May 22, 2020 3:53 pm
This article was published in issue 1210 of Internazionale.
It was called Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 1.5 meters tall and had coffee-colored skin and almond-shaped eyes. I still see them as they look at mine, my first memory. She was eighteen when my grandfather offered it as a gift to my mother. The day my family moved to the United States, we took her with us. Only the word “slave” can summarize the life he lived. His days began before we got up and ended after we went to sleep. He prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, served my parents and cared for me and my four siblings. My parents never paid her and scolded her constantly. He did not have chains on his ankles, but it was as if he had them. Endless times, going to the bathroom at night, I saw her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mountain of linen, with her fingers gripping the dress she was folding.
For our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a postcard family. They were the ones who told us. My father had a law degree, my mother would soon become a doctor, my brothers and I took good marks and always said “please” and “thank you”. We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the heart of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.
When my mother died of leukemia in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in a residential suburb: the American dream. And I also had a slave.
At the Manila airport baggage belt, I opened my suitcase to make sure that Lola’s ashes were still there. Outside I inhaled the familiar smell: a dense mixture of waste gas and garbage, of ocean and sugary fruit and sweat.
Doods and I were heading north, to the inland plains where the story of Lola had begun: the province of Tarlac. Land of rice fields. Place of birth of a lieutenant, inveterate cigar smoker, named Tomas Asuncion, my grandfather. In the family, Lieutenant Tom was described as an exceptional man, prone to eccentricity and bad temper. He had a lot of land but little money, and kept his lovers in separate houses on his property. His wife had died giving birth to their only daughter, my mother, who had been raised by a number of utusans, “People taking orders.”
Slavery has a long history on these islands. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the islanders enslaved other islanders, usually prisoners of war, criminals or debtors. There were several categories of slaves, from warriors who could gain freedom with their courage to domestic servants who were considered property and could be bought, sold or traded. Slaves of higher rank could possess slaves of lower rank. There were those who chose to become a slave to survive: in exchange for his work, he could receive board, lodging and protection.
The Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, enslaved the inhabitants of the islands, and later brought African and Indian slaves to the islands. The Spanish crown ended up gradually eliminating slavery at home and in the colonies, but some areas of the Philippines were so remote as to escape the control of the authorities. Traditions were preserved, in different forms, even after the United States took control of the islands in 1898. Today even the poor can have utusans, gods katulongs (helpers) or gods kasambahays (domestic), while there are those who are poorer than them. The staircase is long.
Lieutenant Tom had at least three families of utusans who lived on his property. In the spring of 1943, when the islands were under Japanese occupation, he took a girl from a village down the street home. She was a distant cousin who belonged to a secondary branch of the family, rice farmers. The lieutenant was smart: he saw that the girl was poor, uneducated and easily influenced. Her parents wanted to marry her to a pig farmer who was twice her age. The girl was desperate but did not know where to turn. Tom made a proposal: he would have given her food and lodging if she had committed herself to taking care of her daughter, who had just turned twelve.
Lola accepted, not understanding that it was a pact for life.
“It’s my present for you,” said Lieutenant Tom to my mother.
“I don’t want it,” my mother replied, knowing she had no choice.
Lieutenant Tom left to fight the Japanese, leaving my mother and Lola in the old creaky provincial house. Lola fed my mother, washed and dressed her. When they went to the market, he held an umbrella to protect it from the sun. In the evening, when she had finished her daily chores – feeding the dogs, sweeping the floors, folding the laundry she had washed by hand in the Camiling River -, Lola sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and fanned her until she fell asleep .
One day, during the war, Lieutenant Tom came home and found that my mother had lied to him about a boy she shouldn’t have talked to. Furious, Tom ordered her to “approach the table”. Mom crouched in a corner with Lola. Then, in a trembling voice, he told his father that Lola would be punished for her. Lola gave Mum a pleading look, then walked without saying a word to the dining room table and clung to the edge. Tom lifted his belt and hit it twelve times, punctuating every lash with a word. Not. Mi. You have to. Never. To say. Lies. Not. Mi. You have to. Never. To say. Lies. Lola didn’t say a word.
As an adult, my mother enjoyed telling this anecdote in a tone that seemed to mean: “Can you believe I did such a thing?”. When I talked to Lola about it, she wanted to hear Mom’s version. He listened carefully, then looked at me sadly and simply said, “Yes. It went like this. ”
My brother Arthur was born in 1951. Then I was born, followed by three other brothers in rapid succession. My parents expected Lola to be as devoted to us children as she was to them. While Lola took care of us, my parents specialized in university, joining the Filipino army with excellent qualifications but without work. Then came the turning point: my father was offered a job at the foreign ministry as a commercial analyst. The salary was meager, but the job was in the United States, a place he and mom had dreamed of since they were little, where anything they wanted could come true.
Dad could bring his family and a service person with him. Knowing that they should both have been working, my parents wanted Lola to follow them to look after the children and the house. My mother informed her but, to her utter irritation, Lola did not accept immediately. Years later Lola told me she was terrified. “It was too far,” he explained. “Maybe your mom and dad wouldn’t let me go home.”
What convinced her was my father’s promise that things in the United States would be different. He told her that as soon as he and mom got settled, they would give her a “pocket money”. Lola could have sent money to her parents, to all relatives in her village. Her parents lived in a hut with a beaten floor. Lola could have built a concrete house for them, changing his life forever. Can you imagine?
We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, with all our things in boxes closed with string. Lola had lived with my mother for twenty-one years, and was more of a parent to me than my mother or father were. His was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw in the evening. As a child I had learned to say his name long before “mom” or “dad”, and I refused to go to sleep if she didn’t take me in her arms or was at least next to me.
I was four when we arrived in the United States, too young to question Lola’s role in our family. But growing up on the other side of the Pacific, my brothers and I began to see the world differently. The jump overseas caused an awareness that my mother and father were unable, or unwilling, to deal with.
Lola never received that pocket money. A couple of years after our arrival in the United States, I raised the subject indirectly with my parents. Her mother had fallen ill and her family could not afford to pay for the treatment. “Pwede ba?”He asked my parents. It’s possible? My mother sighed. “How do you think of even asking us?” Replied my father in Tagalog. “You see that we don’t have a penny. Are not you ashamed?”.
My parents had taken out a loan to come to the United States, and were still in debt to stay. My father was transferred from the Los Angeles consulate general to the Seattle consulate. They paid him $ 5,600 a year. A second job was found as a truck trailer cleaner and a third as a debt collection agent. Mom worked as a technique in a couple of medical labs. We always saw them in passing, and they were often exhausted and aggressive.
Mum came home and scolded Lola because she hadn’t cleaned the house thoroughly enough or forgot to take the mail in the mailbox. “How many times have I told you that I want to find the mail when I get home?”, He said with resentment, in Tagalog. “It is not difficult naman! Even an idiot would remember it. ” Then my father came back and it was his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house became small. Sometimes my parents teamed up until Lola burst into tears, as if that were their purpose.
I was confused: my parents were good to me and my brothers, and we loved them. But they could be affectionate with us and a moment later despicable with Lola. I was about eleven years old when Lola’s situation started to become clear to me. My brother Arthur, eight years older, was outraged long ago. It was he who introduced the word “slave” into my perception of what Lola was. Before Arthur said it, Lola was just an unfortunate person in the family for me. I couldn’t stand it when my parents yelled at her, but I never thought that their behavior – and the whole situation – was immoral.
“Do you know someone who is treated like her?” Asked Arthur. “Who lives as you live?”. He summed up Lola’s condition. It was not paid. He worked hard every day. She was scolded if she stayed too long or fell asleep too early. They beat her if she answered. He was wearing used clothes. She ate leftovers alone in the kitchen. He hardly ever left the house. He had no friends or amusements outside the family. He did not have his own room (in all the houses we had lived in he slept where there was room: a sofa, a closet, a corner in my sister’s room, often on a pile of linen). We could not find similar cases except in the slave characters of the TV series and the movies.
“Ling said he wasn’t hungry,” I said.
My parents turned to me.
They seemed disconcerted. I felt the facial contractions that generally preceded the tears, but that time I wouldn’t cry. In my mother’s eyes I saw the shadow of something I had never seen before. Jealousy?
“Are you defending your Lola?” Asked my father. “Is this what you are doing?”
“Ling said he wasn’t hungry,” I repeated, almost whispering.
I was thirteen. It was my first attempt to take sides of the woman who spent her life taking care of me. The woman who had sung Tagalog melodies to me, cradling me, and who when I was older had dressed and fed me, had accompanied me to school in the morning and had come to pick me up in the afternoon. When I had been ill for a long time, without the strength to eat, Lola had chewed the food for me, putting the pieces in my mouth so that I could swallow them. One summer I had both legs in plaster and in the months of rehabilitation Lola had assisted me, washing me with a towel and giving me medicine in the middle of the night. At that time I was always in a bad mood. Lola had never complained or been impatient.
Now hearing her cry made me crazy.
In the Philippines, my parents didn’t feel the need to hide the way they treated Lola. In the United States, they treated her even worse, but tried not to show it. When they had guests, they ignored Lola or, if someone asked questions, they lied and changed the subject immediately. For five years we lived in the north of Seattle in front of the Misslers’ house, a rowdy family (there were eight of them) who had initiated us into things like mustard, salmon fishing, American football and screaming during games on TV. When we watched the games, Lola needed us to eat and drink, and my parents thanked her with a smile before she retired quickly. “Who is that petite lady you keep in the kitchen?” Asked Big Jim, the patriarch of the Missler house, one day. “A relative of the Philippines,” replied my father. “Very shy”.
I think Billy was sorry for Lola. He was crazy about his kitchen and made her laugh like no one else. When he stayed with us, Lola cooked him his favorite Filipino dish, tapa (beef) with white rice. Cooking was his only form of eloquence. From what he was preparing, I understood if he was simply feeding us or if he was saying he loved us.
One day, when I told Billy that Lola was a distant aunt, he reminded me that the first time I had introduced her as my grandmother.
“Well, it’s a little bit both,” I replied sibylline.
“Why do you spend your time working?”
“She likes it.” “And why are your father and mother yelling at you?”
“It doesn’t feel very good.”
Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We had spent the first ten years in the United States learning the uses of the new country and trying to get used to it. Having a slave was not part of the local customs and made me seriously doubt about the type of people we were, the type of place we came from. I wondered if we deserved to be accepted. I felt ashamed for all that matter, and also for my complicity. But losing Lola would have been devastating.
We had another reason to keep it secret: Lola’s documents had expired in 1969, five years after our arrival in the United States. She had come with a special passport tied to my father’s job. After a series of disagreements with the bosses, my father left the consulate and declared that he wanted to stay in the United States. He managed to obtain a permanent residence permit for the family, but not for Lola. He should have sent her back to the Philippines.
Lola’s mother Fermina died in 1973. Her father Hilario in 1979. Both times Lola would have liked to go home. Both times my parents said, “Sorry.” There was no money, there was no time. The boys needed her. Furthermore, my parents were afraid, they later confessed to me. If the authorities had discovered Lola’s existence, as surely would have happened if he tried to leave, my parents could have been in trouble, even risking expulsion. They couldn’t take the risk. Lola became what the Filipinos call tago nang tago, or tnt: always on the run. It would remain tnt for almost twenty years.
After the death of her parents, Lola became dark and did not speak for months. She barely answered when my parents tormented her. But the torment continued. Lola kept her head down and did her job.
My father’s resignation marked the beginning of a turbulent period. The money went down and my parents turned against each other. On several occasions they uprooted the family, from Seattle to Honolulu, then Seattle again, then the southeast of the Bronx and finally a town of 750 souls in Oregon, Umatilla, a stopping place for truck drivers. During that period of travel, mom often took rounds of twenty-four hours and dad disappeared for whole days, doing chores but also (we would have discovered later) going to women and who knows what else. Once he came home and told us that he had lost our new station wagon playing blackjack.
It happened that Lola was the only adult person in the house for days. He ended up knowing our lives as my parents never had the head to do. We took our friends home and Lola listened to us talk about the school, about boys and girls and about everything that interested us. Lola could have listed the names of all the girls I liked from middle school.
My mother managed to gather the strength necessary to go to work, but in the evening she collapsed, abandoning herself to despair and self-pity. At that time his only source of comfort was Lola. While mom replied badly for every little thing, Lola was even more attentive: she cooked her favorite dishes, cleaned her room with particular attention. Late in the evening I found them sitting in the kitchen complaining and telling anecdotes about Dad, who sometimes made them burst into malicious laughter, other times they made them angry.
One night I heard mom sobbing. I ran into the living room and found her slumped in Lola’s arms, who spoke softly to her, as she did to me and my brothers when we were little. I stayed there for a while, then went back to my room, worried about my mother and very in awe of Lola.
Doods was humming. I had dozed off for what seemed like a minute and woke up to the sound of his cheerful melody. “Two more hours,” he said. I checked the plastic box in the canvas bag next to me – it was still there – and looked up from the window. We were on the MacArthur highway. I looked at the time: “Hey, you said ‘still two hours’ two hours ago!”.
It was a relief to know that Doods ignored the reason for my trip. I was already quite busy with my inner dialogue. I was no longer worth my parents. I could have done more to free Lola. To make his life better. Why hadn’t I done it? I guess I could have sued my parents. I was going to blow up my family in a flash. Instead, like my brothers, I had preferred to keep everything for myself, and so my family had collapsed little by little.
At the origins
Doods and I went through a beautiful countryside. It was not a postcard beauty, but it was real and alive and, if compared to the city, elegantly sober. Two mountain ranges ran parallel to the sides of the highway, the Zambales mountains to the west and the Sierra Madre to the east. From one top to the other, from west to east, I could see every shade of green, almost down to black.
Doods pointed to a dark silhouette in the distance. Mount Pinatubo. I had come here in 1991, to tell the effects of its eruption, the second most important of the twentieth century. The mud flows, called lahars, they had continued for more than ten years burying ancient villages, filling rivers and valleys, wiping out entire ecosystems. THE lahars they had gone to the foot of the hills of the province of Tarlac, where Lola’s parents had spent their entire lives, and where my mother and Lola had once lived together. Many traces of my family’s past had been lost in wars and floods, and now some were buried under six meters of mud.
Life around here often crosses cataclysms. Deadly hurricanes that hit several times a year. Sleepy mountains that one day decide to wake up. The Philippines is not like China or Brazil, with mass capable of absorbing trauma. They are a nation of rocks scattered in the sea. When hit by a catastrophe, the country succumbs for a while. Then it rises again and life takes its course again, and it is possible to contemplate landscapes such as what Doods and I were going through, and the simple fact that they are still there makes them beautiful.
My mother’s marriage to Ivan was unstable from the start and money – especially the way he used it – was the main problem. Once during a quarrel, while mom was crying and Ivan was screaming, Lola came up and stood between them. He turned to Ivan and said his name firmly. Ivan looked at her, blinked and sat up.
My sister Inday and I were amazed. Ivan weighed one hundred and fifteen kilos and with his baritone voice made the walls tremble. Lola had put it back in place with a single word. It happened a few more times, but generally Lola served Ivan blindly, as Mum wanted. It was difficult for me to see Lola submit to someone else, especially someone like Ivan. But it was something much more trivial to provoke my breakup with Mom.
My mother got angry every time Lola got sick. He didn’t want to deal with the inconvenience and expense, and accused Lola of pretending or neglecting herself. He chose the second tactic when, in the late seventies, Lola started losing her teeth. For months he had said he had pain in his mouth.
“That’s what happens when you don’t brush your teeth well,” Mom commented.
I said that Lola had to make an appointment with a dentist. She was over fifty years old and never visited. I was in college at the time, an hour from home. Often, when I came back, I would bring up the topic. A year passed, then another. Lola took aspirin every day against pain, and her teeth looked like Stonehenge stones. One evening, seeing her chewing the bread on the side of her mouth where some healthy molars still remained, I blurted out.
Mum and I fought late into the night. She said that she was tired of killing herself to keep us up, and that she couldn’t stand to see her children always defending Lola, and because we didn’t take that damned Lola, even because she never wanted her, and only God he knows what he had done to deserve an arrogant and hypocritical son like me.
“A slave,” said Mum, weighing the word. “A slave?”
The fight ended when my mother said I would never understand her relationship with Lola. Never. He said it in a voice so pained that if I think about it, even today, after years, I feel like a punch in the stomach. It’s terrible to hate your mother, and I hated her that night.
That quarrel only fueled my mother’s fear that Lola had stolen her children, and Lola paid the price. My mother made her work even harder. When we helped Lola with the housework, Mom got nervous. “It’s better if you go to sleep, Lola,” he said sarcastically. “You are working too hard. Your children are worried about you. ” Then, later, he called her into a room to talk to her, and Lola came out with puffy eyes.
Lola ended up begging us not to help her anymore.
“Why are you staying?” We asked.
“Who would cook?” He said, and it seemed to me that he meant “who would do everything?”. Who would take care of us? Mom’s? Another time he said: “And where could I go?”. The answer struck me as the truest. Moving to the United States had been an insane race, and by the time we stopped to hiatus ten years had already passed. We turned, and another ten years had passed. Lola’s hair had gone gray. She learned that some relatives in the Philippines, not having received the promised money, wondered what had happened to her. He was ashamed to return. He had no knowledge in the United States and no means of getting around. The phones baffled her. Mechanical objects – ATMs, intercoms, vending machines, whatever had a keyboard – panicked her. People who spoke quickly made her speechless, and her broken English had the same effect on others. He was unable to make an appointment, organize a trip, fill out a form or order food without help.
I got her an ATM associated with my bank account and taught her to use it. He did it the first time, but the second time he got nervous and never tried again.
He kept the card because he considered it a gift.
Lanes of four have become two, the asphalt has given way to gravel. The tricycles swayed between the machines and the water buffaloes, pulling loads of bamboo. Every now and then a dog or a goat ran across the road touching our bumper. Doods never slowed down. Everything that did not survive would end up in the pot today instead of tomorrow: it is the law of the road in the provinces.
I pulled out a road map and followed the path to the village of Mayantoc, our destination. Out of the window, in the distance, tiny figures leaned forward. People intent on harvesting rice, as has been done for thousands of years. We were close.
I tapped my cheap plastic box and regretted not buying a real china urn. What would people close to Lola think? There weren’t many left. In the area lived only one sister, Gregoria, who was 98 years old and has a wavering memory. Relatives said that as soon as she heard Lola’s name she would burst and cry, but then immediately forget the reason.
I was in contact with a granddaughter from Lola, who had organized the day’s program. After my arrival there would have been a small commemorative ceremony, then a prayer followed by the inhumation of the ashes in the Mayantoc eternal bliss memorial park. Five years had passed since Lola’s death, but I had not yet given her that last farewell. I had been in deep pain all day and resisted the urge to vent it, because I didn’t want to cry in front of Doods. Più della vergogna per come la mia famiglia aveva trattato Lola, più dell’ansia al pensiero di come i suoi parenti a Mayantoc avrebbero trattato me, ero terribilmente oppresso dalla perdita, come se Lola fosse morta solo il giorno prima.
Doods ha svoltato a sinistra per Camiling, la città di origine di mia madre e del tenente Tom. Le corsie da due sono diventate una, la ghiaia ha lasciato il posto alla terra battuta. Il sentiero correva lungo il fiume Camiling, accanto a gruppi di capanne di bambù, perdendosi tra verdi colline. Eravamo arrivati.
Al funerale di mia madre feci io l’elogio funebre, e tutto ciò che dissi era vero. Che era una donna coraggiosa ed energica, che era stata sfortunata ma aveva sempre fatto del suo meglio. Che quando era felice era raggiante, che adorava i figli e ci aveva dato una casa a Salem, nell’Oregon, che era diventata il nostro primo, vero punto di riferimento. Che avrei voluto ringraziarla ancora una volta. Che la amavamo tutti.
Non parlai di Lola, proprio come l’avevo tenuta fuori dalla mia testa quando ero con mia madre negli ultimi anni della sua vita. Amare mia madre richiedeva questo tipo di intervento chirurgico. Per noi era l’unico modo di essere madre e figlio, ed era una cosa che desideravo molto, soprattutto quando la sua salute cominciò a peggiorare, a metà degli anni novanta. Diabete. Tumore al seno. Leucemia mieloide acuta, un tumore del sangue e del midollo osseo a rapido sviluppo. Diventò di colpo gracile, lei che era stata così robusta.
Dopo il grande litigio, evitavo per quanto possibile di andare a casa, e a 23 anni mi trasferii a Seattle. Quando tornavo in visita, notavo dei cambiamenti. Mamma era ancora mamma, ma in modo meno implacabile. Aveva fatto avere a Lola una dentiera e le aveva lasciato una stanza tutta per sé. Quando con i miei fratelli decidemmo di regolarizzare la situazione di Lola ci aiutò. La storica legge sull’immigrazione voluta da Ronald Reagan nel 1986 permise a milioni di immigrati irregolari di chiedere la regolarizzazione. La procedura era lunga, ma Lola diventò una cittadina statunitense nell’ottobre del 1998, quattro mesi dopo che a mia madre era stata diagnosticata la leucemia. In quel periodo lei e Ivan andavano in gita a Lincoln City, sulla costa dell’Oregon, e a volte portavano anche Lola. Lola adorava l’oceano. Dall’altra parte c’erano le isole dove sognava di tornare. La cosa che più la rendeva felice era vedere mamma rilassata. Bastavano un pomeriggio sulla costa o un quarto d’ora a ricordare i vecchi tempi in provincia, e Lola sembrava dimenticare anni di tormenti.
Io non riuscivo dimenticare così facilmente. Ma finii per vedere mamma sotto una luce diversa. Prima di morire mi diede i suoi diari, che riempivano due vecchi bauli. Sfogliandoli mentre lei dormiva a qualche metro da me, intravidi parti della sua vita che per anni avevo rifiutato di considerare. Aveva studiato medicina quando ancora poche donne facevano quegli studi. Era venuta negli Stati Uniti e aveva lottato per farsi rispettare come donna, come medico e come immigrata. Aveva lavorato per vent’anni al Fairview training center, a Salem. I pazienti l’adoravano. Le colleghe erano diventate amiche strette. Insieme facevano cose da ragazzine: andare a comprarsi le scarpe, organizzare feste in maschera, scambiarsi regali scemi come saponi a forma di pene e calendari con uomini mezzi nudi, tutto ridendo come matte. Guardando le foto delle loro feste mi ricordai che mamma aveva una vita e un’identità al di fuori della famiglia e di Lola. Ovvio.
Mia madre scriveva in dettaglio su ognuno di noi figli, e su quello che provava per noi in certi giorni: orgoglio, amore o risentimento. E aveva dedicato volumi interi ai suoi mariti, cercando di rappresentarli come personaggi complessi nella storia della sua vita. Eravamo tutti importanti. Lola era marginale. Quando capitava che ne parlasse, era come una particina nella vita di qualcun altro. “Oggi Lola ha accompagnato il mio amato Alex alla nuova scuola. Spero si faccia presto degli amici e che non sia più triste per questo ennesimo trasferimento”. Poi c’erano altre due pagine su di me, e su Lola nemmeno una parola.
Il giorno prima che morisse mamma, un prete cattolico venne a casa per dare a mia madre l’estrema unzione. Lola era seduta accanto al letto di mamma e reggeva una tazza con una cannuccia, pronta a portargliela alle labbra. Era diventata particolarmente premurosa con lei. Avrebbe potuto approfittare della sua debolezza, perfino vendicarsi, ma fece il contrario.
Il prete chiese a mia madre se c’era qualcosa che voleva perdonare o per cui voleva essere perdonata. Mamma perlustrò la camera da sotto le palpebre pesanti e non disse nulla. Poi, senza guardare Lola, allungò un braccio e le appoggiò una mano sulla testa. Non disse una parola.
Lola aveva 75 anni quando venne a stare da me. Ero sposato e avevo due bambine piccole. Vivevamo in una casa accogliente vicino a un bosco. Dal secondo piano si vedeva lo stretto di Puget. Diedi a Lola una stanza e il permesso di fare quello che voleva: dormire fino a tardi, guardare le soap opera, non fare nulla dalla mattina alla sera. Poteva rilassarsi – ed essere libera – per la prima volta nella sua vita. Avrei dovuto immaginare che non sarebbe stato semplice.
Avevo dimenticato tutte le piccole cose di Lola che mi facevano saltare i nervi. Mi diceva continuamente dimettere una felpa altrimenti avrei preso freddo. La sua parsimonia era più difficile da ignorare. Non buttava via nulla. E aveva l’abitudine d’ispezionare la pattumiera per accertarsi che non avessimo buttato nulla di utile. La cucina si riempì di buste della spesa e di barattoli vuoti di yogurt e di sottaceti, e la casa diventò in parte un deposito di – non c’è altra parola – spazzatura.
Preparava la colazione anche se la mattina nessuno di noi mangiava più di una banana o di una barretta di cereali, di solito uscendo di corsa di casa. Ci rifaceva i letti e ci lavava i vestiti. Mi ritrovai a dirle, in un primo momento con gentilezza: “Lola, non devi fare tutto questo”, “Lola, lo facciamo noi”. D’accordo, rispondeva, e continuava come prima.
Mi irritava sorprenderla a mangiare in piedi in cucina, e vederla saltare su e cominciare a pulire quando entravo in una stanza. Un giorno, dopo diversi mesi, la feci sedere. “Non sono papà. Non sei una schiava qui”, dissi, e le elencai una lunga lista di compiti da schiava che continuava a svolgere. Quando notai la sua aria sbigottita, feci un respiro profondo e le presi il viso tra le mani, quel viso piccolo e delicato che ora mi guardava con occhi indagatori. Le diedi un bacio sulla fronte. “Questa è casa tua ora”, dissi. “Non sei qui per servirci. Puoi rilassarti, d’accordo?”.
“D’accordo”, disse. E si rimise a pulire.
Non conosceva un altro modo di essere. Dovevo ripetermi incessantemente: lasciala essere se stessa.
Una sera tornai a casa e la trovai seduta sul divano a fare un cruciverba, con i piedi appoggiati al tavolino, il televisore acceso e una tazza di tè. Alzò lo sguardo, mi lanciò un sorriso imbarazzato rivelando la dentiera bianca e perfetta e riprese a fare il suo cruciverba.“Facciamo progressi”, pensai.
Piantò dei fiori nel giardino sul retro, rose, tulipani e orchidee di ogni genere. Trascorreva pomeriggi interi a curarli. Faceva delle passeggiate nel quartiere. Quando compì ottant’anni, la sua artrite peggiorò e cominciò a camminare con un bastone. Passando accanto alla porta della sua stanza sentivo che spesso ascoltava una cassetta di canzoni popolari filippine. Sempre la stessa cassetta. Sapevo che mandava quasi tutti i suoi soldi – mia moglie e io le davamo duecento dollari a settimana – ai suoi familiari. Un pomeriggio la trovai seduta sul patio del retro. Stava issando uno fotografia del suo villaggio che qualcuno le aveva mandato.
“Vuoi tornare a casa, Lola?”.
Le pagai il biglietto per tornare a casa, poco dopo il suo ottantatreesimo compleanno. L’avrei raggiunta un mese dopo per riportarla negli Stati Uniti, sempre che volesse tornare. Il tacito obiettivo del viaggio era permetterle di capire se si sentiva ancora a casa nel luogo che le mancava da tanti anni.
Trovò la risposta. “Tutto non era più uguale”, mi disse mentre passeggiavamo a Mayantoc. Le vecchie fattorie non c’erano più. Casa sua non c’era più. I suoi genitori e quasi tutti i suoi fratelli non c’erano più. Gli amici d’infanzia, quelli ancora in vita, erano diventati degli estranei. Era bello vederli, ma tutto non era più uguale. Le sarebbe comunque piaciuto trascorrere qui i suoi ultimi anni, ma non era ancora pronta.
“Sei pronta per tornare al tuo giardino”, dissi.
“Sì. Torniamo a casa”.
Lola era devota alle mie figlie come lo era stata a me e ai miei fratelli quando eravamo piccoli. Dopo la scuola ascoltava i loro racconti e preparava da mangiare. E a differenza di me e di mia moglie (soprattutto di me), Lola apprezzava ogni minuto di ogni recita ed evento scolastico. Non le bastavano mai. Si sedeva in prima fila, teneva i programmi per ricordo. Era così facile renderla felice. La portavamo in vacanza con noi, ma si entusiasmava anche quando andavamo al mercato contadino in fondo alla strada, ai piedi della collina. Diventava una bambina in gita con gli occhi spalancati dalla meraviglia: “Guarda quelle zucchine!”. La prima cosa che faceva ogni mattina era aprire tutte le persiane di casa, e a ogni finestra si fermava a guardare fuori.
Imparò da sola a leggere. Fu straordinario. Negli anni era riuscita chissà come a capire la pronuncia delle lettere. Faceva quei giochi enigmistici in cui bisogna trovare e cerchiare delle parole in una griglia di lettere. Nella sua stanza c’erano pile di giornali di enigmistica, migliaia di parole cerchiate a matita. Ogni giorno guardava il telegiornale e cercava di afferrare le parole che conosceva. Provava a ricollegarle alle parole nel giornale, e riusciva a capire il significato. Arrivò al punto di leggere il giornale ogni giorno, dalla prima all’ultima pagina. Papà diceva di lei che era lenta. Mi chiesi cosa sarebbe potuta diventare se, invece di lavorare nelle risaie dall’età di otto anni, avesse imparato a leggere e a scrivere.
Nei dodici anni in cui visse con noi, le feci spesso delle domande personali, cercando di ricostruire la storia della sua vita, un’abitudine che Lola trovava bizzarra. Spesso cominciava a rispondere dicendo: “Perché?”. Perché volevo sapere della sua infanzia e di come aveva incontrato il tenente Tom?
Provai a spingere mia sorella Ling a farle delle domande sulla sua vita sentimentale, forse Lola si sarebbe sentita più a suo agio con lei. Ling ridacchiò, il suo modo per dire che dovevo cavarmela da solo. Un giorno, mentre io e Lola stavamo mettendo a posto la spesa, non riuscii a trattenermi: “Lola, hai mai avuto una relazione romantica con qualcuno?”. Sorrise, poi mi raccontò dell’unica volta in cui ci era andata vicino. Aveva circa quindici anni e c’era un ragazzo molto bello, Pedro, che viveva in una fattoria vicina. Per mesi avevano raccolto il riso insieme, fianco a fianco. Un giorno Lola aveva fatto cadere il suo bolo – un attrezzo per tagliare – e Pedro lo aveva raccolta subito, porgendoglielo. “Mi piaceva”, disse Lola.
“Lola, hai mai fatto sesso?”, mi sentii chiederle.
Non era abituata alle domande personali. “Katulonglang ako”, diceva. Sono solo una domestica. Spesso rispondeva con una o due parole, e strapparle anche il più semplice degli aneddoti diventava un’impresa che poteva andare avanti per giorni o settimane.
Alcune delle mie scoperte: Lola ce l’aveva con mamma per essere stata così crudele tutti quegli anni, ma nonostante questo sentiva la sua mancanza. A volte, quando era giovane, Lola si sentiva così sola che non poteva fare altro che piangere. Sapevo che c’erano stati anni in cui sognava di stare con un uomo. L’avevo capito vedendo come abbracciava un grosso cuscino la sera. Ma quando era anziana mi disse che vivendo con i mariti di mamma si era resa conto che stare da sola non era poi così male. Forse avrebbe avuto una vita migliore se fosse rimasta a Mayantoc, se si fosse sposata e avesse avuto una famiglia come i suoi fratelli. Ma forse sarebbe stato peggio. Due sorelle più giovani, Francisca e Zepriana, si erano ammalate ed erano morte. Un fratello, Claudio, era stato ucciso. “Che senso ha farsi queste domande ora?”, diceva. Bahala na: era il suo principio guida. Accada quel che accada. Lei aveva avuto un altro tipo di famiglia. In quella famiglia aveva otto figli: mamma, io e i miei quattro fratelli, e le mie due figlie. Noi otto, disse, avevamo dato un senso alla sua vita.
Nessuno di noi era pronto a vederla morire così all’improvviso.
Il suo infarto cominciò in cucina, mentre preparava la cena. Un paio di ore dopo in ospedale, prima che potessi capire cosa stava succedendo, non c’era più. Erano le 22.56. Tutti i figli e i nipoti si accorsero – pur non sapendo come interpretarlo – che Lola era morta il 7 novembre, come mamma, a dodici anni di distanza.
Lola ha vissuto fino a 86 anni. Mi sembra ancora divederla sulla barella. Ricordo di aver guardato i medici in piedi accanto a quella donna dalla pelle marrone, alta come una bambina, e di aver pensato che non potevano immaginare la vita che aveva fatto. Era priva dell’egoistica ambizione che anima quasi tutti noi, e rinunciando a tutto per le persone che la circondavano aveva conquistato il nostro amore e la nostra fedeltà. Oggi nella mia famiglia Lola è una figura venerata.
Mi ci sono voluti mesi per svuotare tutti i suoi scatoloni in soffitta. Ho trovato delle ricette che aveva ritagliato da alcune riviste negli anni settanta, pensando al giorno in cui avrebbe imparato a leggere. Album con delle foto di mia madre. Premi che avevamo vinto dalle elementari in poi, che noi avevamo buttato e che lei aveva “salvato”. Sono quasi scoppiato a piangere una sera trovando in fondo a uno scatolone una serie di miei articoli ingialliti che neanche ricordavo più. All’epoca Lola non sapeva leggere, ma li aveva tenuti lo stesso.
Il furgone di Doods si è avvicinato a una casetta di calcestruzzo in mezzo a un gruppo di abitazioni fatte quasi tutte di assi e bambù. Intorno al grappolo di case, risaie apparentemente sterminate. Prima ancora di scendere dal furgone ho visto delle persone uscire dalla casa. Doods ha reclinato il suo schienale per schiacciare un sonnellino. Ho messo la borsa di tela in spalla, ho fatto un respiro e ho aperto la portiera.
Ho fatto scivolare la borsa dalla mia spalla e gliel’ho consegnata. Mi ha guardato negli occhi, continuando a sorridere, ha preso delicatamente la borsa ed è andata a sedersi su una panca di legno. Ha tirato fuori la scatola e l’ha guardata da ogni lato. “Dov’è Lola?”, ha chiesto piano. Da queste parti non usa far cremare i propri cari. Non credo sapesse cosa aspettarsi. Ebia si è appoggiata la scatola sulle gambe e si è chinata in avanti fino a toccarla con la fronte. All’inizio ho pensato che stesse ridendo di gioia, ma ho capito subito che stava piangendo. Le spalle hanno cominciato a ondeggiare su e giù, e poi Ebia ha pianto, un profondo gemito di dolore, come di un animale, simile a quello che avevo sentito fare a Lola.
Se non ero venuto prima a portare le ceneri di Lola, era in parte perché non ero sicuro che nelle Filippine qualcuno pensasse ancora a lei. Non mi aspettavo un simile cordoglio. Prima che potessi consolare Ebia, una donna è entrata dalla cucina, l’ha stretta tra le braccia e si è messa a piangere. Un istante dopo tutta la stanza è scoppiata in lacrime. Le persone anziane – una di loro era cieca, altre erano sdentate – piangevano tutte, senza ritegno. È durato circa dieci minuti. Ero così affascinato che quasi non mi sono accorto delle lacrime sul mio viso. Poi i singhiozzi si sono spenti e tutto è tornato calmo.
Ebia ha tirato su con il naso e ha detto che era ora di mangiare. Tutti sono entrati in fila in cucina, con gli occhi gonfi ma sentendosi di colpo leggeri e pronti a raccontare aneddoti. Ho lanciato uno sguardo alla borsa di tela vuota rimasta sulla panca e ho capito che era stato giusto riportare Lola nel luogo dov’era nata.
(Traduzione di Francesca Spinelli)