In going through Sister Angelina’s personal effects, I came across your Christmas card. In case you hadn’t already heard I thought I would write to inform that your aunt Sister Angelina passed on last spring. By God’s loving grace we are all trying to live joyfully as we journey to our Father’s home. Sincerely, Sister Rebecca
You run a finger over these words kept tucked into your journal throughout the trip, in case the chance arises to visit the Medical Mission Sisters headquarters in Metro Manila, where she spent her last years. Hope for that chance rises from your chest, oozing up into your eyes, spilling down your face. Why has your longing remained constant? Just because, you blink. Because what, you wonder?
For over thirty years, you have kept all of your great-aunt’s letters, written on blue aerogrammes — the kind folded into thirds and licked on all sides to seal. You remember being fascinated by her — she, fresh from taking her vows, sitting on Grandpa’s sofa in navy blue skirt, stiff white blouse and cuffed navy head covering, the Medical Mission Sisters’ habit. Though she was your relative, she preferred to be called by her chosen name, Sister Angelina. There in your Grandpa’s San Francisco home, you were eight. She was thirty-eight. Sister Angelina personified Divinity, and she was your very own great auntie.
Now you call your travel guide who stays in another city to inform him of your quest.
“Please can you teach me how to get to the Medical Mission Sisters’ headquarters in Cubao?” you ask.
“No. I’m on my way to meet someone in Quezon City, and besides, I don’t know my way around Cubao,” he answers simply.
You sulk because you wonder how your journal entry will read back to you long after you’ve returned to the U.S. — describing how you spent your last day in the Philippines sitting on your ass in the hotel room because your crappy sense of direction made you afraid to set out alone to find where your great-auntie lived.
Your chest is now a vessel of regret that has begun to fill. But you haven’t done anything to regret yet. How strange, this sensation. This won’t do.
You throw cell phone, journal, recorder and camera into your backpack and slam the door locked, so you don’t lose your nerve. At the front desk, you ask the manager to please teach you how to find 30 Collantes Avenue in Cubao.
Saying nothing, she takes Sister Rebecca’s letter from your hand. Your eyes tear up again because you are praying so hard to God to make this hotel manager provide you with perfect directions. She picks up the phone, speaks in Tagalog, which you don’t understand. She never looks up at you and you wonder, is she doodling pictures on the notepad in front of her? Making lunch plans with a friend? Ah, but within the flow of her Tagalog words, the name “Sister Rebecca” surfaces.
Discreetly, you check the time: 12:21. If you set out now, you might make it by two or two-thirty. Stay one hour. Make it back in time to meet the group for the last-night-in-the-Philippines meal.
Finally she hangs up, turns the notepad toward you so you can follow along. She reads aloud each step of the directions. Because you have only one afternoon to find this place, you carefully jot down questions in parentheses:
- MRT to Cubao. Find Farmer’s Plaza by crossing over the skywalk (What’s a “skywalk”?)
- find jeepney to Masinag or Antipolo
- jeepney to Aurora Cubao
- drop Katipunan (Huh?)
- go Mini-stop (What’s a Mini-stop?)
- ride white tricycle (Is a tricycle the same as a pedi-cab?)
- go to Collantes Street Medical Mission #30
As you leave, she calls out, “When you reach Cubao, make sure you take only the white tricycle. Only those can enter the neighborhood where the Medical Mission Sisters’ place is located.” You forget to ask those questions in the parentheses.
It’s 1:35. Sweat — salty — streams down your face after the quarter mile walk to the Buendia MRT station. With backpack pulled to your chest it’s easy to board the crowded train. You look at the map and count stations:
2:15. You exit at Cubao and walk outside where all the jeepneys pull into and out of the curb. This is Metro Manila: a beast for the senses with its stampede of traffic, untamed hornblowing and roaring jeepney drivers. You listen to what the guys are yelling out of the passenger side. The words are unfamiliar. Are they saying something like, “Whassup bro?” You scan for Masinag or Antipolo written on the sides of the vehicles and listen for the jeepney drivers to yell out the same name. How many have passed you now? And all those people standing around also waiting have gone on their way. So you try yelling out to the yellers. Very soon one points at you from two lanes across. “Antipolo? Sige (come)!” Aha, Whassup, bro.
You climb in, slide all the way to the front, near the driver, dragging your backpack along the still empty bench of the vehicle. Driver points his lips toward your backpack. Translation: Better keep that backpack on your lap, ma’am.
Now they know you’re not from here.
You’d better clear up your confusion about whether to get off at Katipunan (“It’s very far from here!” driver says.) or Aurora (“Ah, Aurora. Much nearer to here.”) Okay. It’s Aurora. “Please let me know where to get down?” saying “down” instead of “off” hoping you’ll sound less American.
2:55. You get down at Aurora. The next step on the paper, now wrinkled from your sweaty hand, says, “Go mini-stop.” You guess a mini-stop is a red curb or red sign, a small stopping area for the tricycles. Snarling traffic noise is hard to filter out, so you reach for your water bottle. Cool sip quenches. C’mon, focus. A rhythmic hornblowing cuts across all the noise, and you lower your water bottle to see that your jeepney driver is looking at you through his side mirror, motioning deliberately at something across the street. Following the line of his arm, you spot a store sign. Mini-Stop.
“Mini-Stop! A store’s name?!” Perhaps he sees the light go on in your brain or can read your Fil-Am lips because he flashes a thumbs-up, then vaporizes into traffic. You cross the overhead bridge—ah, this is the Skywalk— to get to the other side. Different colored tricycles are lined up in front of the Mini-Stop. How much longer from here? You are sweating, sticky, hungry. You also think that you should enter the Mini-Stop and buy a little gift to bring to Sister Rebecca now that you are going to meet her at last. It’s 3:20 already. Forget it.
You jump into the first tricycle in the row, forgetting all about the hotel manager’s specific instructions to choose a white one.
“Do you know the Medical Mission Sisters residence at 30 Collantes Street?”
“I know the street. I do not know the Medical Mission Sisters, ma’am,” he answers. As he starts his scooter, you realize that it is a white one, even though you didn’t remember about this important detail before getting on.
Entering a road with a gated entrance, he speaks to an armed guard. Gated entrances such as these within Metro Manila mark a subdivision referred to as a “village.” You remain confused about this term, fixed on your stereotype that a “village” is a cluster of nipa huts along some unpaved road, surrounded by lush palms, heliconia, roosters, pigs. The Village is called Loyola. The subdivision where the Medical Mission Sisters live is called Saviourville. Yes, Saviourville.
“Why do you want to go to the Medical Mission Sisters, ma’am?” the guard asks. This is no time to lose your nerve.
“Just because,” your parched mouth utters, “my auntie is there.” He lifts the guard rail with his arm.
Oh my God, you made it. Don’t cry. “How much?” you ask the tricycle driver.
You think — but don’t say out loud — What the fuck? For four blocks? That’s three times more the normal price!
You hand him 100 and let him assume you’re more stupid than grateful.
At the doorway, you pull out your camera, take a photo of the sign:
#30 Collantes — Medical Mission Sisters
Straighten your blouse. Dab your face with crumpled handkerchief. Run your fingers through the hair stuck against your forehead. Check your watch. 3:45.
I take a moment to slow down, now that I’ve arrived.
The shaded courtyard is bordered by three buildings: on the left a reception and office area; to the right, a modest one room chapel; beyond it, a two story building — the nuns’ housing maybe? Serenity surrounds me, and I feel as if someone has guided me to this place. The late afternoon sun illuminates the vibrant greenery from behind. Banana leaves rustle in the breeze. Protected from the sensory overload of Metro Manila just beyond a six-foot high retaining wall, the courtyard invites me. Still, no one has appeared. Has Sister Rebecca gone for the day?
I read all of the information on a bulletin board, wishing that someone would notice me and come to get me. Finally, a woman appears at the screen door, opening it wide. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m Lisa. I came from the U.S. To visit Sister Rebecca?” I feel very late, but smile just because my arrival feels like a miracle. In a minute, a different woman in her late sixties, dressed in pale blue trousers and a plaid blouse comes to the screen door. Oh no —this can’t be the Mother Superior. Aren’t they supposed to be distant, a bit serious? This woman immediately exudes warmth, approachability, love.
“Hello, Lisa!” extending her hand. “I am Sister Rebecca. Come in, come in!”
I try to hide my surprise and simply apologize for my lateness, sparing her the details.
I follow her past the doorway of a small infirmary into a living room, and we sit side-by-side on a yellow leather loveseat. An assistant brings two steaming mugs of coffee with biscuits, and returns to her computer at a nearby table. I ask whether any of the Medical Mission Sisters still wear habits since I’ve seen many different orders of nuns in veil and robe during my travels through the Philippines. But no Nun-in-Habit here.
In the 1970s, after Vatican Council, many of the sisters stopped wearing the habit and wore regular clothing she tells me. Yet, I never saw my great-aunt in lay dress, I mention.
“Yes, Sister Angelina had her own ‘uniform’: blue veil, blue skirt, a light blouse, sometimes pink, sometimes blue,” Sister Rebecca explains, smiling. “People sometimes asked us who she was, whether she was part of us because she dressed differently. She liked to return to the old habit.” Her description returns me to my childhood memory of her.
For the next hour, I breathe in every single word of Sister Rebecca’s stories.
Your great aunt, Sister Angelina was among the first groups sent to the States—in Philadelphia— for what they call Formations. In less than three years they were sent to missions already, to Pakistan. Then she came here to Metro Manila to start the Foundation here and in Batangas.
Sister Erlinda, a petite woman wearing black trousers and a short-sleeved button down blouse with a red and tan floral pattern, joins us.
“Sister Erlinda served in Ghana with your great aunt,” says Sister Rebecca.
Because Sister Angelina was among the first here, they were asked to return to the Philippines for two years, along with other young Filipinas. Then she went on to Ghana and stayed there for 30 years! Oh! She was like a queen there! Here’s the famous tale about Ghana: One time when the government didn’t have a supply of petrol, Sister Angelina went to the director of that government office and sat in his office the whole day, until her demand for petrol was fulfilled. That’s how strong she was, to the end.
Was it her strength that made her “like a queen” among the Ghanaian people she served, I wonder? Two weeks before, meeting my mother’s family in Cebu for the first time, they taught me about the tenacious spirit of the women on Sister Angelina’s side of the family. Sister Erlinda’s story grounds me in the gift of learning of my maternal lineage.
Sister Lee, my aunt’s caretaker during her last days, enters the sitting area. I want to hug this woman and without hesitation, stand up and do so. Sweet, strong, she accepts it, patting my back.
She used to call me ‘Day’. This was a Cebuano way of addressing women. The day before she died, your auntie asked, “Day, is there a basketball game on the TV?” The other Sisters went through all the channels to show her there was no game on. Sister Angelina returned to her room. The next day, she quietly slipped away.
I hear sounds of evening preparations in the corridor. It is time to go I think. I turn to take in this moment, letting my eyes rest on the Sisters Erlinda, Rebecca and Lee.
I will forever, forever, forever, hold this scene in my heart.
At a table near the door, Sister Erlinda opens a photo album. She shows me pictures of Sister Angelina and her, during their service in Ghana. They are holding Ghanaian babies, administering medicine while the mothers smile and talk to them. In another photo, Sister Angelina looks up at the camera while squatting in her garden, cradling a green sprouting plant in her hands. They are the same photos she sent to me thirty years ago, while I was in college.
It’s at this very moment that the vessel of regret I had felt in my hotel room that morning begins to fill with palpable gratitude. My journey to this one specific place in the Motherland has led me directly back to my mother, to remembering the childhood purity of just becauses.
Because Sister Angelina was my late mother’s aunt. And my mother, who passed on at thirty-three years old, didn’t live long enough to receive those aerogrammes. Or to look at photos from Ghana. Or to ever come to the Philippines to venture out into Metro Manila one sweltering day in March.
Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor at College of San Mateo, in northern California. Currently both hands are on keyboard writing more pieces for her memoir vignettes grouping, Four Flip-Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built. Please visit her blog: http://alyssumblog.blogspot.com