin to list for them all of the things for which they should be grateful and happy, you will only push them farther down. Trust me. We know what we should be grateful for, but we can negate your list and add 50 more things before you take a breath.

“What is it I miss?
Shall I ever find it, whatever it is? ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” Third Voice

The irony of the moment is that I am not within the full throes of a debilitating depression; rather, it’s just more of a commonplace, ordinary depression. You know, a run of the mill kind of thing in which no one specific thing is wrong. Nothing has really happened. It’s just there. On the fringes, as it were.

“Cambridge: A view of gables and chimney-pots”

So how do I know that the deeper fall is incipient? How do I know that night will be followed by day, and so on? Years of experience, my dear. Years. For instance, there was that song that came up in my YouTube playlist, the one that made me teary-eyed, and then there was that thing that reminded me of that time, and the smell that hearkened back to that day.

I cannot explain it to you. It’s like trying to catch rain in a colander. You can’t, and we’ll both end up wet. (The glibness is affected, and it hurts my heart, yet I provide it for you, don’t you see?) Shall I call you listener, or reader, or friend? No? Should you call me wanderer, sojourner or wayward one? Perhaps.

“The voices of loneliness, the voices of sorrow
Lap at my back ineluctably. ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” First Voice

It’s strange, you see, in that the way I feel about my life at the moment hearkens back so clearly to exactly how I felt after I lost Caitlin. Then, I had no control over anything, no power to make anything better or right or good. Now, it is the same, but not. This time, the losses are not from death, but they feel as if they are. They feel just as permanent, and sometimes I feel as if I have been rent, from stem to stern, as it were, and there is no clear path to healing.

I could pause here and say, “oh, don’t listen to me. I’ll be fine in the morning.” And there is a distinct possibility that it may be so. And there is also a possibility that it may not be so. It all depends on how far my mind races with these thoughts before I am able to call a halt, if I am able to call a halt, that is. I keep thinking that I could have fixed all of this, that I could have done something to make everyone  and everything okay in the end.

“Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice”

Isn’t that what mothers are for? To offer a salve for the hurts? To be the one that brings everyone back together after a rift? If not for that, then what? That’s a real question, dear reader. I don’t know what my role as mother means, any more. I realize that there are all kinds of mothers out there, and plenty of them are perfectly happy not to have constant contact with their offspring. Everyone moves along on their individual life trails, rarely crossing or interacting. Weird.

What you have to understand is that I was raised in a household with a decidedly Filipino approach to family, in spite of my North Carolinian mother. In a Filipino household, generations live together, and there are often cousins, too, first, second, no matter. The terms uncle and aunt do not necessitate blood kin. They are honorifics. The point is that children are rarely very far away from their parents in these kinds of households. It’s completely alien to me, and it’s also another source of pain: to realize that if either of my parents were still alive that this state of affairs would absolutely kill them.

Perfect. Now I’ve added the parental guilt (mine for them, not theirs for me) to this particular dive.

“I am calm. I am calm. It is the calm before something awful:
The yellow minute before the wind walks, when the leaves
Turn up their hands, their pallors. It is so quiet here. ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” First Voice

I deliberately left the last parts of this post unfinished last night, thinking that if I came back to it later, that I would no longer feel the need to finish, that I would be calmer, more fixed. I am neither, and the constant thrum of a migraine sits somewhere just behind my eyes; this does not engender any sense of well being, only adds to the unease . . . dis-ease? Disease?

Hmm . . . never approached that word in that way before. Curious.

“Harbor Cornucopia, Wiscosin”

Today is grayer and colder than yesterday when I began, and even though I slept for most of the night with only 3 awakenings (few, for me), I still began the day unsettled, which is how I began this post. Dear reader, whoever you are, wherever you are, I apologize for this self-indulgence. Better are the days in which I skate just along the surface of everything, as it is on those days that I can actually breathe most freely, feel less in order to feel better.

Forgive me for that last bit—it made complete sense in my head. I suppose that my point is that on the days in which I am able to block many of my thoughts, on those days I can find a calming peace in the simplicity of my life now, here, on this land, surrounded by trees, wildlife, and no sounds of traffic or people or cities. But I must admit that when I do finally allow my thoughts to brook my consciousness at some point, I always feel just a tad guilty for trying to shut everything out.

Yes, I know, that makes little to no sense. Alas, alack, as it were.

“Again, this is a death. Is it the air,
The particles of destruction I suck up? Am I a pulse
That wanes and wanes, facing the cold angel?
Is this my lover then? This death, this death?” ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Three Women,” Second Voice

In my attempts to respect the privacy of others, I find that I am frequently talking in a coded language that only I can understand, which tends to defeat the purpose of sharing, does it not? It’s like collecting shells on a beach after a storm: There is always so much detritus at hand, but finding unbroken shells always requires a careful search and much sifting out of the unnecessary.

“The Pleasure of Odds and Ends”

Nevertheless, share I will. I will toss these scattered thoughts out into the ether in the hopes that in so doing, I might be able to purchase a little peace for myself, or if not peace, exactly, at least a few hours in which the widening gyre that Yeats so often spoke of does not continue to spin. Of course, he was alluding to the constant movement of history towards chaos. I speak only of my personal history and my attempts to stop its spinning towards entropy.

Enough. There will be more later. Peace.

*All images are pen and ink drawings by Sylvia Plath, who was originally an art major before switching to English. In 2011, a collection of 44 drawings by the poet went on display at the Mayor Gallery in London. According to an article in The Independent, “the sketches were given to Plath’s daughter, the artist Frieda Hughes, by her poet father and Plath’s former husband Ted Hughes before he died . . .The drawings date from 1955, the year Plath graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts and won a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, where she was to meet and marry Hughes. In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery of The Smithsonian Institute hosted a retrospective of Plath’s art and memorabilia.

No poem today as I think that I covered that aspect well enough with all of the Plath quotes.


Music by Larkin Poe, “Mad as a Hatter”