HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE BY Jim Paredes
The Philippine STAR 02/11/2007
A few days ago, I overheard two young women talking. One was a maid who was complaining that she was working too hard and was only getting P1,500 of the P2,000 monthly salary promised to her. She also said she was too poor to complain and risk losing her job, but that she was itching to leave.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but reflect on my family’s experience with household help in general. We have had maids, drivers, cooks, yayas who have stayed with us for decades. We have been lucky to have had good relationships with people who have come to live with us and serve our family.
I remember Inay — yes, that’s what we called her. According to family lore, she was only 14, an Ilocana from Abra, when she came to work for us early in the 1940s, long before I was born.
Inay is an indelible fixture of my childhood and teenage life and of our family’s history. She was maid, cook, yaya — an all-around person in our home who did whatever needed to be done. I remember when I was seven, she would chase my younger brother Raffy, my older sister Lory and me (we were the three youngest in a family of 10) around the house and in the garden outside to catch us during our bath time. It was fun trying to escape her clutches, squealing with delight as this small, hefty woman tried to catch us while hurling mild Ilocano expletives.
At night, we three youngest kids often slept beside her in the maids’ room. We liked feeling her round, warm body while lying on her banig and inhaling her scent of Vick’s Vapor Rub, Winter Green ointment and tabako from Abra. We somehow associated this strange olfactory combination with the love, caring and nurturing she generously showered on us every day. Snuggling up to her was a comfort for us young kids who feared the dark and the ghosts and demons she herself believed existed and loved to tell us stories about. She had many tales about dwendes, the mumu, the kapre and the demonyo, that frightened us silly, but somehow, her presence made us feel all safe. We never feared as long as Inay was there.
I also liked to hang around our big kitchen when she was preparing meals, especially when she had to kill a chicken. During the ’50s, we still bought live chicken from the market and my brother and I would watch transfixed as she expertly held the nervously clucking chicken with one hand and beheaded it with ease. Sometimes the chicken would run headless across the counter — and for us, that was funny, and magical!
She would cook our meals which, when I think about it now, were nowhere near gourmet creations. In fact, she cooked with extreme thrift when it came to ingredients and portions. She was, after all, a survivor of “Japanese time,” as people of that era liked to call World War II. She would always remind us to finish our food because life was hard during the war. (“Malapit na ang geeeerrrra!” she would admonish us) She overcooked meats, Ilocano-style, which were hard to chew. But since it was Inay who cooked them, and we didn’t know any better, we all thought it was great. Everything about her was nourishing and nurturing.
It was great just sitting with Inay listening to stories about her childhood, and her experiences during the war with our family. She had a folksy but authoritative air about her when she told stories, especially to us younger ones who were under her influence. She talked to us of her rustic roots in Bangued, and the first Paredeses she met there. She adored my Mom and Dad and all of their children and showed it with her undying loyalty and love.
We three youngest kids always felt that we were more special to her than our other siblings. It seemed that her day started with us as she helped us get dressed for school and ended with us when we fell asleep beside her on her banig. She always felt responsible for us. I remember seeing her get hysterical when she saw a huge snake by the gate while she was walking with my younger brother Raffy. She ran inside the house with little Raffy in tow narrating what she saw in an almost incoherent manner. I thought she would faint.
Inay stayed with us for close to 40 years. When she reached her late 40s, she hardly did any housework anymore. She was more the majordoma now, the head of a little kingdom of other household help. She would sit around the house watching TV or outside, by the front door, smoking her cigar. I will always remember the sight of her as I came home from college classes most afternoons, sitting in her armchair looking very much like a fixture, or a sentry. I would call out to her as I walked up the long driveway and then joke around with her about any silly thing. She would laugh so hard when I tried to dance with her. She laughed the loudest when the jokes came from any of the three youngest members of the family.
When Inay passed away, she was around 54 years old. She died of a heart attack, while still in the service of our family. In gratitude and in tribute to this woman who spent the better part of her life with the family, we buried her in a memorial plot in Loyola Marikina that our Mother had purchased for herself years before. Her wake was simple but heartwarming. It did not feel like the usual wake but more a celebration of the life of a woman who had a big heart. Inay had few relatives present, but we were all there — siblings, spouses, children, and my uncles, aunties and cousins who also knew her well.
I realize, as I write this, that I am holding back some tears. I will never forget Fausta “Ustang” Baje — that was Inay’s real name — which to this day, I find strange and funny. She was one of the women I loved early in life. Inay taught me many things about love, dedication, duty and the joy of living. She also taught me how to be happy with so little.
This Valentine’s Day, I dedicate the day to the women who have nurtured me in ways that have made me a better person. Aside from my wife Lydia, my sisters, some teachers, some ex-girlfriends and a few other female friends, there is Nita, our cook of 18 years who has made countless meals for my family, Bebeng, who has cleaned our house, fixed our beds and continues to do all the things that hold the sky up for us. Nita, Bebeng and all of the other household help who have come and gone and who loved my children as if they were their own, and have taken care of us, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for teaching me so much about what it is like to love and serve truly and selflessly.