The older one was learning how to ride the bike while carrying her sister in the back seat. They had worked out a routine. It required an afternoon of painstaking pushing by our “yaya” along the roundabout.
I snapped a photo. It was quite absurd. I should be ashamed of myself. Here was an adult, running in circles, trying to balance a bike with two brats. That afternoon, they advanced to including a puppy in the basket.
But the ridiculous stunt seemed quite ordinary. Our nanny was laughing with the children. She was joyful to be in that loop, balancing machine, two brats, and a dog.
I had a yellow BMX bicycle. And I remember being on that same route with a driver and maid in tow. I thought I had trained myself to bike. Now I recall I had a maid waiting on foot. And breaking every fall.
The nanny. I remember her. She was a permanent fixture in every house we lived in.
Aw-aw, who every night, had to keep her assuring “I am here” hand on my backside.
Eva, whose 6-month-old baby I had thrown off the bed. Three years I was without and yearning for my mother. Eva must have lulled me to sleep.
Yolanda, who sang about heartache and forbidden love. We endured each other. I couldn’t sleep so I supped on her anguished lullabies. She was despairing and guilty and so found herself a confessor.
And then there’s Azucena. Perhaps my mom had an intimation of the role she was to play in our life, and so christened her Nanay Cena. Our mother was a gypsy and shuttled between places. But heaven sent us our version of Mary Poppins. She was the steady, dependable soldier in our lawless anarchy. She remembered to dress us up in clothes that matched, cook us the familiar birthday spaghetti, and play us old trusty movies. She took every blow, sword poke, spit ball, as my brothers braved through the chaos that happens when someone leaves. The day I blossomed into a woman, Nanay Cen taught me how things are worn and womanhood is endured. And she knew where everything was kept: finding again the things we needed as we lived out of boxes.
The nanny. They come into your life, or your child’s. And your lives get entangled. Entwined. And are forever changed.
The different world they come from becomes yours. You learn love songs and cuss words, take in a whiff of strong perfume, sample bright red lipstick, and develop a taste for salted fish with burnt crispy rice from the bottom of a pan. You hang out at their rooms, feasting your eyes on the half-naked women on their walls. You hear about the next-door neighbor and sex.
And the different world you are in becomes theirs. They endure the dirty diapers, the waiting at dinner tables till you swallow your food, and the constant patting you need on your back to sleep. They soak up every conversation, feigning disinterest except that your family stories end up on the next street. They are there at the park, the ballet, swimming, and your friends’ birthday parties. And they witness your every first. First smile, tooth, a step. The first time you memorized a song, won first prize, got on your bike. The first time a boy came to call. And you fell in love. Was crowned Prom Queen. Made it through college. They grow old with you, and your milestones become theirs. And every year, they are the first to greet you on your birthday.
The nanny. I crop her out of the family portrait. And my children forget to draw her. But then I look at old photographs and see her there: it’s her hand, her shoulder, and her lap. An unseen figure that rocked my cradle, sang me love songs, styled my hair, balanced me on the bike, and had my back until my mom came home. She is unnoticed, but when she’s captured, you see her half-smile and a look that says: “I shouldn’t be a part of this moment but I unwittingly am.”
And then you know. The nanny has raised you too. And deserves a place in your memoir. In that village that raised the child, the nanny was there. She played many roles: caregiver, protector, nurse, friend, cheerleader, man-at-arms, Nanay. We forget them and our photographs hide them from view. But in the moments and the shaping of our lives, they are unwittingly there. That cheesy love song, the filthy word, a craving for salted fish and sooty rice, or a memory of a yellow BMX cruising along a roundabout, these are moments they have unknowingly bequeathed. The keepsakes.
It is two days after and my daughter has mastered the “angkas.” I am glad I took that snapshot. Thirty or so years from now, my children will remember that ridiculous stunt and how a nanny was laughing with them, joyful to be in that loop of balancing two brats, their lives forever intertwined.
*I am quite fortunate I’ve had the grandest of unseen hands: Nanay Cen, Nana Rose, Yaya Eva, and Aw-aw. And guess what, they still find me, every year on my birthday.