In a recent phone conversation with my mom, she mentioned my nanny, who lived with our family for almost 60 years before passing away in 2014. I told my mom—she is based in the United States; we speak daily—that we were both lucky to have been cared for by a remarkable woman who loved us as though we were her children.
Most days but specially today, Mother’s Day, I think of not only my loving mom who sacrificed much for me but also Neria Luares—Yaya Neria to me and Mana Ners to my mom—whose love and kindness I proudly celebrate.
It was in the 1950s in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur, when the teenaged Neria was employed by my grandparents, Lolo Diego and Lola Pepay. She immediately endeared herself to my mom and the six other children, which was deemed a good sign because the sheer size of the family usually intimidated potential household helpers.
In the 1960s Lolo Diego went into politics and became town mayor. When he and Lola Pepay welcomed their eighth child, Uncle Jun, Yaya Neria automatically became his nanny, proving, according to the family lore, to be such a big help to my grandparents who were anxious that all the needs of their big brood were met even when they were busy or away.
Lolo Diego did not seek a second term as mayor and instead accepted an offer to work in a bank in Manila to permanently reunite the rest of the family with my mom and my Auntie Babie, who were then both in college there.
The family, along with Yaya Neria, lived in a modest apartment in Singalong, where relatives were welcome to stay as long as they needed to.
Yaya Neria was assigned to take my Uncles Yong and Jun to and from school, and to assist another helper in getting the chores done. My mom recalls that Yaya Neria was always willing to work even if she didn’t have to. And she was so devoted to the family that she turned down her boyfriend who had come all the way from Surigao del Sur to propose marriage.
My mom and dad got married in 1970, and I was prematurely brought into this world the next year at FEU Hospital amid raging street protests against Ferdinand Marcos’ regime.
Once, over merienda, Yaya Neria told me that she cried the first time she saw me because she knew how difficult my mom’s pregnancy had been. She said it was a relief to finally see me (despite being in an incubator) and my mom doing well. She later confessed that seeing me also alarmed her because, she said, I was so tiny and my skin was somewhat translucent. It was actually a miracle that I survived, she said.
Because my parents worked full-time, Yaya Neria became a permanent part of our new household where she tended to me only. Like my own mom, her world revolved around me, and even at an early age I appreciated her love and care. I was like her shadow, and I always wanted to go with her when she had errands to do. Once, without her knowledge, I followed her to the wet market; she had the shock of her life when I poked her and said, “Hoy, Yaya!”
She was so upset that when we returned home, she delivered a tongue-lashing to those she had assigned to look after me while she was away. Just like my mom who kept scolding me whenever I did something wrong, she was like a song on a loop—until she got tired and finally blurted out, “Naintindihan mo ba (Do you understand)?”
I was in the fourth grade when my parents, through the help of Lolo Diego, were offered good jobs in Mindanao. I wasn’t bothered that we had to leave for an unfamiliar place until I saw Yaya Neria’s best friend, Nanay Impat (the other half of a loving elderly couple who treated me like their own child), crying while our things were being loaded onto a truck.
We promised to exchange letters and were reunited when I came back to Manila (with Yaya Neria in tow, of course) for college. Their family had transferred to Las Piñas, which was a 20-minute ride away from where Lolo Diego and Lola Pepay lived.
The reunion of Yaya Neria and Nanay Impat was an unforgettable moment.
Reading and writing
Yaya Neria reached only the third grade in school, but she was a fast learner. She loved reading newspapers aloud and wrote about anything she fancied on a notebook that I gave her. She didn’t care much about politics and would ignore me whenever I complained about certain politicians. But she was well aware of the great divide between the rich and poor in our country and said that maybe someday the poor would gain the upper hand.
She had an ironic story she often told me about a rich family that lived near the slums: The children of the wealthy family were noticeably thin despite all the delicious food served to them, while those of the poor family seemed healthy. The secret—ang sikreto—she said, was that the members of the poor family, despite having only rice on the table, made it a point to eat whenever their wealthy neighbor started cooking their delicious dishes, the aroma serving to whet and quench their appetite.
She loved the many pets in our home, and was as concerned about their welfare as my husband and I were.
To be sure, my decades-long relationship with Yaya Neria wasn’t all rosy and perfect. As I grew older, we argued a lot; she and I had strong positions on certain things. I regret those arguments.
And in my heart I knew then that someday, even if I didn’t want to, I would have to let her go. And I could never turn back the clock and wish away the arguments we had.
And so 2014 happened. My husband and I were busy preparing for a trip to Sagada, and it was almost midnight when I went to the kitchen to get something to eat. I saw Yaya Neria in the living room and noticed that she was having difficulty breathing. We took her to the nearest hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.
She was confined for three weeks and my husband and I took turns keeping watch. We were happy to take her home but noticed a difference: She talked and smiled less, and she could barely eat. She was never her usual self again.
I told my mom in New Jersey about Yaya Neria’s deteriorating health, and she immediately booked a flight to Manila. She told me that she wanted to be by her Mana Ners’ side while they could still talk to each other. One morning, when the two women were sharing a hotcake, I heard my mom tell her in their native Surigaonon: “Mana Ners, you have served us for a long time and it is but right that I now serve you.”
Eventually my mom had to fly back to New Jersey, burdened, like me, with the knowledge of the inevitable. Before she left, she gave her Mana Ners a long embrace.
On July 3, 2014, four months after my mom left, my husband and I had to rush Yaya Neria to the hospital because of a severe case of peptic ulcers. She was now vomiting blood and the doctor said the only way to stop it was for her to undergo surgery. Before she was to be wheeled to the operating room, she gave me a smile and a thumbs-up sign. But I was on the verge of tears and unable to smile back.
After the operation she had a cardiac arrest and the doctors could not revive her after 13 attempts. My nanny probably figured I would be okay. And it was time for me to let her go.
Kipling said “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” It’s like he was talking of my Yaya Neria, my other mother.
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