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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, July 8, 2016

Cita's world

She used to squat on the piece of land my brother and I had inherited from our father and slept in a makeshift house that was built so low she had to crawl when she entered it.

Practically, her house was meant only for sleeping. On daytime, if she wasn't going around soliciting dole outs from people who were kind enough to give her money or goods, she would sit on an old plastic chair she placed outside her shanty that was made of discarded nipa and bamboo she had scavenged from elsewhere.

Being a distant relative of my mother, she would always ask for money each time I came home for my vacation when I was still working in Saudi Arabia. That would always be in summer. I would spare P500 the first time that we would meet but because she would keep on asking money every time I met her, I saw to it that the amount dwindled down gradually. Sometimes, she would solicit cash from my better-half, who would be too helpless to refuse.

Before my brother died in 2014, I had asked Cita to live with her nearest relatives because she was getting old to be living alone. When I came home to attend the funeral of my brother on an overcast January day, her shanty was no longer where it used to be. I learned later, when my family and I had decided to settle down for good on Gatuslao Extension where our land is located, that she had decided to live with a niece in a squatters' colony at the back of St. John's Institute, popularly known by its erstwhile name Hua Ming.

But I still see Cita every day. However, she had stopped asking for money either from me or my wife after I told her that I was no longer earning as much as I used to when I was still in Jeddah. “This will be the last time I will give you money,” I told her after giving her P500 and, with a wide grin, whispered: “I don't earn dollars anymore.” She seemed to have understood for she had stopped soliciting anything from me and my wife after that.

In early morning, she walks from her niece's home and takes coffee at the store of her former neighbor, Delia, who was also allowed by my late brother to build a shanty on our land. After taking her coffee, she would buy a stick or two of Fortune cigarettes from our store. “This is my vitamin,” she said in jest the first time I told her that smoking wasn't good for her health. “It's difficult to stop,” she later admitted I when I kept on reminding her to stop smoking.

Almost every day, Cita buys her lunch from our store, pulling out pieces of crumpled paper bills from her wallet to pay for the food. She says those were dole outs from kind-hearted people, including barangay chairman Freddie Vargas and some employees at the Provincial Capitol, whom she visits every now and then. Aside from the dole outs from private individuals, Cita also gets a bi-monthly ration of rice, canned goods and noodles from a social welfare agency at the Government Center.

Delia says Cita was doing all these for the sake of her grandchildren, who are all going to school. “I'm just helping,” Cita, who finished only Grade 5, clarified when I talked to her last Wednesday while she was taking coffee at Delia's store. She emphasized that her niece and her niece's husband, a trisikad driver, are the ones sending the children to school.

“I always tell the children to be serious with their studies so they would have a better future. There are three of them. The eldest is 12 and in Grade 6, the second is 11 and in Grade 5, while the youngest is 8 and in Grade One,” she rolled her eyes as she tried to recall.

“I beg,” she said when I asked her where she gets all her money. “You beg on the streets?” I asked. “No, I am ashamed to do that. I solicit money from people I know, some of them are holding office at the (Provincial) Capitol,” she said with a sad smile that created a pair of deep furrows around her mouth.

Cita and her husband, whom she married when she was 19, used to live in a slum area on a swampland along Gatuslao Extension. The couple, who were evicted when the property was acquired by a private company, did not bear any children until the death of her husband, a heavy equipment operator.

“I can't remember now. It was a long time ago,” she said when asked when her husband died. She could only recall that she had to wash and iron clothes for other people to eke out a living after his death. She stopped doing the laundry when she had become too old to do the task properly.

I tried to probe if she had ever dreamed of going to college. “How could I dream like that when we didn't even have enough food to eat at home,” came a tart reply from the 83-year-old woman, whose sad life story was written on the dry and dark wrinkles of her face.

At the end of our conversation, I tried to imagine Cita as a wealthy woman enjoying her retirement in the comfort of a cozy home far away from the world that can only be too familiar to people who have lived tough lives in the slums.

(The author can be reached through his cellphone 0906-6742685 or email casianomayor@yahoo.com)*

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