They know you as Tita Bing…

NaFFAA leader Bing Branigin as a young mother with Anne, her first-born.

Anne wrote this essay on her mother’s 56th birthday last month.

By Anne Branigin

They know your generosity, your energy, the swell of your laugh. They may know, as I do, that you have no “inside voice” when you’re on the phone (So few Filipinos do. Like, no matter how technology progresses, no matter how hi-def shit gets, you’ve got to compensate for the miles between yourselves).

They know your food — abundant to the point of aggression. They enter our house and are assaulted by towers of pancit pouring out of their bowls, clams and mussels and sliced tenderloin and lumpia and whole fried fish and chicken adobo and garlic rice. All because it’s Sunday, all because you said, “Come over. Eat,” and you never once let a person leave your house with a trace of want in his belly.

They know the fineness of your china, the clarity of your crystal. They know the richness of your taste — those oil paintings from Mexico, the porcelain masks from Greece, the tapestries from Thailand. They know the scarves you tie around your purses (purses big enough to house cameras and tupperware and gifts for your god children). They know you can’t hold a tune but Lord, they better make room if there’s a glass in your hand and a rug to cut in front of you.

They know you as Tita Bing, and I’ll admit I don’t always understand who that woman is, because you’ve always been Mama to me.

To me, you’re the full plate I take for granted. The one who played Ella Fitzgerald to fill the kitchen on the first summer days we spent in this country, the reason why I associate Tony Bennett with linoleum countertops and mid-day merienda the way others do love and San Francisco . You learned about blizzards that first year, and wrote long letters to your younger sisters on yellow legal paper. I lost my accent and pretended not to see how sad you were. You worried your mother’s letters in your elegant, brown hands and cried, sometimes, in that house, quieter than any house you had ever lived in. Cried from new allergies and the frustration of dusting cobwebs that had never before been your concern. Thirty-eight, Mama, and you were learning how to clean a house.

In those years you told me about the Thai monks, the ones who held your hands before I was born. They told your fortune, told you that this would be your poorest life yet. They rubbed your palms and you learned that luxury had lined your past lives. Once, you were an aristocrat, they said, in a life that ended at the bottom of an ocean. This, you told me, explained why you had always feared water — the same water I love, that feels more like home than this earth, sometimes.

Our differences were pronounced in those years.

But even before then, you were the one who frustrated me when we would color in my colouring books together, the way you would fill in the princess’s hair with purple, make her skin blue. Princesses aren’t blue, Mom. And I would stop coloring and wait for you to leave me alone so I could color princesses how they really were. They were supposed to be white. They always had blonde hair and blue eyes and their noses never looked like mine.

Still, you were the one who taught me how the touch of orange on red lips can set a man’s eyes on fire. The one who filled nights with Roberta Flack, remembering, always, the song she dedicated to you, that one night in New York, when you were young and blooming and I was not yet your child. The one who taught me how to wait for my father the months he was gone, scrawling his name across some desert, returning with foreign dust on his skin and a full beard on his face.

You never once resented him. No matter how lonely you were, no matter how pronounced his absence, no matter how loud my allegiance to him. You waited for him as he walked into war zones. You felt their residue on him when he returned. Remember that picture you took of him, Mama? He was in your bedroom, in a button-up shirt, wearing the gas mask he had worn in Iraq — a mask that terrified me because it made him look like some awful, insect-headed monster, not because of what it told me about what men could do to other men. Or what evil could befall my father.

You taught me to forgive his absences, to welcome him back with the wideness of an ocean.

You taught me how to let a man be a man.

Here’s what they don’t know about Tita Bing: that our relationship was difficult from the beginning, the pain wrought upon your body by a natural childbirth, followed by the chronic pain in my body. That I smothered you in that small apartment, crying from aches you couldn’t soothe. That my father was gone for much of that time, writing stories about war and rebuilding while you were dealing with a depression whose name no one had bothered to tell you. That your family was on the other side of an ocean. That loving me had to be profoundly difficult thing.

They know you as Tita Bing. The one they go to for advice. A mentor and a godmother and a joker and an organizer, a woman rich in dialects and color and warmth.

You’re the one I roll at my eyes at. The one to whom I never tell where I’m going (it’s not that I don’t care ma, I really do just forget). You’re the one who drinks the rest of my wine and the one who asks me to run errands at all the wrong times. You’re still the one who won’t let me walk outside unprepared for rain or the chill of the metrobus.

You’re my mama and the face I search for when I want to understand my face. When I have no idea what anyone else sees in me, when I wonder what motherhood would look like on me. I’m the child who taught you how to be a mother. And you’re the mother who taught me what a life-saving, joyful, complicated, stubborn and radiant thing a woman could be.

Bangkok-born Anne Branigin works at Global Women, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. Previously, she taught English in Vietnam and worked as a teacher in a Catholic School in Medellin, Colombia. Her mother is NaFFAA leader Bing Branigin.

One Comment

  1. Hermie Rivera wrote:

    chip of da ol’ block Mama Bing. chiz hor

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