Dennis Estrada, "These Women"
They sit in chairs in living rooms. Apart from the men in their lives. Large women. Strong
women. Women with deep cuts and no visible scars. Some who married right. Others who
married wrong. A few who just married.
They are women who rule their husbands. And even the one who has no husband rules her men–
brothers and nephews and husbands of nieces. She is after all, the matriarch. The eldest of the
clan. Never to be partnered with another because she was the first born, and whether she liked it
or not, it was her lot to take care of those who were to come after her. Brother after brother.
Sister after sister. Until there were 7 of them in all, and her destiny had been determined.
Some of the women had fought the war and the Japanese men who occupied their town. A few
of them had seen the enemy naked, bathing in public, and since they had yet to know a man, they
huddled together–sisters and cousins holding each other, hidden behind thin layers of curtains,
watching– while men poured hot water over their naked bodies and scrubbed backs and chests
and thighs and calves. For all of them, it was their first time, a communal loss of virginity
without ever being touched. That’s how they felt. These women who had fought the war.
Some of them had fought each other. Over many small things and a few things big.
One woman stole trinkets from her cousin. Another laid claim to the family house back home
with a lie: Mama chose me, she said. One elder sister refused to speak to her younger sister for
10 years because the elder sister’s naughty pangalo son had thrown an apple at the younger
sister, the boy’s auntie. He was good at throwing baseballs, and so his throw was a strike, hitting his auntie square in the back of the head. The auntie, in retaliation, struck her umangkon with a broom–all of this in plain view of the elder sister who lived across the street. And thus began the decade-long feud of no words and blank stares and forced invisibility.
They never fought with fists. They never retaliated with shoves. They never resorted to pulling of hair. These women. From their mothers and their mothers’ mothers, they had learned a harsher form of payback. Perpetrators were made to disappear. Ignored. No acknowledgement at fiestas; no words of congratulations at daughters’ weddings; no “fare thee wells” at despididas. It was a cruel form of torture, to make you feel invisible. These women.
One of the women gave birth to a purple baby, a result of an inverted heart; the purple baby never lived past the three month mark. Decades later, the other story comes to light: The purple baby’s oldest brother, a young man in his early 20s, receives a letter from the estate of a long-time family friend, a priest who had helped comfort the purple baby’s mother during her darkest days of mourning. The eldest son finds out he has been a lie all along: He is the offspring of a man of the collar and his mother. He inherits the priest’s home in Vallejo, and never sees his mother again.
There is no one to comfort the woman this time. Two of the women married older men, twice their age, manongs as they were called–first-born sons who came to San Francisco by way of stooped labor in Stockton asparagus fields and on Hawaiian pineapple farms and in Ilocos rice paddies. And as these men grew old and older and oldest, these women remained true, and wiped their men’s tired mouths and clipped their tired toenails and bathed their tired bodies, until their men were no more. These women.
They sit in chairs in kitchens, and gab gab about back home, where isda was always fresh and plentiful and plucked right from the sea in the early morning and served on family tables by noon–sometimes sweet and soured, sometimes braised in aunties' sauces, sometimes dried and pungent–but always masarap, so pleasing to their taste buds. They recall the names of their maids– Mariana and Purification and Imelda, who served them afternoon merienda: kutsinta, babingka and empanadas under fans with wide rusty blades that cooled the beads of sweat that collected on their mestiza skin. They retell the story of Preciosa, the daughter of Cousin Meding, who couldn’t stay away from the boys in the back of the theater around the corner from Dandi’s house. “Because her 'thing' was always itchy,” one of the women says.
Many of them boarded boats, leaving nanays and tatays and bugto and barkadas weeping and some wailing and others just waving good-bye forever, on the docks of their hometowns by the sea. Boats sailed them away from everything they had known, and floated them to the big city to the north where they stayed with an auntie twice removed or a ninang’s high school classmate or just about anyone with hometown ties who could afford to put them up until they could buy passage on larger liners that would sail them away across the seas to the Land of Plenty.
All of them packed away the same dreams in the few belongings they carried on board–in rattan suitcases and plastic purses and cardboard boxes and wooden trunks–dreams rooted in the return of a general, in liberation, in relief clothing and chocolates and K-rations and Jeeps.
One of the them arrived in the City of St. Francis, rosary beads in hand, the ones her mother pressed into her palm before she left, an assurance that all would be well despite the inevitable unraveling that was sure to happen on those distant shores. And so she disembarked onto a pier somewhere along an embarcadero and looked desperately for her brother whom she had affectionately called Umping, who had come years before her and married and settled into a Victorian flat on the corner of Hayes and Buchanan, and who had promised her he would be there to meet her and welcome her onto the soil that was now her home.
The woman settled into a back room of her brother's house and spent days and nights behind a locked door, crying, and longing for what she could remember– a stroll with ninay to Sunday morning singbahan at St. Bartholomew's Church; the fisherman with the lazy eye and his gwapo son who sold her lapu lapu from a wooden stall at the end of a pier; her barkada Miriam who knew her darkest desires and blackest secrets–until her brother's wife told her, "Shape up or ship out. This is America!" And the woman shaped up on the outside, but continued to ship out on the inside. Quietly, and alone.
* * * *
Despite all the unravellings, they survived. These women. Most had children. Many found jobs in marine barracks and post offices and hospital laundry rooms. They saved money and bought homes and sent their children to the nuns at Catholic schools.
* * * *
And as time passed, and these women got older, they began to pass, one by one. A few of them from just being old and tired; several from being sick. First the hair and then the appetite and eventually their entire bodies. Skin and fat and memories of back home melting away until nothing was left except the bare bones they had carried away with them on boats from their towns along the sea.
Two of them, sisters, passed in the dining room of a 1913 Edwardian house. The elder cared for the younger until it was time to let go and when the younger passed it was she, the matriarch, who stood up to secure a white kitchen hand towel under the dead sister's chin and around the crown of her head. To keep the mouth closed. Before the stiffness set in. The matriarch knew to take care of the dead; she had seen her ninay and aunties do the same. Many times before. Long ago in a house along the sea. The two women were inseparable. Until they were separated.
When the elder sister's kidneys no longer wanted to do the work and and liver and lungs and heart just got too tired, and it was time, they searched for a place for their matriarch to die. The feuds were thick and longstanding, and so they sought neutral ground where the warring could stop, at least for for the passing of one great woman. And so they chose the younger sister's house and the same dining room with the dark wainscoting. And it was there that the matriarch breathed her last breathe after visits from relatives she had known and raised and taken care of– some of with whom she had fought over many small things and a few things big, and it was one of the nieces, the one she loved the most, who stood up and secured the white kitchen hand towel under the dead matriarch's chin and around the crown of her head. To keep the mouth closed. Before the stiffness set in. She had seen it done before, in that very room. Years before. In the house where her aunties had once lived.
* * * *
They sat in chairs in dining rooms. Apart from the men in their lives. Women with deep cuts and no visible scars. Women who sat with their dying and buried their dead. Some of them fought to the very end. And some just softened with time. And although they always talked as if they would one day return back home to spend golden years in towns along the sea, not one of them every did. Large women. Strong women. Women who stood against the ever steady pull of tides between two shores.
Here and back there.
Dennis Estrada was born and raised in San Francisco. For the past several years he’s been writing about what it was like growing up bald (he lost all his hair at the tender age of 7), brown, and living on the cusp of two worlds: his parents’ world; and the one that existed whenever he stepped outside the family home. He teaches middle school English, and on Tuesday mornings, leads a writing group for eleven and twelve year old boys.