Nanay Celene

Nanay Celene, Watercolor, 2018

I painted her likeness, copied from a faded yellowing picture on my Lola’s wall. Water, pigment, flow, there is a soothing aspect of watercolors. It isn’t just pleasing to the eye, but pleasing to the touch. The gliding of the brush over the page, manipulating the paint to fit the likeness of the form. The tap tap tap and glide. It is a therapeutic exercise, yet a threatening one. The color is permanent, there is no undo button, no paint-overs, if you mess up it stays. Water colors are unforgiving. 

My Lola asked me to paint her mother. A woman that I barely knew. I only had glimpses of her in the indirect stories that I’ve overheard. A performer, she taught my Mama to sing and to act and to convey the emotion of the story in every recitation. She concentrated on my Mama because she had the voice. And apparently so do I, though they all say it is undeveloped and isn’t as talented as my hand. 

What was it that my Mama went through with her lola? What were the lines? 

Alms, alms, spare me a piece of bread, spare me your mercy…  

                                                                                   or was it 

                                                                                          Crispin? Basilio? Where are you my children, my children? 

I imagined my mother walking around as a pauper as her lola would critique her over and over again until she got it right. I saw my mother as Sisa, the leper, searching for her children, while Nanay Celine stood judging, like Pedro, the abusive husband, ready to use her mouth like a whip to better the performance. 

Regardless, the expectations were held in a stick. Stand up straight and sing. What was that noise? Sing with your mouth and not your pekpek. What voice do you want people to hear? What are you really speaking with?

I painted her eyes and noticed a striking similarity between her and her daughters. That is where my Lola’s dark eyes come from, and her sister’s full mouth, and her other sister’s tiny nose. Am I in this person? What part of her lives on in me? 

                                      I wonder, 

                                                           I wonder. 

                                                                                   I continued to paint. 

I remembered the scars on my Lola’s legs. What happened there, Lola? I asked in between bites of scrambled eggs, mustard leaves, sliced tomatoes, vinegar, onions, and rice. 

She recounted the story of how her family hid in holes dug under houses to evade the Japanese. How her then two-year old legs were soft and susceptible to the gnawing teeth of countless ants. I imagined them in the dark. My Lola being held by Nanay Celene. A protective hand covering the mouth of my Lola. Soft noises of reassurances in hissing sounds to prevent her from crying. My Lola’s legs never healed. 

“It doesn’t look like her,” my Mama Lita said when she came to visit. She was my Lola’s younger sister, and refused to be called “Lola” as it makes her feel old. I asked her what part doesn’t look like her, in hopes that it isn’t something too drastic. I didn’t want to start the painting all over, watercolors, especially the darker colors, were stubborn to remove. 

“Hmm… I don’t know.” was her answer. “Just fix this part here Ate, she pointed to the upper lip. I got the message: “Don’t you dare make my mom look like a monkey.”

I softened that area with water, and shaded the rest to make it less noticeable. It was a good thing that I invested in heavier paper. 

The photograph fell off the wall causing the frame to break. I thought my Lola would be upset but she was very forgiving. It was time to buy a new frame, she concluded. Always practical and logical. I, however, thought that maybe there was a possibility that the ghost of Nanay didn’t approve of my depiction of her. I never brought this up to my Lola in fear that her anger would be turned to me.

                         Ay nako! There are no evil spirits in my house, understand?

                                                        Yes, Lola… 

                                                                               I answered.

And continued to paint… 

“What was she like, Mama, your Lola?” I asked over dinner two years later. We were sitting in our quiet home in the Bay Area. My Papa had gone to watch TV with my brother, as my sister and I continued to talk to our mom. 

It was here where I learned a bit more about this mystery woman. 

“She was a stage actress. And my Lolo worked in the circus. He was the muscle man,” my Mama said.  

“But if they were artists, why were they so strict?” My sister asked, voicing the same thoughts that I had. 

“I think that was what made them so strict. You have to have enough discipline to do what they did. Did you know my Mommy did balagtasan? Do you know how hard that is?”

“Really? Lola did that?” My sister asked. 

“Oh yes! And she was good!” 

It took me about a week to finish the 11”x15” painting. And by the end of it, the Tres Marias, as my uncles and aunties have dubbed their mother and two aunts, went to inspect it. 

“Hmm… I don’t know. It looks like her but it doesn’t look like her.” 

“Well, what do you expect? She is not a copy machine…” 

The answers were mixed but I did not mind. I was used to their rapid fire way of speaking, and was immune to their venomless bites. This was the way that the women in my family spoke, with hard-headed focus, uncensored pride, all mixed together with honeyed charm. My mother and aunt had inherited this, and I also saw it reflected in my sister. 

                    But I wonder…

                                                Does this trace back to you, Nanay Celene? 

When I went back to America from my 2 month trip to the Philippines, my Mama saw the painting. 

“Wow… anak this is her, this is my Lola!” She held it up with a big grin on her face. I embraced her, kissed her forehead and told her that I was glad she liked it. 

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