My mother grew up both incredibly wealthy and desperately poor. Her father was from a wealthy Muslim family who had hectares of the most fertile land in the Philippines. He married a tango dancer whose lax Catholicism permitted both dancing and marriage. My mother talks about how formal dinner was at her grandfather's house, a formidable man who inspired Amy Vanderbilt table manners with his tongue’s click. How servants would walk them to school and how they would climb fruit-laden trees dropping sweetness to those women following the whims of such children.
This all changed nine years later when her father met a Muslim woman in university and decided he could afford two wives. Here Catholicism became more tangible. Though I imagine a green goddess of jealousy dressed by Erte replete with a jade crown entered from some trap door hidden in the stage. She’s shrouded in a nun's habit because piety is safer than addressing the stickiness of feeling like the second-best dancer. My grandmother took all three children they had and drove them straight into the gutter, replacing their identities with those of saints.
My mother became Emma whose contribution to sainthood is listed as a violent temper as a child which became milder after her husband’s death and who was known for her helping those in poverty. God, did they need such a saint because in poverty they were reborn. A husband’s death just the flair of a Medea’s wishful thinking, I suppose.
The tales of this period are of an evil stepmother who would lock the pantry so they couldn’t eat rice. About houses made of cardboard and set with tin roofs. About begging for existence and tottering on insecurity. Then the pride of coming from a better place which didn’t endear one to others in schoolrooms. She was also very dark skinned, signalling her squalor and making her story of a life once rich improbable and not believable.
That intersection of worlds both succulent and scarce created a perfect maid for a rich Dole vice president. Carolina, his wife, had married this husband twice and had had as many marriages as Elizabeth Taylor. Like Liz and Livia before her, she demanded the attention of an immortal. “ Always marry a rich man” was her refrain to me: it didn't matter if he threw you across the room every now and again. She saw in my mother the devotion of a daughter who never questioned a tyrant. Under her tutelage, my mother learned English, wifely duties, entertaining, and how to cook, things her own daughters underestimated as they were ensconced in the late 60’s counterculture: beautiful blonde twins permanently sunned under the shadow of Disney’s destruction of Orange Groves.
One of those twins would marry my uncle whose charm was solely in his ability to sing “Love Me Tender” with that curl of a lip and practiced hip thrust. Never mind that he was only playing a role, not actually changing the face of music: imitation is almost like dating a musician. Right? Though this imbibing of a great icon only belied an insecurity. What does it mean to feel like you are Elvis without any of the actual accomplishments? Maybe that’s why eyeshadow was applied by raging fists.
My father was a stringbean of a man who loved Dylan and had lived selling candles at the Saturday Market. He was considered thoughtful and kind in comparison to his bloviated brother. Carolina found in him a willing accomplice to bring this new daughter home. After all, it wasn't like he was a great judge in picking women: he had been married twice before 35. Now he sat alone on ships singing the songs of Otis Redding, a situation not exactly conducive to his finding a suitable girl. He filled his time with nothing, so he and my mother began to correspond by mail.