August 21, 2020

A short story

Looking for Aling Trining

             Sigh.  It’s so muddy naman.  Why did it have to rain so hard on All Saints Day?  I mutter to myself as my mother-in-law, my husband Rudy and I make our way to his Papa’s tomb.  It’s already late in the afternoon and rain had poured with a vengeance right before noon.  The cemetery ground is all muddy and there's still floodwater in some portions.  Every year I keep wishing that they’d transfer his Papa’s bones to one of those memorial parks where the thick carpet of Bermuda grass absorbs the water faster and your sandals don’t end up all caked with mud.

             But, no dice.  Mama says that’s the family burial plot and so his Papa stays.  No plush subdivisions even for what remains of him.  And so every year, the three of us make this trek to his grave in the local church cemetery, sometimes through mud and water like today – each with a vase of heliconias lovingly arranged by Mama from her garden.  Then when we get to the site, we gingerly put down the vases, and we each light a candle and say a prayer for his soul. 

             We go through the same ritual today.  Trudge through the mud, put down the vases at his grave, light a candle and say a prayer for his soul.  We then turn to sit down on the concrete benches that serve as a low perimeter wall for the gravesite, and find to our dismay that other people are seated.  Those are Papa’s benches but we can’t make these people go away.  Oh no.  Not from the looks of them.  They’re visiting those nearby condominium graves stacked against the cemetery walls, where they literally have to climb up – or at least have someone climb up for them – in order to put a lighted candle for their deceased.  Sigh.  So we remain standing and we chat a bit.  

            Hay naku, I think to myself.  This is another reason why I really wish they’d transfer Papa’s bones to a memorial park.  His grave is right next to the condominiums, and there are far too many people visiting those that they spill over to the adjoining lots.  One time they were all over Papa’s grave.  They were actually seated on top, and Mama had to ask them to go down.  They looked at her dourly as they came down from their perch, as if she was being so selfish in begrudging them their tomb-seats. 

            Some of the people sitting on the benches gradually leave, and so we eventually get to sit down.  At last.  My varicose veins are starting to get angry.  When they get real mad from constant standing, they get all painful and don’t let me sleep at night, you know. 

            After an hour or so, Rudy says it’s time to go.  I stand and pause to say one more prayer for Papa.  Then we leave.  After we get out of the gate, I tell him and Mama to go ahead to the car.  

            I walk over to the back of the churchyard where there are a few more mausoleums and condominium graves.  This is the Forbes Park-meets-Tondo part of the cemetery because a beautiful two-storey mausoleum made of granite with a balcony and winding staircase sits right across a ten-storey stack of hollow block graves.  When I get to the back, I stop suddenly.  The mausoleums on one side are there, but the condominium graves that used to be on the other are gone.  In their place are plants arranged in a little landscaping.  Where are those graves? 

            Aling Trining had been buried in one of those hollow block units.  Aling Trining and what used to be all 200 pounds of her.  

You wouldn’t miss spotting her.  She didn’t walk, she lumbered.  When she was about to go through a door we always wondered if she’d fit or if she’d have to go through it sideways.  When she sat on a chair, we’d watch and hold our breath because we always half-expected the chair legs to break.  We always looked up with awe at her when we were small.  A huge, bronze-skinned woman with the thickest, blackest hair, the kindest eyes and the gentlest voice.


I remember when she first came to work at our house.  I was around ten years old then when I set eyes on this gigantic woman hunched over a basin of laundry.  My Mom told us she was Aling Trining, our new laundrywoman.  I remember looking at her with keen interest – she was the first 200-pound person I had ever seen up close.  She was wearing a duster – I wonder how many yards of cloth did it take, and did they sell those quintuple-X sizes in the market? – and over it was a garterized skirt made of plastic to protect her duster from getting wet.  She just smiled at me and I smiled back at her.  I think I’m going to like her, I think to myself. 

            Soon Aling Trining was not just our laundrywoman but also our cook and baby-sitter and Mom’s trusted aide.  Our family needed her services badly – we were five children when she first came but gradually became eight in all, each child coming one year after the other.  Mom would leave Aling Trining to look after us and the house while she minded our small grocery store across the street.  Over time, Aling Trining became our Tia Dely, our confidante.  We’d pour our hearts out to her about our ultra-strict Lola, our Mom who didn’t have too much of a choice, and our Dad who seemed oblivious – and she’d console and advise us.  I especially enjoyed our little afternoon chats while she ironed clothes.  I’d pull a bench close to the ironing board and savor moments of connectedness with this woman to whom my mother seemed to have unwittingly relinquished her place in our hearts.  I learned that Aling Trining had been widowed early on and was now trying to make ends meet for her brood of five.  

            Ten years after Aling Trining came to work for us, I got married.  With my husband I moved on to making a home and raising a family, half an hour away.  But half hours have a way of stretching into years.  During this time, I became too engrossed with juggling career and family, that Aling Trining faded into the background much like ivy on the walls.  Every now and then I’d see her when I made occasional visits to our family home; I’d bring her food or token gifts, and  sometimes when I saw that she had a cough or cold, I’d buy her medicine.  But I knew I was being like the parent who keeps giving toys to her child thinking toys could make up for absence of the heart.  “Someday,” I say to myself, “when life is not as frantic, I’ll really really sit down and spend an afternoon chatting with Aling Trining, just like we used to.” 

            Postponed pleasures was an art I had learned to master.  Life’s little pleasures can wait in the face of a demanding office job, diapers, schoolwork, the daily menu, dirty bathrooms, loan amortizations, and credit card bills.  And so for the next ten years or so I play out this rigmarole of doing the more urgent things and postponing the pleasure of an afternoon chat with Aling Trining. 

            Then one afternoon I got a call from my Mom saying that Aling Trining was sick.  She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Alarmed, I hurried over to visit her at home.  Her eldest daughter ushered me into her bedroom, and I recoiled at the sight of Aling Trining at 120 pounds.  She was seated on a chair; she couldn’t lie down anymore because the cancer has spread to her spine and it was very painful for her to lie down.  She had to sleep in a sitting position.   And she could hardly speak now.  Communicating with her had been reduced to nods and shaking of the head and sometimes to pointing.  

When she saw me her eyes lit up and I hugged her.  For the first time in my life, I could put my arms around her.  I looked deeply into the eyes that I remembered only too well for their kindness.  In it I read the unmistakable joy of seeing me, but behind the joy I also saw lurking an utter helplessness, a plea for relief.  

Finally, after all those years, I was spending my longed-for afternoon with Aling Trining.  Only this time, there was no exchange of stories, only tears falling on each other’s laps.  

I made a resolve to visit her more often, and to come by again within the week.  Then I made plans to send her pillows and food and a new duster.   I thought hard about what else I could send to make her feel comfortable.  But they stayed mere plans, because the following morning I got a call from Mom saying Aling Trining had died on the night after my visit.  


I wipe the tears that have started to well in my eyes and stare at the landscaping where Aling Trining’s grave used to be.  For the past five years I’ve passed by her grave to light a candle and pray for her.  It was small comfort for a heart that ached with the should-have-beens of wordless afternoons. 

Regaining my composure I hurry to the cemetery caretaker to find out what happened to the condominium graves in that corner.  He gives an elaborate explanation on why they had to be moved.  I wave him off -- I was not interested in the why of it, I only wanted to know where Aling Trining was.  He didn’t know.  I glare at him and head out. 

Next I go to the parish office.  “Where are those graves that used to be in that corner?” I ask the girl at the desk almost tearfully.  

She smiles consolingly.  “They had to be moved.”  

“Where?”  I wanted to pry the answer out of her mouth.  I had asked her “where” and she was defending the transfer, not telling me what I needed to know. 

“Those tombs were allowed for only five years.. so they had to be transferred..”  Is this girl deliberately ignoring my question or is she dumb?  I don’t care why they had to be moved, I just want to know where they’ve been transferred. 

Kaya nga, where have they been transferred?”  The tears that at first threatened to fall got sucked back in.  Instead I felt myself glowering at this girl who had no sense of the anger and panic I was beginning to feel.  

Aling Trining had always just been there for me – in life and in death.  Always never more than half an hour away.  Always where I could just stop by and be consoled by her gentle-giant presence.  And now this girl had the temerity not to realize how important it was for me to find Aling Trining again! 

I was almost tempted to grab her arms and shake the answer out of her.  But I suddenly remembered Aling Trining’s gentle demeanor and how in the twenty  years I knew her, not once had I seen her cross or heard her utter an unkind word. It felt like someone had doused a glass of ice water on my head.  I turned and walked out of the room. 

 “Where have they taken you, Aling Trining?...” I think to myself.    My eyes well up with tears at the thought of never having the chance to visit Aling Trining again.  For the first time in my life, I felt I had truly lost her. 


            It’s the first day of December following our visit to the cemetery.  I’m standing by the kitchen sink washing breakfast dishes when I suddenly remember that today is Aling Trining’s birthday.  I have her birthday noted on my desk calendar so I can say a little prayer for her whenever I see it.  But today, the thought just comes suddenly, unbidden.  So I say a quick prayer as I rinse away the coffee mugs. 

            “Aling Trining,” I say to myself.  “Where are you?  I feel so bad that I don’t even know where they’ve put you now.   I can’t visit you anymore.  And we've already lost touch with your family...”  Tears stream down my face.  Not only is the loss more real now, it also feels so final.

            I dry the dishes with a heavy heart but as I do, I find myself recalling those long afternoon chats with Aling Trining while she ironed clothes.  I remember how gentle and kind and caring she had been throughout the years that she was part of our lives, and the memory washes over my heart like a warm soothing wave.  A smile escapes my lips as it dawns on me. 

            She's where it matters.  I don’t have to look for her anymore...