By Gel Santos Relos
This is the story of my mother -- my beacon of hope. May you blessed by her amazing journey of faith.
We could only truly understand and appreciate our parents, especially our mothers, when we become mothers ourselves. How true could that be! Many of us grew up like the typical rebellious teenagers who were sometimes resentful of our parents, especially our mothers, thinking then we were smarter and would do better as parents someday.
God has a way of humbling the arrogant adolescents in us. The realities and challenges of our own life make us ask ourselves how our parents, especially our mothers, were able to raise us, put up with us, and continue to stand by us up to these days of our adult life.
Knowing now what I did not know then, or perhaps never really understood before, made me look at my mother now with deepened respect, love and appreciation. Motherhood is already a challenge as it is, but how much more if you are coming from a past that could have scarred you for life?
My mother, Angelita Quintana Concepcion Santos, was second to the youngest of a brood of nine, born to my Lolo Atty. Jose Concepcion, descendant of Philippine Justice Pedro Concepcion, and my Spanish mestiza Lola, Angelina Quintana, of the distinguished Quintana clan from Santa Cruz, Laguna---also known as the lady who trained the LVN actress of the 50s, Tita Tessie Quintana.
They lived a happy, ideal upper middle class life until that one fateful day. My cousin Itoy, son of my Mom’s late eldest brother shared with me stories that his “Papi”—my Tito Pepito, used to tell him about what happened that day that changed my Mom’s life forever.
February 6, 1945. MacArthur's forces were entering Manila and were engaged in house-to-house fighting…
They were all in the house that day, staying low. There was an unusual amount of artillery fire - they didn't know if it was American or Japanese. For the most part the Japanese had let the Filipinos live peacefully during the occupation, let them continue everyday, ordinary living - assuming you could consider living under enemy occupation "ordinary." Once the Americans were within the walls of Intramuros the Japanese were in full retreat - they had no regard for civilians. They would hide behind houses, lob their shells at the Americans and move quickly to another vantage point. Once the Americans landed the Japanese turned barbaric, used houses and civilians as shields.
Suddenly there was a massive explosion - BOOM!!!! Papi was knocked off his feet and was dazed. He looked around and saw that their house had caught a direct hit. "House" being an understatement - there was nothing left, just walls and rubble. He said he noticed on what was left of one wall, pieces of clothing. He distinctly remembers the flower patterns on them - his sister's - whom he had just spoken with a few minutes earlier - with bloody flesh still stuck to it.
He looked around for the rest of his family, most of them were gone - literally - vaporized. He looked for Lolo and Lola - couldn't find Lolo. He found Lola laying in the backyard, bleeding from a massive wound in her chest. She was dying. They held each other tightly. She told him to take care of the children, that he was the eldest…they prayed the Our Father together…shortly thereafter she died in his arms. Papi took a few minutes to compose himself. Before he left Lola's body, he took her wedding band from her finger, put it in his pocket. He placed that ring on my Mom's finger on their wedding day - but that's another story!
Papi gathered up the remnants of the family: Tito Amag, Tita Menchu - her body was riddled with shrapnel and bleeding everywhere - Tita Lita, and the baby, Tita Paz. He told Tito Amag to "go get the pot of rice."
Let’s step back here for a minute: during the occupation Lola insisted on cooking a fresh pot of rice to be left on the stove, for situations such as this, to expect the worst. The drill was to grab the pot of rice and head for cover and look for surviving family members and to stay with them.
The next day they would eat that rice and prepare a fresh one - to sit on the stove.
Tito Amag grabbed the pot of rice and they all headed out - Papi put Tita Menchu on his back, carried Tita Paz in one arm, and held your Mom’s hand, Tita Lita, with his free hand. This scraggly bunch headed out…
He said they walked and walked - aimlessly - for days - looking for relatives. The city was a rubble and nothing looked familiar. They portioned off the rice, made sure everybody got a fair share. It didn’t last long. He was concerned for Tita Menchu, he tried to feed her, she wouldn't eat - she was a mess. At nights they slept out in the open. They were thirsty. There was no drinking water - he said they'd sip water from the open sewers - canals.
After several days of walking and moving away from the fighting, he said they turned a street corner and walked right into a scout patrol - soldiers! Papi's heart sank - he thought they were Japanese. He raised his arms in surrender, fearing the worst. They were motioning him to approach them. As he got closer he noticed they were Americans! Imagine going from deep depression to ecstasy in an instant.
He said the soldiers gave them food and shelter and they looked after Tita Menchu, ministered to her wounds. They were offered cans of sardines and spam. They were so hungry they ate several cans until they were full. Papi said that was the best meal he’s ever had.
From the time of liberation, Mom and her younger sister Tita Paz moved from one home to another, with the help of well meaning relatives who were rebuilding their lives themselves after the war. Mom was just four then, and Tita Paz barely two, when they started to live their life not knowing how it was to feel a mother’s warm reassuring embrace when they woke up at night crying, still shaken by the fearful traumatic experience of war…
They did not know how it was to have a father to read for them a bedtime story and tuck them to bed at night… There was no mother to nurture them when they were sick, or a father who helped them with their homework everyday.
They did not have their mother to run to the first time they had their period, no mother to hear them out the first time they fell in love or have their hearts broken…No father to dote on them and spoil them and give in to their whims and make them feel they were the most beautiful girls in the world.
They did not experience how to be ordinary growing little girls who played and have fun and be crazy and rebellious teenagers---they had to assume responsibilities early on and grew up faster than most girls their age. Mommy did not have her Mom and Dad to be proud of her when she graduated valedictorian in Saint Louis' University grade school, or when she was admitted as scholar in St. Scholastica’s College.
When she turned 18, Mom entered the convent to be a nun. She joined the Benedictine order in St. Scholastica’s and chose to be called Sister Mary Joseph. However, after a couple of years she became sickly and had to take a rest outside the convent. That was when my Dad, Atty. Jose Maria Santos, then a young lawyer, courted her and asked for her hand in marriage.
Maybe Mom was smitten by my Daddy’s charm, or maybe was longing to belong to a family---her own family. And so Dad and Mom got married and had me as their first born, and four more after me. Looking back she said she would have wanted to go back to school and have a career but she had us, her children to take care of. She ran her own beauty parlor and dress shop at home while raising her family.
If you think Mom has finally found her peace after the war when she married my Dad, that wasn’t quite the end of story. Mom’s faith was tried and tested again and again when Dad had a freak accident when he was teaching me and my siblings how to swim. He bumped his head that caused him to be paralyzed from then on up to now. He never got to walk again.
Mom was pregnant with our youngest sibling when this happened. She had no time to cry, no time to complain, no time to be afraid---or so I thought. She had to take care of Daddy, of us her children, and the new baby who was born a few months after Dad's accident. She also had to assume the role of breadwinner as Dad could not work anymore. She was just 31 and Dad was 34---they both were at the peak of their youth when fate stole their dreams away from them.
While dad was going through recovery and physical rehabilitation, Mom ran a fruit stand business, a carinderia, a dry goods and clothes store. As Dad became stronger, he helped out as cashier for the small businesses that provided for our family’s needs. Finally, Dad was given the chance to practice his profession as a lawyer again but due to his quadriplegic condition, he could only do so on a limited capacity as a notary public.
In between these challenges, as a child, I remember the yummy food Mom prepared for us—I learned a lot from her excellent culinary talents--- favorites were her crispy pata, lugao-tokwa’t baboy, kare kare, Spanish dishes, pastel, fried chicken, tapioca with fruit cokctail, etc. I recall her listening to good old standard music---The Platters, Jo Stafford, even Nora Aunor--- while making pattern for the dresses she made for her customers. I fondly remember the time when she cooked pancit and baked chocolate cake for me and my friends on my birthday. And she generously and unselfishly opened our house to shelter family in need of a home---we were always "full house", she was like an adoptive mother to many of my cousins and aunts, and family friends.
I treasure the memories of brown out nights when she would tell stories about the little things she remembered about the war and the family she used to have. I also will never forget how she coached me with my lines as I was preparing for my role in a school play. I appreciate the thought that she was also there to cheer for me when I joined and won elocution and declamation contests, starred in dramas, and got my medal for graduating with honors.
When I became a rebellious teenager, Mom and I had the usual mother-daughter conflict. I resented her for being too hard on me, for delegating a lot of responsibilities to me, for being cold and distant and angry most of the time, for being too critical and unappreciative. I remember telling my self, I would be a better mother myself when I grow up.
And I grew up. And I got married. And I had children. And I went through different challenges in my own life. In each and every one of those times, and up to now, my mother has been there for me. She helped me, as well as the rest of my brothers and sisters, when we were starting our married life, doted on her apos, shelled out her own money to help us financially.
Mom has been my angel and would look after the children when I had to be away. She also left the comfort of her life in the Philippines to help me with household chores and taking care of her apos for months when we relocated to America. She gave me wise advice and encouragement when my heart ached, respected my feelings and state of being without judgment, lifted me up when I was down, inspired me to be the best I can become.
In her senior years when all of us her children were settled, mom went rogue. She pursued what she has always been passionate about. She went to India and studied about holistic healing. She traveled and had fun with her friends. She would go out of her way to visit family members who are now alone and needing some company and comfort. She served God through her ministry of giving love and hope and prayers to the sick in the hospital…and so many many more acts of kindness and generosity.
Having known now what I did not know or comprehend before, having raised four children including three teenagers my self, living a far normal, better, more convenient life than she ever did, having confronted my own issues and challenges, I have finally understood and appreciated my mother’s humanity.
At the same time, I could not help but wonder how my mother was able to do everything that she has done in her life. Where did she draw out all the love she was able to give when she herself was denied of her parents’ love being orphaned so very early in life? How did she muster unwavering faith and strength during all those extremely challenging times in her life as a wife, mother, and human being?
Through the way she lives and celebrates her life, Mother has given me a gift I will forever cherish---a gift I wish I could pass on to my own children. Your past should never be a reason or an excuse not to live your dreams and be happy in life. It does not matter much what you did not have in life…what is more important is to be grateful for whatever little you are blessed with and use them to bless others….and God’s graces will follow like an eternal spring!
Happy Birthday, Mommy! I love you…and Thank you!