Friday, April 11, 2008

manila, luzon, philippines

When it rains on a summer night and a cool breeze smelling of earth drifts through the open window, there is another place Matilde remembers. For thirteen years the Philippines were home for her little family, she bore her first child there, and then six more, all boys. she also truly grieved for the first time there, and when they finally boarded the ship for California, they left many kind friends behind and her heart split open again like a broken coconut. The palms, a hundred different kinds of palms, sway lazily in her dreams, and she remembers them everywhere, lined up along the wide veranda, hanging from pots under the eaves, fanning and cooling the garden and the rooftop. She remembers the wispy ferns, the birdbaths and fountains, where she would walk and take her siesta, my dream time, she told the boys, to get away for a few moments and revel in the floral wonderland of the philippines. such flowers! orchids, the boldest and brightest colors she'd ever seen, violet, fuschia, white dotted with saffron and rose. bougainvillea coiling over the banisters and chicken coop, making everything ruffled and pretty like a fancy petticoat. gardenias, impossibly sweet, along the pathway to her neighbors, under viney mangroves and bamboo. and of course, the fragrant sampaguita, springing up all over the mossy land, wound into wreaths for young girls' hair as a pledge of love, "sumpa kita."

Although they moved first to Nueva Caceres, mostly Matilde remembers the big house in Manila where five of her sons were born, with its coconut palms and abundant flowers and chickens. It was here that she came to appreciate Marcelina and Narcisco, the hired help who came to work for them and showered such affection and kindness and slow sweet love on her boys. She never realized how much she depended on them until she ended up alone, here, on a dusty little ranch in the middle of an arid empty landscape.

Here, in California, bereft of female companionship, Matilde often craved the easy presence of Marci, the way she slung the babies onto her hip like a natural little mother. the way she made up nicknames for all of the boys, calling them "pao pao" for their chubby cheeks, or referred to Matilde as "Inang" or nanay, her names for mother. She always went barefoot, wore soft worn cotton dresses, and smiled a smile as fresh and sweet as a split watermelon. So pretty and cheery, Matilde almost could not bear it, longing for her sisters, longing for a daughter or a true friend. It was unacceptable for them to open their deepest hearts to each other like sisters or friends, and yet they were together constantly. they worked together in the kitchen, adding cinnamon or hot peppers or coconut to old recipes, laughing at the terrible outcomes, making pot after pot after pot of rice. Marci taught her to make lumpia and bulanglang, buko pies out of young coconuts, and how to crush the pili nut for cooking oil. It was a rich world of surprises, in the garden, the kitchen, and the market, and Marci was a vibrant guide.

And of course, when her third baby, George, died, just a few months after he was born, it was Marci and Narcisco who calmed her as she wailed, who carried his small perfect body away and washed him and wrapped him and sang prayers over him until his father arrived. It was Marci who cared for John and Frankie, still babies themselves, as Matilde grieved, day after day, wrapped in her own white sheets, tired of this hateful place where sickness came in with the unknown and unforgiving sun, through the open doorways of this big hateful house and stole away her baby, like a streaming white ghost dragging corpses of children through the swamps.

Matilde wakes abruptly in the night in Delhi, California to the sound of rain on the roof of their poor lonely house, dampening the dry soil and weeds and sand of this strange and silent land. Next to her, Walter stirs lightly in his cotton pajamas and she feels the familiar safety and comfort of wife, esposa, mi amor, and is glad to be a woman and to know so dearly this man, her husband. And to know that her sons are close by, so that she must send, once again, a silent gracias to the heavens, her innumerable prayers creating invisible wings in the rafters. How far we have come, she thinks, from those verdant filipino forests, from the monsoons and tropical storms and courtyards and gardens and geckos. And yet, we are the same, we are la familia, juntos, we have drifted around the world together like a little ship, intact. and the thought that follows her into her dreams: so where is home?