Mama, as I called mine, joined our family way before I was born. She was my brother’s wet nurse, as my mother was unable to breastfeed her infant son, who couldn’t take bottled milk. I never really knew how my parents found her; all I gathered was that she was from a barrio close to my mother’s hometown and she had few relatives. It was much much later, when I was already close to being a grownup, that I understood that being a wet nurse meant that she had also just given birth and would still have been nursing at the time she became my brother’s lifesaver. She never told me about her child.
And so she became one of us, taking over a lot of the household duties of my mother (who worked full time as a librarian), automatically switching to the nanny role when my sister was born four years after my brother, then me 10 years after my sister, and much later, my brother’s eldest son, who is 12 years younger than me. In between babies, she became the executive chef – and I don’t say this facetiously – of our home, cooking delicious meals that many of our friends still remember and, upon my mother’s instructions, baked perfect chiffon cakes and butter cookies, the likes of which we have not tasted again.
My earliest recollection of my childhood revolved around Mama’s baking. She would have me sit on the kitchen table as she measured and mixed, grating hard chocolate squares or orange rind into the batter before pouring it into a round four-inch deep chiffon pan with a hole in the middle and whose bottom would separate when the fluffy cake was turned over on a rack to cool down. I was endlessly fascinated by the way she would separate yolk from egg white, pouring alternately from half of the shell to the other until only the bright yellow substance remained.
When the cake was cooling and her back was turned, I would quickly pinch little bits from the edges, savoring the first taste of the warm, moist cake as I ran away to hide, afraid she would be angry with me for ruining her work. But she never was.
One of Mama’s many gifts was that of patience. Despite being unschooled – I would make her practice writing her name when I learned how to write – she knew instinctively how to handle frisky, moody children who would normally drive anyone batty but were sweet, obedient angels under her wing. She was my constant companion and protector, and I spent most of my waking hours trailing her as she went about her chores. At mealtime, she would patiently sit beside me as I took forever chewing meat, prodding me to take little sips of the chocolate milk she would unfailingly make for me.
One day, when I was about seven, I watched with horror as a cat jumped on her and bit the middle finger of her left hand. She had to submit to that painful regimen for anti-rabies – 25 injections on her back -- but the wound was unusually slow to heal. When a few months later I had a severe kidney infection that confined me to a hospital bed for three full months, it was Mama who stayed with me 24/7 except for the very few occasions when she took a break to shop at Central Market.
While I was at the hospital, my doctor did some tests on her to find out why she was not healing as she should. It was then that she was diagnosed with diabetes and we all started to worry that her love for sweet things would be her undoing. So both of us, under strict hospital supervision, suffered through our meals – I, with my totally saltless diet (I couldn’t even eat ice cream) and she, her totally sugarless fare. At night, I couldn’t sleep without her telling me a story about the village wakwak (supernatural being) who would alternately be her childhood friend or her lifelong enemy, depending on her mood at the moment.
When I became a teenager and was starting to be interested in boys, Mama assumed the role of kunsintidora, the permissive adult, who knew that my unreasonable, authoritarian father would never allow boys in the house. She understood how important it was for me to go through the traditional rites of courtship so I could mature as normally as possible. Come and visit during the day [when my parents were at work], she would tell those she fancied. But she would keep an eye on us, making sure that we would be on our best behavior. Somehow, I didn’t resent her protectiveness the way I resented my parents’ strictness.
With Mama, I knew I was always in friendly territory, even with my regular tantrums and my often unreasonable spoiled-bratty demands. She never raised her voice at me but would shame me to submission by her silence which was pregnant with rebuke. Without my being conscious of it, I internalized the lessons she unwittingly taught me. Patience, discernment, quiet loving, an unquenchable taste for cakes and pastries, taking calculated risks. And, oh yes, how to avoid unworthy cats, both the feline and human varieties.