by Reeda Bantug
Looking back at my growing up years in a provincial city where my family had planted its roots, I can see the image of one woman that has stood tall and grown her wings to flight. She was someone that came into my life when I was a young girl. In the beginning, I had my reservations and resentment because I did not know what life would be like if she set a permanent foot in our household. Yes, she was a beautiful creature, fair skinned with attractive Spanish mestiza looks. It was no doubt that my father took a liking to her.
Only a few years prior, when I was five, a terrible tragedy struck the family. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on. I can only faintly remember how this sad news was made known to me. I vaguely recall visiting her at the hospital with my two younger brothers, aged four and three years old. We were just told that our mother was sick, not knowing what this could lead to. For us, it only meant that she was not at home to play Trip to Jerusalem with us and read us bedtime stories. With our very young minds, my siblings and I had no inkling that our life would soon take an abrupt turn to uncertainty. In only a week or two thereafter, our happy and peaceful days became sorrowful as the doctors were unable to save my mother from liver failure. Only days before, she was active and played her favourite sport, pelota. It was an utter shock to everyone that a young and vibrant wife and mother of three, aged only 29, would just so suddenly leave this world. To all who knew her, this was an unbelievable turn of events and an incomprehensible realization of how life is so fragile.
For my father, who was devastated at losing his beloved wife, a more daunting reality faced him. How will he raise three children on his own? Even though his parents, in-laws and other family members were all supportive, it would be a difficult task to play both father and mother to very young kids who needed love and guidance, especially in dealing with the loss of a parent. As time passed and the grieving process ended, my mother’s siblings and cousins took it upon themselves to help my father go on with his life. They convinced him to go out on dates and they succeeded in their matchmaking efforts.
A close friend of my mother had a niece who looked like a fitting candidate to become a partner to my father and a second mother to us. In the eyes of my uncles and aunts, she had good qualities that were acceptable to everyone, including my grandparents. Thus, their courtship began and ended when she and my father were married. I was 9 years old and I was the junior bridesmaid at my dad’s wedding to my new stepmother.
I was not too ecstatic at this scenario as I was unsure of how I would relate with her. I was just going through the motions because this was the right thing to do, but deep down inside, I was scared, confused, and sad. The thought that there was another woman, unfamiliar to me, in our lives was difficult to comprehend. Maybe I was insecure of my father’s love for me and my siblings because there was another person who would fill his heart and mind. Maybe I also missed my mother and didn’t want anyone to replace her. I didn’t know much of what to expect, so I just coasted along, becoming a little bit withdrawn from the world outside. I kept to myself and didn’t like talking much to others about myself.
So how did things work out with my new stepmother as she became a real part of my life? Was she like the one portrayed in the fairytale Cinderella, unkind to her stepdaughter, especially when the father was not around? Much to my surprise, she was a far cry from this. She was soft-spoken and kind to us. She did her best to win me over by accompanying me to school and other activities. As an ice breaker and in an effort to get closer, she took me on a long vacation abroad. This enabled us to get to know each other better and this gave us a chance to be more comfortable with our situation. She showed me that she cared for me and my brothers by taking care of our family’s needs as well as giving us the moral support that we badly needed.
Things were smooth sailing, as we all got along well, with no quarrels nor misunderstandings. She and my father also had a loving relationship and complemented each other. She was a perfect homemaker, making sure that everything in the house was in order, from the delicious homecooked meals to beautifully arranged furnitures. Because she had an artistic flair and enjoyed creative endeavors like painting and decorating, our home became a haven for parties and gatherings. Family and friends were welcome to come, either for business meetings, choir and dance practices, or swimming. We experienced many happy memories and she played a major role in our lives.
When I went through turbulent times, she was also there to give sound advice and offered comfort and solace. When I or my siblings were sick, she made it a point to take care of us and bring us to the doctor. She was patient in dealing with any kind of difficulties that we faced, always reaching out to us and looking out for us. Although she was firm when she needed to show discipline to correct us, she was not rash and was always careful with her words and actions.
Even in my adult years, she still maintained her loving kindness and caring ways. She remained thoughtful, understanding, and supportive. Always taking one step forward, she knew what others needed and she was there to give a helping hand to those in need.
Her life was all quite steady until she had to face the greatest battle of her life. First, she had to be brave for my father who was diagnosed with liver cancer. Then she herself also had to deal with her own sickness, having breast cancer. They both went through the burdens of their failing mortal bodies. But their strong faith carried them through and their courageous spirits triumphed over their frailities. My dad left her two years before she followed. Suddenly, we were left to be on our own.
Thinking about my stepmother, whom I called Mama leaves a hole in my heart because she was a brave selfless soul who showed me the love of a real mother.