Tina V. Cabrera
My memories of my life before religion are vague. Most are not connected to my mother. For example, my father tells me that we used to celebrate Christmas, but I have only scattered images in my head: a plastic toy bus with Weeble-Wobbles fresh out of the package; a musical merry-go-round; blond and brunette Flatsy-Patsies; a box of Legos. I can’t remember if they were Christmas presents or just things Mama bought me. I see no Christmas lights or trees. I’d like to remember something about us—mother and daughter—just the two of us, with no religion. I do have one strong memory—Mama lying on her side on the old multi-colored couch, watching television. I must have been very small because I remember being stretched out on her arm and feeling her gentle breathing and feeling warm. I fell asleep with the hypnotic lights of the TV screen, her breathing drifting me away.
I want to remember her putting me to bed, brushing or braiding my hair. I’ve seen old Polaroids of myself with lopsided ponytails. Did I do them myself? I want to remember her holding me on her lap. What I do recall is sitting next to her in the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a teenager. We attended the Kingdom Hall on Main Street in west Chula Vista. Now it is no longer there, torn down to make way for a strip mall. Mama pulled out an array of colorful pens from one of her many Bible bags, and lined-paper notebook with spiral edges. She neatly covered each notebook with clear contact paper, or red or gold. She changed pens or markers during the Bible lecture or Watchtower study, underlining sentences or writing notes. She switched back and forth between notebooks, beginning in one and then abandoning it for another. She had beautiful penmanship, refined and distinct, clear and slanted cursive. And she wrote slowly, carefully swaying the pen back and forth, up and down. Through her pink-framed glasses I saw her droopy eyelids blinking to stay awake. I had a notebook on my lap too; one she designed just for me with a picture cut out from one of the Bible tracts—a large panda with a child hugging it. Paradise. While Mama wrote lengthy notes, I wrote just the scripture cited by the speaker and the main point. As I grew older I added more distinct notes, summarizing the brother’s explanation, not my own.
I have scattered memories of my California childhood. I often search for more. There are those I’d like to forget. Mama angry with my older sisters, hitting them and screaming. She hardly ever seemed happy. I want to remember her more—just the two of us. I search so often that I think I’m beginning to make up some memories on my own.
Mama never went to college. She married at nineteen and started having babies right away. I remember looking through her high school annual—Academe 1957 from Laguna College, City of San Pablo, Philippines—a thin, dark blue book, still intact. The caption next to her photo read, “To be a physician.” That’s all. I never knew that. She never told me she wanted to be a doctor. I scanned the black and white pages and similar captions appeared next to other photos: To be an educator, To be a dentist, To be a nurse, To be a physician. Not very original. Then one, unexpected: To be worthy of my parents.
What did Mama really want to be?
I imagine her getting her senior picture taken. A student staff member asks her, “What would you like your caption to say? Remember, it must begin with....” Mama pauses thoughtfully. She has never thought much of being anything. When her mother—exhausted from living with an alcoholic husband, stepfather to Mama and Auntie Pat—placed them in an orphanage, the days went terribly fast under the strict rule of the nuns. Before she knew it, she was back home with a mother she hardly knew, who wouldn’t let her become an actress. Filipino directors would take advantage of a beautiful young Mestiza, or seduce her. Mama’s mama, my grandma, wants her to become a flight attendant. She’s the right size, tall and slim for a Filipina. All Mama knows is she likes making drawings and helping her mom with the dress shop…
“To be a physician,” Mama answers.
She removes the black cap and gown. Halfway down the stairway, she turns her head back to the double gymnasium doors. She rushes to open them and catches the girl named Rina, taps her on the shoulder and says, “I’m not really going to be a physician. I get dizzy at the sight of blood!” Rina rolls her eyes and says it’s too late and that she’s busy with another student. Mama doesn’t protest, but freezes there for a few seconds. She is timid and shy, and won’t speak up again.
She goes back down the stairs, slowly this time. She doesn’t like what she sees in her head, the caption: To be a physician. How about, To be an architect? That’s what it should say, she says to herself. But wait—Mama wanted to be an actress or a dancer. I’ve seen the old pictures of her in black and white, or sepia. In one photo I could hardly believe it was her: she’s staring down at the ground bashfully as an officer in the navy is pinning a bouquet on her dress. The dress is form-fitting, long with puffy sleeves and made of lace. It’s remarkable how beautiful she looks, posed sideways, long and slender. She used to tell me how much she loved to dance—ballroom and the cha-cha-cha.
As she steps outside, the cap and gown absorbing the rays of the Manila sun, she folds the garments up neatly under her arms. She’s clutching them tightly, caressed by the warmth. She won’t have to return them; they belong to her now. Maybe when she gets home, she’ll put the cap and gown back on, stand in front of her full-length mirror and imagine things I cannot imagine.
fiction poetry "fact" photography