I’ve been meaning to talk about the house help for quite some time now. And from the looks of it, this will only be part one of two.
To go on with this story, I should give a prelude as to how children’s nurses and the house help come to knock on our doors. In the province, agencies for this kind of job are unheard of. Our men come from the far lands of Leyte, my mom’s province. Sometimes, the ates and kuyas would come from my Mom’s very hometown, Villaba, but most of the times they are recruited from the most remote places where electricity and water connections do not exist because the simple life can suffice and more importantly, is all they could afford. These are people who seek better and more urban life, who also dream of helping their families the only way they know. They come voluntarily. At times it is my Lola who has to turn them down for lack of job openings in her house and in any of her children’s, my Mom included. They are willing to spend eight hours of travel to get to this destination, this new life. A fifth of the total number of house help and children’s maids comes from my Dad’s birthplace here in Eastern Samar, some two hours from our town. Mostly, it is the drivers and the grounds-keepers who come from Samar. But they also come in the hopes of leaving behind their austere lives.
I may not have lived in Villaba that long, but I can speak their dialect quite fluently. It is through the aid of the help and the nurses, no matter how unintentional, that I have come to speak Bisaya that’s a little varied from Cebuano, Waray-Waray in Leyte, and Waray-Waray in Samar. It is hard not to compare the Leytehanons and the Samarnons. The earlier are soft-spoken, chatty (sometimes, garrulous) while the latter are forceful and stern. Some of them are easy to like and some took us time to understand. Some were too young to work (the youngest we had was 15, while my older sister was 14), and some had children of their own. At some point when I was a kid, it was easy to tell who would last long enough. We were brats. But it wasn’t part of our nature to verbalize and to hurt.
I’d say that we’ve had an approximate 45 young ladies and gentlemen coming and going in the past 20 years. Keep in mind that we used to have three or four of them a time. To be honest, I am not proud of this. Mom wasn’t used to the ever-changing update of the house help. She used to have only one: Yaya Linda. And she was there until Mom left for college. Occasionally Yaya Linda would help out in Lola’s house when she throws her parties. I think that the longest span of time any one of them spent is a little over five years. There was one nurse, my Mom’s cousin, and my younger sister’s child nurse from since she was born who left us and moved to my paternal family’s help. She tried working abroad, and at present she is back at my Lola’s house.
Our family has always been one that needed that the help of some people in chores at home. We are a family of six, and with this number organizing and dividing have always been difficult. It was too big a number to manage. As fate would have it, my parents spend most of the day time at work, leaving us with yayas supervising us during playtime. Here in the provinces, and as we have been taught early on, calling the help yayas and yayos is inappropriate, not to mention dehumanizing. I would later find out that this practice can only be witnessed in mega-rich families, and families in highly-urbanized places, like Manila. Instead, we call them Ate, a term for an older female; Kuya, for the guys.
I remember my Grade Three teacher asking me how I feel toward the house help. Already articulate, I describe my relationship with the help as friendship built on mutual trust and mutual respect, leaving out the almost daily bouts of arguments I have with them. If any of our previous ates or kuyas could read this, they could come up with only one conclusion: that I am a brat. Nope, I was not a spoiled brat, just a brat. Looking back, I could not think why it was very easy for me to talk back to them. But I guess I had my reasons. I’ve been through a rough childhood, insecure of how my parents weren’t like those of my classmates’ who’re almost always driving them to school and making time to attend parent-teachers meetings. When I analyze it now that I am a young adult, I can see that I have all the reasons to be upset with the help. My parents would send various ates to these conferences to cover for them. Why there was even a picture of my ate beside one of the ates on the stage during one of her recognition rites. My parents were getting able to run away from some duties as parents using the ates as excuses. And I hated that! I hated the existence of their very job! I hated that attending PTAs was part of their job.
The nature of their work is simple. They keep an eye on us all the time, except when they have chores to attend to and when we are in school. Overtime the line between a children’s-nurse and a house helper became blurry. The house helper does the simple chores waking up at five in the morning to scrub and wax the floor, do the laundry and prepare and fix beds. Once a week, they are to thoroughly clean the bathroom and wipe figurines, jars, and what-not. Usually, we have one helper assigned to the kitchen, prepare food, set the table, keep and clean the dining table. We have been trained to treat them like equals. They were allowed to turn the TV on or off when they want to use it and as long as it does not cause much conflict. They eat practically the same foods we eat, and they were allowed with everything on the fridge. They have Sunday afternoons off. In the summers, Mom would allow us to put mats side by side in the living room, so all of us in the house could lie down and watch TV. Snacks, all kinds of junk foods, and soft drinks are also served for all of us.
As for the Kuyas, they only came to exist when we moved to our new house. They’re what Filipinos would call “Boy”. It’s a much bigger house, with a much bigger yard, and so we needed more men. Much of their work involves Mom’s garden of flowers, and looking after Dad’s pups. They also do minor repairs at the house, and the occasional bathrooms clean-up. The Kuyas also drive us to and from school, and the ultimate buddy of my brother when he goes someplace. It is also their job to wash the car, family jeep, and the tricycle. We used to have two Kuyas because one of them has to help in running errands at the clinic. Now, we only have one because my Uncle has come to help at the clinic.
But my parents’ inability to be present at school wasn’t always the reason why I argue and, to some extent, fight with the ates. There was a time when each of the four of us had been assigned a child’s nurse. Unfortunately for my brother, his was a nurse who grew fond of pinching him whenever he had to be reprimanded. At first, I refused to believe my sisters when they talked about it; I kept mum when Mom was noticing scars and tiny wounds on my brother’s knees. But it’s too much not to notice when my brother cries for some unexplainable reason and all he had was the company of this certain nurse. That’s crossing the line. And that’s when I forget about the disrespect in talking back, or threatening to tell on her. As it is their duty to take care of the four of us, it is also my duty to protect my brother from this abuse.
To date, the shortest span of time a nurse spent at our house is a month. But there was one stand out case with an even more intriguing reason. I’ve known my older sister as the passive one when it comes to dealing with the help. She chooses to leave it to me to tell Mom, or to even notice inappropriate behaviors among the nurses. It was bad luck for this certain nurse when she arrived at our place because all four of us were waiting for Lola, or for Grandma (my Mom’s aunt/cousin) who accompanied the new recruits. There was something new with this one particular helper: she came in some tight-fitting spaghetti top and leggings. They arrived in time for lunch. The four of us spectated. When Lola and Grandma left the dining table, Achi bounced, “You know what, I don’t like you.” This caught all of us surprised, especially the rest of the house help who already knew Achi. She wasn’t like that, and these things are those we sometimes pre-convene about before telling. This made the new helper cry that she wanted to go home instantly, just an hour after she got to our hosue. Later on, Achi told us she hated the way the new helper dressed, and the way she talked. In the end, Achi was right in her judging the new recruit because these were the very reasons she was dismissed from her job.
It’s not always my fault. But I am the most assertive of us four, that my being personal manager and female mayordomo has become a running joke. Of course those who have stayed with us longer have warned the newly-arrived ones about me and my tantrums. But most of the times, I am rational. My siblings would tell me they hate the way an ate dances or how she is always hanging out in the streets in skimpy clothing. Most of the times, my parents would let things slide when it is I who reports, knowing how keen I am in spectating, how I have seemed to master the art of paying attention to the most perverse tiny detail, and how bad-tempered I can be.
My nurse’s name was Rose. I do not know how I came to like her. She danced gracefully when we hated dancing. She wore short shorts, a little something we didn’t exactly like. And best of all, she had a tattoo. This was a total no-no. At least for me. When I was already in fourth grade, I was old enough to go without a supervisor every time. In the mornings and in the afternoons, she helps out in the clinic, a walking-distance from our old house. She had a boyfriend. I guess what brought us closer was that she sometimes had to use my mobile phone to communicate whenever she ran out of load. I didn’t mind that because I was in Third Grade. I mean who would text me? Yes, we fight. I know I was out of control when I was when I was able to put her in tears during a verbal argument and I was only in Fifth Grade. I was sorry. I didn’t tell her but she knew. I was her challenge, she would get mad at me. But I respected her. It’s a no when she says it’s a no. She left our home together with one of her recruits. We had to find out the hard way. We were back from our annual vacation in Cebu. There wasn’t anyone who welcomed us home. The key was left outside the house in some medicine’s box. There was a long note that came with it. The note ended with a P.S. for me, saying that she loved me and that I was the best. It was too bad that she wasn’t able to hear the same from me. She abandoned her cellphone, one that was issued by us since she worked in the clinic, so there was no way of communicating with her.
Some of them were borne story-tellers. Life in their towns and provinces were very different from the ones we live in that the stories they tell may sound outrageous but we all know it’s true. Because some live in the barrios, they would retell first-hand experiences of horror-stories. They were all expressive. Some were funny that even only their retorts would send Mom and Dad laughing. Some were serious that one would think their smiles were too expensive. Some were too young that my parents would send them to High Schools. Some were promising and beaming with potential that Mom and Dad sent them to College.
I’ve learned a lot from our children’s –nurses and from the helpers. I’ve learned more about myself. Certainly, most would agree that having helpers at home teaches us to be less industrious, unintentionally. Most of the helpers we’ve had don’t want any of our help with the house chores. Most of the times the reason behind would be that we children just make the work longer and heavier for them since they have to teach us first.
In my almost nineteen years of existence, I have been dependent on these people. They would tell me that they barely finished High School yet it’s evident that they’ve been through a lot. When I’m not busy being mean and quite the pain in the butt, and more frequently now that I am older, I think about what made me different from them. I have not yet a single reason valid enough for me to consider and do something about. The thing is I wish they know how much help they have been to me and my family. Others might take me as insincere after how I’ve acted towards our helpers, but I really don’t know where I would be right now had it not be for them helping us through the years.
This goes out to all Ates and Kuyas out there. Thank you for teaching us things, house work and chores, lessons I will never get to read in my books, stories shared, the trust you gave us, and the many favors you’ve done for all of us.
Written: May 29, 2012
I wrote this in a hurry, not because I had something to do, but because I was angry at the fact that two of our helpers were leaving us. I finished writing this in a span of three hours (take into account the minutes I spent with whatever the internet throws at me as distractions). I really haven’t the chance to edit anything from the article. I apologize for the typos and the grammatical errors the reader might have encountered. I am feeling much better now.