Guardian of the Family Galaxy

When my super-protective aunt died, I saw her strength in me.

By Dulce Zamora

When I was 14 years old, a wrist watch caught my eye at the palengke (market) in the Philippines. 

“How much is it?” I asked the woman with a table full of timepieces.

I can’t remember what she said, but I asked for half the amount.  She said no, countering with three-quarter the price. I negotiated for a little more than my original bid. She said she’d only be willing to sell it for a higher amount. I decided to put the watch down and walk away. She grabbed my wrist.

“You can’t leave,” she bellowed. “You have to buy the watch.”

I tried to wrestle my hand away, but her grip was too strong. Towering over me, she threatened to call the police if I didn’t buy what I bargained for. So, I gave her my money. She gave me the watch and let me go.

It was 1985. I was on vacation with my family in Angeles City. We were balikbayans– people who literally “returned to country.” Although my parents, siblings, and I were born in the Philippines, we moved to the U.S. four years prior. In America, there was typically no bargaining in stores. I wasn’t used to it. But that didn’t stop me from doing it. I knew it was the way purchases were made in the Philippine public market, but I didn’t expect to be steamrolled by an adult while doing it. When my mom’s sister, Auntie Let, found out about the incident, she was livid. She went back to the watch table and chewed out the sales lady.  

“Shame on you for taking advantage of a young girl!” Auntie said.  She made the lady return the money to me. I gave her back the watch. I didn’t want it anymore.

Auntie Let (nickname for Leticia) was always taking care of me and everyone else around her. She never married nor had children of her own, but she was maternal with all her nieces and nephews.  When my sister, Nina, and I were little girls in the Philippines, my parents never had to buy clothes because Auntie made them for us. My mom said the first time we ever bought store-bought apparel was when we moved to the U.S. That’s because we no longer had regular contact with Auntie Let. Back then, there was no email, WhatsApp, or Facebook, and snail mail was even slower.

I did see her a few times over the years. During one visit to the Philippines, Nina and I decided to take a road trip while Auntie Let was at work. Our cousin, Jojo, drove us 4 hours to Hundred Islands National Park. It was a lovely place. We chartered a boat to take us around the different islands. We marveled at the lush greenery and the colorful birds. We ate at a waterside restaurant where freshly-caught bangus (milkfish) was grilled right in front of us. Our merriment was short-lived, however, for when we got back from our daytrip, we encountered a furious Auntie Let. She said things like: How could we go so far without the whole family? Why didn’t we wait for them? Didn’t we know it was dangerous to make that trek on our own? What if something happened to us?

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I breathed, reminding myself that Auntie grew up in a different culture and a different time.  When she was young, single women needed chaperones in the Philippines. They didn’t traipse around all over the place just for fun. I must admit that this really bothered me. I felt stifled and unseen. This wasn’t who I was. I didn’t visit the Philippines to stay inside the house. I was not a homebody, waiting for someone to take care of me. I was a traveler, just like my Ima (Grandma). She never stayed in one place for very long. I was the same way. I loved to explore new places.

How did Auntie Let feel about traveling? I never did find out. But the physical or emotional distance between us never mattered to her. She loved me without condition. She remained protective, too. It didn’t matter that I had already been a bartender in London, or that I backpacked all over Europe by myself. If I so much as stepped outside her front gate to go to the corner store, in her eyes, I’d be putting myself in danger of being taken advantage of, robbed, or kidnapped. I couldn’t blame her. Didn’t the watch lady take advantage of me? Growing up, I was always told that foreigners in the Philippines were targets for crime. My skin may have been brown, but my accent and shorter jean shorts made me seem more stateside.

Auntie Let’s protective nature was something I never fully appreciated until I had children and my siblings had children. I now recognize the vital role my siblings play in my daughters’ lives, and my role in their offspring’s lives. It doesn’t matter that I live halfway around the world from my niece and nephew. I love them and look after them as if they are my own.

When I moved to Singapore as a married woman, Auntie Let came to visit a couple of times. Each time, she showered my girls and me with gifts and attention. I used to marvel at that, because we hadn’t seen each other in years. I was busy with my life and did not keep in touch. She hadn’t ever seen my daughters. How could she feel so close to us? She was amazing with her love and devotion. It awed me, because I always believed that I was not selfless like her. She had a blind devotion to family. 

I am dedicated to my family, too, but I have also pursued my own dreams. I left my parents and siblings in California to become a writer in New York, and from there, I moved to Singapore. It’s only 3 hours to the Philippines from here, yet I’m not going to Auntie Let’s funeral. Right now, I have an opportunity to write some books and get them published. If I went to the Philippines, I might not meet my deadlines. As it is, I struggle to meet them because my time is divided between my jobs as a writer and as a stay-at-home mother. Plus, my children need me at the moment. We’re still in a fragile state of transition as we moved back to Singapore after a 3-year repatriation to the States. (Expat life – it’s complicated.)

The last time my husband, daughters, and I saw Auntie Let was when we visited the Philippines in 2017. She went to every place my family visited. At her house, we ate like royalty (she had a feast prepared), and we sang karaoke all afternoon. She watched us entertain ourselves the whole time. And when it was time to head to the airport, she said goodbye, saying it was probably the last time we’d see each other. I gave her a hug and told her we’d visit again. We did plan to go later this year or early next year. But it is too late. 

Yet, when I think about Auntie Let, I don’t think she’d be unhappy with me. She would tell me to take care of my family, and to stick to my career goals. She herself was the superintendent of her school district. She worked tirelessly as an educator because she believed in the value of her work. Perhaps we do have more in common than I thought. We may have been separated by distance, time, and beliefs about independence, but we connected with our core values: love of family and a desire to make a difference in the world. 

Today, as Auntie Let is laid to rest in the Philippines, I will mark the time and remember that I am where I am today because of people like her. Her mama-bear instincts, her unconditional love and support, and her hard work at school served as an overall model for living. She lifted me up with enough love and strength to share with my family and the world. At the same time, I am lifting up my daughters and other young people to love and make a difference, too.

Rest easy, Auntie Let. I am continuing on your good work.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower

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