A song for my mother (Part 1)

The author and his mother, Cleo Driessler, celebrate her birthday at Calistoga winery in Napa Valley.

The author and his mother, Cleo Driessler, celebrate her birthday at Calistoga winery in Napa Valley.

By Randy Gener

It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Sitting in my studio, my mom, Cleo, asked me to hold out my palm. Suddenly interested in my lifeline, she wanted to tell me something good about my future. “You will have a long life,” Mama said, “but you have to be careful about money. See these two long lines that form a bag and join at the bottom here? Triangles in the hand mean luck.”

A churchgoing Roman Catholic, Mom was not given to superstitious fears or behaviors, but she did believe in the reinforcing effects of lucky charms on a positive mind and a hopeful attitude. She might present a dear friend with the gift of a gold-karat necklace or a hand-carved green jade lavaliere, because they connoted to her wealth and prosperity. In her homesteaded house in Nevada, which face the boulder-strewn dunes of sagebrush country, Mom collected a menagerie of lucky elephant figures with upraised trunks. She replaced my four-leaf clover pendant with a diamond ring, because the change might bring about better luck. “You never know,” Mom said, with a big wide smile.

I did not think very much of it — her desire to play fortuneteller; she dabbled in hand analysis in Manila — but looking back I realize now that she had seen that I had drifted into a quiet pessimism and melancholic self-pity about my writing career. Her trip to New York City in May 1994 was her first visit to my apartment since I had moved away after college. It was her birthday month, and I was glad she wanted to spend it with me, but the most I could give her were to show her the city, take her to some nice New York restaurants and bring her to a few Broadway musicals. There was no extra room in the small East Side Manhattan studio I was renting.

Without admonishing me that I had taken the wrong road, without becoming cloying either, Mom was countering my darkest fears with her own brand of sympathetic magic. She saw how dismal my life was but said nothing about it. She wanted a pick-me-up. “I want to see a show like the one we saw in San Francisco,” she requested, referring to the Fats Waller revue, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Mom preferred shows that allowed her mind to escape from her problems. Unfortunately, at 8 o’clock in the evening of that same day, I made the grave mistake of taking her to “Miss Saigon,” a Broadway musical about a Vietnamese bar girl abandoned by her American G.I. boyfriend. I was horrified to see my mom crying beside me. Although the show’s backdrop was Vietnam during the war, “It is my mother’s story,” she said.

I resolved that one day my mother will return to New York, and she will be able to sleep in her own bed in my apartment. There will be a big party in which my friends and colleagues in New York will meet her. Someday she will no longer bemoan that I had pursued “a difficult life.” And I will take her to a Broadway musical that will not reduce her to tears.

On April 12, 2013, my mom Columbia Gonzales Driessler passed away at 7:32 p.m. in an acute care hospital in Reno, Nevada. A month later, it would have been Mother’s Day. On May 24, she would have been 67 years old.

Everyone called her Cleo. A Visayan, she was born in Bacolod City, the City of Smiles and capital of Negros Occidental. Growing up on the next island over (the capital city of Cebu), Cleo was the only child of Adela, a public school teacher in Cebu City, and a U.S. serviceman from New Jersey of Italian-American descent. He was stationed in Bacolod City near the tail end of that city’s liberation during the Japanese American War of World War II. He fought with U.S. allied forces and Filipino guerillas to free Bacolod City from Japanese occupation on May 1945. He resided there until the early 1950s.

A mestiza beauty, a Filipino of mixed ancestry, Cleo had fair skin in a country where the natural color tends to be dark brown. She was so ethnically different from other Filipinos girls, even her own kin on the mother’s side, that growing up she had faced identity conflicts. She was not an American, and she did not come from a well-off family (a common stereotype of Spanish or American mestizos among Filipinos), but she did not look indigenous either. Her childhood alienation was made worse by a profound sense of abandonment. Her Italian American father, who signed her birth certificate, deserted her mother, who in turn (because of those repressive religious times and social mores) felt she had no choice but to leave Mom in the care of her sisters. For years Cleo assumed that her own mother was a benevolent aunt.

Vivacious, strong-willed, blessed with a cariñosa smile, Cleo was a gutsy and unconventional Filipina. Raising four children as a single mother, as well as taking care of her own mother who lived with us in Manila, she was our family’s breadwinner. She sold jewelry. She ran a garment-making business. Her beauty queen looks led to modeling gigs for hotels and fashion designers. She appeared in television and radio commercials. She played small parts in Philippine movies, usually directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza Jr. and starring Vilma Santos. At one point we enjoyed the spectacle of sitting in front of the TV at 6:30 every night and looking out for Mom in her recurring role in a fantasy TV series. Dressed like Wonder Woman in a skimpy red outfit and a gold crown on her head, Cleo played the part of an Amazon princess, the sister of Queen Sheba.

NEXT: How Mama reinvented herself in America

Randy Gener is the Nathan Award–winning editor, writer and artist in New York City. He is the dramaturge of “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” and the organizer/curator of Filipino Mundo-NYC, a MeetUp group of young professionals and visual/performing artists.

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  1. […] CALIFORNIA |  “A Song for My Mother,” a two-part personal essay I published in The FilAm, won the 2013 Plaridel Award for […]

  2. […] family of online publications, Randy Gener, garnered the Editorial Essay Award, in his entry “A Song for my Mother.” Unable to travel from the East Coast, Gener sent a message to the awards committee: “May this […]

  3. […] the Plaridel Awards judges gave Gener “top scores” for his two-part personal essay, “A Song for My Mother,” which he published in The FilAm on May 24, 2013. An honorable mention for for outstanding […]

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