What went through her mind? How much of the island is left inside her? There is an indelible history penned into the skin, in her maiden name, in the ritual of cleaning rice three times in cold water before cooking it. There are the late night phone calls in Tagalog. There are the quarterly care packages sent home. Is it home? Can you call it home? Does she even think that this was once her life? It is February of 2009 and winter is a fresh white envelope of weather slowly being cleared from the tarmac in Philadelphia. She has twin sparrows for hands. They flutter and move when she talks–almost more eager to take flight than her. She’s been fussing over him all morning. He’s such a boy–even well into his thirties. She has poured close to half her life into taking care of him. Son of vices. His skin is soft, like his features. She is the push pull of guilt and spoils. She draws ire and frustration out of him like deep sea mining.
When she was 23 she was broken English and wide eyes. Was she? What was it like? What does it mean to leave before you’re old enough to know what leaving means? She’d be gone for so much longer. Years. Teenage days folding laundry and cleaning rooms in homes bigger than her village. She was postage due and weekly wages mailed back to a motherless family. De Facto breadwinner. There are patches of gray now. There are years of radio silence. Gaps in history. She is the unanswered letter as much as she is the return address on the Balikbayan Boxes sent back to Antique with the change of each season.
Who is she? She gave up her paper name and rights to a Filipino identity in 1989. Williamsport. Courthouse. She is the yield of naturalization process. Boy was proud. Boy was teenage and more blue than red or white, but was embarrassed by her broken English. By the fact he had to write his own doctor’s excuses and notes for school. Boy was mistaken. Boy was mistaken about so much. Boy thought about poetry but denied the poet in her. Thirteen. Only a handful of years younger than her when she moved to Manila. A handful of years younger than who she was–a girl who split her head open falling out of a mango tree. She has a scar in her hairline. She would run her hand over the scar, wonder how doctors heal such deep wounds. As a teenager, her dreams quietly spilled out of her, her hands were not meant for scalpels or stethoscopes but brooms and buckets. She still leans against the stove after mopping a floor and knows what cleans hardwoods also strips away its lustre.
She is still in love. Her heart belongs to a balding retired set of sideburns with hands that are more owls than sparrows. Broad, wise, he has collected hours of night in those palms. He has been the provider. Working later. Sleeping less. Holding an umbrella in a downpour of hardhats and coal feeders. He built a space for her and his boy to be–a nest of concrete and bamboo. She met him in Manila. So much gray to their history–it’s spilled into their hairline. His wavy chestnut brown hair is threadbare, she will never let him just shave his head. Those silvering strands are the spans in a suspension bridge between here and there–between now and then.
She is still very much the islands. She is not a borrowed name. Who she has been for thirty-eight years is as much a second skin as the snow being plowed at the airport. Was it snowing when she landed here at twenty-three? Alone. She flew by herself from Manila to Pennsylvania. She knew America from Elvis and Technicolor–from Look Magazines and Coca-Cola. She knew America from Motown and Clarks Air Force Base. How could she know? How could she know that coal mines and rice paddies would fuel dreams and break backs the same way? How could she know that history could get gray but gaps could be closed by the poetry of distance and a boy’s desire to answer the questions he had been quietly asking all along?
She was 1971 in a Diana Ross and the Supremes dream. Her hair was a beehive–a spiraling tower of raven black. Beneath were the scars of mango dreams and doctor trees. Her twin sparrows always fussing with it–the upkeep must have been maddening. She fusses with the boy’s hair nearly the same way. The boy wears his hair like shutters. She is still cleaning rooms, trying ever so patiently to open the curtains that would lead into her boy’s room. The boy spends most summers in the dark. The boy is not thirteen but thirtysomething. She knows that once this plane takes off, some seventeen hours from now, there will not be room for seasons in the dark. She’s nervous. The sparrows peck and peck. The boy will figure it out and be all the more thankful that he is not thirteen anymore.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, The Hawaii Pacific Review, PANK Magazine, Five Quarterly, and The Minnesota Review. For an audio version of this column, check out: http://www.soundcloud.com/whoismisterjim. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.