The Family


I'm told that in a typical Filipina family one child, usually a daughter, gets lumbered with the final responsibility for looking after the family. Perhaps some sociologist has researched this phemonmenon. I know of none. How is this person chosen? Questioning the few Filipinos that I know well elicited no clue. Just like leaders of the British Conservative Party of the past they "emerge." While that no longer applies to the Conservatives it still seems to apply to the family-responsible Filipino. It is possibly a combination of an individual's make-up and, once that person takes some responsibility, the others just come to expect it and behave quite selfishly.

The others do not normally cease to participate in contributing to the family's welfare. It is just that one sibling has ultimate responsibility. It might behove a man to elicit this information before he commits to a Filipina because choosing Miss Responsible could have serious implications for his future. Whereas one sister might take a fairly independent course to maximise her pleasure the responsible one might be nagged constantly by conscience. An example!

A friend was courting a Filipina widowed from an older Australian. She had two children by him. He died and left her a house and considerable money. So he died hoping that he had done the responsible thing by his wife and children. But the widow was still Miss Responsible. She sold the house and liquidated other assets and sent the lot to her parents. They had a business in Manila and constantly had asked for cash to help develop their business. The large sum of money had no string - no investment nor partnership nor promise of support to, for example, educate her children. She was a nurse and used this income to rent a place and raise the kids very modestly by Australian standards. My friend, a young Norwegian, just could not understand this. He tried to persuade her that she should keep the house and use any money willed her to provide for the children's education. He wanted to marry her but considered that, as the children had been left provided for, his contribution would be towards their intended children and enhancement of the standard of living of all of them. It built such bitterness in him that, in spite of loving her, he gave her up. To him her action was the peak of irresponsibility. And, as he kept repeating, "The parents did not even write to thank her - and she did not mind at all."

There is a reason behind this rough sociology with my example. Mary WAS Miss Responsible!

Why? She was not the eldest though the two older siblings were men. One was a splendid, sensitive man in his late thirties. He had been trained as a teacher but progressive nerve blindness prevented a career. He prayed a lot. He had built a tiny two-roomed house no bigger than a children's cubby house in the West up the mountain behind the barangay. Constructed out of bamboo, coconut tree, and corrugated iron it was similar to many such houses of various sizes all over the mountain between the coconuts, lanzones and bamboo. These residents did not own the land. They had just asked the landowner's permission to construct there. As to the implications for squatters' rights I have no idea. In the West it would be fraught with future problems of ownership.

There was an established way of buiding there. The coconut tree was bought for a standard price and sawed up using a hired chainsaw. This formed the framework and some slabs were used to cover up to the window on one side. I suppose that, in a larger dwelling, it would all be used for the frame - possibly more than one tree. The roof was iron and the other walls up to the window-bottom level were of cement sheet. Above that was split bamboo. The floor was of split bamboo as were the few little shelves - even the shelf across the small kitchen upon which the cooking fire was lit between a couple of stones. An iron pot sat on this to boil his rice. The fire burned on a large flat stone. Even versatile bamboo is not up to that! There was no furniture. The house was on a steepish slope with stumps to front as was the door and the back at ground level. The stumps were 3 feet high and the depth to the back wall was nearly 2 1/2 yards. The width was 4 yards split into two rooms: kitchen and bedroom. The door was reached by a plank parallel to the front wall and it was a feat to enter it.

He did not usually sleep there at night. He kept chickens for eggs and as an occassional cash sale. Diminutive birds that I would call bantams with eggs to match. He fed them a little rice and for the rest they scratted in the litter under the trees. He propagated them in boxes under the house. He was a modern-day Francis of Assisi. Very quiet in demeanor and serious of conversation. Remote from the world yet with a good knowledge of current world affairs. We had many conversations which demonstrated this though he was totally non-judgemental. He listened to BBC World Service and VOA every day on the family's National domestic radio. It had SW1 and 2. Every morning he would place a half coconut husk under his foot and vigorously polish the wood floor of the family house. He helped generally about the house in a quiet, almost invisible, way.

Mary, being a teacher, had to spend several days pre-election (Estrada) registering and officiating at the local polling station - the school. During this time I accompanied St Francis up to his house and we chatted or, when I developed flu, I slept on the mat in his bedroom. He would climb an enormous coconut tree using the notches before throwing down a few coconuts. After descending he would skillfully slice the end off with his bolo to make a cup to drink the milk. Then he made a little shell spoon with which I scraped and ate the succulent white jelly. He quickly wove me a mat from coconut leaves so that I could lie outside with my side against a tree to prevent rolling down the hill. He often quietly disapeared to spend an hour in prayer. At least Mary said that is what he did. Once a day he would go off through the woods with his 5 gallon oil drum to fetch water from a stream a couple of miles away. One learns the value of recycling water there! A few trees away he visited a woman with two children and spent time there - innocently I assume because Mary considered him a virgin. This woman's house was so low that I could see over the roof. I think that the adults must have moved around on their knees. There was not far to move! He often visited in the evening which left Mary and I alone. But he moved so quietly that one was always apprehensive for his return- nudge, nudge!

We usually returned down the mountain track about 7 - 8 pm. Once it had rained heavily and the amazingly sticky mud rapidly buit up an inch thick on the soles of our thongs. Then we had to stop to scrape them. I gave up and walked bare-foot as I do at home anyway. But, to Filipinas, this seems unthinkable. Probably, in the Third World, the distinction between poverty and poor is that bit of rubber betwixt the sole and the dirt. I found Filipinos were unbelieving when I told them that my children attented primary school bare-foot - in the city! They asked why they did not have shoes. They have plenty I assured them. This only increased their mystification. I told them that the children, generally, only wore shoes when forced. A constant complaint of parents was that they sent their kids out in shoes only to have them left somewhere out there often never to be seen again.

The next-oldest brother was married and they lived in the upstairs room with their toddler. There was no work locally so he was mostly away working. I only met him twice. He was more interested in his wife on his rare appearances home. I did not know him. But I often chatted to his wife who was charming and well educated. She calmly sat about watching TV or helping mother or looking after the toddler. One day it left a little pile on the floor and my, was she embarrassed

Mary had two younger sisters. One about 20 who had gone to Manila to work, fell in love, was promised marriage and became pregnant. He left her so she came home to have the baby. She was apparently lazy as she seemed to do little and posessed a wilful, quick temper. Her mother seemed to do most of bringing up her baby.

The other sister was 13 and home on holidays. Good looking like Mary and very shy. She seldom spoke and was out with friends when not helping with house chores.

Then there was a 12 year boy who seemed totally spoiled. He came in for meals only and we hardly saw him.

Father was self-employed raising a few pigs in the back yard where one saw him at 6 am , squatting, stirring some swill concoction in a large pot on a very smoky fire. He also acted as a local agent for a banana distributor. He went around collecting neighbours' bananas which were piled in the back yard until a large lorry arrived to take them away. I don't suppose he made a lot out of that. Behind the house was a primitive trailer. Two long logs tied together in a long "V" and resting on a wood axle on the ends of which were wood wheels made out out two slabs of wood. I suppose that, some time in the past, it was pulled by a cow. I never saw it used and I am sorry now that I did not ask about it. No one in the house owned a vehicle - not a moped nor even a bicycle. Dad was a serious type and, I gathered from St. Francis, severely strict. He certainly had not spared the rod and Saint said that he was still frightened of his father because he remembered the beatings as a child.

Father, 56, was some sort of elected barangay official and seemed much respected. Up to a few years ago he had been employed picking coconuts until he fell down a tree and smashed his head on a rock. According to Mary he would have died had not "his lord" paid for his hospitalisation. He showed no sign of this late injury though Mary assured me that he had a bad back and was now incapable of paid employment. Each morning he would trek down the hill to cross the road and down the steps to the local spring along with the rest of the barangay. Mary's biggest desire was to make sufficient money to buy household equipment and buy him an adjacent plot and provide the capital for a small piggery business. As she was only a relief teacher with about half-time employment this was taking time. But she was now at the top of the list for the next full-time position.

One evening, on some special occasion , dad had two cronies in for drinks. Tanduay rum! Very cheap and a swell taste if one likes rum. There are several grades but even the ordinary is good. One man was about 40 and a bit of a joker and the other a bit older. Neither spoke much English. They all smoked - still a fairly universal men's habit around there. They became very merry and tried to ply me with rum. I like the stuff but was going through a beer-only phase so I stuck to the good old San Miguel. I was very familiar with this cerveza as I had regularly drunk it in Spain. Indeed, I thought it was a Spanish company and that it was a popular tipple in the RP because they were the old colonisers. Later I was told that it was the other way about. Whichever, it is a pleasant drink.

Dad seemed intent on drawing me into the circle and asked me questions in his difficult English. Even more difficult because of the slight slurring! He seemed intent on demonstrating to the others that I was a college teacher and ex-businessman. He translated for the others. Then the young man asked how old I was. Dad translated my 66. He seemed surprised and grinned as he lifted his little finger and then curled it. Mary was in earshot and I caught her eye. She was absolutely deadpan. What control! It was a confusing and frustrating exchange with Dad because he was proud of his little Tanduay- aided English. But I had to ask him to repeat all the time and I was worried that might upset him. I was secretly cursing that Mary did not come to my assistance as my looks were pleading to her. I think though that this was men's stuff and probably a set piece to "grill" me. Later, many other Western men said they had undergone a similar experience.

Mother was not yet 50 and quite attractive. However, her front teeth were missing and they obviously rated the acquisition of a prosthesis low in the family budget. She was an industrious woman and Mary was kept infantilised. One evening we were out having a walk and some fun. At 8.30 Mary became agitated and wanted to get home. "Give me 5 minutes more...of your charms". I persuaded her to linger. We eventually arrived home just before 9.30. Mary received a tongue lashing for being in so late at might. I could not get over this. Here was an intelligent and perceptive 32 year old teacher and mother of two bending her head and receiving humbly the verbal, moralising abuse from her mother. When I questioned her she said: "That's the way it is here." - and not resentfully. Her mother - and father knew very little English so she mostly just smiled at me. My impression was that she was at least an equal of her husband and the money-handler.

Copyright © Clive Halliday 2001.