*Featured Image: “Autobiographica” By Angela Amias, mixed-media.
By Michele Gutierrez
My mother took the greatest care of her porcelain Virgin Mary. She was two feet tall, dressed in white from head to toe, and as my mother claimed, cried when no one was looking. Just like me.
My mother prepared by filling up the blank spaces on the walls my father left behind with religious paintings and transformed our fireplace into an elaborate altar. It held a portrait of Jesus with a crown of thorns around its battery-powered heart—a heart that I could see even on the blackest of nights, because it glowed in the dark, and illuminated Jesus’ sad eyes.
A regalia of small statues of saints guarded the three different versions of Santo Nino. Saint Anthony–patron saint of missing people, Saint Epipodius—patron saint of those who have been betrayed, Saint Lucy—patron saint of the blind, among others.
Out of all of the figurines, my mother took the greatest care of her porcelain Virgin Mary. She was two feet tall, dressed in white from head to toe, and as my mother claimed, cried when no one was looking.
Just like me.
My mother asked baby Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, and her entire army of holy figurines for my father to come back to us. I knelt next to her as she recited her Our Fathers and Hail Marys over and over again. The skin on my knees grew thicker each day, like callouses. I went with her to mass every day of the week.
The night we hosted the vigil at our home, my mother made me wear a pink ruffled dress and mary jane patent leather shoes, an outfit I would normally wear only on Sunday to mass. While our couches and chairs were usually aimed at our television set, I helped my mother arrange them around the perimeter of our living room, forming a half circle around our fireplace and its army of saints.
The women arrived promptly at seven o’clock as if they had taken a caravan from each of their houses to get here all at the same time. It took two women to bring in the Sacred Heart statue of Jesus. One to hold it firmly in her arms, the other to guide her. They placed it carefully on the coffee table in front of our fireplace, setting the blue pedestal of clouds Jesus stood on gently on the crisp white sheet covering the glass coffee table.
My mother ordered trays of lumpia and pancit from her favorite Filipino restaurant, and the women brought their own dishes that filled our kitchen with all sorts of delicious aromas. Chicken adobo, and steaming pots of freshly cooked rice. Filipino spaghetti with hot dog slices mixed in with the sweet meat sauce. Sesame balls and cheesecakes for dessert.
Magdalena was the leader of the Sacred Heart group. Trina was her real name, but just like all the other seasoned members of the group, she had her real name, and a name she herself had picked out of a book of saints. She was an accountant by day, prayer group leader by night.
Magdalena led the group in Our Fathers and Holy Marys and Glory Bes. After praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, Magdalena rose up. I had thought the session was over when we completed our last Our Father, but all that was just a warm-up to the main event of the evening: Trina, that is, Magdalena, would channel God.
She closed her eyes as she stood among the army of statues in our makeshift altar. “Our father, who art in heaven…” she began.
Her eyes flickered as she lifted her head past the stucco ceiling, towards the late evening sky. Her lace veil half fell around one of her shoulders and one of the women gently placed it back on her head, securing it to Magdalena’s pink polyester shirt with a safety pin.
“Thy will be done…” Magdalena continued, her speech growing faster and faster until her words were barely recognizable. Only a jumble of words, but suddenly, they became clear again, taking on a lower register, sounding as if a heavyset man had taken over Magdalena’s petite body.
“I am the lord your God. There is no other God except me,” the voice said.
I was half-intrigued, half-afraid. Was the God I studied in my Catholic school religious textbooks really standing in my living room? Could God hear my thoughts doubting His presence?
Magdalena approached the woman closest to her, a tall slender woman in a grey jogging suit with blunt bangs and a high ponytail. She rose from her seated position on the floor to kneel on her cushioned pillow in front of Magdalena. With her left hand extended upwards towards the sky, Magdalena placed her right hand on the woman’s forehead. The woman closed her eyes tightly, ready to be blessed. Magdalena spoke in an even deeper voice, and I could no longer make out anything that she was saying–not because she was now speaking in Tagalog, but because she spoke with such speed and ferocity the the sounds were more gutteral, less language.
The woman’s head moved in little circles at first and then bigger ones, until, eventually, her entire body swayed in an orbit around her center. She spun and spun, and Magdalena’s voice grew deeper and faster until the woman suddenly fell, her head plummeting to the ground as another woman positioned a pillow to catch it–just in time. Magdalena’s arm remained outstretched.
The woman stayed motionless on the floor with her eyes closed as Magdalena moved on to the next woman, and then to a boy and a girl and another girl, repeating the ritual more than a dozen times before she reached me. Each time they fell so easily, I wondered how it would feel to be taken over so completely.
I resigned to the task. Knees on the hardwood, no pillow, back straight, I closed my eyes as Magdalena planted her hand on my forehead. My head bobbled as I resisted the pressure of Magdalena’s hand, but I eventually gave in to her as she stirred the rest of me, slow at first, and then faster and faster, in larger circles as if I were a giant wooden ladle and I was in a cauldron of hot water.
I did not feel the urge to fall or faint. I didn’t feel a spirit take a hold of me, a warm embrace did not envelop me, nor did a force whisper in my ear and command me to gently fall. Nothing stirred in me.
Magdalena moved me more violently as my turn took longer than expected. The others joined in, swaying in their own currents, chanting and praying, not in tongues, but with the familiar words and rhythm of the Our Father prayer.
Should I feel something? I wondered. Was there something wrong with me? I pictured the women and children laid out like planks around me. Did everyone else feel something? Or did everyone else just pretend to feel something, because they thought everyone else was feeling something? I wrinkled my forehead and tried to pray, but I was too distracted by the stirring, and the fact that nothing was happening to me.
I was tempted to open my eyes and get up. I could retreat upstairs to the room I shared with my mother. I could feign sickness and head for the restroom. Or, I could simply shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know what could it be, but I felt nothing.”
I decided to fall instead.
I made my body limp and heavy starting from the pit of my stomach and upward towards my shoulders. I aimed my head in one controlled motion towards the pillow I trusted someone was considerately positioning behind me. Deciding to fall was the hardest part. Falling was easy. As my body hit the ground, the room erupted with cheers, as if they had witnessed Magdalena finally hitting the center of a target with a rock.
I joined the others who were still on the floor with their eyes closed. I pretended I was one of them. I lay there listening as my mother went next. It didn’t take her long to fall, only a fraction of the time it took me. And the crowd cheered when she dropped, cheering even louder than they did when I had fallen.
After that first experience with the prayer group, my mother always held a prayer under
her breath. Whispering, always whispering.
Our Father, who art in heaven Hallowed be thy name
Standing in front of the stove over a pot of sinigang.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Watching TV, her eyes glazed over.
Give us this day our daily bread And forgive us our trespasses
Fighting sleep, her hand propping up her head at her temples.
As we forgive those who trespass against us And lead us not into temptation
Sometimes, angry for no reason at all, hitting and slapping me as I cried and cried.
But deliver us From evil
I’d watch her hold her right hand to her heart, clasping her fist closed as if holding a worn rosary.
Verily. Truly. So be it.
I believe. Amen.
For years, my mother and I lived alone in the three-bedroom house my father left behind.
My mother had bars installed on all our windows, and the white fence that surrounded our house grew dingier and more crooked each year. We had two empty bedrooms, but I shared my mother’s room and the other half of her queen-sized bed, even as I grew nearly queen-sized myself. I knew there was a man-sized hole in my mother’s heart, and it was a hole I could never fill, no matter how much she tried to fit me into it.
One day, when I was ten or eleven perhaps, I spilled a glass of milk, accidentally brushing it with my arm as I sat on our living room carpet watching television.
“Are you stupid?” my mother scolded as she rushed across the room at me, not with a cloth or a paper towel, but with her slipper in her hand. I knew I had done something very bad, and I would be punished for it.
I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in, but my mother soon unlocked it using a screwdriver she kept handy in a kitchen drawer. When she opened the door, she dragged me out by my ponytail. I sobbed, pleading with her to stop as she hit me again and again with her open palm as I batted her away.
We fought like this often, like a couple in an abusive relationship, and not only was I afraid to leave, I couldn’t.
“Leche ka!” she screamed, “Punyeta ka!” I didn’t know what the Filipino words meant exactly. The times I heard them spoken were usually in Filipino telenovelas, most likely hurled between two women as they bickered over a man, but I knew the words were bad and I was tired of my mother using them against me.
“You’re a fucken’ bitch!” I pelted at her in English. It was the first time I had ever used such words against her, but I knew even these words did not come close to the names she was spouting at me. I felt like a bad person, a bad daughter, as if I were someone else. Not me.
I covered my head in preparation for another slap, but there was none. Instead, my mother simply said in a calm tone, “You’re just like your dad. Go to him if you love him so much.”
I sobbed because I wanted to leave and see my father, but hadn’t spoken to or seen him in years. I sobbed because I never knew which mother I would get–the one who would strike me with words and slaps or the apologetic one who would tell me she would die without me. Both were just as difficult to live with.
“Leave! Go!” she screamed and as I sat there and just sobbed, she grabbed me by the ponytail and dragged me to the door.
“No! Ma! Please!” I pleaded as she stripped me of my pants and then my sweatshirt. I pulled and fought back, but just a child, I was no match for her.
“Leche ka! Punyeta ka!,” she pulled my underwear from me as she shoved me out the door. I was naked. She even took my hair tie with the sunshine barrette as she left me to sit outside crumpled in as small a ball as I could, hiding in our doorway nude and completely vulnerable, my home just one locked metal door away from me.
I do not know if I was outside for a few minutes or for an hour, but I remember the feeling of bare flesh on concrete and dirt. I remember the clouds and the sky getting darker. I remember telling myself I hated my mother and would never forgive her. I remember telling myself I would never be like her.
I do not remember her letting me in or hugging me close to say I’m sorry. I do not remember if she covered me with a blanket or helped me put on warm clothes. I just remember the hatred seething in me and the promise to grow big and strong and powerful and to punish her.
The week of that fight, I attended my last vigil with my mother.
I knelt beside her all throughout the prayer session. When it was my turn to be spun, I knelt in front of Magdalena. I closed my eyes as she stirred me around my center, in her familiar way—slow small circles, and then increasingly faster larger ones. She stirred and stirred and stirred, but I would not pretend to fall or to be consumed or to be touched by grace. I would not pretend to sleep.
Magdalena’s voice grew deeper and the rest of the members of the Sacred Heart prayer group joined in Magdalen’s prayer, louder and louder still, but I still did not fall.
I opened my eyes and stiffened my body enough so that Magdalena could no longer move me.
I became a kid-sized statue.
There was a small commotion among the others, and for a moment, Magdalena became Trina, looking down at me as I refused to move.
Everyone fell silent.
I said nothing.
I rose up from the floor, and walked through the maze of fallen bodies and sat at the kitchen table.
Trina watched me for a few moments then regained her composure when she realized everyone was watching and she quickly moved on to my mother.
I watched for the last time as my mother took her next turn at falling, wondering what was it that she felt those few moments before she hit the ground.