When I was a little girl and someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, a recurring answer (there would be always at least two or three on rotation) involved an image of me sitting behind a nice desk, in a room with a lot of sunlight beaming through big windows, a lot of paperwork to sort through and file. There would be bookshelves along one wall and the entire space would be neat — a place for everything, and everything in its place. I guess even back then I already liked the idea of physical order, although how O.C. I would be about it would not manifest itself until much, much later, and especially when I had my own home to run.
See, I’ve always been very dependent on others. Growing up in a home where Dad, Mom and Older Sister were all systematically efficient, there was really hardly any need for me to also be that way. But all three of them encouraged and yes, expected that of me, too, in preparation for the time when I would be “all grown up.” Naturally, the same standards were set for my two younger brothers and when something is so consistently carried out and practiced, you do tend to live up to expectations, maybe just doing so at different paces.
We started in little ways, moving on to bigger ones the more dependable we became. For instance, the seeming mundane task of learning to do household chores was, in hindsight, part of our training in the quest to become responsible individuals. It was a must that we knew how to make our own beds, and we also had to learn how to wash dishes and iron clothes. We would practice our skills during weekends, starting with making our beds after we got up in the mornings. These were basic things that, even if we never had to do them on a daily basis, we had to learn to do them well enough as a backup skill; after all, like swimming and cooking, you never quite know when it will come in handy. I liked ironing more than washing dishes, although the latter can be therapeutic, too. I attended a wedding in Cebu a few weeks back and I was ironing my Dad’s white tuxedo shirt in the hotel room. I remember feeling so smug that no wrinkle or crease stood a chance against the firm heat of the iron I manipulated with my hand. I could smooth them all away. I also remember thinking how the iron should never become obsolete. Besides, steaming would never be as fun. In our home in Bonifacio St., where we lived until we had to move to Carlota Hills after the devastating flood of 1991, our room had a window that looked out into the laundry area. Sometimes my sister and I would wake up to the helpers and their many stories — of pen pals and boyfriends and lost loves, what they were saving up for or how much they were sending home to their own families. Sometimes they would whisper about illicit affairs between married drivers or tractor operators employed in the farm and the most senior (usually one of the yayas would caution the others about making sure Mom would not find out, because she absolutely hated it when a marriage was threatened because this or that married man had sticky eyes for this or that new housegirl).
Anyway, the mornings would be for doing the laundry and in the afternoon, the pressing of the previous day’s batch of dry laundry. Manang Petring would heat coal and then lump a good number of them in the cavity of an old-fashioned iron. My sister Caren liked taking care of and playing with cute little chicks and chicken while I liked hanging out in the roofed area of the backyard, which was the designated ironing area. I liked the distinct smell of soap, the sight of clothing neatly pressed and folded or suspended on hangers, and my favorite part would be when Nang Petring would allow me to press hankies, all the while watching me with eagle eyes to make sure I did not do anything to hurt myself. We were big on hankies back then and every member of the family had his and her own set, white for the boys, flowery pastel ones for the girls, all distinguished only by initials hand-embroidered by Yaya Hilda on one little corner of each. There were many other things that seemed insignificant then but which I remember now with gratefulness and appreciation — following a schedule, obeying our parents, wise spending and working around an allowance, saving, returning things we borrowed, not making promises we couldn’t keep, saying “thank you,” never getting more food than we could finish, prioritizing, always asking permission as a sign of respect, never throwing away anything that could still be used.
I remember how one morning Dad brought me and my sister Caren to BPI bank to open a Kiddie Savings Account. He brought us to the bank manager, whom we knew as Tito Rey Lagura, this nice man that always had a happy smile on his face. We felt very grown up and responsible, especially when we filled out the forms ourselves and Mr. Lagura explained to us the value of saving regularly. We went home with our kiddie passbooks in our little hands. Daddy did not have to do that; really, he could have asked his secretary to open the account for us, but then it would not be the symbolic and special memory that it will always be.
Anyway. Even if it was not spoken out loud the lasting impression I took away from the sum of those little things that, growing up, we were encouraged to do was that 1) we should not be maluho and 2) we should not be little señoritas. The fact that there was always help around did not entitle us to act and be lazy, just sitting around the whole day doing nothing. All the values I hold dear now, the very same ones I try to pass on to my own Juliana, I know were nurtured by what back then seemed ordinary and at times, even rigid and disciplinary. That said I also realize that there really are no small and big ways and in the same measure, things are never just what it seems. Always, beneath and beyond them, are little lessons and awakenings that peek through, their light not dimming with the years. They all sort of rub off on each other, like a nice group of friends, and different as each one is they all stick together to collectively contribute to our core. We are often told that we leave a little of ourselves behind wherever we go and, on the flip side, it also makes perfect sense to me that when we move away from the spaces we grew up in, and enter new ones, we also bring with us a little (or a lot) of the people we are blessed to have known and lived with prior. Daddy is the type who writes down everything on little pads of paper (the Post-It could have been invented for him), and I grew up seeing all these white squares of paper with handwritten reminders to himself in his wallet, taped on the refrigerator door, by the medicine cabinet, on shelves and behind cabinet doors. “If you do not write it down you will forget” is a mantra that holds true on so many levels. So I follow this most elementary of steps, just as I have seen Daddy do so many times, scribbling all these little notes to myself. I write things down, respectful of how potent a combination pen and paper can be in terms of simplifying a busy way, a hectic life. It is a list that takes on the shape of the day, and I’ve taken to categorizing them carefully (Home, Work, To Buy, Call/E-mail, School, etc.) so that I am able to take them on more efficiently. And I don’t know if it is just me but I feel some sense of victory with every item I am able to tick off as decidedly accomplished by day’s end.