ANGELA GABRIELLE FABUNAN tells the tale of two mothers: the one that gave birth to her and the one who actually taught her the meaning of the word family.
W hen I was three years old, I asked my mother where I came from and she answered by pointing at her belly. “You didn’t come from here,” she responded but then she moved her finger to her heart and said, “you came from here.” This is mostly because of another person, a woman who went by the name Sally San Martin.
On a rainy March day in the town of Olongapo, Philippines, Sally knocked on the door of a respectable family and was answered by its matriarch, a woman named Lolit. Sally was sixteen years old at that time. She was a high school dropout who lived alone in a run-down apartment and worked in a disreputable place. She was also visibly pregnant and they say she had the unruliest hair. Lolit took one look at her and decided that she would help the young mother-to-be. Urged by pity, she supported Sally financially and emotionally throughout the whole pregnancy and when she finally gave birth to me–a bundle of nerves and limbs—she departed.
I was told she visited me during the first few weeks after my birth but was gone months later without leaving anything to help me know more of her. She didn’t leave a letter explaining her departure or a vivid picture of her. She also didn’t give my birth father’s name or even her real name. Because she left, Lolit decided to take her place allowing me to now write this: a tale of two mothers.
W hen Lolit decided to adopt me, she didn’t do so immediately. She already had five other biological children at that time, and her youngest, Rossano, was already 15 years old. She and my late, adoptive father, Felipe, had not had a child in their daily lives for 15 years prior to my arrival and they were enamored with the sight of a new baby. Nevertheless, Lolit asked her other five children whether or not they consented to my adoption. Had any one of them refused, she wouldn’t have proceeded with it. She asked them one by one: first, the eldest Dante, then the next in line, Rommel. She then asked Ria, my only sister, then Troy, then Rossano. The first two said they didn’t mind. Ria and Troy elatedly agreed, and Rossano said, “Can we please keep her?” They did, and because of that, I was made privy to kind of mother Lolit is.
First and foremost, Lolit is the kind of woman who holds her family intact. My dad was a silent and brooding figure; he was the backbone of the family. He helped with the theoretical but always made sure that we were practical. He helped us with academics, with bullies, and with our intellectual and emotional dilemmas. He always took our side in fights and was the good cop to Lolit’s bad cop.
Lolit, meanwhile, was a decision-maker. Our family moved to the United States to secure a better future and she was the mastermind of that plan. She was also a disciplinarian. I’ve heard horror stories of my siblings’ childhoods which saw them kneeling on rice while being punished. My siblings say she softened when I came along, and even insinuate that I was spoiled. But I had my share of punishments too. Lolit always knew that she could punish me most by not letting me go to school functions or friends’ sleepovers, which hit me harder than any other punishments she could have given. She was also very strict in imposing that I speak Tagalog in the house, even in the States.
But no matter how strict she was, Lolit supported me in every endeavor as I was growing up.
I was an inquisitive child but I knew early on I liked reading and writing. She was the one who told me to keep a journal of my poems and to mind the date of the journal entry. She supported my school, which had a very strong arts program for children. She literally sewed together every single one of the dance skirts that my dance troupe had to use. Every year, in line with our school’s cultural night, she put together my Filipino costume and cooked food for the event.
I remember late nights staying up with her, rehearsing my parts in the plays that my public school staged in the fifth and sixth grades. Respectively, they were “Oliver” and “Joseph and the Multi-Colored Dreamcoat.” I remember going with her and Ria (who I called “Manang” because we used the Ilokano version of the “Ate”) to the latter play. I had a singing part, and I had to enter the stage on top of a rotating staircase to sing my solo. Keep in mind, I’m pretty much practically tone-deaf, rejected from the glee club because I couldn’t sing “Happy Birthday” in the right tune. Manang Ria and Mama Lolit were nervous and scared when I started singing. Afterwards, Manang Ria said, “Maybe she can actually sing.” I’m not a singer, but it sure felt like I was when Mama and Manang clapped and cheered loudly for me.
Basically, when Mama decided she would have me, she decided she’d be there for me forever. She continues to stand by that decision. She remains the figure of respect, comfort and stability in my life to this day. And this is something I can’t say about my birth mother.
In my memory, Sally is a figure shrouded in darkness with a void for a face. Perhaps I should not feel anything for a shadow, but I do. I catch myself trying to fill the gaps of what I don’t know about Sally using the attributes of the people in my life. Maybe she was a quintessential teen who worried about crushes the way my friends and I did. Other times, I can see her in my Mama Lolit, especially when she makes tough decisions with only my best interests at heart. Maybe when Sally gave me away, it was not the desperate act of a cowardly teenager; maybe there were contextual reasons behind it. And as fate would have it, there was a time when it seemed as though I could know for sure.A month ago, prior to the writing of this story, I received a message from a random person on Facebook named Annie. She introduced herself as Sally’s former coworker and friend. She said that Sally was alive and that she’s from Cavite. She also said that Sally was a beautiful woman, a very caring and compassionate one, and that, surely, she regrets giving me away because of her circumstances in life.
I was shocked because it opened up so many of the questions that I kept hidden: “Why did she give me away? How could she give me away? Does she think of me still? Does she want to be in my life? Do I want her in mine? Does she regret what she did?”
Annie urged me to go to Cavite to search for Sally. She told me to look for Mommy Lou’s sari-sari store where I would find Kuya Bashong. He would then direct me to the fortune-telling sisters Jackie and Janice who would know where Sally was located.
It sounded like a teleserye adventure, honestly. I could already predict the dramatic moment, and I could tell that Annie was also invested in that ending—the one where Sally and I would finally meet. Yet, the whole thing seemed to me like it was not only a mess and a farce but a wild goose chase.
I told Annie that if Sally wants to get to know me, she should be the one to contact me. I’m not going to go to Cavite to find someone who probably doesn’t even want to be found. I made a decision that day, and I stuck to it. To this day, I have not yet met my biological mother, but I am not waiting for her—I’m going on with my life. It seems like a harsh choice to make to not use every opportunity to find your birth parents. Yet, somehow this is what I’ve chosen.
Some people talk of “lukso ng dugo” (which literally means “jumping of blood”.) It is that instinctive feeling that when you find someone who is your family, then you’ll know. But I don’t need to meet Sally to feel this “lukso ng dugo.” I recognize it when I meet up with my Manang Ria, who lives in the States, and who I don’t see often now that I’m back in the Philippines; I feel it when Rossano and my beautiful niece, Malaya, arrive here every June. I also instinctively feel “lukso ng dugo” when I go to Mama’s house over the weekends.
I don’t think family is exclusive of blood; family, like the thought of home for me, is complicated, but it is also a place of deep comfort and inclusivity. This is because my family has never treated me as if I was adopted. Not only did my parents love me, but so did my four brothers and only sister; they spoiled me as the bunso (youngest child.) Why would I need Sally when I already have that? This is always the response I give to Mama whenever she reminds me of our pact: that we agreed early on that I can always look for Sally after I finish college. Having done that, however, it now seems moot.
Is it so terrible to take sides in the narrative of nature vs. nurture? Should I be more sympathetic to Sally because she is my birth mom? Am I biased for taking Mama’s side? Does the closeness of the 30 years I have been with Mama Lolit skew the balance of my conceptions about Sally? Does my anger towards Sally’s supposed rejection of me spur on this bias and my decision to not look for her? Is it fair to think of her simply as Sally and not Mama Sally?
Cognizant of these questions, I remind myself that I am caught in the middle, and yet it’s no one’s fault. I am the product of two mothers whether I like it or not; the absence of my birth mom and the presence of my adoptive mom influence my decisions. If Sally cannot be separated from her contextual past, neither can I.
I ’ve heard of and known lots of adopted children who didn’t discover that they’re adopted until late in life.
That must’ve felt like a blow to them. I’m lucky to have learned about my adoption and about Sally at an early age. I didn’t have to deal with the full-blown anger, resentment, and contention that most adopted children have had to undergo. And yet the remnants are still there. One question keeps recurring for me no matter how coolly distant I seem in talking about Sally: does she ever think about the weight I was forced to carry when she decided to give me up? How it might be influencing the way I handle rejection in all aspects of my life now? Although, when I do conceptualize how Sally must have felt during those nine months that she carried me, I feel a little less angry towards her. Thinking about her in this way has taught me an important fact: the motivations behind a person’s actions are not always simple or immediately apparent. Even though I might not know the specifics, imagining the long context of her situation helps in unveiling the shadows around her.
Whenever I think of her, I try to picture her in the best light. I try not to think of the malicious gossip that my nannies have told me of her—that Sally might have wanted to let me “go” completely before meeting Mama Lolit. This apparently explains some of my physical attributes (like my scoliosis and curved foot, supposedly the direct result of efforts meant to abort children.) I don’t blame her for wanting to choose that path, though I would not exist now. Now, more than ever, having been a sixteen-year-old girl myself (as well as trying to come to terms with my view of Sally in the present as an adult,) I try to think of the effect that youth might have placed on her.
I am not a mistake, but maybe I am a regret—surely, all mothers regret being away from their children.
Aside from changing how I view others, Sally and, of course, Mama Lolit, also influenced how I perceive myself. In my youth, I always thought about who I was in the context of who Sally could be, in reality. I had serious questions like the following: Am I this or that because I heard Sally was this or that? Would I have made the same decision as her? Is my ill health genetic? I also have petty questions like these: Do I have unruly hair like her? Do I look like her? Who’s prettier? I had always hoped in my youth that in learning more about her, I would discover the person I would become. And that prospect both exhilarated and terrified me.
Growing up though, Sally’s absence affected me less than my Mama Lolit’s presence did. The latter taught me the most valuable lessons in life: to have principles and beliefs I should stick with; to know what’s right and wrong and to be able to explain and back up my actions based on what I think is the right decision.
Putting aside all the emotions I feel about Sally’s absence, I am resolute in my decision not to search for her. I do think it’s for the best. My adoptive family, my only family, and Mama Lolit, the only mother I have known, brought me up to be who I am now. And I can’t think of a more fitting ending than to be with this family—my family—for the rest of my life.