WHEN this recently passed law on househelper came about, my thoughts raced through the memories that filled some eight decades of my life having a helper about the house. Those thoughts were triggered not by the slave-master relationships of Biblical times (. . .can a slave be better than the master?) or even the much earlier time of the Mayan, (. . . quick landlords make careful tenants), nor by factual stories from other countries such as India where women are kept as a commodity for transaction or exchange of goods, nor by trickled news of OFW domestics (one jumping from the 4th floor to escape her master’s whip) but by the Desiderata axiom on “. . . listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant: they too have their story.”
Long before the accessibility of the cellphone where now it is common to see the streetsweeper or the gardener doing his chore with one hand holding the gadget or a headset clipped to his ears, my family had had generations of household help. I remember well the time when I a small skinny girl of 5 protesting to my parents assigning a yaya to me who was never two meters away; then when she said she had to go to the “comfort room,” I said, hurray!!! And then promptly got lost among the backyard trees. I was up in one tree branch, hoping to get to the top to see and follow the birds in the sky and perhaps be one of them. Soon (but of course) the thud although silenced by the thick grass, brought shrieks from the maid, and a bruise on my arm could have broken a bone (it didn’t, though) from my fall from a weak branch. The fall was a great disappointment for me, not because I missed seeing then joining the birds in the sky but seeing the housemaid sprawled on the floor crying out loud, and then watching my mother castigating her, who although holding a stick did not strike at the maid but kept striking at a nearby chair or on the wall while spewing out Chabacano “puñeta.” I was hardly scolded for my stunt but how I pitied the housemaid (who must have been in her teens) howling on the ground and bearing the brunt of my action. When my mother had left, I approached the maid to tell or show her in some way I was sorry, but she retreated from me with eyes enlarged with fear.
Since then through many years of having then seeing househelpers come and go, I saw them as human as I myself could be. When I had my own family and since both of us—the father and I—had to work outside the home to raise our kids, the maids of our house came from the province where their parents were farmer tenants from our land. Or else a niece there or a nephew somewhere would come in as home companions to the kids in exchange for part time schooling, or part time driving. Oh, no, never through agencies, or self-styled recruiters, about which my neighbors would bring in horror stories, the kind that fill the telenovelas, or the TV news channel that specializes (flaunts?) on smutty stories, which I would not care to repeat here.
It was only when we transferred to a village in Parañaque and by then our children had grown up beyond babysitting age, high school and college levels, that our househelpers came from recommendations, mostly from nearby Bicutan. For some years I like to remember one stay out trusted lavandera whom we called Manang from Bicutan, who was motherly enough to oversee the empty household, until one week end when I noticed a bottle or two of drinks (was it a cognac or a whiskey?) missing from the dining room shelves. Then Manang’s story came spilling out: With her two grown up children already out in the world earning their keep, her jobless (but of course) husband told her, nay, commanded her to get the bottle, or else she got the belt lashes. My husband who was active in the community Knights of Columbus, told us that Manang’s husband was given a job but he would work for only a few weeks then would just squander the money on gambling and liquor.
We were also able to help maids whose desire to continue their studies (high school) were fulfilled since the half day school was only a few minutes walk away. But one thing which hurt me to this day, is the memory that when March came and right after her graduation rites were over, she readily packed up and said she’d line up to apply for that sales girl position, even if we implored her to please wait awhile until we get a new househelp. Of course there are other ways of saying thank you, even if the recipient got only an extra towel and shirts for her use, like this girl who kept smiling, wordlessly nodding her head in gratitude.
Then there were these two other maids who, OK good workers during the day but when the nights came, something past nine, I observed the two going out. When I confronted them about that, the girls’ imperiously, not at all humbly, answered, “When our work is finished here, you our master, or anyone else has no right to know or to ask where we were or have been.” We may be the masters of our household but I do remember being told to avoid answering in the same tone of the fishmonger because I would stoop just as low, so I kept silent. Just like the time when here came the maid who’d tell me . . . “You know, Ma’am, that neighbor of ours . . . there, the wife came home one late, very late one night and . . . ” I had to vigorously shake my head, reminding her to stop repeating such gossip, retelling the time when a neighbor had a shouting match with another for a piece of gossip spread by their respective housemaids.
But then one day when the village president and the barangay captain came to our house, and with finger pointing, accosting me: “How come you don’t know where your housemaids are going at night . . . There, they are there on the streets, with those men . . . Our security guards found them . . . ”; his voice heavily loaded with the tone of accusation that I, the master of the house, knowingly sent them out to sell something, and I somehow was on the take. So the very next day I told the two housemaids to pack up and leave, nevermind if I alone had to rely on neighbors’ help, or to meditate on the lyrics of that song “ Alone again . . . naturally.” Treat the house help as part of the family? Perhaps that was what my naïve self thought of decades ago, but then familiarity bred not only contempt but derisive laughter from them with their use of my personal things, (hey, what’s that perfume wafted about as one maid just came from my bedroom!), including the loss of my jewelry.
Laughter, I discovered, light or a smirk behind my back, when I tell them mostly coming from the Visayas, to use “po, opo and not oo, ikaw, sayo” to us older people as we Tagalogs would do.
Then when one of the two maids whom I have sent earlier to finish their high school, suddenly came back to us; I was initially pleased to see her, thinking, however late a show of gratitude would be coming. Then she pleaded for us to let her come back and work in the house. No, she was not taken in as salesgirl in that SM mall because she lacked the height; she was taken in to work in one of those assembly factories which abound in Food Terminal Inc. along Taguig, where she had to work from 7 a.m. up to 11 p.m. everyday. Her weekly wages would cover rent for a room, her daily food and transportation so that at the end of the month there were only a few hundreds of pesos left to be sent back to the province.
For all these setbacks we had gone through with these who many consider at the fringes of society, we thank the Lord for the help they had extended to my family, and to me now after eight decades that I may have gone back to walking on three feet (with the third one a four-toed walking cane) my “yaya” cares for my basic needs, beyond teaching me how to use the intricacies of her cellphone, beyond laughing with me for my corny jokes, with my subconscious constantly reminding myself about the line dividing the master and the care taker.
Or else I might be back again to that far away look, listening to the radio music “Alone again . . . .naturally.”u