Long Ago: Community Entry #28

These trees keep watch like three ancestors, believing that I can write this book, even when I wonder...

As you may know, I am spending a few months in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

I love how we can touch who we are in the faces and hearts of our forebears.  Please enjoy this lovely piece from Michelle Roberts. 

yrs. Laura

Freckle-faced Filipino, by Michelle Roberts

“Ah que linda!”, Mara squealed as she stepped through the front door putting her warm, plump hands on my freckled cheeks.

My mother told me it meant “oh, how pretty” but it didn’t help me get over my pale skin and strawberry blond hair. Strawberry blond because kids teased little girls with red hair and my mother specifically said mine was the most beautiful shade of strawberry blonde. “Women would kill to have your hair color but you just can’t get it in a bottle”, was her way of comforting me.

I was born in 1970 at Cape Canaveral Hospital smack in the middle of the sunshine state. Even though I grew up in Florida I never once managed to get a tan. A day at the beach meant I’d burn, sunscreen or not. By afternoon I was red as a lobster, peeling a few days later and then white again with nothing to show for it but a few extra freckles.

My grandfather was from the Philippines with dark hair and olive skin. Even though he was in his late seventies when we moved in after my parents divorced, he always had lovely Latin ladies visiting him. I envied their dark complexion and thick black hair. Mara was a regular and brought him food, shared stories and rolled her R’s even when laughing. His was the first stable, calm home I could remember and I relished the routine of dinner served every day at exactly 5:30pm. He wasn’t exactly affectionate but a man who tended to his plants every morning before most people got out of bed had a kind heart whether or not he’d admit it. The neighborhood kids were scared of him because he yelled from his front porch when they took a short cut through his flower beds. My mother used to say that he’d mellowed with age. None of my friends would believe it.

It must have been difficult to have three young children move in after retiring but we always felt welcome. My problem was that I never really felt like I fit in. The adults often spoke Spanish to keep their conversations from little ears. Especially my mother and her twin sister who talked so fast Spanish lessons probably wouldn’t have helped. I loved to hear the story about how she learned to speak the language out of necessity as a little girl. When my grandfather married his second wife from Cuba my mother made so many trips to the corner store to buy a sack of sugar? No. Flour? No. She was tired of the store owner shrugging his shoulders and finally taught herself how to decipher her new step-mother’s pantomime.

My grandfather immigrated from the Philippines in 1925 through the port of Seattle and worked for a year in Detroit while living with his uncle, the first of the Owano clan to make the trip across the ocean. He later moved to Chicago where he studied to become a doctor and met my grandmother at a party. A tall, gorgeous blonde with men buzzing all around her, she didn’t notice the handsome man of modest height who kept refilling her glass and fetching her food. She gave her number to another man and my grandfather memorized it. When I asked him what he thought when he met her he admitted, “My children would be tall.” He never became a doctor but they raised five children on his salary as a porter on the Pullman trains.

So it was my grandmother’s height and fair skin and her mother’s strawberry blond hair that I inherited so many years later. The Filipino relatives that visited over the years found humor in meeting their first freckle-faced Filipino. I grew up hearing tales of the huge parties the Owanos threw for family visiting from the United States.

“You’d be treated like royalty the moment you stepped off the plane,” my mother used to tell me. “They’d roast whole pigs and serve eight course meals in your honor especially since you are so fair skinned. The women in the Philippines shield themselves from the sun so their skin doesn’t get too tan.”

Years later when I moved to Washington, DC, after college my grandfather was the first to warn me about the murder capital of the country. He jotted down the address of a cousin who lived in Maryland and I dutifully wrote it in my address book. I wasn’t the shy girl that lived with him as a child but I knew I’d never pick up the phone to call on a relative I’d never met. My college roommate and I were sharing an apartment with another friend in Virginia and moving to a new city without jobs or even prospects. He had every right to worry.

But somehow we managed. I worked a couple of jobs through temp agencies until I was hired by a downtown trade association. The first thing I did when I got medical coverage was flip through the providers list to find a dentist. I made an appointment for the following week with an office that listed Filipino under “languages spoken”. I was hoping she was the hygienist and a mention of my grandfather might spare me the usual lecture about never flossing.

When I went to my new patient appointment I asked them who in the office was from the Philippines. They told me one of the hygienists was working toward her certification and should be there when I returned for my cleaning.

The day of my cleaning I recognized her accent right away. There’s something about the way Filipino’s pronounce their n’s and g’s that reminds me of the smell of my grandfather’s adobo and hours spent in his kitchen.

“You must be from the Philippines.” I said to the woman preparing the instruments for my hygienist.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“My grandfather is from Cebu,” as I waited for her surprise.

“I am from Cebu.” Most people I met would say they were from Manila or tell me they had visited Cebu.

“My grandfather is an Owano.” I was used to locals recognizing his family name since many relatives held political offices and owned land.

“I am an Owano!” By this time the woman trying to clean my teeth was looking back and forth between us, mouth agape.

“Really? Well, my grandfather lives in Florida.”

“Not Bern?”

“That’s my grandfather, Bern Owano.” Now the hygienist was laughing in disbelief.

Joanna, explained that on her first trip to the United States her mother Bernadette stopped in Florida to visit my grandfather and bring him packages. They were cousins and she was named after my grandfather because they shared the same birthday. Joanna insisted that I come to dinner to meet our other cousins. By the time I left the appointment she’d made all the arrangements and gave me her phone number and the address for dinner on Sunday evening.

Sunday I drove to the suburbs of Maryland and to the very same address my grandfather wrote down for me three years earlier. It was the home of an older cousin whose nanny opened the door, took one look at me and, puzzled, called upstairs in Tagalog. All I could make out was the word “Americana”. She invited me in and explained that Joanna had gone to the Metro to pick up some other relatives.

Over the next few hours I was greeted by almost two dozen new relatives who dropped everything to be there. They brought food, introduced me to their children and took out copies of the Owano family tree. They explained that their own grandfather was the uncle my grandfather lived with in Detroit. They all felt so deeply indebted to both men for paving the way for their families to be educated in the United States. This room full of doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants was so excited to meet Bern Owano’s granddaughter.

They explained that my grandfather’s grandfather had two wives and that most of them were descendants of the first wife while I was a descendant of the second. And at one point when they were raising their voices in Tagalog I asked them what it was about.

“Oh, she’s just bragging because now she has a tall blonde on her side of the family,” Joanna pointed to another cousin from wife number two.

Another relative laughed because he had arrived late and thought I must be a American friend of their cousin. He was still patiently waiting to meet her.

That night was my first visit to my grandfather’s homeland and my first roasted pig. They welcomed me like royalty and admired my fair complexion. Somehow the universe brought me to the very place my grandfather wanted me to be. With my Filipino family, my Owano clan, in a big city that seemed like our own little island.



Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

3 Responses to Long Ago: Community Entry #28

  1. Joie

    What an uplifting memoir to introduce us to the family ! I loved how you tied it all together.

    • Michelle

      Thank you, Joie. It’s been wonderful to share this story with family and friends. Meeting my cousin in the dentist’s office definitely made me reconsider the notion of coincidences in our lives. Michelle

  2. felix

    Well written …very entertaining … great story of history and family

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