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Mama's Boy

Danton Remoto
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Thirty years ago I joined an essay-writing contest for Quezon City high-school students and won for this piece, written when I was 14 years old. I recently unearthed this while fixing my files. Let us see if times have changed for the bagets nowadays.

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It has been said that a mother’s hands shape the world. From cradle to college and even long afterward, a mother nags, laughs, cries and goads you to be not just what you are but what you can be.

“Your mother belongs to the old school,” my father will say when we are baffled by her actions. She barks orders like a platoon sergeant, telling us children to fold our blankets, flatten our bed sheets and not to leave our dirty clothes on the floor like molten snake’s skin. She also orders us to arrange our books, dust the windows, and sweep the leaves in the yard now that the maid has gone back to her hometown to join the fiesta and the baile (dance).

My mother is a worrisome woman who hates villains in soap operas, tends to her orchids as if they are diamonds, and plays well on our upright piano, which our father bought for her after they were married. She came from a musical family in Oas, Albay, and she required us to study the piano under her tutelage. When she has time, she installs herself in front of the piano and plays, her fingers running on the keys like spindly spider’s legs.

Her warts of worry multiplied, though, when we all grew up to be lanky teen-agers. She thought it was a bad reflection on her, a home economics major who teaches music in school. She requires us to eat, and eat a lot. Since I am a rebel and always do the opposite of what my elders tell me to do, I ate less and less. She is a mean cook, all right, but sometimes, I would rather just sleep, or read, or watch TV.

Her exercise of motherhood is simple but not simplistic. She sticks to the essentials: study well, do not quarrel with each other, learn the house work, and keep away from bad company in the neighborhood and in school. Also, look both ways when you are crossing the street, do not poke fun at the disabled, and attend Sunday Mass.

Of course, she has her weak moments: she will frown when my father comes home late from work; she will frown when we come home late from school, and she will frown some more when the house maid takes hours to return from the market. And she also talks a lot. I guess this happens, by reflex, from being a teacher. But I guess all these have made her more real, more human, and more alive for us.

We sometimes have our skirmishes. Being the eldest, I’ve been told to take care of my younger siblings until those words have clogged inside my ears. Like most Filipinos, we are a tightly-knit group. But sometimes, I just want to climb the roof of our house and stay there, under the aratiles trees filled with their tiny, red fruits. Sometimes I feel smothered, lost in the confusion of voices and faces and movements in the house. Sometimes, I just want a space where my spiky elbows can move about without hurting anyone.

But when I get sick, my mother becomes a mother again. No more drama from my part about wanting some space and distance. My mother’s blurred outline becomes sharp once more, clear in my mind. When my tonsils swell, like a fatal fever in my throat, she will rush to the room I share with my brother. She brings with her standard paraphernalia: blanket, rubbing alcohol, antibiotics, thermometer, and a glassful of lukewarm kalamansi juice that she herself squeezed.

She begins the ritual, naturally, with her scolding me for taking cold soft drinks, for letting sweat dry on my back. But after this, she settles back beside my bed, takes my temperature, shakes her head, pops a capsule into my mouth and washes it down with the lemony juice.

And then once again, I become the child, remembering the lullabies and the warm, gentle hands and not caring a bit if I am called, uh, a mama’s boy.

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