My mother, Sofia Sionil, was born on September 30, 1900. Her parents were Ilokano settlers in Rosales, Pangasinan. I called her Inang. When I received the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial award in 1980, she sat in the front row of the auditorium, composed, quiet, listening to my acceptance speech in English. I looked at her often as I recalled the village where she had raised me. I knew she understood all of it for her English was perfect.
She had learned English, most probably from one of the Thomasites, the name given to the American teachers who arrived in Manila on the ship Thomas in 1901 and to those that came after them during the American Occupation. My mother had finished Grade Seven, a very big achievement in those days. Once, I had American professors in the house and I introduced my mother to them. It was the first time my children heard their grandmother speak English and they all gasped in wonder and surprise.
My mother never wore Western dress, just the traditional Ilokano woven skirt, with a kimono or blouse. She went about in wooden shoes and for special occasions, she wore what we called cochos, a cloth slipper with embroidery and thick soles. I don’t see them anymore. For special occasions, too, for church, she kept in a wooden chest called lacasa a special handwoven skirt, a blouse with butterfly sleeves, a stiff panuelo to wear over her shoulders, and a gauzy, white veil. They gave my peasant mother such radiance and simple dignity that truly became her.
Unlike most Ilokano women, Mother did not chew betelnut or drink basi, or smoked cigars, which the women in the village handrolled from leaves of the tobacco plants that they grew. She did smoke those long “La Yebana” cigarettes. One time, a foreign visitor tried to light it, and witnessing this my children burst out laughing because our guest did not know the lighted end was in her mouth.
I grew up in Cabugawan, a village at the edge of the town of Rosales in Western Pangasinan, an area settled by Ilokanos at the turn of the 18th century. It was named after the town of Cabugaw in Ilokos Sur, where my grandparents came from. Towards the south is the barrio of Cabalaoangan; the settlers there came from the town of Balaong in La Union. And farther north is Casanicolasan; the settlers came from San Nicolas in Ilokos Norte. Early in my boyhood, the Ilokano virtues of patience and industry—anos ken gaget—were pounded into me by relatives, by my mother most of all, who herself personified these ancient virtues.
During the planting season—July to September—our neighbors ate only twice a day, at ten in the morning and at four in the afternoon. But my mother saw to it that we never missed a meal; there was always rice in the bin because my mother worked hard. She was a dressmaker and I grew up with the sound of her Singer sewing machine. When she wasn’t sewing or making rice cakes, she was crocheting—everywhere in our house were the doilies she crocheted. I woke up very early in the mornings to help grate green papayas for ukoy. Still half asleep on the grindstone, I also ground the glutinous rice soaked in water that she used to make the kakanin she sold at the Sunday market. When she discovered how much I loved reading, she went around to the houses of the town officials and the doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and borrowed books for me.
I made my own toys—the bamboo canon for Christmas and New Year, tops, a slingshot. Whenever I went for long walks, I always carried an alat, a kind of bamboo basket tied to my waist. By the time I reached home, it was almost always filled with vegetables I had filched from some field, or mudfish if I had gone fishing. The creeks, flooded rice fields and irrigation canals yielded a lot of fish—ar-aro, ayungin, and the bigger paltat and boricao, which were caught with baited hooks. The rice fields also yielded shellfish—the dark and small led-deg, the bigger bisukol, and freshwater crab.
During the rainy season, the nights were alive with the croaking of frogs. I would make my own kerosene lantern, all its sides covered with tin except the front. When the light fell on the frogs, they would freeze and all I had to do was pick them up. Mother would spend time skinning them before cooking them with young tamarind leaves. She would fill a bowl or two for me to bring to our closest neighbors. We Ilokanos call this gift “padigo.”
Our town was bracketed by two creeks. I learned to swim when I was eight or thereabouts, and I’d miss school to enjoy swimming. I was visiting my old grade school teacher, Soledad Oriel, in a retirement home in Sacramento, California, and she told my son, Eugene, about my truancy. The principal, Mr. Hidalgo, reported me to my mother. One morning, I pretended I was going to school but went instead to the Andolan Creek to swim. So I was oblivious, playing in the water, when my mother called me from the bank. I didn’t know she had followed me. She had a bamboo strip and right there, she whipped me.
I knew I deserved more punishment in those instances that I displeased her, when I forgot to do her bidding, such as sweep the yard or carry our drinking water from the artesian well. But she didn’t; she simply admonished me, then with a stick, she would whip a bamboo post, the ground, or the buri wall of our house. I fully understood all that symbolism.
I tried my very best to help. I gathered firewood and when I visited friends in the villages, I always brought home something to eat. I was perhaps seven or eight years old when, with her, I helped in the harvesting of a rice field. It was still quite dark but it was already bright enough to harvest the grain. A field being harvested is wet with dew in the early morning, and the delicious fragrance of newly cut rice stalks pervades the field, an aroma I’ll always remember. We didn’t stop bending and slashing even as the sun rose.
At midday we had our lunch of leftover rice and a cake of cane sugar we called sinakob. After lunch, our backache relieved, we began threshing the rice with our feet. I had worked so hard I had quite a pile of grain. Close to sunset, the owner of the rice field came. He took his share and left me with less than a ganta. I was so disappointed I started to cry; after all my hard labor, this tiny pile was my share. My mother laughed. She explained that it was fair. We didn’t own the land, we didn’t plant the rice; we merely helped in the harvest.
At night my mother worked on her Singer sewing machine, a storm lamp beside it. I would read beside her, but the sound of the sewing machine often disturbed me so I fashioned my own kerosene lamp out of an empty pomade bottle. There were times, however, when we had no money to buy kerosene so I would walk to the street corner and read under the street lamp until my mother would come to tell me it was time to go to sleep.
She never really bothered me when I was reading, not just books but even pages of old newspapers used to wrap dried fish. I was reading the Noli one early evening and when I came to the part where the priest accused the brothers Crispin and Basilio of stealing, I was so angry I started crying. I remember my mother pausing her sewing to ask what it was that made me cry. I pointed to the book. I don’t remember her saying anything. She just looked at me, her eyes shining, then she went back to her sewing.
My mother was resourceful. When the collars of my shirts became frayed, she reversed them. No scrap of cloth was ever wasted; she sewed them together to make them into blankets. I was so pleased when I saw my wife do similar repairs on the clothes of our children. One of her first purchases when we got married was an electric sewing machine. She also learned to cook the peasant food my mother prepared, all of which I often miss.
When I was in Grade Six, my mother gave me a piglet to care for. All our neighbors had pigs or chickens. I understood, of course, that when the pig had grown, it would be sold. He was a beautiful animal, with blue eyes, a short, curly tail, and was white unlike the native breed which was dark and had a long snout. I called my pig Puraw, Ilokano for white, and as he grew, he got to know his name. From the fallow fields, I gathered the weeds pigs eat. I also asked the neighbors to give me the trunks of bananas that had already borne fruit—this I chopped into bits and cooked.
Almost every afternoon, I went to the rice mills at the eastern end of the town and collected whatever darak or rice bran had been thrown away. This I also cooked for Puraw. Came a time when he had to be caponized so he would grow faster. I pitied Puraw for having to suffer such punishment, but he did grow even bigger. Every afternoon when I came home from school, Puraw would rush to the gate to meet me, playfully nudging me, then I’d follow him to the house. I’d scratch his tummy as he laid down, then I would lay on his tummy, and we would fall asleep together. It was hard work looking for Puraw’s food, but I was very delighted by his gratefulness every time I arrived from school. Then, one afternoon, there was no more Puraw to greet me, and when I realized the immensity of my loss, I really cried.
Although I played truant often, I think I was obedient and industrious. I never asked my mother for baon or money. Every morning, when I went to school, I carried a sweet potato, an ear of corn, or cold rice with a chunk of sinakob. When I was in Grade Seven, I asked her for money to buy a new pair of rubber shoes as I had already outgrown my old pair. She said she didn’t have that kind of money; a pair then cost around two pesos, the monthly salary of a housemaid.
Graduation time—I could have been the valedictorian but I had too many absences from school. I couldn’t attend my graduation in my bare feet, so I found a block of wood in the house and brought it to my industrial class where we had carpentry tools. There I made wooden shoes. For straps, I used an old leather belt that a cousin had discarded. Come graduation evening, there we were in our finest white trousers and shirts. I looked at the feet of my classmates—I was the only one without shoes. It was only then that, despite all the pleasures of my childhood, I felt the pain of being poor. I remember the pain of that realization until today. When it was my turn to deliver my salutatorian address, I walked very carefully across the stage, lifting my feet so my wooden shoes wouldn’t clatter.
About two months after graduation, I went to Manila to stay with the family of my uncle, Andres Sionil. I remember that unblemished May morning. My mother walked me to the railroad station. I carried a hand-woven tampipi with my clothes and she carried a bag of gifts for my uncle’s family—a couple of mudfish and some vegetables. To the neighbors who asked us where we were going, I could sense pride in my mother’s answer—that I was leaving Barrio Cabugawan to go to Manila for high school. I still had no shoes.
When she was in her eighties, my mother fell and broke her hip. Soon after, she died. I could not bear to look at her when she was in agony, and I never looked at her in her coffin. I wanted to remember her always as she was before the fall, a tiny woman with watery eyes, her hair tied in a bun, her face slightly pocked by smallpox scars, and her hands rough and gnarled—I used to hold and kiss them. My lasting memory of her is entwined with ethereal images of revelation and discovery, of silver mornings, cool, clear streams, and golden fields—the good life and, most of all, books and books and honest labor.