A habitual early riser, a Chinese-Waray matriarch, a forever octogenarian, she is none other than my tai ma, or my paternal grandmother’s (ama’s) mother. Normally, in the Chinese family structure, a tai ma is a name reserved for one’s paternal grandfather’s (angkong’s) mother. However, I did not get to meet my angkong’s mother, so the name tai ma stuck to my ama’s mother instead.
Originally from Catarman, Northern Samar, tai ma was an extraordinary woman. She survived two cataclysmic world wars, sent her only child (my ama) to Chiang Kai Shek College, a well-known Chinese school here in Manila, and went on with her life after her husband’s (my tai kong’s) death in the 1970s.
Since I belong to a relatively small family, I was the only great-grandchild who was able to spend a decent amount of time bonding and conversing with my great-grandmother. My younger brother had blurry recollections of her, while two of my three younger cousins were not even born yet when she passed away in 2001.
I remember that she came to live with us in Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, during my toddler years. Despite not being able to take care of herself anymore in Samar, she worked harder than everyone else at home, including the housemaid. She was always the earliest riser who fixed her beddings and cleaned the room before everybody else woke up. She had a penchant for simplicity, having no desire to join the hustle and bustle of Binondo life, and would rather munch on fried anchovies (dilis) during mealtimes. Moreover, she was there as I performed my daily tumbling exercises, before being tucked into sleep by my grandmother for my afternoon nap.
While women born in the 1910s did not receive much education, multilingualism was already introduced to me before I even started attending kindergarten. On top of the regular Filipino and English, Fookien, Mandarin and Waray were also spoken at home. Unfortunately, I did not grasp Waray at all, so that has become the secret language of the adults at home when I started to understand Fookien and Mandarin in school.
In the few years that I had known her, conversations have always been free flowing within the family, because there were no cell phones, no tablets, no gadgets whatsoever in the late 90s. Thus, even in her frail state, she would carry me in her lap week after week, and we would spend some time talking to each other, before my dad and I left for Sunday school. Foolishly, as I grew up, my desire to communicate with her lessened. The things going on in my young mind at that time are most probably the things that young people today think of too, that old people are too importunate, and they cannot relate to us due to the so-called generation gap.
How wrong I was. Tai ma was gone a few months after I entered elementary, exactly five days before my seventh birthday in August, and I was not even present to say goodbye to her. While the rest of my family members were busy preparing for her wake and funeral, my brother and I stayed at home, as we were deemed too young to attend to such events. The next time I saw her, she was already placed behind a cold gray niche at Manila Memorial Park.
All this time, I never grieved for her. Looking back, I think she left at the right time, for she had already suffered much on earth. Her unfortunate stumble to the floor at home impaired her lower limbs and caused her to be rushed to the hospital. From then on, things went on a downward spiral. To me, her loss did not feel like a heart wrenching ordeal, but a huge pool of regret. I would have wanted to say sorry for all the times that I ignored her instead of talking to her, knowing that she wanted to return to Samar before she died, but was unable to. As I go through the motions of life, I sometimes look up at the cloud strewn sky, imagining that she can hear my messages to her.
Her influence in my life caused me to engage spending time with the elderly for my TREDTWO Community Service Program. The elderly are sources of wisdom, and like my tai ma, they must always be given importance. Even on family gatherings, my aunts and uncles share sudden dreams that feature tai ma, including a time when she supposedly ate fettuccine carbonara with us. It was bizarre, as she had no idea what fettuccine carbonara was, much more tasted it. Nevertheless, these dreams serve as a reminder that while she may be gone, she will never be forgotten, and will forever be missed.