The first time I felt the need to understand the woman who had become my mother, I was watching her sob quietly through a sliver of a slightly opened door. She was sitting by her office table at home with her back to me. My father, in his drunken stupor, found her working quietly there and decided to scream at her at the top of his lungs. He didn’t care who heard, he just wanted her to hear. She was a liar, he shouted, she was pathetic, she was a scum, she would never amount to anything.
I remember watching, frozen in fear, as he grabbed a stapler and threw it across the room. I watched it bounce off the wall in a loud crash, missing my mother’s shoulder by inches. Even then, my mother refused to cry. It was only after my father left the room, the smell of his drunken breath still heavily clinging in the air, that I saw her shoulders slump and shake as if even in his absence, her cries still battled to be freed.
I was sixteen then, almost a decade ago. I still remember the white shirt she wore and her hair tucked messily into a bun. I couldn’t see her face as I stood there just a few feet away. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I approached her in quiet steps and wrapped my arms around her.
“I’m okay, Kaela,” she said as she pushed me away. “Go check on your sisters.”
She sniffled as she turned her back to me and pressed her face in her palms. I stood beside her, towering over her as she slumped over her table, refusing to let me see the pain in her eyes. As I stared at her, I realized I didn’t know this woman in front of me–not entirely. In all the years I had been alive, I had only known her as my mother. I only knew her as the woman who raised me, as the shield who tried her best to protect me, and at times, in the middle of the night, as the person I hated for entrapping me in a world in which she was also miserable.
I’ve heard so many stories of the woman she was before she met my father. The stories were passed along like a myth in our house, muttered under the breaths of our relatives or told before I fell asleep like a fairytale I could dream of one day seeing. As I looked at my mother then, all flesh and bones shaking in fear but never letting go of her tears, I began to ask: who was my mother before my father met her? Who had she been that made her refuse to be crushed by the world?
My first encounter with my mother came on an early November morning. She and my father had been together for a year before I was born. She was 26. She had been born on the fifth of September, and was named after the Beatle song “Michelle” which ironically sang about a person trying desperately to find his way back to her.
Her birth was unexpected for numerous reasons. Yet despite all that, she survived and managed to come to the world. My grandparents were forbidden to wed by their families, simply because they came from two different and exclusive cultural groups dominating the Philippines: the Filipino-Chinese and the Filipinos. My grandmother, a beautiful Filipina, pushed for their wedding, not because of love, but because of conservative customs that plagued their time after they spent a night together.
My mother wasn’t supposed to be the eldest in her family. A year before she was born, my grandmother had suffered a miscarriage. She blamed it on my grandfather who, even then, had an unstable source of income and found ways to steal from his own employers. My grandmother remembered the exact time, place, and day she gave birth to my mom. She was drenched in sweat, her chest breathing heavily, her eyes fluttering when she heard my mom’s first scream. This child was alive.
The hospital, which was run by nuns, refused to let my grandparents give my mother my grandfather’s last name. Although they married through the Chinese embassy, the hospital didn’t consider their marriage valid enough to pass on my grandfather’s surname, so in 1970, on the fifth of September, Michelle Malig was born. Her name may have existed without a trace of a man. But her life, she would discover, was to be plagued by men.
My mother told me that one day she just knew there was something wrong with her father.
She didn’t grow up with a perfect childhood, but she always looked back at the time fondly. She remembered playing rollerblades with her siblings down the road, her sweat glistening under the bright sun that always shone in Manila. She remembered laughing until she cried as she ran with her cousins. She doesn’t remember what they played anymore–maybe tag, maybe hide and seek, but she remembers being happy.
She loved it even more when her father came back home. She admitted in her early years, she loved her father more than her mom. In those few years she was shielded from the world; she saw her mom as the frugal one who refused to relish in the delights of life, while her father, who though seldom home, would always return with presents and take her out to parks and fancy restaurants.
She remembered reaching up for the sun as she sat atop her father’s shoulders. She was happy, until she found out the truth.
As years passed by, my mother couldn’t count how many times she woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she padded her way to the door. Peering through an ajar door, she saw her parents scream at each other, their faces only inches apart. Her father came home drunk again, and her mother was fed up trying to raise all three kids by herself. My grandmother worked as a saleswoman by day and returned each night to her children. My grandfather came home only when he wanted to. In the days he was gone, my grandmother was left alone to care for my mother and her siblings.
As the eldest of three, my mother began to understand early on the reality her father brought their family both with his presence and absence.
While my grandfather was away, the family would be left without any money to buy food. During the times my grandmother couldn’t find any spare coins in her savings, she would, in all her strength, carry my mother and her other siblings down the road and bring them to my grandmother’s sister who always welcomed them with open arms.
Nobody knew where my grandfather went during the times he left the house, but my mother learned to hone her suspicions by the time she reached her teenage years. She never told anyone that when she was in high school, she managed to track down one of her father’s mistresses.
“I told her to stay away from my family,” she told me. My mother hid my grandfather’s heartbreaking secret from the family and her silence echoed into the decades. To this day, my grandparents don’t know what she had to do.
I asked my grandmother if she ever had to explain to my mom what was going on in their marriage, but she said she never had to. My mom just knew.
“She’d always tell me, ‘He was never a husband to you. Was he ever a father to us when you had to do everything?” my grandmother said.
Despite the problems haunting their home, my mother excelled in school. She grew up in Pasig City, a city in the heart of the country’s capital where buildings sprouted in every corner. She graduated with honors in every level, but my grandmother said that that didn’t mean my mother was free from mischief.
If my mother hated the teacher, she would be adamant on not studying for the class. She had the best scores in class, but teachers would find her at the very end of the classroom with her chin tucked down and her eyes nowhere near the chalkboard. My mother, without her teachers’ knowledge, would hide novels behind her school books, her mind a million worlds away from the algebra lecture in front of her.
If my mother wanted to go out during the weekdays, she would go out with or without my grandmother’s permission. Whenever my grandmother tried to stop her, my mother replied with the same answer: “I have perfect scores in class. I’m on the honors list. You know exactly who and where I’ll hang out. Give me one logical reason why I can’t go out.”
Before my grandmother could think of a response, my mother was out the door. Until now, my grandmother can’t comprehend how my mother managed to have good grades despite her behavior.
My grandmother told me again and again, “She just always knew.”
Because my grandfather was never around and my grandmother failed to discipline her kids, my mother felt like she had to fill a gap in her family none of her parents could fill.
My aunt, Magdalene, was born ten years after my mom. She remembered all the rules my mom imposed on her: no phones when eating at the dining table, no talking on the phone for long periods of time, and most importantly, no going out late at night.
My aunt huffed, “Unfair!” under her breath every time she watched my mom go out of the house at night with big golden hoops in her ears and her hair coiffed up like a true disco girl in the 80s while she stayed behind.
The worst fight my aunt had with my mom growing up was when she was in high school and her life started to revolve around her friends. My mom told her she was getting too involved and she needed to create some distance from them. In a fit of rage, my aunt ran away.
She said, “Not once did your mom try to look for me and tell me to go back. She told me that if I knew how to leave, I also needed to know how to find my way back home.”
My mom always tried to instill in her siblings that family should be the top most priority. Family always came first–before friends, before boyfriends, before the world.
When my mother passed the country’s top university, the University of the Philippines, she had one dream in mind: graduate with honors, work for two years, then go to the United States to take her master’s degree and earn enough money to provide my grandmother anything and everything she ever dreamt of.
My aunt couldn’t place how my mom formed this adamant view of family, but she knew my mother grew up watching my grandparents fight and how my grandmother’s family swooped in to help however they could. To my mother, it was just her and her family against the world. They were a unit in the face of all the grievances my grandfather left them with.
My aunt said, “She’d always tell me that at the end of the day, everyone is going to leave you. Only family remains.”
It was seven in the morning in the Philippines when my mom answered my call. She had just finished drinking her coffee. Her dog was a ball of white fur trailing behind her. She was still rubbing her eyes awake. Her hair, which my father forbade her to cut short, fell to her chin in a jagged mess. She was far from the woman she was almost a decade ago, slumped over the table, alone in her fear. It’s been four years since she escaped my father, and she has never been closer to the woman she was before him.
She burst into unapologetic laughter when I demonstrated to her how rats in New York City crossed sidewalks like humans. She told me how she and my grandmother spent another afternoon just playing Christmas songs and making crochets together. I told her all the things I’ve been reporting about while I took my master’s degree at Columbia University, and how now, I wanted to tell her story. I couldn’t tell her that as a journalist, whose role is to tell stories from around the world, her story was the most important of all to me. As I left the Pulitzer Hall and walked down the road bracketed by trees in dazzling shades of red and orange, I knew what my story was. I knew that where I stood was despite my father and because of who my mother is.
For twenty years, I thought my father had succeeded in burying the woman she was, but my mother told me that it was impossible.
As I held my phone in front of me, my mother’s face captured in pixels, she smiled and said, “She was only sleeping, Kaela.”