(This piece was written to remember my mother, Rufina, on what would have been her 77th birthday.)
Mom, Morsa, Mutter, Ahm, Maman, Mama. Children around the world call their mothers by a variety of names. I called mine Nanay. I like the word “nanay.” How it sounds, how the word rolls off my tongue easily, how comforting it sounds. Growing up in Cebu, “mama” was more common among my peers. I proudly called my mother “nanay.” Because it was not as common as “mama,” I have always felt it was unique. As unique as my mother.
Nanay grew up in a mountain village in the southwestern part of our island, Cebu, in the Philippines. Her parents were farmers who worked hard to feed their eleven children. Nanay was quick, intelligent, and determined. She was class valedictorian when she completed her elementary education. Nanay had a dream. She wanted to go to high school and then study to become a nurse. But at that time, women did not go to high school or university. In those days, women got married, raised children, and took care of their husbands. Of what possible use would more education be?
In our family, Nanay’s kindness and generosity were well-known. During family gatherings, my aunts and uncles would comment on how Nanay would give the shirt off her back if you need it. Or how, when she had nothing more to give, she would borrow from one to give to the other. This last comment said with a tone of disdain by some; but, often it was said in admiration for her altruism.
It was this selflessness that both baffled and annoyed me especially as a teen-ager. At that time, I was starting to learn about individuality. I was critical of Nanay’s self-sacrifice even when it was for my benefit. I remember telling her, not too kindly, that a woman is first her own person before being a wife and mother. Had she not heard of women’s liberation? Had she not heard of feminism? Why was she allowing herself to be oppressed? Could she not free herself from the shackles of our patriarchal society? These were haughty and arrogant words I said to my mother. Hurting words that I regret now.
I never really understood Nanay’s selflessness. Though I have to say that I may have had a little glimpse of it a few months ago when it was clear that my husband and I would have to go through the more complex and involved fertility treatment that is IVF. Needles and physical pain have never been my cup of tea. One time, as I was sitting on the skytrain, on the way home from the fertility clinic, I was struck with a thought. I realized that I was now willing to go through all the unpleasant, painful, difficult, intrusive processes for a chance to have a child. Could this potentially be a budding maternal selflessness?
Just as Nanay was known for her intelligence, determination, her kindness and generosity, her beauty was legendary. When, as an adult, I had the chance to meet people who knew my mother in her youth, they would invariably say how beautiful she was. They would mention how, for five consecutive years, Nanay played Mary during the Sugat or the annual Easter Sunday pageant. Being the mother of Jesus is a plum role reserved only for women who not only exude beauty but embody integrity.
One time, when I was a school girl, I invited a couple of classmates over to my house. Our small living room was filled with framed photos. My friends saw a photo of a young beautiful woman. Who is that very beautiful woman, one asked. My Nanay, I answered. Then she said: “Liwat di-ay ka sa imong Tatay.” (You must take after your father.) I was speechless for a second but retorted with mock anger: “Hey, do you still want to be my friend or not?” We had a good laugh after. Though her remark stung a little bit, I know what she said was true.
I know I’m not as physically beautiful as Nanay was. I know I will never be as generous of spirit and kind as she was. Yes, I still don’t fully grasp what it means to be totally and unabashedly selfless. But amidst all these challenges of wanting to have a child, I have had a glimpse of Nanay’s selflessness. And maybe for now, that is enough for me.