By the Sulu Sea — Chapter Three — The Aunt She Never Knew
Shelby spun into her room, flipped on the air conditioner, and kicked back on the bed. The cool air was pure luxury. She grinned to herself about an intriguing guy named Jesse. Then she thought back over all that happened since she arrived in the Philippines just a few days ago.
Shelby’s first two days in the country were a blur. Arriving in Manila. Smiling faces. Lots of food. Heat. Humidity. Strangeness. Happiness. The friendliness of her Grandma and Granddad Ferguson’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Manalo. Her shock at the number of servants they had — a maid, a gardener, a chauffeur. The crazy traffic which seemed to have no rules. The hovels scattered among gleaming skyscrapers. Beautiful air-conditioned malls with designer boutiques. Open stalls selling fruit and meat. Men stood in the middle of the street peddling candy, plastic covers for your driver’s license, or dust rags. Around every corner, another surprise.
How much disorientation was jet-lag and how much was culture shock, she didn’t know, but she did know she reeled on the inside while she smiled on the outside. She wanted to be a good guest to the Manalos.
She liked them a lot. Mrs. Manalo was short and soft. She had to be close to her grandmother’s age, Shelby guessed. Her face was almost unlined. Mr. Manalo was wiry and courtly. The Manalos plied Shelby with gifts to take back home to her mom and her grandparents — beautiful scarves, dried mangoes, boxes of Philippine milk candy.
Their home was big and comfortable. In a beautiful subdivision, behind guarded gates, it reminded her of La Jolla, California. Each house reflected the owners’ personal tastes. Some huge, some more modest, all gorgeously landscaped. Ah, the tropics. Everything is green. Everything grows.
On her third morning with them, at breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Manalo announced, “We’re going for a drive today.”
“Sounds great. Where are we going?” Shelby asked.
“Oh, to Clark. We thought you would like to visit there,” Mrs. Manalo said, tilting her head slightly, meeting Shelby’s eyes.
“Um, yeah, sure,” Shelby said. What’s Clark? This is a little odd. But OK. Whatever.
The car was already packed with baskets of food the maid prepared the night before. Mrs. Manalo sat next to Shelby in the back seat, while her husband joined their chauffeur up front. Shelby relaxed and enjoyed the drive. Their older model black Mercedes Benz was roomy and smooth-riding. They were headed north of the city.
Mrs. Manalo chatted beside her. “I missed your grandmother so much after they left and moved back to the States. She was my best friend. We were young married couples together. Our husbands were both in the U.S. Navy and worked together on the base. Our daughter was the same age as your mom. And our son . . . he, yes, he . . .” She trailed off. “Well, we did have some happy times together.”
“How old was my mom when you knew her?” Shelby asked.
“Oh, she was eight or nine, I think. Yes, she was nine at the end, because I remember the girls were so excited about starting fourth grade. They attended John Paul Jones School on the base at Cavite. We only had to walk a few blocks to take them there every morning.”
“What was my mom like when she was little?” Shelby asked. “Do you remember? I’ve always wondered.”
“She was such a happy little girl. And she loved animals. She had a cat she always picked up and kissed. That made the maid very concerned. The maid would tell your mom, ‘Don’t kiss to the cat.’ But your mom would do it anyway. So, the maid started giving the kitty a bath every week.”
Shelby chuckled. “She still loves cats. We’ve always had one or two.”
“Does she? And I remember she was very determined, too. Always pushing herself. I watched her out my kitchen window with her jump-rope on the sidewalk. She’d jump counting to one hundred one day, then the next day she had to jump to two hundred.”
Shelby nodded at that. “Yep. She can be intense. How well I know that.”
“And, you know, the girls loved to swim. They were so excited when we went to the pool, or on a drive out to the beach. Those were such happy times, then. Before . . .” Mrs. Manalo sighed and looked away. “She was never the same after.”
“What?” Shelby asked, but Mrs. Manalo had leaned toward the front seat to chat with her husband and the driver, and didn’t answer. So, Shelby leaned her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes. Her mind was still fuzzy. Must be the time difference. I can’t think clearly. But it seemed like she was missing something here. Before what? After what? she wondered. What happened to that happy little girl? Shelby wouldn’t describe her mom that way. Intense, yes. Happy? No.
Shelby must have fallen asleep for a while because Mrs. Manalo touched her arm gently. “Shelby, we are here. Let’s go now and see.”
“OK,” Shelby said, rubbing her eyes awake. She gathered her purse and camera. My goodness, it looks like we’re at a cemetery. What in the world?
“Um, where are we?” Shelby asked.
“This is the Clark cemetery,” Mr. Manalo answered. “Your aunt should be over there,” he said, pointing to a small hill.
“My aunt?” Shelby thought that perhaps they were visiting the grave of one of their relatives or family friends and ‘aunt’ was an affectionate moniker. The driver came around to the back and unloaded a big rice pot, a stack of plastic storage containers, and a bag of Coke bottles from the trunk. Mrs. Manalo gathered up what looked like an old bedspread, and draped it over her arm.
Mr. Manalo led the way. “It’s been a few years since we’ve visited her. I think I remember that it is up there, that way, off to the other side of the road.”
Shelby tagged along behind, glancing at the perfectly spaced white marble tombstones set in the manicured lawn. Blotches of green mold and black mildew crept over their surfaces.
This was a weird way to entertain a visitor. Well, maybe it’s a nice picnic spot. Maybe there’s a beautiful view or something.
Mr. Manalo walked around the headstones, looking at the inscriptions. He wandered up a row and paused “Here it is!” he shouted down to them.
Shelby and Mrs. Manalo left their search. When they reached the spot, Mrs. Manalo shook the bedspread out on the grass. The driver helped her spread it, then lowered the pots and bags he carried on a corner. Mrs. Manalo said something to him in Tagalog. He nodded, then turned and walked back to the car.
Shelby went over to where Mr. Manalo stood, looking down. He glanced up at Shelby, and she saw tears in his eyes. Shelby studied the inscription on the headstone. She tried to make sense of it.
December 13, 1968 – March 30, 1970
Beloved daughter and sister
Taken too soon
Ferguson. That was her grandparent’s name and her mother’s maiden name. But Tara? Who was Tara? And this poor little girl. She only lived fifteen and a half months. She was fifteen months old when she died. How sad.
She looked back up at Mr. Manalo with questions in her eyes.
“She was an adorable little girl. So happy. So pleasant. She was just walking,” he said.
“I can see her toddling around, holding your granddad’s hand, sucking on her pacifier.” Mrs. Manalo stood on the other side of Shelby now. She smiled at the happy memory.
Shelby looked at her, wrinkling her brow. “My granddad?”
“Your grandparents loved little Tara so much. It was so hard. So very hard. And your mother. Well. She took Tara’s death badly.” Mrs. Manalo sighed.
Shelby felt like she was on the other side of a hazy wall, and could barely hear or see the Manalos. She croaked out, “I — I don’t know Tara. Um, I mean, who is this? I haven’t heard this before. Was this my mom’s little sister?”
Mrs. Manalo’s eyes snapped up to face Shelby. “You didn’t know?” She reached out and laid her hand on Shelby’s forearm. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought you knew. I thought you knew. I thought you would want to visit Tara’s grave.”
“Oh,” Shelby whispered. She could not look away from the tombstone as a soup of confusion fogged her brain. “No, I didn’t know. My mom didn’t tell me anything about this. My grandparents never told me. What happened? She was so young. Why didn’t they tell me?”
“Oh, you poor dear. I am so sorry. This was a mistake. I am so sorry. We can go now. Come on, Papa, let’s take Shelby back home.” Mrs. Manalo looked over her shoulder to her husband and shepherded Shelby with her arm around her waist.
“No, please. Wait,” Shelby said. “I want to know. Can you tell me what happened?” Shelby looked at Mr. Manalo, then at his wife.
“Are you sure? I feel so sorry I am the one to bring this bad news to you,” Mrs. Manalo said. She looked to her husband. Mr. Manalo stood with his eyes closed, and sighed. Then he looked up and slowly shook his head.
“Here, let’s sit down on the blanket.” Mrs. Manalo sat down and patted a spot next to her. Shelby settled there, folding herself up, hugging her knees to her chest, and looked up at Mr. Manalo. He perched on his haunches across from her. The graveyard was peaceful. They were alone. Only the chatter of birds in spreading trees broke the stillness.
Shelby watched Mr. Manalo quietly gazing at her. She lowered her eyes. He waited a moment, then he said, “It was the saddest day of our life.”
“As you know, your grandparents were our very good friends. Your granddad and I worked side by side, running the shipbuilding and repair center. We lived next door to each other. Your mom and our Cecille played together every day. We watched them grow up together, from playmates, to little girls going to school.
“Your grandparents wanted to learn everything about the Philippines, so we went out exploring the countryside. We took day trips to Taal, to Tagaytay. Sometimes we vacationed in Baguio. We had picnics and parties and swimming days. Your granddad was a mean tennis player, too.”
He paused to catch Shelby’s brief nod before he continued. “They were in the Philippines for a four-year posting. But at the end of the four years they loved it so much here, they decided to renew for another year. And by that time, your grandmother was pregnant again.” Mr. Manalo stopped and looked down, pinching a fold of the blanket.
“They were so excited.” Mrs. Manalo looked at Shelby. “They loved your mother and they really wanted to add another child to their family. They felt like Paula, your mom, needed a little sister or brother. And we were happy, too. Because I got pregnant at the same time. That was Ramon. So, we would have these babies together. Another couple of little friends. Life was good,” Mrs. Manalo said with a chuckle.
But her smile dropped, and her jaw tightened. “Then Tara was born, and she was just the sweetest little baby you could ever imagine. So plump. So happy. She hardly ever cried. She adored Paula, your mom, and got so excited anytime she saw her. Your mom loved to play with her, and carry her around. She was like a little mommy herself. She was Tara’s second mother.”
Shelby had trouble focusing on Mrs. Manalo’s face. In her mind, she saw a little girl, hauling a plump baby on her hip. This was her mom? Her mom had mothering instincts when she was little? Shelby never knew her mother to be nurturing or dote over babies.
“It was an accident! She didn’t do it on purpose.” Mr. Manalo’s strong words startled Shelby.
“Do what?” Shelby jerked her head up and blinked. He was looking straight at her.
“She thought it was her fault, but it wasn’t. She was just a little girl!” Mr. Manalo stood and quickly walked a few feet away. He turned his back to them, tightly grasping his elbows.
Shelby’s stomach tightened. What was going on here?
“Now, now, Papa. That was all a long time ago.” Mrs. Manalo called over to him. Then she turned to Shelby. “He gets so upset thinking about that day.“
“What are you talking about? What happened?” Chills ran down Shelby’s arms. She looked over at Mr. Manalo.
Mrs. Manalo’s eyes were pools of sadness. “Well, it was an accident. They were playing outside. Tara was in a little blow-up wading pool. Your mom turned away to chase a butterfly or something. And when she turned back, Tara was face down in the pool.” Mrs. Manalo closed her eyes and didn’t say anything more.
“Oh no. She drowned?” Shelby’s eyes were wide.
Mrs. Manalo squinted her eyes closed. She put her hand up and leaned her face into it, and didn’t answer, but slowly nodded her head ‘yes.’
Shelby sat still, taking it all in. Her mom’s little sister drowned, and her mom could have prevented it. How in the world does a family get through a situation like that?
But Shelby knew the answer. Pretend like it never happened. Don’t talk about it. Don’t mention the baby’s name. She shook her head, thinking about her mom as a little girl with a big black blot in her soul.
Mrs. Manalo started again, almost in a whisper. “They rushed her to the hospital. We waited outside the door of the emergency room. Your granddad came and told us to pray, that Tara’s heart had stopped. We prayed. We prayed so hard. We begged God to save that sweet little baby. Then, your granddad came out and didn’t say anything. We knew.” Mrs. Manalo took a deep breath and shivered.
Mr. Manalo came back and sat down with them again. “I think the most painful sight I ever saw was your grandmother walking out of that emergency room carrying Tara’s little flannel blanket. An empty blanket.” He stopped, looking down, and cupped his hand over his forehead, rubbing his temples.
Beside her, Shelby heard Mrs. Manalo whisper, “And I never saw Paula jump rope again.”
Shelby just sat there between them, trying to comprehend. Trying to make sense of it all. She once had an aunt. Her mom had a sister. Her grandparents had two little girls. And her mom felt responsible for her own baby sister’s death. An immense tragedy. And I never knew.
Shelby brought her mind back to the present. Now she was down here on Palawan ready to start her research project. Life was happening so fast, she wasn’t sure when she’d ever have time to ask her mom and grandparents about that horrible event.
I need to write some emails. But Mom is so hard to get hold of. And how am I ever going to get these presents to her?
The thought exhausted her, and she lay her head back on the pillow. Maybe in a minute. . .
An hour later, she pulled herself upright. She’d been dead asleep. I’m hardly ever able to sleep during the day unless I’m sick. Must be the heat. She had no time to write a letter now. There was just time to get a shower before dinner. Dinner. With an interesting guy named Jesse. Hmmm.
When she got off the bed, she found a note that had been slipped underneath the door. In very neat hand-printing, it read:
We have arranged a trike to pick you up tomorrow morning at 7 am sharp. Your trike driver’s name is Bhoy. The fare to Central Terminal is thirty pesos.
The Backpacker Staff”
Shelby studied the note for a moment. ‘Ma’am Shelby’? They’ve been calling her ‘Ma’am’ all along, and not ‘Mom’? She groaned. Oh, how dumb can I be? I’ve been trying to impute some cultural significance into this, and that’s not it at all. It’s just that my ears aren’t tuned to Filipino pronunciation yet.
She went into her little bathroom and slicked on some lip gloss. And ‘Bhoy’? What kind of name is that? How do you pronounce ‘Bh’? Is it Buh-hoy?
Thirty pesos for the fare to the terminal? Shelby picked up her hairbrush and fluffed out her hair. She’d paid almost ten times that amount getting here from the airport. No wonder the driver was so happy and appreciative. She threw her hairbrush on the counter.
And Shelby wondered just how many other things she would get wrong this summer.
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