The Accidental Feminist

Mama peddled fish with my grandmother, Idang. Short of cash since my grandfather died, Idang often sent Mama to buy food on credit from the corner store. The lady at the store smiled at Mama. Everyone knew Idang was widowed at a young age when her husband, Isko died. Isko was a guerilla. As days passed and the bill was unpaid, the lady’s smile faded by degrees until she shouted as Mama passed her store on her way to school.

“Delia, remind your mother about her bill. I need to eat, too.” When she said this, everyone looked at Mama.

“Opo,” Mama answered, her head bowed.

Mama found a lady in town who was willing to trust her with a tray of rice cakes to sell after school. She saved her profits in discarded tins of evaporated milk. Then when Idang sent her to the corner store to buy on credit again, Mama hacked open the milk cans instead.

During Liberation, Idang and her children evacuated to the hills to escape the carpet bombing. Mama fell ill from malnutrition. She contracted childhood TB, an ear and eye infection, and open sores on her head and legs. She was skin and bones. And yet, during Liberation she ran after American soldiers, asking them “Hey, Joe, you give me chocolate? I eat.”

After Liberation, Mama’s grandmother, Dada Doni took Mama into her home so she could go to school and get medical treatment. Mama tended Lola Doni’s store. She repacked white and brown sugar and rice until midnight. She put prices on the cans of milk and sardines. She attended to the customers and made entries in the store’s books of account. She went to the market, delivered orders, cleaned the house, and did laundry until Lola Doni died.

When Mama entered high school, she apprenticed at a dress shop where she learned how to take measurements, make patterns, and sew clothes. She worked as a seamstress, made her own money and sewed her own clothes.

War, liberation, ill health,and poverty punctuated her education but Mama and her sisters finished grade school and high school. The University of the East on Azcarraga accepted Lily, Mama’s older sister. The whole family moved to Calle Amarillo in Mandaluyong, Rizal where Mama attended high school at the Jose Rizal College.

On her first day, the teacher called the roll. “Miss Cagandahan?” He said.

Mama sat in front and nodded, she didn’t raise her hand.

“Sir,” the class clown interrupted the teacher, “could you ask Miss Cagandahan to turn around? We want to see if she’s as pretty as her name.”

Laughter erupted. In Tagalog, “kagandahan” meant “beauty”.

A few weeks later, that same boy approached her. “Miss Cagandahan, would you be my date to the Junio Police Ball?”

“My mom won’t let me go,” Mama said.

“Just ask her.”

The next day, Mama told him, “My mom said no.”

“Did you even ask her? What if I go and ask your mom if you could be my date?”

“Don’t bother, she’ll slam the door on you.”

After high school, Mama enrolled at the University of the East. She took business and majored in Accounting while she worked at her aunt’s dress shop at the same time. She paid for her tuition and helped pay her sisters’ tuition, as well.

Mama often stayed up at night beading wedding dresses only to wake up early the next morning to go to her classes. When she did not have enough money for a school lunch, she bought one peso worth of boiled peanuts and drank from the water fountain. She developed gastritis and experienced palpitations so she took a leave of absence. Later, her brother, Nanding was bullied at his college dormitory. He had a nervous breakdown and began hearing voices. Mama dropped out of college, opened her own dress shop and beauty parlor to pay for Nanding’s treatment.

One day, an American missionary invited her to a Bible study. She sat in the front of the classroom when the bell rang.

“Hey, Miss Cagandahan, what’re you doing here?” It was the class clown from high school.

“I was invited to this Bible study. I was curious.”

“You came to the right place. This is a Bible school.”

“What? Bible School? I thought this was just a Bible study. Do you know the teacher? Is he nice?”

“I am the teacher.”

Mama laughed, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, Mr. Arias.”

“Call me Mar. ‘Mr. Arias’ is too formal.”

“Only if you call me Delia. ‘Miss Cagandahan’ is too formal.”

Mar Arias had a girlfriend at the time. They broke up when Mar decided to go back to college. He resigned from the church in Olongapo City where he was pastor. He went back to Mandaluyong. Mar and Delia taught Good News classes together every Saturday. They sang in the choir. They both taught Sunday School.

One day, when Mama got off the bus from Divisoria, the shopping district near Chinatown, Mar stood at the corner waiting for her. He carried the heavy parcel of sewing supplies for her.

“My mother won’t let you in the house, you know.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

The next week, Mar waited for Mama. They went to the shopping district and Mar carried all Mama’s purchases. Mama treated Mar to vegetable spring rolls and hot buns with Spanish ham. She paid the fare on the bus. This went on for months.

“My mother will yell at you when she sees you with me.”

“That’s true.”

One morning, Mar knocked on Mama’s door. Idang answered it.

“Is Delia home?”

“Hmph!” Idang said and slammed the door on Mar’s face.

“I’ll wait for her out here,” Mar shouted through the closed door.

Behind the door, Lola yelled, “Delia! Come down here, the Boy Lizard is here to see you.”

Mama ran out of her room.

“Are you going out with that guy? Does he even have a job? If you marry him he’ll take you to Mindanao.” Idang said.

“‘Mother, he’s a pastor. Please don’t be rude to him.”

When Mama went out, Mar said, “Your mother doesn’t like me very much, I gather.”

“This won’t work out, you know. My mother doesn’t like you. I’m not inclined to marry. I’m sick, my brother’s sick, and I’m the only one with a job.” Mama counted off her reasons on the fingers of her hand.

“Have you prayed about that? Are you sure that’s God’s will for you?”

“I have. Besides, having a husband is like having a boss. Even a nice boss is still a boss. I’d rather serve God than marry, if it came down to it.”

“That’s what you want. What if that’s not what God wants for you? You should pray about it again.”

“You know, even if it’s God will for me to marry, we can’t be sure that it’s you I should marry.”

“Let’s pray about it then, you and I.”

So they prayed about it for years. In 1966, Mama married Mar right after he finished his AB English from the Lyceum of the Philippines. He then worked as a policeman in Mandaluyong and studied law at the Far Eastern University in the evenings. Mama supported Dad and me. Dad earned about $90 per month as a police officer and the money went to his books. Mama put food on our table and clothes on our back. She paid the rent, the water bill and the electric bill and advanced Dad’s tuition fee for the semester.

They had three kids by the time Dad became a lawyer in 1972. Dad started his law practice in our living room between Mama’s Singer sewing machine and my brother Sam’s crib. In 1975, Mama gave birth prematurely to my brother Mars. Dad told Mama to stop working and just raise us kids. Mama became a housewife and stay-at-home mom but Dad’s clients paid him chickens, ducks, and sacks of rice. To help make ends meet, Mama bought processed meats wholesale and sold them with a markup. The money she made went toward household expenses.

Around the time I was in high school, after raising her five children, Mama went back to finish her business degree. We would have been financially stable but Dad had a penchant for running for office. He ran for a seat in the Batasang Pambansa in 1978, he lost. He ran again in 1984, he lost. He ran for Congressman twice. He ran for the Senate twice. He ran for governor once. And he ran for mayor twice. He launched 11 political campaigns, all of which, he lost. After each election, we were broke and Dad restarted his law practice.

I was in college when, at age 44, Mama began a career outside of the home for the first time. She worked as a sales associate for realty firm. She was pirated and worked as a sales associate at a bigger realty corporation. There she speedily rose to unit manager and then to Area Sales Director. By the time she retired at age 69, she was Area Vice President of the realty corporation. She made more money than Dad.

Mama did not set out to break the gender mold of the generation into which she was born. She would never consider herself a feminist — she simply had mouths to feed and no one else showed up to do the job.