by Malu E. Gacuma
May 11,2013 Saturday (10am)
(A tribute to my Mommy, the late ANITA ESCAMOS GACUMA)
She was born in 1935 , in a family considered quite privileged during the pre-World War 2 days, her father being a bemedalled national athlete and a U.S. Army Major.
Thus, self-discipline was their daily rule as manifested in their household policies and regimen: all must be around the table on scheduled mealtimes, attendance to daily prayers had to be complied, all five siblings must be home on their given curfew time, a daughter can go out on a date only with a chaperone, each daughter had an assigned chore that must be done before lunchtime, privacy and proprietorship of personal items must be respected including diaries and mails, every nook and corner of their house must be neat and organized before their Father comes home, and the list goes on.
It was a second household law for them to be resourceful and creative. To ask for something wanted ,not needed, meant to earn it and deserve it.Otherwise, she and her sisters had to make the most of what they had during those times when they were growing up in the economic remnants of the 2nd World War.It was how they were trained to help their father who was always assigned elsewhere to serve our country thru the U.S Army.
At a tender age from 7 up to 9 years old, she learned to help her mother sell homemade “maruya” ( a banana delicacy) and ” tapioca“,among other food items by a railroad track in Fort Mckinley , Rizal ,where a train filled with soldiers and locals pass by everyday.What she earned, she would keep in her piggy bank,to use for her school needs when War would be over.
She always told me and my own siblings about how Filipinos starved and died of hunger and of diseases and malnutrition during Japanese Occupation of our country in WW2.
While her three older sisters were among those youth enlisted by the Japanese troops to work under ‘forced labor’ in a nearby camp during daytime , my mother was spared by her young age, and stayed at home with her youngest sister to help my grandmother.
They hardly cooked every ‘small can of rice’ her older sisters earned each day. Instead, they kept it for the worst times, and for their Father’s homecoming. Their daily meals were vegetables and beans. Fruits, fish or meat were scarce. Their daily ration of U.S. corned beef,sausages, flour,butter and milk temporarily stopped at the height of the War.
This was, according to my mother, how she learned to “ extend the life” of each meal to suffice for every family member . Her eventual culinary expertise,including her impressive German pot Roast , potato salad and meat dishes, stemmed from such trying moments.
Their darkest times as a family happened when her father was imprisoned and tortured and among those 80,000 soldiers who were forced by the Japanese to join the infamous Bataan Death March in 1942.
But her family’s deeply-religious faith, with their resourcefulness and ” a lot of common sense” , helped them survive. She told me how they never experienced looking shabby despite the poverty brought by the War.
On late nights,they painstakingly shredded her father’s old Army socks, and used the shreds as thread to sew and make their dresses from the yards of cloth that a love-struck , young and good-natured Japanese officer kept giving her older and teenage sister as a gift each time he visited their house. He left for Japan as their troops retreated, leaving a Japanese-English translation book to my Mommy as token of their friendship. My mother said it was the kind heart of that officer that prevented her from hating all Japanese.
I vividly remember her telling me, with a smile,how she –at age 9–loved to write and read despite the absence of any pencil, paper or books which the Japanese troops confiscated from schools they had raided. My mother and her young friends used fresh “gabi” and banana leaves and sticks or twigs for writing. They played games about their past lessons to keep these in their memory,at least until war would be over.
This was the experience that has drawn out her artistic nature which she eventually formalized with a Fine Arts Major from the University of Santo Tomas, alongside her AB Philosophy degree, which she both finished with Honors.
Students were forcibly made to learn Japanese subjects, including Nihonggo which my mother hated. She said she made sure to bite her tongue and refused to open her lips whenever they were made to sing a Japanese song.
She was too young to realize her own patriotism” burning in her soul,”as she said.
Her suppressed nationalistic inclination was eventually expressed in her piano-playing and her passion to write.
She nurtured her passion for reading (which became our family habit,especially on lazy afternoons, or after dinner or before sleeping) and perhaps, a ‘certain degree of addiction’ to English crosswords. Never a day passed without her doing the crossword at any given time.
My grandfather escaped the Death March and made it back to his family. But my mother’s eldest brother, Uncle Eli , died from the Japanese soldiers’ bullets buried on his chest, for covering his friend, another Filipino soldier-officer, who survived.
This was another bitter life experience that made my mother decide to be a doctor. She eventually finished her second degree, in Dentistry, at the University of the East, as a University scholar and was among the Top 3 in the Dean’s List.
It was in U.E. when she met my father, Dr.Oscar D. Gacuma, her first and only boyfriend whom she eventually married in 1958.She turned her back on a promising profession as a Dentist and declined an offer from the International Red Cross abroad, to devote her time as a mother and wife.
In a home managed by her highly-conservative mother, she grew up accustomed to the so-called “old school of thought” where it was a household law to maintain modesty in words and actions ,whether in private or public.These were “household laws” handed down to my own generation and even to the next (among my 3 girls now).
My mother gently reproached us, as kids, with the Elton Camp poem ,saying “Elbows on the table were a crime…and not permitted at any time.” This line evolved as we grew up to a simple reminder of “ Elbows off the table, please.”
As a mother, she had a keen eye on propriety, ethics, etiquettes and manners. It was not in a puritan or obliging manner.It was more of her own way of packaging self-respect and present it to the eye of society.
She and my father also imposed the use of English as ”mother tongue” in the household , not even our then-unschooled nanny named, Puping, could escape! The imperfections in Puping’s grammar and her daily conversations with my Mom and Dad are now among favorite household anecdotes.
However, it was my mother who patiently taught Puping how to read and write, until our nanny finished a basic culinary crash-course that changed her life, when she finally had a family of her own, which Puping raised single-handedly thru her small baking business in the latter years.
Memories about my mother will always lie deeply buried in my heart and mind. She will always remain a revered person, quiet and shy as she was.
To write about her silent achievements is a tribute to her not of words, but of love. Mommy and I may had bonded, argued, cried, laughed,shared Crosswords, whispered secrets to each other and shared most chores and decisions in life , but her conservative Tagalog nature of not being physically expressive, unlike my Dad , made us feel subservient to her and got used to it.
Her hugs were rare but meaningful.To us children, it was like a Grand Prize for something good we did.She would always kiss us but only on our foreheads. I grew up always having that arm’s-length feeling about wanting to embrace her everytime i wanted to, without the funny feeling of like stepping intrusively into someone’s sacred ground. I surmised it must be deep respect for her as a person that gave me that feeling.
As a budding teenager, I would not have learned how to deal with the growing pains hadn’t she guided me with her letters and wise counsel, with never-ending emphasis on strength of character and reverence for God. One would never get tired of repeatedly reading her letters also because of her beautiful,disciplined handwriting that were, most often than not, devoid of mistakes.
“ A man can only go as far as a woman would allow him’…” Never make the first move if you like a man. A sincere man will always find a way to let you know once he likes you back.”…..“Never let the sun set on a quarrel”…. “A mother’s prayer is the sweetest music to God’s listening ears.”
These, i suppose, were her wisest counsel to me along the years. She loved to quote poets, philosophers, icons and the Holy Bible in her advice.Before she passed away last June of 2007, our last meeting was the culmination of all that I wanted to know and feel.She was seated on her wheelchair, which bound her for almost 2 years due to diabetes complications.
I was kneeling in front of her, cutting her toenails, when she suddenly embraced me so tight and with tears streaming down her face, she kept repeating how much she loved me and trusted me so much!
There we were,both crying as I vowed to her that I would live up to what she raised me for.
For the first time, I heard her ask for forgiveness,for her shortcomings as a mother and as a person and I asked her the same. She entrusted to me all that she valued, which I took as a gesture of the trust she professed. It was a beautiful moment which I will always treasure beyond any biological connection I have with her.
Few days later,my mother fell into coma and passed away.Only her beautiful memory will now remain.
I love you so much,Mommy. I am always proud to be your daughter.