All these years, I have written about other people’s mothers and how they shaped the successful lives of their children.
One fine day, when I turned 69 on Dec. 30 last year, I thought about my own mother and how she remained a quiet, supportive figure.
Strangely, I don’t have a picture of her in my files, and stranger still, I don’t know the exact year she was born, except her date of birth, Sept. 24.
She was probably born in the capital town of Virac in Catanduanes island, in a barangay called Sta. Elena, where I saw her stepsisters and a stepbrother for the first and last time. She was an only daughter from my maternal grandfather’s first marriage. My last glimpse of that grandpa was in a picture, where his wife and daughters and an only son pose beside his coffin before the funeral procession.
In my high school years, I would look at my mother’s class pictures as a public school teacher in Barrio Cabcab. The rest were just images of her cooking latik (local rice cake) all night for me. It was all she could give me when I went back to the big city.
Each time I visited Balacay Point and saw another islet facing the Pacific Ocean, I remembered my childhood in Benticayan, and how I was taken care of by a household helper, Marla, who was married to a fisherman, Moises.
I probably learned to sing “Ay Ay Alibangbang” (The Butterfly) from Marla.
Moises died in the open sea before a storm. I still recall how he looked—sturdy and weather-beaten, the typical islander. I thought I last saw him going down to the beach to pull his banca.
Recalling the music of “Ay Ay Alibangbang,” I suddenly recalled my mother singing a wartime song called “Harbor Lights.” I thought there was something haunting about it. I grew up by the sea with a view of a lighthouse in Barrio Putsan, where my uncle and aunt worked as teachers for many years.
The way my mother sang, I thought I could see chapters of her life in “Harbor Lights.” She taught in school buildings opposite the sea and worked in a survey firm studying land areas by the sea.
I thought I saw her dumping sample ballots by the sea after the elections in the late ’50s. She didn’t look happy being a candidate’s wife.
My paternal grandfather—whose name I carry—also happened to be a Baras town official in the early ’20s.
After a strong typhoon washed away our house, we stayed in my grandmother’s house and in my uncle’s house.
In one unhappy phase of my mother’s marriage, I thought I accompanied her to a nearby Barrio Macutal to look for my father, who had fallen in love with a maiden named Teodora. At the time, I was too young to reckon with love and betrayal. When I saw mother cry alone in her room after our trip to Macutal, I learned about the pain of betrayal.
But the extramarital fling was short-lived, and mother learned to forgive and make her marriage work.
I was totally unprepared on the year she died. Three days prior, I called my only brother to say I was Cebu-bound to cover a concert. It was then that he gave the phone to my mother, who told me, “Pablito, I don’t think I’ll last long. Look after your younger brother.”
The voice was faint. I couldn’t stand it. All I could manage was to tell her that I’d visit her after my Cebu trip.
After the concert in Cebu, I headed to a mall court where I looked for my favorite seafood, cooked the way we did in Virac.
Before heading back to Manila, I watched a Sharon Cuneta-Richard Gomez-Edu Manzano starrer and laughed my head off in the confrontation scene. Edu’s character was taunting Sharon’s character. “You with that figure, falling for a younger man?” and then he laughed—and the pathos of it all hit me.
Returning to Manila the following day, I learned my mother had passed away. I accepted the news quietly as I prepared for an unexpected homecoming with my eldest daughter.
Mother used to tell me she nearly died of an ailment and recalled what it felt like. In her sickbed, she saw flashes of light and saw an image of a woman in white benignly looking at her.
Upon waking up, she was well on her way to recovery. That explained the presence of the image of Our Lady of Salvation in our living room.
I didn’t know what to make of her death. I loved her enough, but didn’t have the means to make her life more comfortable. My only brother did that for me.
She often worried, after an island concert had rendered me penniless after a standing ovation.
With some extra money from my writer’s fees, I’d buy her vitamins and told her it was all I could afford. She hugged me and kissed my forehead.
As her coffin was being lowered to the grave, my step-aunt whispered loud enough for me to hear: “I had a more comfortable life than she could hope for.”
As my daughter and I headed back to Manila, images of mother singing “Harbor Lights” flashed. I found the song as haunting as ever.
“I saw the harbor lights
They only told me we were parting
The same old harbor lights that once brought you to me
I watched the harbor lights
How could I help if tears were starting
Goodbye to tender nights beside the silvery sea.” —CONTRIBUTED