Qwertyman for Monday, December 19, 2022
(Taking a break from politics, I wrote this Christmas story that might take a little effort to figure out, but which I hope will be worth your while. With apologies to my mom Emy for using her picture above.)
I’M NOT deaf, she wanted to shout, I can hear, I can understand what you’re saying—I’m not stupid, I’m just… lost. I don’t know who you are or what I’m doing here. You seem to be a nice man, and thank you for the chocolate and the barquillos—I don’t know how you knew I liked those—but I have to say that I don’t feel comfortable sitting here with you asking me how I am, asking all these questions about names and places I can’t recall. You’re very nice and very kind and speak to me like I know you, like I should know you, and it makes me feel very bad that I don’t have the answers you seem to be looking for. Like “the champaca near the fence of the house on Tagumpay Street.” Of course I know champaca and how nice it smells—but the house, a house, on Tagumpay Street? You say we lived there? When? Why should I have lived there, with you?
They laughed and Jovy shrugged and said, “She’s somewhere else—again.” Laura cast her a pitying glance and said, “I wonder if there’s something we can do or say to bring her back, even just for tonight. I mean, it’s Christmas, right? Surely God can work some miracle to allow Mama to enjoy her family? It would be such a gift to the kids. Where are they, anyway? It’s past nine.”
Jovy reached for a bottle of Macallan and poured himself a shot. “They’ll come if they will. I don’t remember them talking much to her when she was still okay. Don’t see why it should be any different this time.”
Laura stared out the window at all the Christmas lights that made their gated village look like a bed of stars. From the kitchen wafted the confused but beguiling hints of vinegar, red pepper, and other pungent flavorings.
Laura liked to think of herself as the family minder, the one whose job tonight was to make sure everyone had a filling noche buena and wished each other well, like a good Filipino family, albeit with one somewhat distracted member. With the pandemic still festering and the world they knew upended, a return to some sense of order and normalcy felt overdue. In Decembers past, she and Jovy would take the children, Toby and Rina, to chilly getaways in Baguio, with Mama maddeningly singing carols from the back of the van all the way up Kennon Road.
“I’m sure the kids will come,” Laura said, adjusting a bell on the Christmas tree. “I told them they were getting special gifts from us.”
“They are? “ Jovy said, surprised. “Like what gifts?”
“Papa’s Longines and Mama’s bridal necklace,” Laura replied under her breath, as if she expected Jovy to react badly. “It’s about time we passed them on.”
“Papa’s gone so I guess the watch is okay, but have you spoken to Mama about the necklace?”
“And tell her what? She won’t even know what she’s looking at.”
“Maybe we should wait for Rina’s wedding—“
“That girl’s not getting married for another ten years, if ever. I just want us to make something special happen tonight, like families do.”
“At least you could show it to Mama. Make it look like she’s the one giving it to Rina. As if Rina will even care. You know she hates old things. She’ll probably just sell it on eBay.”
“What she does with it is her business. What’s important is that we’ve discharged our generational responsibility.”
“If you insist—“
“Leave Mama to me.”
“IT’S A VERY small watch,” Toby said, unable to mask his disappointment. He was a stockbroker who lived in his own condo and came for dinner once or twice a month to brag about his new girlfriend, or his new bike.
“That’s what men wore back in the ‘50s. I guess you could give it to what’s-her-name, Nikka, now,” said Jovy.
“Nikka would like Mama’s necklace more, I think. Maybe Rina and I can do a trade.”
In her corner, Mama stared as Laura opened the blue velvet box that held her necklace of white gold and tiny emeralds, sold by a prominent Escolta jeweler before the war. Rina was on her phone near the door, mumbling an apology to someone. She wasn’t even vaguely interested in the necklace that Laura was bribing her with; she’d come home for a bunny costume she needed for a New Year party. She hated being asked about marriage, and the bridal jewelry was another not-too-subtle nudge.
“I wanted to show this to you, Mama, before we—before you—give it to Rina. You remember Rina, your granddaughter? She’s almost thirty, and should get married soon!”
I don’t know this Rina you’re talking about, Mama thought. And why do you always ask me to remember, why should I remember? Isn’t it enough that I eat my porridge and drink my tea?… But—this shiny thing in the box, I know it, for some reason…. It’s very pretty, so sparkly, those little green eyes…. I know I’ve seen it, in the mirror—around my neck! It was a happy day, I was happy all in white with these green sparkles, and I was all so white and so very happy.
“Do you want to be the one to give it to Rina?” Laura said, unsure of what was passing through Mama’s mind. She noticed some agitation, some flicker of anxiety, although Mama was smiling.
“Give it? Why?”
“Because it’s Christmas, Mama. Because it makes us happy to give gifts.”
“I thought this was my gift. It makes me happy.”
Laura tried not to sound exasperated. “You don’t need it anymore, Mama. It’s time it went to Rina.”
Mama now remembered: her wedding day, the carriage, the lilies along the aisle, the choir, and her groom Miling, so blindingly handsome in his white sharkskin suit.
She saw Rina, the girl they said was her granddaughter, still on her phone across the room. From that distance she looked virginal, almost angelic. Mama could imagine her in a white gown. Mama looked at Laura, who seemed distressed, waiting for an answer. Now that she had finally remembered something, they wanted to take it away.
She ran the necklace through her fingers. She recalled how the clasp had pricked her thumb that morning, but she was in such bliss she hardly felt the pain. She looked at Rina, and sensed the younger woman’s deep unhappiness. It seemed so unfair.
Mama shut her eyes and shut the box and turned her face away. “I don’t know what this is for,” she told Laura. “Give it to her.”
“Thank you, Mama,” Laura said, much relieved. “And Merry Christmas.”
Mama seemed more distant than ever, lost in her thoughts. “I don’t think she even knows what Christmas is, anymore,” Laura sighed.