Our family albums are in the Philippines. My mom is a meticulous record-keeper; each album bears a sticker on the spine to identify its contents (“1985-1987”, “Jakarta, 1992”) and the photo negatives are in similarly-labeled shoe-boxes. Most of the albums have cheesecloth cases to keep away the dust, all hand-sewn by Ma herself.
Ma used to assign me the task of making sure the boxes were properly labeled, telling me to check if there were any photos missing (sometimes she gave away one or two to a visiting tita from the States who wanted a copy, etc.) so we could have it developed in the Kodak shop at Glorietta. I kind of miss the era when it was a “must” to have photos developed. Now I have thousands of my son, all stored in a hard drive I only occasionally look at (and should start organizing very soon).
I remember there were three old albums filled with photos from a time before my sisters and I were born.
These were ones of my mom as a child, the youngest of ten siblings. Of my maternal lola, who passed away in the US when we were young. (I remember we received the news over dinner. I bawled, unabashed, because Ma was doing the same.) Of the old maternal house, since demolished. Of titos and titas who I’d never met or had died or looked vastly different from the young faces in those sepia-colored snapshots. Of a cheesy love poem my dad wrote Ma when they were dating, complete with a technically precise illustration of a rose only an engineer would draw (I swear — there were penciled-in margins and everything). She saved that poem and taped it to the back of one of the albums. (Someone else in my dad’s family must be keeping their albums, because there are very few photos of him there.) There were pictures of my parents’ wedding day. I remember random details: the fat white doves, the wedding guests’ big shoulder pads, the corn and egg soup starter served at the Chinese restaurant where they had the reception.
I especially loved looking at those albums and imagining my mom at my age. After reading this essay from the New York Times, I wish I could leaf through them now. I want to see Mama before she became Mama.
Actually, I’ve had the essay bookmarked in my phone for a while, since it came out. I’ve been chewing on the idea of identity after one becomes a mother. I find it telling that, in an old journal entry, I wrote this: “When I have kids, I’m scared of losing myself.”
I told my husband never to call me “mommy.” I was determined to keep working. I was certain I didn’t want my kids to be my whole world; I wanted to preserve a little part of me that was all my own.
But the truth is, motherhood changes you. It’s inevitable. I have gained; I never thought I could feel so fiercely about someone. There are times my little boy resembles me so much it hurts. But in some ways (that I can’t quite place my finger on) I also feel as if I did lose something in the process.
I look at photos of myself from not-so-long-ago and read my old journals, and I only vaguely recall what it felt like to be that version of myself. Becoming a mom bookended a time in my life in a way I did not expect. Even if, as Dan Gilbert said, “[t]he person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been,” it still surprised me how much I changed, practically overnight.
I scanned this photo some time ago to put in a video. It’s one of my favorites of my parents. My dad and his flared pants (with a thick head of hair!), Ma’s sweet hair clip, the odd pillowcase-without-pillows arrangement on the wooden sala set. Who took the picture? What were they eating? What was the occasion?
She looks different now. But that smile — the way her eyes crinkle at the sides, that wide-toothed grin — it hasn’t changed at all. And then, to read this:
“What solace to know that time, aging and motherhood cannot take away a woman’s essential identity. For daughters who closely resemble their moms, it must be an even bigger comfort; these mothers and daughters are twins, separated by a generation, and an old photo serves as a kind of mirror: How do I look? Even if there isn’t a resemblance, we can’t help but compare ourselves to our young mothers before they were mothers.
“Pluck, sex appeal, power, kindness, persistence: We admire and celebrate these characteristics, and we long for the past versions of our moms to embody them. But if these characteristics are a prerequisite for a properly executed womanhood, does becoming a mother divest a woman of such qualities? In studying these photos, and each daughter’s interpretation of them, I’ve come to wonder what traits we allow our mothers to have, and which ones we view as temporary, expiring with age and the beginning of motherhood. Can a woman be both sexual and maternal, daring and responsible, innocent and wise? Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.”
Only when I became a parent myself did I start to fully, really appreciate the woman in the picture. How little and how much I know her. In time, I hope, my son will see me the same way.