THERE are days when you wonder where your youth ended and your responsibility began. But when it finally dawns upon you, you would wake up hungry on a weekend and realize you’re alone in the house, nothing on the fridge but a box of cold pizza.
When I was a kid it was different, specifically during the summers I would wake up alone because my brothers and sister were staying at my grandmother’s house for a vacation. Almost always my parents were also out somewhere doing whatever it was that they did in the morning, but when I roll out of bed usually at around 8 am I would find that everything was ready: breakfast, a fresh set of clothes, a note stuck on the door of the fridge saying “Clean the house. We are just paying the electric bill.”
When you’re 12 and you see a sticky note on the fridge you were just supposed to follow orders. But now that you’re older and your mom does the same thing you’ll wonder why, in this age of touch-screen phones, she didn’t just send a text message instead. Thus, you don’t do it.
Instead of cleaning, I would roll around the house singing in front of a moving electric fan, talk to myself over the phone, play with the hair curler. I would go to the bathroom and flush the toilet bowl over and over again. I don’t know about people who say that people who coop themselves in the john for hours don’t have a life, but, in my opinion, the cutest thing about toilet bowls is that they burp.
Not that there’s nary a thing to do in the house: There are days when you type away on the computer, for instance; there are days you fiddle with the Playstation. On this particular day, however, I was intrigued by a pile of huge cartons gathering a veneer of permanent dust atop my parents’ closet. When I was a kid my mother forbade me from touching these things, no matter that I roundly suspected that she stowed away toys in these boxes. But being old confers a privilege, therefore I reached for these boxes with no qualms and pried them up.
Turns out, the drab boxes contained equally drab things, things sentimental old grandmas typically hold on to: record albums fading at the jacket, worn-out leather bags, yellow pages, a spent watch. A box in particular contained photo albums, as well as a handful of love letters and postcards.
Leafing through these, I remember stumbling upon a love letter my then-11-year-old-or-thereabouts brother Vincent wrote for his supposed sweetheart. Written on a sheet of regular paper, it read, “I will catch the stars for you,” this, and some crudely drawn figures with a note: “Flowers and chocolates for you.” I imagined a lanky Chinese-y girl, whose hair was held in multiple clumps with sanrio. And then there is Vincent, on his knees, blowing flying kisses and saying “I love you” to her through a little gap in his buckteeth. What was funny is that, even at a young age, Vincent has been so serious in his life, someone who, you think, is not capable of being corny.
Before telling our mother about it I gathered my other brother, Vien, and sister Nica ‘round and told them about the state secret. Then, when everything was agreed and conspired upon, we deliberately laughed at Vincent’s presence. Here he would throw stones at signs, here he would also burst into laughter, here he would finally get the drift and, balling his fist and pink in the face, finally ask what was so funny. I said nothing. “But, you know,” I would look from eye to eye, “flowers and chocolates,” whereupon we would give in.
Looking at these found letters, I wondered how it was with my parents, who have ever been so decidedly strict in their lives. It killed us thinking how they kiss, and when they actually did front and center and said “I love you” during one of their anniversaries, Nica and I took to the corner laughing and said “Yuck!” because that was so disgusting because that was how we were made.
I surmise it was as awkward of a thought to us as anyone: My parents making babies. Which reminds me of a really bubbly kid I came across in one of my solitary walks. She was tugging at her mother’s skirt and stating out loud “Mommy I want a baby brother!” I was in a mall when I heard this, and turned to see a late 40-ish couple with a little girl I supposed to be their only child.
The mother seemed to be petrified, sweaty almost, while his husband smiled sheepishly and turned to me to say “Hi.” The mother shushed the kid and said in a hush “How dare you say that sort of thing!?” but the child went on shouting how badly she wanted a kid brother. If the little girl were a cell-phone they would’ve turned it on Silent, or at least it was the sort of awkwardness that passes up when your phone rings in the middle of the Mass.
When you’re young the idea of your parents having sex always strikes you as scary. But now that I’m old enough to impeccably label each part on the diagram of a female genitalia, my inclination has rather evolved into something biological and is something I use to trace my origin. Was I made in the couch, in the shower, or am I a byproduct of boredom in a long arduous bus ride to Baguio? What if I wasn’t the sperm that won? What if I was aborted and reduced to a sorry-looking fetus, or a biology student’s worst nightmare because she couldn’t guess correctly because I neither had a penis nor a vagina?
Being old enough to figure what something has to do with anything tells you that these are all valid research questions. Thus I perused the letters the way a detective might look for clues and hint from every specimen how the crime was made.
Rather than corny, it was surprising how the letters were written in depth, devoid of literal “I love you”, and fantastically were instead showy, than telly. One of them, though, was just a soundbite made in jest at the back of a photo of my mother in a red-and-white cheerleading ensemble: a red headdress tied into a ribbon; socks in thematic stripes pulled up to an inch below the knee. That made my mother look as if she worked in a large circus tent, and I finally had an idea of what my father referred to in his classic jokes. “Do you think I am funny?” the caption written on the back said.
Every letter was straight out of a romantic movie, one that is suggestive of two young people starting to fall in love and mooning about forever. Where it got dramatic, though, was when one of the letters announced that my mother was pregnant.
When you’re young and you’re broke and learns, suddenly, that you have a baby on the way, the news may sound crushing and sometimes means the end of the world to you: no more late night outs with friends, no more disco. Because youth stops in the onset of familial obligation; I often tell friends that you can party as a 35-year-old bachelor with beer belly and receding hairline but you cannot party with children in tow.
For a while there, I felt it ache when, reading between the lines, I learned that I was a product of an arduous process from denial to acceptance, one part a blessing and two parts tragedy.
For the most part, though she had already finished school, it was hardest for my mother. I imagined the name-calling when my grandmother found out and one could only marvel at how apparently they could carry on at a time like this, sending more letters that gladly talked about how my mother swore how I kicked and turned in her womb. It was courageous to plod on despite being robbed of your youth when others, doomed into thinking they’re thrust into responsibility at such a young age, could simply choose to quit it. But here they were, two young people and a baby, exchanging letters about their whole lives ahead of them, referring to themselves as not “the two of us,” but “the three of us.”
I would often tell my mother how exceptionally beautiful she was on her wedding day, as shown by a full-blown wedding picture hanging front and center from the wall of our living room. “You were four-months old there,” she’d say, and I felt it ache having to think that she had to choose not to find a job and stay home so that she has been a full-time mom for 22 years now to what eventually would be an amazing brood of four.
She said that, rather than being a wedding photograph, it’s a family picture, and the first one at that. There are her other pictures I saw in photo albums stashed in one of those cramp old boxes—she being a maiden, she at her prime being a “campus crush”—but, in my opinion, what she referred as rather our first family picture is the most beautiful picture of my mother I have ever seen.
Image credits: ohn Michael Bucal