“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.” — James Joyce
As the hotel elevator doors opened, I wondered what my mother and grandmother would say to me. I was going to join them for a tour through Europe. I had not seen my family since I had left the Philippines over a year ago. A lot had changed since I had moved away. I had lived in Hawaii, San Francisco and the month before our reunion, I had backpacked through most of Western Europe and Morocco alone.
I fancied myself as an adventurer: a person able and willing to survive even in the direst of circumstances. Of course, I was also much younger then–an idealist, a malcontent, a proud but foolish kid.
I took one last glance at my reflection, smoothing out the wrinkles from my shirt and dabbing some bubblegum-hued gloss over my lips.
Their voices echoed in the hallway. The door swung open and a stunned silence filled the air.
My mother cried out in dismay: “Micha, you got so FAT!”
I set my backpack next to their suitcases, ready to burst like a litter of overstuffed pigs about to be slaughtered.
The room was plush. It was about the same size as some of the hostel dorms that I had stayed in but instead of ten bunks with moth-eaten sheets and sweaty snoring teenagers, there were just two, pushed together, adorned with decorative pillows. My mother grabbed my arm and said, “Look, look at the bathroom! It’s so nice, no? You can take a bath here!” And she was right; the bathroom was beautiful. A true four-star hotel lavatory with gleaming marble countertops, clean towels and a shower that promised perfect water pressure. I made a mental note to stash away some free soaps and shampoos, but as looked over to my grandmother’s side of the room; it seemed that she had already beaten me to it.
Since I had already traveled to Barcelona in the past, I was eager to show off my knowledge of the city. As we waited for the hotel to call us a taxi, I told them, with a childish enthusiasm, about the maze of cobble-stoned streets of the Barri Gòtic district, the smell of fried fish by the waterfront and the rare lizards sold on the wide street of the Las Ramblas.
My mother modelled for the mirror, sucked in her stomach, giving her belly several fat-reducing whacks and said, “Sure, sure…but first, let’s go to Zara.” Before I could muster a reply, the phone rang. The cab was downstairs.
While my mother and grandmother chatted in the backseat of the car, I sat up front and proceeded to sink into its camel-colored leather interior.
My mother, Margaret, was crowned Ms. Goodwill Ambassador at the tender age of 16 and regularly graced the covers of magazines in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She had a promising career as a journalist, whose scoops included interviews with the legendary Muhammad Ali and a pre-orange George Hamilton. However, like so many women, the realities of life, the dissolution of a marriage, and the responsibility of raising a child (a difficult rebellious daughter, at that), got in the way. She had to work. Margaret got involved in the insurance business, consistently ranking as the top salesperson in her company. Though her body was softer and fuller, she maintained its hourglass shape. (Now, at the age of 27, I wish I could say the same–my figure is set on looking like a Coke can rather than a curvy bottle.)
It is often said that “The apple never falls far from the tree,” and in the case of Margaret and her mother Veronica, my grandmother, this saying proves to be true. Maybe it was because these two extroverted and dynamic women were born in the Chinese year of the rooster, whereas I was born in the year of the pig, its antithesis. Like her daughter Margaret, Veronica, or Viring as her friends would call her, refused to retire her beauty and fade into the shadows. As a child, I was trained to call her “Mang” and any mention of the words Lola (Filipino for grandmother), or god forbid, her real age, were treated like four-letter words. She was once titled by my father as the “Mad Hatter” due to her frenentic energy, run-on narratives and Imelda style accumulation of hats that ranged from fruit-adorned bonnets to polka-dot abominations. Viring’s passion was for people and parties. She was a mainstay in the ballroom dance circuit of Manila high society and could give any 18-year-old a run for their money.
The car stopped in front of the three-story shop located on the Gran Via. As my mother and grandmother made a beeline for the racks, I thought to myself: “This was going to be a long trip.”
However, time had proven me wrong. The days flew by, old wounds and grievances were laid to rest (at least for the meantime), and three generations of women traipsed through Europe with a newfound sense of freedom.
My mother and grandmother, even as they were decked out in stylish ankle boots, made no complaints as we commuted by bus, train and on foot to the various tourist spots of Barcelona, Paris, London and Amsterdam.
In a den-like bar in Barcelona, we watched as flamenco artists stomped, twisted and swayed their bodies to the ghostly songs of their Moorish pasts. My mother turned red as she downed her second glass of Sangria, whilst my grandmother was transformed into a giggly teenager as she described the features – the long hair, the dark eyes, the tight figure – that made the lead performer so handsome. In Paris, we revelled in the city lights and the effortless elegance of the people. While in London, whose inhabitants thrived on pushing the fashion envelope, made Viring a celebrity. Trendy teenagers would gawk, pause and praise my grandmother for her traffic-stopping outfits and decorative hats. If it were not for her porcelain Asian face, it would have been easy to mistake her for a member of British Royal Family.
Amsterdam was our last stop together. We spent the final evening with a stroll through the classic streets of the capital.
Dusk was descending and though still summer in Europe, the breeze had begun to cool. Loud music played in the Leidseplein Square. Jazz horns and bebop beats rang loud, as locals and professional dancers swung and swayed in their best flapper garb. Though it was a competition, everyone was welcome to join and learn a routine or two. My mother tried to convince us to join in. Viring and I slunk back, hiding within the crowds. Unfazed, Margaret marched to the center of the plaza and without missing a step; raised her arms to the heavens and danced under the indigo night sky.