Last Sunday, much earlier than usual, I went to my favorite supermarket for my week’s supply of basic necessities and special cravings. Among other things, I bought a serving of Russian salad (never as good as what I used to make) neatly packed in a plastic canister and a small cheese and spinach quiche. While viewing the tempting display of European cheeses, I overheard a young man, at the adjoining counter, asking his daughter what she wanted. The little girl who could not have been more than five was sitting on the counter but with an arm on her father’s shoulder. He patiently answered all her questions and gently led her to choose chicken meat sausages instead of red hot dogs. They were speaking in English.
Down the housewares lane where I picked up a bag of washing machine detergent and biodegradable trash bags for my mother, I saw another young father shopping with two daughters who were probably 8 and 10 years old; the latter was consulting a short grocery list which her mother must have dictated to before they left home They also spoke in English.
How gratifying to see fathers and daughters in tandem enjoying commonplace chores without yayas at their heels. I imagined that on weekdays, those fathers worked at flashy offices in the glass towers of Makati or BGC, clothed in fashionable corporate suits, dictating orders to perfumed assistants on high heels. I probably would not recognize them.
My brother was a hands-on Dad and because we had looked after our half-brothers and sister when they were infants, he was more skillful at changing diapers and burping the baby than his wife who was an only child. We turned out to be hands-on parents and even if we did hire yayas, our children never became emotionally dependent on them.
When I fled to Mexico because of martial law, Fatimah was barely 9 and Leon was 4. None of us have ever forgotten our first trip to Gigante, a supermarket on Avenida Ejército Nacional. Gigante was a supermarket chain with branches located in strategic areas of Mexico City; each one was enormous, a combination greengrocer and virtual department store. In a Gigante, you can find almost anything from luscious fruits, freshly baked bread, shoes and bags and toys.
Fatimah, Leon, and I were quite overwhelmed. I decided to browse to have an idea of the floor plan. The signs were all in Spanish of course. There were a few I could not quite understand, like “Oferta de cubetas.” Imagine, a sale of cubetas in a supermarket! Why not? In Mexico, cubetas are pails and there were heaps of plastic ones in all sizes and colors. Then we found ourselves in the toy section with rows of tantalizing merchandise.
Finally, I found the grocery section and as I began to load the cart with what we needed, I heard a booming voice over a loudspeaker. Because I was not used to hearing Spanish, I paid no attention even if it was repeating the same message over and over again, I was wondering when it would stop. “Señora Gemma, Señora Gemma…” the voice was becoming raspy. OMG! They’re calling me! Gemma is pronounced Hema in Spanish so I did not recognize my own name. The rest of the message was about my son who was at the costumer’s assistance counter. Fatimah and I realized with horror that Leon was not following us. He was lost and neither of us had noticed.
He was still crying when we retrieved little Leon because the Gigante staff took away an enormous box of toy cars he “shoplifted” from the toy department. He was found wandering about, crying, carrying that big box. I was more frightened than he was; how could I have been such a careless, negligent mother? But, I learned one thing from that unforgettable experience: Leon understood enough Spanish to save his life, even if at age 4 he could only speak in Tagalog; he had not even learned English. They must have asked him in Spanish for his mother’s name and somehow he understood.
What if he didn’t know my name? To this day I am horrified at the mere thought. Usually, we parents take it for granted that our babies know our names, or their own names, or where we live. Frankly, I don’t think I had ever told Leon my complete name when he was very little. That Sunday would have been a bitter one if something awful had happened to my son.
Today, his own daughter, my grandchild, is quite amused by that story and begs me to repeat it again and again.