There is a black-and-white picture that really spooked me when I was a kid: Lola Miling on her deathbed, hands clutching a crucifix, a white ribbon tied around her face. Surrounding her on the bed are a grieving husband and the somber faces of nine children.
The picture was taken in 1948, and my mother had just turned eight five days before.
Because Lola died when Mommy was still young, the little that Mommy remembers of her sweet-smelling Mama are memories of fleeting, postwar years. Of a basketful of apples every time Mama went to the market. Of the scent of homemade tsokolate and freshly starched bedsheets.
What I know of the beloved Mama I knew through snippets of conversations. I grew up as an audience to Mommy's stories. This was also how I got to know the colorful characters that peopled her past.
There was Lola Mimay, Ma's fiery grandmother who took on mothering duties after Lola Miling died. They could do be really naughty from sunup to sundown, Ma said, and Lola Mimay would never give a hoot. But after six, after Lola Mimay has had her bottle of anisado, the "recitation" of even the day's most minor infractions would begin and all nine children would have an earful. Lola Mimay went by a rather fierce name: Maxima Laban. Laban to the max, he he he.
There was also Madrasta, whom I knew when she was already much mellower. By all accounts, Madrasta was the typical telenovela kontrabida: she had eyebrows that were perennially arched and she had a son from a previous marriage who mysteriously became the proprietor of Lolo's estate. Madrasta bet on jueteng and played entre cuatro. And in true telenovela fashion, she made life miserable for Lola Miling's children.
When I was a kid and Ma and her sisters would talk about things that kids aren't supposed to know, they would talk in conspiratorial whispers, which would send the naturally curious me angling for the perfect within-earshot spot. Now, I am in on the secrets, and am weaving my own stories into the stories of those who have gone before me.