One of my most vivid memories of childhood was a dry summer night in Culiat, Quezon City. I was six years old, my little brother was almost three, and we were held by hand by Nanay, who at that time was still a robust age of sixty. It all happened in a blur: we were watching TV in the sala when I suddenly heard a loud noise like thunder, and as I gazed out the window I saw an awesome fountain of fire coming from the electric transformer atop a wooden post. It lit afire the tangled wires and in a split second, everything went dark and the next thing I knew Nanay grabbed me and picked up Tyrone in her arms and ran outside.
It was utter chaos. Of course back then I wasn't aware we were living in the squatter's area and all houses were made of plywood and galvanized iron, all sharing the same walls- it was only now did I understand how dangerous the situation really was for us that night. We were swallowed by the crowd of people on the street moving in every direction, some gathering buckets of water from the communal faucet, while others shouted "Sukaaaaa! Sukaaa!"
I kind of thought this was funny, because back in Leyte we only used suka (vinegar) for paksiw or kinilaw, and here in Manila people were using it apparently to put out fires. The biggest concern I had that time was that I was only wearing one slipper, because when the lights went out and Nanay grabbed me I hardly had time to put on the other slipper. How embarrassing for people to see, I thought, a sixty year-old lady dressed in a duster, holding two children with one of them wearing only one slipper.
It turned out vinegar did work, because hours later we were able to return to our home safely. That incident became so popular- Nanay's heroic rescue of us, albeit the barefoot part, largely because she told the story over and over during parties, reunions, and practically any occasion where there were people willing to listen. Nanay certainly was the best person to raise us in place of our OFW parents because of her unconditional love, and not to mention the extraordinary ability to survive squatter fires.
Upon my brother's whims, we started raising white mice in our newly constructed home in Tacloban, during the time we decided to settle in our province. Nanay, ever enterprising, thought it would be a good idea since we could sell these creatures. Like my brother's pet doves, kids from the nearby elementary school frequently made inquiries on how much they could purchase those pets. Unfortunately for us all, we miscalculated because in a month's time those critters multiplied exponentially- and cross bred with the existing black mice population.
My brother, who used to feed these critters with boiled rice, suddenly was frightened when they all came out to the terrace one evening- including the Mendelenian nightmare of white mice with black spots. When my mom saw this, she thought it had gone too far and decided buy poison for rats amidst Nanay's protestations. Alas, Racumin proved effective, and as we placed the dead mice in a sack, I saw Nanay actually shed a tear.
It was the first time I ever saw her cry, and I certainly thought it was strange for someone to weep over mice. Weeks later she informed me we venture into something less gross, and a little more profitable: a sari-sari store to sell snacks for elementary students during recess.
Nanay. The only elementary undergrad I know who can pull off selling white mice with aplomb, the shrewdest, most resilient woman who spent the best years of her life with us. She is the only person who was born before the war and could tell first hand stories of Japanese soldiers on Leyte shores, and the only one who could speak with much depth about life.
We were all devastated the day we learned of the lump on her breast, but at the same time we knew she would bear this affliction with dignity. Sometimes it is difficult to care for her, considering her stubborn ways and irrational fear of western medicine. Last year we were at Divine Word hospital getting ready for her lumpectomy, but in the end the surgery did not push through. She was so afraid of going under the knife, fearing that she'd die on the table.
For past nine days during Mama's death anniversary, we stayed in the same room since all the other rooms at home were occupied after my cousin's family, whose home was recently razed to the ground by an electrical fire, moved in. I slept on the floor and moved some of my things out to make room for her essentials: a walking cane, an arinola which I clean every morning, a glass of water on a coaster, a bottle of menthol liniment, a flashlight, and her medications. She's almost eighty five, and I just hope that in the twilight of her years we would be able to devote our time to taking care of her, the way she did with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Whenever people pick their icons for strength, some would pick a great soldier or a politician, or for young kids a superhero perhaps. I've always thought there was no better example than our grandmother.