Sunken Treasure

My mother, Eileen Calinawan Conda, was a natural-born storyteller.

When we were young, Mama would tell us that she was kidnapped by a band of Muslim pirates, off the island of Mindanao, Philippines. She said this happened right before the outbreak of World War II. She would have been five years old at the time.

Although she was hazy on the embellishments, Mama captivated my imagination. How could she have been taken from her own family by these pirates, and not be found by her parents for three, four years? On the other hand, what adventures awaited a young girl while in captivity?

Mama was the “baby” in a family of five brothers and a sister. Her brothers all served in the Philippine Army or the Navy. They were much older than Mama. Her parents, Maria and Marcelino, were away from home every day. They gambled and drank. Mama was often left home alone. What kind of parents were my grandparents, to leave a child that young?

There were many other fables through the years. Fictional characters fashioned after flesh-and-blood people, family members, friends, enemies. Mama was a master weaver of tales. To the child’s mind, all was as distinct as black and white. But if there’s anything true, it was that Mama, indeed, cloaked herself in gradients of grey.

It might have been when I turned thirteen when I had an epiphany about my mother.

She lied to me.

Her world-view shaped my own.

As I grew older, I resented Mama more. Our battles were a daily thing. Sometimes, I would challenge her version of things. I convinced myself that this was why she disliked me so much. We were enemies from the beginning.

Like a ship that was poised to sink to the bottom of the ocean, our relationship was wrecked. It was irreparable.

When Mama died this past May, I saw her closest nieces at the wake.

My cousins, Lourdes and Teresa, said that our grandparents were rich. And along with that old wealth came all the trappings–housekeepers, nannies, fast cars, fancy dresses, booze, and gambling. How about child neglect?

Mama’s parents did leave her, like she had always said, not with a band of pirates but with the housekeepers and nannies, at home. She was a lonely little girl who wanted to belong to, and to be loved by someone. In order to survive, Mama had to invent her life.

Mama was buried alongside Papa a week after she had died. All that I want now is to rediscover her stories, just like one would for sunken ships.

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