Thursday, March 1, 2007

KATULONG (Housemaid)

24” x 13”
pen and ink on acid-free paper

8” x 10”
pen and ink on acid-free paper

My brothers and I grew up with a succession of housemaids. Most of these women were “imported” from the province of my mother and arrive in the city “fresh from the ship”. We were taught to call them by addressing them either as “Ate” or “Manang” (Big Sister), but very rarely do we get to call any of them by their first name, a privilege meant solely for our mother. (Our father was oblivious to their names calling all our housemaids “Inday”.)

I. Eggplants and Oil of Olay

I was about 6 or 7 years old when she came to our household. Just a shadowy figure in my mind, I remember her as the frequent market-goer. Everyday, she’d tag me along to the market to make her rounds and always, it would also include buying an eggplant or two from this particular stall run by a big bald man.

By noon time, my brothers and I are fed. We’d watch Student Canteen for a few minutes and like clockwork, are led to our beds for our afternoon nap. Sleep will take over our tired eyes and as I drift off to slumber, she’d also go to her own room and lock the door.

It was during one of these afternoons, as I was waiting for sleep, that I spot her coming from our mother’s room and heading towards hers. In one hand she was holding one of my mother’s big jars that she always has on her dresser table and on the other a big plump eggplant. I am not so sure if it was curiosity or if it was simply that I had to go to the bathroom, but I found myself tiptoeing towards her room. I found her door unlocked and quietly opened it. I saw her lying on her cot, head turned towards the door, legs spread-eagled in the air and she seemed to be shoving something between her thighs with one hand. I couldn’t help myself giggle at how funny she looked except that my amusement turned to rage when I realized she was using my mother’s jar of face cream for she had a big glob on the other hand. “Isusumbong kita kay Nanay! Gamit mo Oil of Olay niya!” (I’m going to tell Mother! You’re using her Oil of Olay!) Then I ran to my room, locked the door and kept on shouting at her that I’ll tell mother.

I don’t remember seeing her off nor how I told my mother, but to this day, eggplants always leave me with a bad taste. And that Oil of Olay commercial, it makes me laugh.

II. London and Voltes V

I was coming out of the bathroom pee-happy early one morning when I first saw her - the woman with the fancy gypsy air. At first I thought she was one of my mother’s more flamboyant older relations with her colorful headwrap, jingling jewelries, a cigarette stuck in her mouth and wide tent-like dress. She looked like she was plucked out of one of those Hardy Boys series, a middle-aged gypsy woman with a crystal ball the two juvenile detectives went to. She looked at me with her curled lashes and haughty stare and said in perfect English “Good Morning. So, you’re Ate’s second child. You’re big.”

I was about to respond when I heard my mother from the kitchen shout, “Pagkatapos mo linisin ang kubeta, asikasuhin mo na ang labada.” (When you’re done cleaning the toilet, do the laundry.) It is only then I noticed she was holding a bucket and a toilet plunger. “YES, Ate.” And with a swoosh of her hem, she disappeared into the bath.

My mother only hires one maid to take care of our small household – to do the laundry, daily marketing and cooking. My brothers and I grew up knowing how to do our own share around the house which makes it easier for whoever its task it be to be the housemaid. When Manang Gypsy came I started to notice other people coming in to do the chores. There was the labandera (laundry woman) she’d watch over, careful to make sure the whites are separated from the colored. I remember the young girl across the street who’d she cuss at for not sweeping under the sofas and making the tiles in the toilet shimmeringly clean. It was also that time when we had a man doing the cooking while Manang Gypsy watches on her small tv her favorite soap, Flor de Luna. (My mother’s favorite was Anna Liza. Those early evenings were filled with the aroma of food cooking in the kitchen and the sniffles of women crying over the fate of these hapless tv orphans.)

“Are we rich?” I asked my mother in the middle of one of her tear-jerking Anna Liza episodes.

“No, why do you ask?”

“I notice since Manang came, we have a cook, a labandera, that girl cleaning the house every day. Yesterday, I saw Mang Pilo pruning the tree outside and sweeping the roof. The last maid used to do all these things ah.”

“You ask too many questions. Be glad we had Manang. She hires all of them and I don’t have to pay them myself.”


She had on full make-up with bright red lipstick that made her look like a clown, a luminescent green bandana, huge banana earrings and a necklace of multi-colored wooden spheres Carmen Miranda would be envious of on the last day I saw her.

“Thank you Ate, my daughter will pick me up at the airport in London. She’ll be there right after her shift at the hospital.”

My mom slipped into her hand an envelope, “Heto ang huli mong suweldo ‘Day. Ingat kaw ha? (Here’s your last salary. You take care.)

“You shouldn’t have Ate. You know my daughter sends me all I need”, and gave my mother a hug.

After all her cardboard boxes and luggages were boarded on the owner-type jeep she hired, she each bade farewell to the laundry woman, the girl across the street, Mang Pilo and the other well-wishers milling in front of our house. When she came to me, she leaned over my ear and with the smell of her cigarette breath she whispered, “I have a gift for you. Keep it.” And she slipped into my hand the envelope my mother gave her.

A few days after Manang Gypsy left, I was the proud owner of a new two-feet high Voltes V robot that can disengage and form the five vehicles of the Voltes team.


rye said...

now, i wont look at a jar of oil of olay the same way again!!!


dtayona said...