There are many traditions in my family that have never been fully explained to me. When I ask why we observe them, the answers I get often amount to little more than “that’s just how it is.” On Christmas, we eat sotanghon — a sort of Filipino chicken noodle soup. On New Year’s Eve, my mom tells me to jump up and down with coins in my pockets so I can get taller and richer. We place round fruits on the windowsills for luck.
My mother is obsessed with the idea of luck. It’s lucky to have a laughing Buddha in your house; if you rub his belly, it’s good luck, she says. But you never buy your own Buddha statue — that’s bad luck.
Hers was a modest upbringing; she was raised by two strict disciplinarians. Their family was centered on education and religion. My mother always abided by her parents’ governance; respect for your elders is an unspoken eleventh commandment in our culture. There is even a tradition unique to the Philippines, in which younger relatives must seek their elders’ blessing by asking them to touch our foreheads as a show of esteem. Instead of saying “hello” or “goodbye” to your older relatives, you are supposed to say “Mano po,” while bowing. But I was never one to genuflect.
My mom enforced the importance of family ties with my brother and me, and she became the nucleus of our extended family unit comprised of aunts, uncles, and cousins. For years, my mother cared for not just me and my brother but our cousins as well, picking us up from school and arranging piano lessons for us all. She would cook enough for an army on any given day of the week, even if she would not be able to stay to have any herself because she had a shift at the hospital or the nursing home. Food was an important part of our family bond, and my mother’s cooking brought us all together. On special occasions we gathered with even more extended family, and my mom would cater those occasions as well, all of us eating her pancit, lumpia, turon, and my favorite, kaldereta. Some days, our table looked like the Last Supper as we sat, cramped and shoulder-to-shoulder, for a meal.
A picture of the Last Supper always hung on my mother’s kitchen wall, depicting Jesus and his disciples in chipping gold varnish, set on a mirror obscured by several years’ worth of dust. Unlike the Buddha statues that my mom displayed, arranged lovingly behind glass, the Last Supper is more of a badge — a reminder — that announces, “We’re Catholic.”
There has always been a lot of faith and superstition in my family. My mom is especially fond of old wives’ tales, which is baffling to me. She is the only one of her siblings who completed a college degree, and went on to become a nurse — but despite being one for decades, she still regularly doles out medical advice I find questionable. Don’t go to bed with your hair wet, it will make you sick. Treat a burn with toothpaste. Eating spicy food will give you hemorrhoids. “No, Ma, I don’t think that’s how it works,” I will say, but that doesn’t stop her from warning me the next time I put hot sauce on something.
Sometimes I attribute our disagreements to the language barrier, something lost in translation. My Tagalog is limited, and my mother says that my English is “too big” for her to understand. And yet she always leaves the rest of us in the dust when we play Scrabble together.
When I came out to her, as a freshman in high school, she asked “Why are you like that?” — as though there was no word for what I was. Nothing to describe what I still am ten years later.
Maybe she didn’t have a word for it. In Tagalog, “bakla” means “gay,” but that was usually reserved for gay men like Tony, the Filipino hairdresser who trimmed my long tresses as a child. “Lesbian” and “queer” might have been too big, too unthinkable to warrant a formal label. It seemed like we had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at home, so things were often tense between us, particularly since my mom and I essentially shared a room. She was always so busy that she never had one of her own; the master bedroom was delegated to my grandmother, who she cared for, and my brother had his own room. I often had to relinquish my quarters so my mom could sleep (at most, four hours) before she had to start her daily duties around the house. As we shared a room, it was hard to hide certain things she might have found objectionable — like books and movies with lesbian and bisexual protagonists. “Why do you have to like that sort of thing?” she asked me. She said that she didn’t want me to be like “that,” but it didn’t stop me.
When I started bringing home girlfriends and she had to get us out of bed in the morning so she could use my room, she silently tolerated it lest I argue with her about my brother’s girlfriends. He was older than me, but I insisted on getting the same treatment from her even though I always felt like he got away with more.
For the most part, I thought I was doing everything right — or at least to the best of my abilities. I brought home perfect report cards, helped with the chores, and went to church. When I came out to my mother, it felt like the ultimate rebellion, and while it was liberating, I couldn’t shake the guilt.
“You have to pray for forgiveness,” she told me. This was a common mantra in the eleven years I attended Catholic school and the twenty years I went to church.
Throughout my childhood, the importance of prayer was stressed in religion classes and emphatic sermons, though I was a skeptic even at a young age. There is a picture of me in the school magazine, taken when I was in kindergarten: my classmates all have their heads lowered and hands folded for grace; meanwhile, my expression is one of stern disinterest, as I apparently refused to join in the ritual. When my mother saw the picture, she was aghast. She tried to teach me how to pray, but I refused. So every week, she shooed me out of bed for simbahan (Tagalog for “church”) dressed in my Sunday best — that is, until I was too big to have a dress forced over my head.
“You have to wear a dress to church,” she would say.
“Because I’m your mama.”
As I got older, it became more difficult for her to field my protests. “Why do I have to wear a dress?” eventually turned into “Why do I even have to go?” Mom herself was just a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, which I would point out to her. Then she would say my name in Tagalog — that’s how I knew she was mad — already weary from an overnight shift at the hospital. I protested until my aunt and uncle came over to take me to church with them.
“Be thankful for your mama, you could with your papa,” my aunt would tell me.
It was always a challenge to be the perfect Christian daughter. When I came out as a teenager, I knew I had failed my mother somehow, but I couldn’t just hide my sexuality from her like a bad test grade. I cut the long hair I knew she loved, and she cried. I started to wear whatever I wanted, usually opting for baggy and “boyish” clothes, and she would tell me I “looked like a boy.”
By the time I was in college, it became too difficult to live with her and her disapproval. So I moved out of her house, the house I grew up in, leaving my old clothes and my old self behind for good. I finally got a chance to make my own choices and stopped going to church every week, though I did sometimes go on Christmas and Easter. Even when my mom and I were reunited for those holiday Masses, we were obvious outsiders, rebels — she, the divorcee, who did not go up for Communion, and I, her eye-rolling gay daughter.
Eventually I stopped going to church altogether. Instead, I would visit her. It was a new ritual for us, and together we forged a few new traditions. Now we spend Christmas Eves at my apartment, and she always brings homemade sotanghon. Sometimes she gives me round fruit around New Year’s Eve to put in my window. Last Easter, she gave me a laughing Buddha. Maybe all it took was growing up, having some distance, but I finally felt as though we were becoming equals.
Now my mother and I often have lunch or dinner together to talk about work or the things that frustrate us. Sometimes we talk about the people in our lives, charting new territory in our relationship. I don’t think she ever dated while I was growing up — I always figured she was married to her work, busy being a parent. Recently, when we did begin discussing our love lives, it closed a gap between us.
It was during one of those conversations, over dinner, that my mother came out to me.
She is still a woman of few words. She still hasn’t referred to it by name. But she told me about her partner — how they have been friends since college. How a messy marriage, a subsequently messy divorce, two kids, and many miles between them did not change their devotion to one another, even if they could only see each other every few years.
My mother recently visited her “friend,” as she called her at the time, and it was after this trip that I began to put the pieces together. Shortly after she came home, I noticed the care packages, the long phone calls. In all the years we have been on the East Coast, my mother had never mentioned moving. Suddenly she had her eyes and her heart set on the other side of the country.
“Why?” I asked her. I meant, why did my coming out years ago burden her so — why did my short hair, my clothes bother her so much? Why, if she knew who she was?
And after a brief pause, my mother replied, “I thought it was my fault for being with her.”
Guilt: another trait we share. All my futile attempts to be religious and more “feminine” were for her sake, and her efforts to push me towards these traditions and conventions were for my sake. Her disapproval primed me for the disapproval I might find elsewhere. She understood the ramifications of my sexuality, having hidden her own secret for so long.
But still, even after telling me the truth about her relationship, she never said the word “gay.” Did it seem so sinful to her? I wondered. Was she still scandalized by it?
It took another conversation over another meal to reveal the truth. After everything I’d already heard about her friend, I was sure I would hear her say the words — gay, lesbian, bakla, anything.
Instead, she told me: “I’m married.”
At first I was too shocked to say anything. It was a small ceremony, she said. The only guests were a few of her partner’s relatives. Maybe it made sense that she didn’t tell anyone else in our family, but after all we had talked about — her partner, my girlfriend — I couldn’t understand why she didn’t tell me. I have never had the greatest impression of marriage, having been raised by her alone and only hearing about my father in the form of cautionary tales. Did my mother think I would judge her? If she had told me beforehand, would I have tried to talk her out of it?
Before I could say anything, my mother continued, “I’m happy.”
And that was enough for me. While it stung a bit to know she had celebrated this important moment without her family — without me — I understood why. The risk of judgment kept her in the closet for so long, and it was her decision to come out on her terms, even if that meant eloping first. She excitedly showed off her ring and wedding photos — pictures of two blushing brides. She was in a traditional white dress, and her wife wore a tuxedo like I might like to wear one day. I couldn’t feel quite as skeptical about marriage, seeing the two of them so radiant with joy.
While my mother was once anxious about what others might think, having once felt the disapproving glances of God and his supposed servants like our relatives, she no longer feels guilty or ashamed of who she is. My aunt and uncle still go over her house sometimes, and while once my mother and I might have wondered What will they think? or even What would Jesus think? now we can say, “Why does it matter?” We are happy, the two of us — prosperous, lucky, like those laughing Buddhas promised we would be.
In April, my mother asked me to accompany her on a trip to California so I could meet her wife. To my surprise, it was not the first time her wife met me — I was only an infant the last time she had seen me. Spending time with both of them on this trip, I could see their love for one another. Together they showed me around the city my mom would soon call home. Now newly registered as a nurse in the State of California, it is only a matter of time before she moves out of her house like I did.
I can’t help but wonder how our mother/daughter traditions will fare with even more distance between the two of us. But we’ve adapted well enough so far. “So, are you surprised?” she asked me once, a while after she had broken the news about her marriage.
“No,” I said. “I’m just surprised that I wasn’t the first of us to get gay-married.”