Saturday, November 16, 2013

Grandma's Boudoir

My grandmother is already in her 80’s. My father and I decided that it was time for me to go back home and be with my grandma and spend some quality time with her. We heard that she was getting weaker and losing her appetite. She wasn’t really sick or anything. She was probably sad, being alone and old.

In her younger days, she was said to be very scrupulous with her outfit and look. She wasn’t vain, but back then, good and appropriate grooming is a must. She felt that as a public school teacher it was her duty to present herself neat and appropriately clothed.

The women of my family always look up to her because of her sense of style and her matriarchal manner. And obviously not all of the femme fatales of the clan really like her. Some were envious; so green with envy that they would employ character assassination and gossips, and even gross criticisms about her clothes, shoes, and bags. But despite all that, my grandmother would go on with her life and wouldn’t give a shit.

My grandmother came from a big poor family living in a corner of the baranggay. My great grandparents were tenants cultivating a one-hectare rice field owned by a wealthy family from Quezon. I always remember her story of how she breathed prayers when she washed the clothes down the river, praying that may she never become a labandera, or whenever she works in the fields she would pray that may God spare her from becoming a farmer. It was her dream to become a teacher. And with patience and diligence in her studies, she graduated from the University of Santo Tomas and became a public school teacher.

Her real luck came when she met my grandfather. Tall, dark, and handsome- these were the qualities he was looking for in a guy, and my grandfather had all these qualities. She had to be a pakipot of course so that the elders of the town wouldn’t think that she’s a loose woman, but inside her she really prayed that may this dark gorgeousness would ask to marry her. And they did after years of courting.

The love between the two opened doors for my grandmother- a new found freedom, a new life, a better home, and a milestone away from her poor life. She always said that she’s really lucky to marry a man who had money. They were able to build a house together and send their children to good schools. With the extra money that they earned, they both helped her parents and her brothers and sisters, and even helped some of her nieces and nephews in sending them to school.

Eventually, her children grew up, finished college, married, and went on their own paths. Two of her daughters went to the US to become nurses. My father stayed and opened a store near the town market. A few years later, the store had to be closed. Business won’t work if they were more like charitable missionaries doling out canned goods and rice to abusive clients than shrewd merchants who can outdo a mob of thick-skinned stingy parasites. He eventually left for Italy with my mother. My sister and I were left behind with our grandparents.

It was in those years that she could finally afford to have a room of her own, a boudoir as one might say. She had closets filled with beautiful classy clothes and dresses and a dozen pair of shoes. I don’t remember her collecting bags. I only remember that one Louis Vuitton bag she got from her children as a birthday present, which she still keeps until now-just one mighty hand bag through the years. The centrepiece of her boudoir was this wooden dresser mirror, finely polished and with beautiful wooden engravings. She kept all her things there- those creams she used for her skin and face, the lotions with fruity and flowery scents, lipsticks of many shades, make-ups and powders, and my grandfather’s colognes and other sweet-smelling fragrances from abroad. For some strange reason I was never able to know, she kept my grandfather’s colognes in her dresser mirror. I remember that she was very fond of two perfumes- Dior’s Poison and that brown bottle of Yves Saint Laurent.

When we were kids, we were always late for the Sunday mass because my grandmother would take hours and hours to prepare and dress up. One Sunday morning, as we were waiting for her downstairs, I decided to go up to her dressing room to check if she was ready to go to church. I gently knocked on her door and she let me in. I sat there in a corner of her room, watching her prepare. It was a mesmerizing scene. She was already in her Sunday’s best, gently retouching make-up on her face, then her lips. Her ritual would be concluded with graceful showers of Poison or her YSL perfume.

She was very beautiful and refined, even though she was quite a probinsyana-not too flashy but quite flamboyant for a provincial public school teacher. I was quite proud of her, knowing that people looked up to her. Sometimes they would make fun of her calling her Doña Enchang. But she never pretended to be one of those nouveau riches of our town. I’d say that she was simply lucky to have a good life.

The death of my grandfather was a devastating blow to my family, especially to my grandmother. I still believe until now that it was that private space, her boudoir, which my grandfather reserved for her, which helped my grandmother move on in life. From then on, it became a sacred place where we were not supposed to go inside and play.

Sometimes my sister and I would venture inside her boudoir. I would look into the mirror and stare at my reflection, thinking about what went through my grandmother’s head and why she takes so long to dress up and prepare. Every time we venture secretly inside her dressing room, my sister was gradually learning the value of each colour and hue of every cosmetic in my grandmother’s dressing mirror, and eventually picked up the woman’s hours-long ritual of prepping up. I was quite curious about her perfumes and the colognes my grandfather left behind. I would get one bottle and spray them on my wrists and arms and smell those fantastic scents, registering the moment in my memory.

The boudoir was a reflection of my grandmother’s matriarchal dignity, her aesthetic discipline, and how she carries herself. The sacred privacy of her boudoir conveyed her conservative values (something I religiously observed and picked up in life). Her dresser mirror is her aesthetic discipline and philosophy- that beauty must have a purpose, and when it has a purpose, it must be religiously and diligently cultured and should not be an element of vanity (something I never got, or refused to believe in or understand). The closet of beautiful but inexpensive dresses and shoes is her order of ethics on frugal but efficient living. And finally, her one and only hand bag, yes, that Louis Vuitton bag is her example of life that chooses quality over quantity. It sounds as if my grandmother were Imelda Marcos. No way. She’s waaay too different from that bitch. She was a true public servant- a public school teacher. Many of the citizens of our town became her student- from the lowly families working in the woods and the fields up to those professionals in private companies and those who are in the Munisipyo.

When I returned from Italy, I was saddened to see that the boudoir was gone. It has now become my special uncle’s bedroom. The old dresser mirror was placed in the room opposite together with other old stuff of the past.
The once strong, vibrant, and youthful was now fragile and sad. I was saddened to see that the grandmother I used to observe and admire was now like a crestfallen forgotten myth. I wanted to revive in her the past.

One can try to revive her past by cleaning up the dusty dresser mirror, filling up the shelves with creams and cosmetics, restore the former glory of her boudoir. But that won’t be enough to breathe life again to her body and soul. Time has already left her marks on my grandmother’s skin and the burden of senility has made life around her quite dull.  

But now we’re all coming back home again. Grandchildren will be mirrors where she can look at again and make her smile, remind her of the past, the good times she had, the challenges she has overcome and the future of her family. Her children will be the familiar scents that made her life sweet and the memories of dear old grandpa. And the moments we will share will be the robes that will keep her warm and feel home again inside this once empty house.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Through the Expatriate’s Eyes

The cue is longer than usual. But you can always expect that when there are at least five Filipino families in the beginning of the line who are trying to check-in their gargantuan balikbayan boxes and crammed luggage filled with pasalubongs and gifts that will be distributed to the whole clan, to the patriarch’s cousin’s clan, and for the neighbourhood of the whole baranggay. And the hand-held luggage is not yet counted there. If we had it our way, we would bring the very soil of our foreign host and share its bounty with friends and family, but we simply have to be satisfied with the 40 kg and the extra fines we would pay for reaching another 10 kg.

It is my first time to travel back to the Philippines after 13 years. Things have changed since I came to Italy. The 9/11 tragedy has changed the rules on boarding a plane. It’s tricky to stuff gifts in our hand-held bags. Security is tighter. We are ever more exposed to physical searches- to the annoyance of the religious chaste, and to the joy of the oversexed and the closeted insatiable masochists. And the worst of all, the ban on liquids, perfumes, and toothpastes. That means when I arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport I was all stuffy and smelled of yesterday’s atrocious scent. And by the time I was in NAIA, I was already like the walking dead- haggard and stinky. Thank you kleptomaniac passenger for stealing the cologne in the lavatory and thank you so much Etihad Airlines for denying us the privilege of cleaning our mouths with toothpaste!

At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I walked passed security and metal detectors. And to make things more stressful, one has to go through booths that represented a government that wants to convey the message- “Welcome back kabayan, bureaucracy is more fun in the Philippines.”

“No, I’m not an OFW. It’s in the form I filled up earlier.”
“Yes, I’m a permanent resident in Italy.”
“Yes, this is a valid document. I wouldn’t be standing here sir if they were all fake.”
“Yes, I’m here for vacation and I want to relax. I already wrote that in the form. This is really relaxing.”

I survived that. Thank God, medyo tanga pa man din ako minsan.

I intensely anticipated my return by reading Miguel Syjuco’s “Ilustrado”, and tried pathetically to indentify myself with the character in the book who’s also a returning expatriate. I was returning to memories and a past life I lingered to live again.

I imagined my arrival to be very emotional. But instead of tears, I was sweating all over. The tropical heat welcomed me with open ardent arms. Basag trip much. I waited for almost an hour at the arrival area because the people who were supposed to pick me up didn’t recognize me. I couldn’t see them and they were just standing in front of me.

While waiting, I was surrounded by people who were unbelievably accommodating and eager to get me a cab. Before coming to the Philippines, I was thoroughly briefed by my father, my aunt, our pastor, a friend of mine, a colleague, my sister, and another balikbayan about certain scenarios that usually happen at NAIA. And this is exactly one of them- I’m swimming in a pool of tips-grabbing sharks. Security guards who sell mobile credits and SIM cards, airport employees ushering you to NAIA-credited taxi companies and to cheaper unofficial transportation services. And they wouldn’t be asking for Philippine peso. They prefer foreign currency. And perhaps among them, some hypnotists who will encourage you to give away goods and money.

I was warned about these things. For a moment, I thought I was going to Afghanistan or to some war-torn country’s airport infested by usurpers and criminals. But I was going to the Philippines. I didn’t remember it to be that risky. Have things worsened? Or did they remain the way they used to be? Is this the Philippines I read in the paper?

Before those tips-grabbing sharks feasted on me, my uncle appeared and took me away from that place. On our way to Laguna, my questions were almost answered, and more questions came along the way.

What happened to this country?

And I see it all through the eyes of one who feels like an alien in his own country. You may say that I’m being such a prick who feels that I’m entitled to everything; that I behave like a hubristic elitist. Love me or hate me, I will be the same old average Tripster who is fascinated and nostalgic of this country. I will criticize, I will praise, I will berate, I will glorify. And after more than a decade of being away, here I am, home to the land that gave me life. Heaven or hell, beautiful or ugly, it doesn’t really matter. I am here. I am home.