Thank you Cata for making us appreciate our helpers!
by Cata de Jesus
EVER since I quit my job and had the luxury of writing for myself, I had always planned on writing something about our helpers at home -- as a long-belated tribute to them. They are, and have been, such a blessing to us! And that is an understatement of classic proportions. Without any doubt, our helpers have raised our quality of life immeasurably. They’ve given us so much freedom. Think about it. They’ve freed us from the daily domestic grind. They’ve given us these huge chunks of time to invest in God, our family, work, vacations, lunch and dinners with friends, countless opportunities we would’ve missed if they weren’t there to help take care of our children, cook, do the dishes, wash and iron our clothes, clean the house, disinfect the toilets, change our bed sheets and linens, tend the garden, wash our cars, clean the aquarium, take care of our pets (at different times, we had some goldfish, an assortment of hamsters, Guinea pigs, rabbits, Siamese cats, little green turtles, lovebirds, Japanese spitzes and German Shepherds. Right now we have Ringo, our Beagle master. We are his pet humans).
Can you imagine how many man-hours our helpers have saved us -- and the unending, mindless domestic chores they keep saving us from, up to this very minute?!! In fact, if we didn’t have helpers, I’d probably not be writing this right now. I’d probably be in the kitchen, frying a fish. I’m sure I wouldn’t have accomplished half as much if we didn’t have helpers!
I simply cannot imagine life without our helpers. Whenever my husband and I went on long vacations, the first thing I’d miss (after our children) were our helpers. And home cooking. Even if we were staying in breathtaking castles in the French countryside, sampling scotch in the distilleries of Scotland, sipping wine as we gondola’d through the quiet canals of Venice, feasted on sausages in Zurich, or were tongue-tied by the indescribably beautiful architecture of Prague -- we always missed our children, our helpers, and home cooking: but not always in that order.
We are blessed with four loyal, honest, hard-working helpers. Our oldest one, Tarsing, has been with us for 31 years. She is, and always will be, part of our family. I think Tarsing is older than me. (She doesn’t know for certain how old she is because her birth certificate got lost or was burned somewhere.) Tarsing is a single mom. She has an only child who’s married and has a jeep-load of children, I’ve lost count. When Tarsing took care of our third child, she was just in her early thirties. Even then, she was quiet and unassuming. But there was a stern side to her. She scolded our children when they did something wrong -- but never laid a hand on them. (That was a huge no-no in our household, and we made sure that all our helpers were properly briefed, again and again, about our strict policy on "No Hitting, No Bad Words, No Aswang-Kapre-Tikbalang-Mumu-Mangkukulam Stories." Most of our helpers obeyed, mainly because the pre-ordained consequence then was losing their day-off that week.) Once in a while, Tarsing would still tease our kids with her "aswang" stories because she didn’t care at all about losing her day off. She loved staying at home with us. Why? Because she loved, and still loves, our kids to pieces -- to this day, even if they’re all adults now. Tarsing would’ve spoiled our children rotten if my husband and I didn’t insist on disciplining them.
Since they were small, we taught our children to show respect to our helpers -- so Tarsing has always been "Ate Tars" to our kids, even if our son is already 36 and is now a finance executive who speaks with a twang (because he grew up with Sesame Street and an Ateneo accent). When our son and his wife come home for a visit, Tarsing always whacks him on the hip with a rolled up newspaper -- that’s their unique love language. And he shrieks in mock dismay: "Ate Tars!!!"
As our children grew up, they got used to calling our helpers "ate" and our drivers "kuya." When they had to ask for anything, our children had to say "please" and "thank you." We told our helpers to tell us if any of our children was rude, bossy or disrespectful to them. And whenever we got bad reports from our helpers, we would investigate if the bad report was true. If it was clear that our child had been disrespectful to our helpers, our child/ren had to apologize to them -- in our presence. We made sure that they apologized. The whole process was tedious and laborious at times (especially since my husband and I were often tired when we came home from the office), but this code of behavior at home proved priceless in the long run, particularly in the way our children learned to relate with people from different social classes. By showing respect to our helpers and drivers (their "Kuya Sof" and "Kuya Bert" who were both with us for more than 15 years), our children learned to respect people, whatever their status in life. While our son can be an intellectual snob at times, he never snubs people because of their lack of money or education. In fact, he takes more pains being kinder to them than to his peers. So, I would say that respecting our helpers gave our kids a definite edge: as they grew up, our children felt comfortable talking to school janitors (their "manongs"), as well as CEOs. (Our son used to play basketball, on two separate occasions, with a bank president and the construction workers in our village. But I don’t know who taught him how to trash talk while playing basketball -- the bank president or the construction workers?)
As I think back on the different helpers we’ve had over the years, I’ve come to realize that most of them have proven so reliable! I am quite overwhelmed by this thought. Our helpers have been, and are there for us -- especially in our times of crises. I remember how some of them postponed going home for vacations if my mom got sick and needed them 24/7, or when any of our children had projects, activities or birthday parties at home and they knew we’d be short on help. There was this quiet understanding, this tacit graciousness, in most of them -- many times, they’d put our needs above theirs. One time, I had to insist that one of them go home because her mother was sick. Can you imagine -- she was hesitant to go home because it was school opening for the children and she was thinking what a hard time I would have if she were away! Now isn’t that one of the kindest, most thoughtful things a person can do for another? Upon my insistence, she went home to the province, but came back to us right after her mother got well!
Many times, I’d forget to leave money to pay the newspaper boy. And guess who’d advance the payments -- Tarsing or Shirley! And they’d be too shy to ask me to pay them back, until I remember to ask them: "Hey, who’s been paying for the newspapers the past three weeks?" Only then would one of them say, "Ate, ako po." And they’d be so embarrassed when I’d pay them back! (Shouldn’t it be the other way around?) Sometimes they’d text me from their cellphones to remind me to buy medicines for my mom. But they never ask me to reimburse them for their text messages. And they get all awkward when I give them extra cash for texting me.
One time, one of our yayas ordered a big "bayong" of fresh crabs from the province, cooked it in fresh coconut milk, green veggies and red "siling labuyo" (just the way we like it) - and she gave us a big "caldero" of it! I was put to shame by her generosity! I’ve never shared our crabs with them because I thought crabs are too expensive to share with our helpers. And yet, here was our young yaya with such exceptional generosity! When she went home last January because her parents wanted her to go to college, Armie was crying so hard when she left. And we told her that we’d help her go to school. How in the world can one not help such a kind soul?
When our two daughters got married, Tarsing sat with our children in the VIP section. She missed our son’s wedding for some reason I can’t remember. Last year, at our youngest daughter’s wedding, Tarsing wore my mom’s favorite Thai silk tunic which we bought in Bangkok, and some of my mom’s jewelry. I let Tarsing choose which necklace she liked to wear, and she made an excellent choice: an elegant, white-gold necklace and my mom’s South Sea pearls. (Tarsing put them back on my dressing table right after the wedding!) I was surprised to see a lovely pair of black slip-ons peeping from under her black slacks -- she said she bought it months ago, when we told her that she was going to Astrid’s wedding. In her no-fuss, simple way, she prepared. She even got a manicure and a pedicure! She looked lovely. And she loved the little black evening bag we lent her, complete with a small compact, a lipstick, a tiny bottle of cologne and a small pack of tissue. At the wedding, she was overwhelmed when she saw so much food on the buffet tables. She was stupefied that people ate so much, non-stop, from cocktails to dinner. She found it hilarious that people stuffed themselves silly in a wedding! And she was so embarrassed whenever the waiter would serve her food and refreshments. I thought she’d crawl under the table.
Our other helpers are much younger than Tarsing, so they defer to her as their "Lola Tars" or "Ate Tars," depending on how much younger they are than her. She wields a firm but kind hand over the three younger ones. When they disobey or disrespect her, Tarsing tells me and expects me to deal with the guilty party -- much like the way we held our children accountable, decades ago. Some things never change in our home. We’ve always tried to co-exist peacefully. Come to think of it, only my mom ever really raised her voice at our helpers. I guess that’s how people did it a long time ago, when helpers were treated pretty much like slaves: "alila."
When I was small, I used to cry and squirm in agony whenever my mom would scold our helpers - non-stop, the decibels rising and waking people up at 5 a.m. I guess, even then, I knew how mean and cruel that was. In fairness to my mom, she mellowed; she changed unbelievably when she got older. And then we discovered, quite belatedly, that the reason for her blow-ups and tirades was her uncontrolled diabetes! She had diabetes for more than two decades and we didn’t know it. Whenever her blood sugar shot up, she became irrational. Doctors were treating her for a chemical imbalance or senile dementia when, in fact, what she had was very high blood sugar which affected her brain. Through all those painful episodes with my mom, Tarsing was steadfast and patient. One time, in one of her wild diabetic fits, my mom slapped Tarsing -- and I pulled away my mom in utter panic and deep rage. When I rushed back to Tarsing, she was in tears, in the laundry room. I hugged her tightly, and cried as I apologized for my mom’s horrible behavior. Without hesitation, Tarsing told me (in Tagalog): "Ate, it’s okay. I understand. Lola is sick. She has diabetes. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She would never hurt me if she wasn’t sick." And with that, we clung to each other even more, cried together, and forgave my mom.
Tarsing is such a gracious forgiver, a loyal friend. To this day, she takes care of my 92-year-old mom who reads Harry Potter and her Bible when Tarsing brings her to our balcony for breakfast. At night, my mom wakes up Tarsing maybe five times, to ask for water, milk, or to go to the bathroom. With three other helpers to assist her, Tarsing doesn’t complain at all. I don’t think I will ever find anyone in the world who loves my mom as much as she does.
To all of you out there whose lives have been so enriched, so freed up, made so much more comfortable and easy -- by your helpers -- remember this: They are precious. God gave them to you. Take care of them! Thank them often for serving you well. And, most of all, thank God for them.