Tess (Or: Stories of a First-Generation Filipino Immigrant)

2019 - Windsor, NSW

“Play the guitar so I can sing,” Mum says. “What’s that song…by Don Henley?”

“Heart of the Matter?” I reply.

“Yeah, that. Play that.”

“Don’t wanna.”

“Do it or I tell the Marie biscuit story,” she says.

My sisters and I groan in unison. My sister’s boyfriend leans forward, asks the question we don’t want him to ask. “What’s the biscuit story?

It’s an old favourite. There was a time when mum was young and she hadn’t eaten for days. A couple of neighbourhood kids teased her with a small pack of Marie biscuits. You can have this, they said, if we can drip candle wax all over your arm and you don’t cry and you don’t shout.

And cry she didn’t — but the wax peeled off globs of skin from her forearm. The keloid scars still stand out; angry, large circles trailing from her elbow to the back of her hand. She shows it to my sister’s boyfriend with pride. “You gotta do whatever you can to survive,” she says.

Mum, 11th of 14 children.

— -

1998, Bulacan, Philippines

“I’m the only reason you have a good life,” the old man spits.

Tita Beth ushers my sisters and I outside. Go and play with your friends, she mouths. But we all know that something’s going down, so we walk the moss-covered alleyways leading to an alcove at the back of the house where we could still hear. My youngest sister’s lips tremble, close to tears.

Mum after her wedding in City Hall, 1985.

“You’re nothing without me,” the old man continues. “I’m the only reason you have a good life!”

“While you’ve been away for years, I’ve been taking care of the kids!” Mum shouts back.

The old man pauses, just like he always does when he’s winding up. “You’re ugly as fuck, you look like a man, and without me you’re as good as dirt in the gutter. I’m the last man who will ever fucking love you. You’re not going to get anything from me, not anymore. If you stay with the kids, they’re not getting shit from me. So get the fuck out.”

“Are you done?” Mum says, quietly.

“I’m done,” the old man replies. Mum bites her lip bitterly, waits for the old man to start walking out. When he’s almost out the door, she throws a plastic dustpan against his head. He bolts away, swearing, and we don’t see him for a while and when we finally do, it’s when he’s walking out of the neighbour lady’s house.

Mum at her first job in a textiles factory, 12 years old.

1999, Bulacan, Philippines

Unused, dusty boxes of Avon products. Old, crinkled AmWay flyers from conferences past. Hair products from when she had a hairdresser stint, atop a makeshift table from when she tried selling fried quail eggs to make the ends meet. She wakes up, raises her head from a pillow of mounting unpaid bills, looks at herself through a vanity mirror she couldn’t sell.

I’m going to kill myself, an angry part of her says. I’m going to kill myself and show maybe he’ll finally be happy.

She sees us getting ready for school, and she puts on a tired smile. Lights a cigarette. The phone rings. She does a quick scan for the number — could be one of the people she owed money to — then picks it up when she sees it’s coming from out of the country.

“Tess! How are you?” It’s Rosie, her sister.

“You gotta take me to Australia,” Mum says. “Nothing is working here. Everything I touch is failing.”

“Uh, sorry-”

“You gotta take me Rosie, I tell you. I can’t do it anymore. You gotta take me, or this might be the last time you’ll speak to me.”

Unfortunately, I did not inherit her fashion sense.

2001, Cronulla, NSW

“-seven, eight, nine…and there you go,” Lou whispers, as she counts every ten dollar bill before handing it to Mum. Mum grabs the stack, presses it against her nose. It smells of salt and sweat, but it’s the most money she’s held in her hand — a hundred bucks for six 12-hour days running a grocer.

“How’s your English?” Lou says.

“It’s good! Very good,” Mum replies, but her head’s somewhere else. She’s thinking about a box to send home to the kids — what would she put in it? A couple of Toblerone bars, maybe? Maybe grab some clothes off the donation bin before the Salvos collect it. The kids are getting old, but maybe they’d still like toys?

“Doesn’t matter if you have money or not — you gotta carry yourself with pride and look as good as you can,” she always said.

A couple of months later, the boxes arrive. She calls the kids and asks for photos — she’d love it if the kids were wearing the clothes she sent. But it’s been a couple of years since she’s seen them. The kids had grown faster than her memories.

My sister asks her why she’d send winter jackets to the Philippines. “It’s a promise,” Mum says. “When you’re all here, we can go vacationing, skiing — all the things that rich people do. We’ll do it when the family’s back together.”

2004, Windsor, NSW

“God fucking dammit,” Phil shouts, as he stomps around the house, throwing the windows open at every turn. “Your fucken stinky Filipino food is stinkin’ up the house.”

We’re quiet at the table — but a part of us is used to it now. Phil complains all the time anyways. Mum walks outside, lights up a cigarette with trembling hands. She gives us a wan smile. “Oh, you know how he is,” she says. “He’s not like this most days.”

“I just don’t get why you’re with him,” my sister says.

Mum bought my first computer in 2004, a Pentium II originally from a bank, sold at an auction for 50 bucks. I don’t miss it.

Thrums of an incoming truck, staccato beeps of it backing into the timber factory right outside the house. They can pay her just enough to make rent, assuming she keeps a couple of double shifts a week.

“It’s really not that bad,” Mum replies. “You know, I heard your Tita Anna had to go to the hospital last month when her monster of a husband beat her up. And we’re here, we’re safe, we’re alive. We gotta be thankful.”

But late nights she’s drunk and she cries when she thinks we can’t hear her. Could be that she’s miserable, could be the pain from the spine injury she’s sustained from long days hammering timber pallets into place. Choking sobs of someone holding something hot inside; like she’s trying to keep it in her ribs.

Most mornings we all wake up already tired. But still she wakes up before everyone else to make breakfast.

2010, Bilpin, NSW

She’s off her face, but not in the way she used to be. There’s a smile on her face as she holds Kevin’s hand, new rings glittering against their fingers. She points her wine glass at me, motioning for me to pick up a guitar. “Play me a song so I can sing,” she says.

“What song?” I reply.

“The ‘house’ song. We can all sing it.”

I shrug. The sisters groan. Kevin walks towards the house to take a leak. Mum turns to me, and quietly slurs, “You know what? This feels…so weird.”

“Getting married is weird?” I say.

Mum nods. “Yeah. In…the forty years of my life, I think this is the first thing I’ve done for myself. I feel so lucky, but I don’t know if I deserve this happiness.”

A lull comes, and we sit in silence for a while. We all feel it at once, a hesitant longing for rest rising, lapping at our feet. The tiredness from all the work of decades past. Is it finally all done?

She picks up her phone, watching a video of herself making a wedding speech — in tears, in heavily-accented English. Then she turns to pictures of her kids. There’s a smile I haven’t seen before.

DevOps. Stories. Guitars. Motorcycles. Melbourne.

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