Inside my mother was an unspoken sea. I used to lie on her belly as a child and press my ear against her soft, warm, and Chinese-white skin, listening to what I referred to as “a baby,” although I knew I was the youngest of four and there wouldn’t be any more. I was the last.
Mama would watch TV or read a book, and I would close my eyes to what I thought was the sound of the water in the movements of her gut. To me they were secrets of which she never spoke. To this day I’ve never heard my mother say whether she’s happy or sad. I just always had to know.
Mama grew up in a world so different from mine. Twice before my adulthood I witnessed a revolution led by a woman who would then become president, in a country where men still said that a woman’s purpose was in the bedroom. I came to age at a time when women started finding voices and leading their homes, when a pregnancy without a husband was no longer a societal death sentence or an economic disaster.
Mama had said that in her time, it was the parents’ duty to “return” their daughter to her husband if she happened to become upset at him and leave for whatever reason. It was the common expectation for women to stand by their men no matter how they erred, so long as they provided for the home.
I cannot speak for my mother and what life must have been like for her. I can only say what it was for me who listened for cues through her body, waiting for a whimper or a story of hurt she never told, and likely for my own benefit. I must have sensed cries, or even hidden laughs, buried deep behind stomach and liver and bile, when what she was reading or watching caught her off-guard and I hadn’t yet fallen asleep to the wavy, musical sounds of her belly that probably reminded me of my first home.
One of these unintentional secrets was a story I had to wait for adolescence to hear, and still from someone else. Lolo Tanggol, my great uncle, came home one year after retiring from his job as an architect in Hawaii. He brought with him a three-panel sketch of my mother’s childhood homes. Written on the back of each in drafting ink was a short description of each house from his memory, including a few details of running from the Japanese soldiers who burned a couple of these houses down.
Mama was as stingy about her childhood as much as my father indulged in immortalizing his. My mother never spoke of her life as a child or a young girl, what it was like as the oldest of a brood of five Chinese-Filipinos with a Spanish surname Cinco, a name whose origin I heard from a visiting aunt. Tita Rose said that my great grandfather’s last name was actually Tanseco but the Spaniards gathered all the Indios and named families by number, and our ancestors just happened to be fifth in line.
It was from the same aunt I heard that my great grandmother was of pure Chinese descent and arrived in Manila from the Mainland with bound feet. I remember wondering if that was the reason my mother had such small, childlike feet that I outgrew her hand-me-down shoes as early as fifth grade. Was it with these feet she danced gracefully as part of the dance troupe whose pictures I once unearthed? In them she’s dressed in a traditional Maria Clara, my father (who could not dance due to the polio he caught during the war) holding a bouquet of flowers at her side.
“They called her ‘The Belle of Catbalogan’,” my father said, and I first thought she was metaphorically likened to a church bell because of her resonating beauty. Now that is a glaring fact that Mama never needed to verbalize. In photos, her beauty just jumped out and grabbed you in the chest, prompting questions about who she was and what she was thinking. Her face gripped you and wouldn’t let go until you sought her out to learn what was behind those eyes.
In one of these photos she’s posing by the water, her eyes partially closed by accident or caught in mid-thought. I assume it was taken by my father, a budding photographer, then also a young man and the recipient of Mama’s affections. The wind had set a few strands of hair away from her face and formed the shape of layered feathers, the rest draping her shoulder and framing an expression that speaks both pleasure as it does mystery.
It haunts me whenever I choose to stare at it because her image is so far from what I’ve known. It prompts my questions of what she was thinking, at what point she was in her young life, and if she had any idea how beautiful she was.
I’ve been told I’ve inherited this, the character that never reveals everything and unknowingly keeps vaults of secrets. I’ve been accused of an opacity that’s prevented others from knowing for sure if I’m pleased or having a miserable time. I’ve taken the back seat in most of my relationships and have even been referred to as an appendage of my better half.
I run away from these characteristics that liken me to her, thinking myself different, more verbal, more emotionally competent. Yet I know that the truth is I’ve also taken her resilience in tragedy, her faith and patience that in silence there is a peace in knowing that only a better day could possibly come.
It must have been our difference in age or the necessities of motherhood that prevented her from saying more. She must have spoken to other people or let out her sentiments in some way.
One thing I know is that she spent entire days in her garden, digging up plants and putting in new ones, caring for shrubs and talking to everything that took root under her care. I always believed her garden gave her the satisfaction of raising living things and seeing them flourish, singing songs to them and watching them thrive, all in some kind of secret club of silence in our backyard.
The story is that she discovered as a teenager that she had a green thumb when she learned that she could tend to the roses in their yard. She transplanted mature branches into new pots, sheltering each from excessive rain and sun using an empty glass jar, finding great joy in creating life where there was once just dirt. Turning empty plots into small forests was her art.
I never could understand this obsession. Our garden was overgrown with plants. The only ones of interest to me were the fruit trees like the casoy we climbed for its seeds we roasted, and the Indian mango tree for which we fashioned a crook to pull their bright green fruit from their stems using a mastered swift technique. Mama grew everything from shrubs to reeds to every imaginable flowering crop, the half dozen fir trees along our sidewalk that turned the sky bright red in the summer, to the bougainvilleas she trained to crawl an arch that crowned our gateway with their papery crimson petals.
In the middle of the green was always my mother, squatting on the ground with garden gloves and a shovel, or sitting on a stool digging her nails into dirt and cutting stems off plants expertly with a pair of clippers nobody else was allowed to touch. She disappeared into that jungle for hours on end, never sharing with anyone her horticulture secrets nor the stories she must have told them, not even the songs she sang. Although when I think about it now, I don’t think anybody ever asked.
I knew behind those eyes were stories of joy and disaster. Mama always gave my father the floor and he gladly hogged mealtime discussions with the details of his adventures. Mama was never a storyteller, at least not to me, although I know for certain that there are many tales that would only require a question to bring to light.
I never ask her these questions. Our relationship has always been a mix of a mutual respect that is often misconstrued as indifference. I have no recollection of ever asking my mother how she felt about anything, nor have I any memory of her volunteering that fact.
Mama celebrates seventy years this year, and the last ten I’ve spent far from her, in another country that has inevitably created secrets of my own. In between us must be a garden overgrown with each other’s untold stories, and I wouldn’t know where to begin if I’m told it’s not too late to start.
It’s been over thirty years since I spent evenings with my face pressed on her belly. The “baby” I was listening for has grown into a busy jungle of memories and untold stories like plants we have no luxury of choosing. Some are intricately ornamented and fragrant, some are downright ugly and serve only as shelter for dark, unwanted creatures.
I don’t know how to approach this bag of stories and sentiments that to me feels like a full belly or an over-inflated balloon. So I glaze over it, dodging its protruding presence like an overweight stranger in our very rare and already crowded room. I do it so well that time passes quickly and Mama and I part ways without much more than a photograph together.
In it, we’re both looking at the camera and we never hesitate to smile. The unspoken sea we share is only visible upon fervent observation of our eyes.
“There was always something about your eyes,” an old lover once said to me as an indication of how I was never completely present, my thoughts often said to always be running away. Mama’s expression seems that way too, and I wonder how many of our acquaintances have accused us of keeping secrets based on the appearance of our eyes.
And then I wonder why I even bother with strangers or even care about their thoughts? As years pass and the voiceless ocean grows, Mama and I should at least tell each other our own.