DONATELA is a lyrical Italian name, and when I reach past the pain and bitterness of my childhood, I can see how perfectly it fits my beautiful mother. For many women, beauty begins fading quickly almost as soon as the first flush of youth ends. But my mother, who just turned 70 this year, has been lucky, because there are still more than traces of the physical radiance and attractiveness she once possessed, most of her well-chiseled features on a Castilaloy face defying time and a past filled with heartaches.
None of us among her six daughters inherited her looks. As children, we used to resent her beauty, not in envy, but because, as her beauty did begin show signs of wear, she became bitter and cruel and distant-as if her beauty was the final thing she had to give up for us her eight children (I have two brothers), in exchange for which she got a roller-coaster relationship with an abusive, alcoholic husband and friendlessness in the backwaters of Benguet province.
It was a life that was not fully of her choice. And it is a life I sometimes reflect on as I bring up my young daughter, as I try to see what kind of future awaits her, as I try to look for lessons that she can use once she starts making her own way into the world.
My mother would often tell us, as we watched news on channel 9 in the 70s, how the newscaster Harry Gasser had been one of her suitors, how there were many other swains vying for her attention, and how ill-fated she was to have married my father. Yet on other nights she would tell us of how she actually planned to enter the convent (the Pink Sisters) but then my father had run after her and tore up her papers, and forced her to marry him. In this, and in many other ways, my mother was a walking contradiction, on one hand hating the life she had, but on the other enticed and flattered by my father’s passionate jealousy, which was a sure sign of his madness and clearly the very thing that imprisoned her in the life she so despised. Perhaps it was this lack of clarity, more than anything else, that in the end doomed her.
But I suppose any other Filipina raised in a saradong Katoliko family in the 40s and 50s, and then confronted with such sudden and horrifying twists of fate, would have been, at the very least, befuddled.
Twenty or so years after, when I almost took the same path as my mother (as some of my sisters eventually did), and found myself in an abusive relationship, I realized how confused one turns out to be when repeatedly abused. Like a rope thrown to someone falling off a cliff, someone had lent me a book, The Community Secret, which chronicled the lives of women who were able to escape abusive relationships — and detailed the confusion and lethargy that they had to work through to survive and escape. That book brought me clarity and led me toward the path to safety.
Surely, domestic violence still exists, but at least today, there are places where one can go for help. And while there is so much yet to do to fully end domestic abuse and all other forms of violence against women, today these issues are recognized. In my mother’s time, it was taboo to even speak of them; women who insisted on doing so were not only ignored, but also soon became subjected to public humiliation and even further victimization.
Secrecy was the order of the day, but keeping quiet about the abuse was a separate, excruciating torture all on its own — and those who did were eventually consumed by its toxicity. As time passed and my mother was forced by family and society to keep her situation a secret, she eventually weakened and turned her anger and bitterness against us.
Today six years after I made the final journey away from the town of my daughter’s father, where I was told by his family that while they were aware of his abuse, they still believed it was my gasat — the Igorot term for fate — to live with it, I still cannot fully grasp how horrible and how spirit-shattering it must have been for my mother to make that same journey, again and again, back to her parents, with more and more kids in tow each time, only to be told repeatedly to turn back and return to her marriage, because this was sacred and which no man could rend asunder.
As time passed, my mother stopped even trying to escape. Married at 21, she had 14 pregnancies, among them three miscarriages and two that resulted in infants who died shortly after childbirth, and in another child who died of convulsions as a baby. All these happened almost in succession as she approached her 40s and until her overworked uterus could no longer carry any babies. Throughout it all, there were also my father’s alcoholism and the grinding poverty brought about by his inability to keep a job or rise through the ranks, despite his great intelligence, plus the bitterness of my politically famous and celebrated grandparents, who refused to make amends with their only son who had chosen to marry outside of the tribe.
SOMEWHERE in between my mother lost clarity about who she really was and what she once wanted to be, although there were a few times I would see little glimpses of these. One of the fondest memories I have of my mother is of a time, when I was around five, and I was watching her, the early morning light streaming behind her back from the windows, as she sat cross-legged on the bed, at age 39, cutting and pasting photos, making a scrapbook of pictures of places she would never see and things she would never have. I was then the youngest and my older siblings were in school; with both of us left in relative peace at home, that was surely one of the few peaceful times that my mother ever had, and her love of fine things and a finer life shone through.
“The Sound of Music” was, after all, my mother’s favorite musical, which she made us children watch together with all the others. And while both our parents had chosen to teach us English — and the love for reading bequeathed by my father who was a smart and well-read man (when not drunk) — it was my mother who handed down to all of us children a taste for the arts.
She used to dance, too. Among her prized possessions — which went up in smoke when the house eventually burned down last year — was a clipping, lovingly covered with plastic, of her as a cover girl of Women’s Magazine, circa 1954 or 1955. I don’t remember the exact date. But I do remember that in the photo she was wearing a black sequined sleeveless satin top (daring for her time), a white tutu that correctly, for that era, reached well to her knees, and toe shoes! Of course the photograph was in sepia, so I can’t be sure of the colors, but the image still shines through my memory as everything that my mother once was: full of hope and promise.
For a long time, broken dreams were what I believed to be the only heritage of my family, not for lack of intelligence or talent, or even artistic sensitivity or sensibilities, which are among the things children raised in such a house of extremes are sure to develop. Big dreams are what my five sisters and I all had: three wanted to be performers, one went so far as to gain a bit of local renown as a folk singer, only to end up in one bad relationship after the other; another got to log a few hours as the pilot she had dreamed she would be (despite the odds). Now most of my sisters are in their 40s and none of them is any less courageous for choosing to give up their dreams to become steadfast and caring mothers, some of them surviving through their own separate difficult circumstances. But I often think that what my mother and sisters lacked was the inner and outer resources to make their dreams come true.
And I cannot but point an accusing finger to society, because society contributed to these shattered dreams: By not giving my mother the safe space to run away to. Or, by judging one of my sisters for separating from her husband, thus pushing her to jump into the very first relationship that would legitimize her situation. Or, by not nurturing the gifts of those who did not quite fit the norm, especially because they were women.
Even today, as I struggle to raise my daughter on my own, I am forced to confront society’s lack of accommodation, and sometimes even ire.
There are days that are really a challenge, as I try to stretch the budget, my patience, my stamina to near-breaking points. Often, the physical demands alone are tremendous, especially in cases so Western like mine where one does not have a supportive extended family to fall back on, but without the first-world amenities like tax breaks and daycare systems put in place specifically for single moms. On top of all, I still get a lot of raised eyebrows, sudden silences, somewhat incredulous queries, comments (many well-meaning but biased) from teachers or others who believe a child raised without a father automatically lacks love and will surely grow up crooked, and often harassment from men. Sometimes my being a single mother is even used by the mean-minded as an issue to score below the belt in conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with my life choices. But the worst my young daughter and I have had to face each day is the sheer vulnerability, the constant, lingering threat of violence against two females who have only each other to count on.
Yet time has passed by me as well, just as it has my mother. For me, time does heal, and I have come to believe that it is by no coincidence that I carry with me, always, the mistaken honor of being named after my mother’s dream. My name is Danilova — after Alexandra Danilova, the Russian ballerina — and I was named really as an afterthought, as my mother started running out of female names beginning with the letter D (Daphne, Dawn, Donatela, Dominique, Denise).
In turn, I named my daughter Isis, also instinctively, also as an afterthought, as throughout pregnancy, I had thought I was going to have a son, being unable to acquire an ultrasound to determine the sex of the hyperactive fetus. Isis is the Egyptian goddess who brought her brother Osiris back to life.
Today I am very aware that in more ways than one, the future for my daughter is quite bleak: the economy is worsening, we are at the brink of an environmental disaster, poverty is far more widespread and worse than it ever was before, our political institutions have not matured in the past decades. Yet there remains the hope that years from now, life as a woman, as a Filipina, will be less of living in times of war (to paraphrase the poet Joi Barrios). In 2015, when my daughter will be at the threshold of womanhood, I am certain of one thing: she will have more chances in life than her grandmother, or mother, or aunts, ever had. At the very least, her right to dream — and to make those dreams come true — will be respected.