Mommy’s curio cabinets

I am in Ormoc as I write this. Here in our house in Carlota Hills (and in the whole city actually) the atmosphere is gentle, to say the least, and the days are thankfully long and idyllic, unfolding in slow, sure grace. I am with the entire family; there couldn’t possibly be a greater joy. I spend my days reclining in a butaka in the living room, catching up on my reading. I snack on sweet cold pineapples and home-cooked dishes I have long missed. I also like wandering aimlessly around the house, in and out the many rooms, pulling out and taking with me random memories as I go along.

In the first hallway of the split-level house are two curio cabinets my mom had custom-made many, many years ago. They are suspended against the hallway walls — identical, not very high, but quite long. On the shallow shelves inside the glass doors you will find a cornucopia of little things that span three, maybe even four, decades. A big lot of them are giveaways (from weddings, debuts, anniversaries, bridal and baby showers). There are a handful of little toys that survived the great flood of 1991, cake toppers from many of our birthdays past. There are many beautiful things but alongside them are some admittedly ugly ones. Tacky, boring, kitschy, entirely useless even as decor — some items even scream all four at the same time. It does not matter, really; Mommy keeps them respectfully just the same. Those are my words, by the way, not hers. I say respectfully because I cannot think of a better word to answer the big “why” in my mind. Yes, I have wondered often why she persists in keeping everything that is given to her.

I enjoy opening the cabinet doors and holding up to the light some of the hundreds of items that stare back at me serenely. There is a miniature goblet that says “Mark-Lou.” This one is nice, and quite heavy considering it is so small. The date is June 12, 1977. I was only a little over two years old then.

I obviously do not have any memory of that one but all of a sudden I remember another big wedding in the family. I was but a little girl then in that candy pink age — young enough to still be playing with Barbie dolls but big enough to read about Prince Charming and happy-ever-after and know that weddings are romantic and lovely, with big white cakes that sit on little rolled sheets of paper that we could pull out as favors. Our yayas often say in hushed, excited whispers that one such rolled paper would actually have a real gold ring attached to the end of it. We all wanted that gold ring. The groom-to-be was dashing, his bride-to-be charming.

But before the wedding… first, a flurry of activities. A handful of us female cousins pooled what little we had from our kiddie allowances to buy the perfect gift for the bride-to-be. Our money could not stretch too far and from a sea of choices, we finally settled on a box of what we thought then were pretty fancy hankies. She was, after all, a sophisticated woman who had seen the world many times over. She would love the hankies. The gift was not the best there was, that’s for sure, but it was what our little money, all pooled together, could thoughtfully buy. We bought it from CityFair, a mini-mall of sorts, sparkling in its newness. In my memory (and I have a pretty good one) the hankies were printed in wispy and dreamy shades of blue and pink, sweet but not shoddy. They, in fact, looked very nice. We also had enough to buy a high-necked blouse detailed with lace here and there. That is how I remember it. But I just asked my sister and she says it was also silver or gray in color, with ruffles. So let’s just say it was a little bit of both. And between four and five of us little girls, we had two wonderful (in our minds) presents for the charming bride-to-be. The gifts, especially the hankies, were so pretty I remember almost half-wishing I could be the recipient.

We then carefully chose the wrapper, made pretty bows, signed the card with our loopy and somewhat squiggly handwriting. You know how it is when you’re a kid and something big is happening in the family? All the adults are busy, everyone over four feet has things to do to contribute to the success of the big day. Given our age, it was up to us to: a) either amuse ourselves with other things little girls are supposed to do while the adults were busy or b) have a slice of the pie and be in step with the rest of the family, even if it had to be in the tiniest way possible. We unanimously chose the latter and finding the perfect gift was our way of channeling that.

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The next thing I remember is the party. I do not know if it was an engagement party or a despedida of sorts — that much is blurry to me. I am very sure, though, it wasn’t the wedding yet. With my sister and our cousins, I remember watching the bride-to-be rip open her gifts — and there were many! Soon enough there was a colorful pool of wrapping paper by her feet, slivers of wispy ribbons peeking from under and over it. We were almost breathless with anticipation; we could not wait for her to open our gift because, honestly, with a little stretch of our combined imagination we were young and pure enough to believe it was easily the best gift she was going to receive that night.

She finally ripped open our present — she had picked the box of hankies first. “Oh, how nice,” she said looking not at us or the poor hankies, but elsewhere. Thank you, she added almost as an afterthought, looking at no one in particular. Maybe she forgot to read the card and at least check who it was from? She put that aside and then she ripped open the wrapper that hid the box where the high-necked blouse with lace details (or ruffles as my sister remembers it) was nestled. But she did not even open it fully, she just pulled the box apart on one edge and gracefully tossed it to the pile beside her. Did she even know it was a pretty blouse? How much of it did she see? Maybe she thought it was some doily or scarf or… what? Pillowcase? Table napkin? I really do not know. But, really, how much of it could she have seen?

All of a sudden she seemed less graceful, less charming. And to add insult to injury, to rub salt in our wounds, we realized the next day that she had forgotten to bring home some of her gifts. Of course, ours was part of the forgotten pile.

I was taught a life lesson there, one I remember so clearly again now, many, many years after it happened. It pays to be conscious about and sensitive to other people’s feelings. A careless and thoughtless moment can define a lasting impression, and in this case, even inspire an article — not that the latter is a bad thing. I do not wish to remember her that way because it isn’t fair but, sadly, I do. That is the reality. What is one thank you, warmly said? Even a smile would have been enough. Our little hearts were broken. I do not know how much of the pain (although I’m sure we did not recognize it by that name then) my cousins and my sister remember but we did talk about it in a little huddle shortly after. The good news is my sister and I laugh about it now, hurt-free.

It is almost Christmas. Chances are you will get at least one gift you do not like, much less love. The nth mug, one more calendar, a 10-years-in-storage-and-probably-already-expired bottle of perfume, a tube of lipstick that smells like rancid oil, cookies so hard they actually bounce on the kitchen floor. Before you curse the giver under your breath, before you donate it to Caritas or pass it on to someone else, at least be grateful for the good thought that must have gone into it. Maybe it was all the giver could afford. Or maybe he truly thinks you will love it. Maybe she hopes one day you might actually like and find use for it. You were thought of. The gift, at the very least, was steeped in good cheer.

Think about that the next time you get a candle shaped like Santa Claus. You know when you start burning it his head will leaving only his beard, or his round belly, or his red pants. Kindly remind yourself that scaring you was the last thing on the giver’s mind. Think about that the next time you receive a generic Hallmark Christmas card. Not everyone is creative with gift-giving. That does not make them cursed. Lighten up. Someone cared enough to buy and wrap and send you a gift. Someone remembered you; that is special enough.

Now I almost know why my mother has two long curio cabinets, on two walls, here in our home in Carlota Hills. She never throws away anything. “Ka usik kung ilabay lang” (throwing it away will be such a waste), she will say, or “ayaw intawn kataw-i kay gi-gastuhan baya na nila” (please don’t make fun of it or throw it away because they spent hard-earned money for that). “Ayaw kay abi man intawn na nila na nindot ni” (They actually think it is nice, don’t fault them for that). I know now that Mommy does it out of respect for the person who gave it, the thought that went into it. She always says, in so many ways, that people do not have to apologize for their taste.

I am forever editing stuff. But given all the random thoughts that have passed through my mind and onto paper tonight, the idea of nurturing my own curio cabinets, not necessarily filled only with objects I like, does not seem so far-fetched anymore. Come to think of it, I have actually started already. I have a big box at home labeled Gift Accents, filled to the brim with stuff that is nice but useless, chipped and broken, raw and ugly in a quirky way — all of which has landed in my life circumstantially. I use them to embellish gifts, to make little projects when there are kids at home, to prettify odds and ends. Recycled and reused, they can take on new life and can actually bring someone some joy.

Mommy will pass it on but if no one wants it she will keep it and make a home for it.

Individually, these little knick-knacks may not amount to much but collectively they are an imposing reminder of a lesson I hope to carry with me all throughout life — always, it is the thought that counts. And oftentimes, that should be enough.

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