The best thing she did was pretending that she wasn’t hurt. Eleanor had always been a woman with such pride and stubbornness; even when she was a little girl, her mother Ana would chide her for sassing back. Her poor old mother didn’t want to be harsh on her, because her own mother was draconic to her. Ana had three children, but Eleanor, the youngest, stopped becoming her child and became her daughter when she was just six. Oh, how Eleanor reminded her so much of her own mother. Even when Eleanor was named after her paternal grandmother, her temperament was quite similar to her maternal grandmother, a proprietress of a Maastricht brothel that Ana had abandoned out of spite at the turn of the century.
Just twenty-one years old back then in 1924, Ana sailed for six days from Hoek van Holland to the shores of America on a migrant ship. As far as she was concerned, she never had a mother, only a cold, leering phantom that she used to see at the other end of a dinner table. It was the prostitutes that worked in her brothel that became Ana’s mothers: Fleurtje was a great cook, Trienke taught her how to sew, Lotte gave great advice, and Madeleine sang songs with her. Johanna Lahaije only did three things for her throughout her life: she gave birth to Ana, she criticized her, and she let her leave. Johanna had caught her leaving with a suitcase at dawn and said nothing. She stood atop the staircase with her claws on the balustrade and she stood by as her daughter, like a deer caught in headlights, fled for the so-called Land of Opportunities. Of course, it was easy to assume that Johanna never loved her. Who knows, right? People tell you ‘I love you’ in different ways.
She had settled in New York and was married into a rather affluent Boer family, the Schuylers. She had married their youngest child, Lucas Schuyler. Her in-laws were the personification of Great White Hunters, who were ‘adventurers’, so to speak, along with their business ventures that took them around the world, while Lucas helped his mother at home and studied architecture in Cornell. Ana became a seamstress and found clientele in the sprawling metropolis, and gave birth to three daughters: Coralea, Miriam, and Eleanor. The Great Depression struck and though they did not suffer too much, the marriage between Lucas and Ana had cracked beyond repair from arguments regarding money to the spoiling of the children.
Lucas, envious of his father and brother’s adventures, decided to leave for the Dutch East Indies, having heard of the nation’s struggles for independence from the colonials that Lucas descended from. Ana refused to go, of course, since she did not drag herself all the way from Europe just to sail to some godforsaken land at the edge of the world. Much to her chagrin, Eleanor went along with her father. She enjoyed hearing the tales she used to hear about her grandfather and uncle, and she wanted to be an adventurer herself. They said goodbye and little Nortje was none the wiser. To the end of her days, she had always been her father’s child.
Eleanor was so proud of herself and her father. She had heard about the Emerald of the Equator from her father, a land so rich and green—filled with opportunities much heartier than the selfish aspirations of America—and thought of her future and the nation’s. One would think that a New York gal would be used to the urban ways, but even her days on her grandparents’ farm was nothing compared to the years she spent in this new land, and she fit right in with all the things other ‘expatriates’ couldn’t stand. They changed their names, too, and their religion. They settled in Bandung and became Muslims, thus Lucas and Eleanor Schuyler became Adam Sutansyah and Laila Mulyati. Mama Ana was not there to reprimand her for sassing, but instead it was IbuRosminah, a Sundanese lady so delicate and earthly one would think she was a fairy of the forests. When wartime came and the whites fled, Laila’s family stayed in support of the nation’s independence. The family did not approve of this. She didn’t care. Laila Mulyati did not care.
Laila met her husband, RadenBeiPrabowoMangkoedimedjo, in Bandung. Bowo was a neighbor’s pen pal and of gentry birth, and he was instantly head over heels with the dark-eyed Laila, as if a personification of the girl in PanonHideungherself. They married just as Indonesia gained independence and had twin girls in the following year. Laila was just eighteen when she had babies and it was not easy. Motherhood was something foreign to her and she had to learn it by herself. As nice as IbuRos was to her, her volatile relationship with her biological mother was enough to leave her incapacitated when it came to motherhood (mothering, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether). Still, she tried her best. She really did.
Philomena had graduated from college. Her twin sister Matilda did not stick with her as planned and decided to settle and breed with her high school sweetheart. Philomena did not have the patience to be an egg-brooding hen. She had expressed to her friends that she wanted to leave as soon as possible, especially from her Moes’ smothering. She had chosen to study Sociology at the University of Indonesia and stayed at a boarding house there. That never stopped her mother from dropping in from time to time all the way from Kuningan. She allowed Moes to smother as she pleased because she wouldn’t have to use her own money to buy food when she’s visiting, but it is quite exhausting to allow yourself to be smothered for years and years. Moes overheard this exchange (being the devil incarnate) and the next morning, she told Philomena she is to stay with her Aunt Coralea in Florida for a year.
Philomena was stunned, of course, and before she knew it she was in her aunt’s little condo in Boca Raton. The stay did not prove futile, as she became engaged to Southern aristocracy in the two years she was there. They had two wedding ceremonies; one in the US and one in Indonesia. Moes had a dance class to teach (she taught traditional dancing to the young ladies of Paterosari), so she did not see Philomena off on her day of departure. She hugged Moes goodbye at the door and left. Philomena was none the wiser.
Would you feel hurt telling your child goodbye as she became your daughter?
Ana’s three daughters came back to New York. Ana had experienced a series of illnesses and was bedridden, so of course they had to settle the estate. When their father left for Indonesia, their paternal grandparents ‘adopted’ their mother and left her the land. The land had been divided and sold throughout the years, and by that time, it was just a small but beautiful piece of land that had been the last home of Ana Schuyler. Her daughters were no longer little girls then. Coralea never married and became a landlady in Florida, so she knew the details of the estate business better than her sisters. Miriam knew next to nothing, having jumped from relationship to relationship and marriage to marriage, hoping that she’d at least get some of her mother’s jewels. Her husbands had always been Dutch men, and Ana refused to visit her in the Netherlands.
And then there’s Laila. She had grown so much from that little girl she saw leaving on a ship with a flowery hat. Still Ana chided her for her sassing even when Laila had two children and four grandchildren by that time, but the years had mellowed them to the point of the interaction becoming in jest. In Laila’s eyes, Ana saw herself, and for the first time, Ana understood her.
She came home as Eleanor. She thought it was the least she could do. She had such pride, that woman.
Matilda had died then, of emphysema and lung cancer. Her husband Hugo had disappeared years ago with no explanations, which sent her spiraling to instability. They had four children, and even their children were affected by Matilda’s thunderous descent. She had manic depression, apparently, and Moes remembered she saw the patterns in her own family—the aggression, the moodiness, the pitfalls of depression. It was harder for her to see her daughter suffering than to see her dying, though both practically ripped her apart. Still, she did not show it. Everyone was amazed at her strength.
By the time she was a widow, she had been many things and seen many things. She was involved with revolutionary women’s groups in the past and had joined efforts with other women to fight for the women’s cause in her town—and she understood her privilege as a descendant of colonials. In wartime, she volunteered as a nurse and eventually became one of the most senior members of the Indonesian Red Cross. She hinted, at one time, that she was a spy for the Indonesian rebels, and she defended her medical station from the Dutch with guns blazing. Of course, nobody ever found out if those things were true, but it made interesting conversation in her dance and exercise classes, knitting classes, and bird watching group.
Philomena had buried a husband and divorced two husbands by that time, and she had nothing left to stay on. She had been married long enough to her archeologist first husband to see the world. She had performed in nightclubs, cabarets, and theatres from Las Vegas to Paris. She had discovered a type of lizard in Brazil that was named after her, she had lived through the frigid winds of Siberia eating only dried food, and she even visited the elephant matriarch that killed her Grandfather Thomas in Tanzania. She had a trunk full of pictures, two trunks of knick-knacks, and a lifetime of memories to bring home when she decided to move back to the little town of Paterosari in Kuningan.
For forty years or so, she never stepped foot into her home country. Moes never allowed her, you see. It was always ‘I’ll come over to Atlanta to see you’ or anywhere else Philomena was staying in the US. Philomena never understood why. She never really understood why she was sent off to live with Aunt Lea back then and why, for forty years or so, she was not allowed to return home. As far as she was concerned, she wasn’t a communist connection forbidden to enter Indonesia because of the New Order’s restrictions (though her mother was probably closer to that), so why isn’t she allowed to come home?
It was 2012, and as she walked through the front garden of her house in Kuningan, laden with ferns and devil’s ivy, she decided that this was her last stop. It was as if she had always been there all this time. It was as if she were there just yesterday. Moes greeted her as any mother would, and soon began her readjustment from her worldly past life to her current, more provincial condition. Could it be that Moes was afraid that if her daughter returned home, she would never want to leave again? That she would stick by her dear old mother just to please her? That she would give up her exciting life in the great world beyond for the guilt she felt over leaving Moes?
Philomena never knew, not even when Moes died many years later. She did believe, strongly, that all this time she had been on the longest leash. She and her sister Matilda were her mother’s first and only children. As much as she struggled with motherhood, Moes was fiercely devoted to her children. A lot of this was lost in translation, Philomena supposed, which is why she wanted to leave. Perhaps Moes felt that she did not want Philomena to stick by for her sake. She did not want Philomena staying with her while dreaming of another life, while wondering what could be or what could have been.
Perhaps Moes loved her too much for that, so she allowed herself to be ripped apart for her flesh and blood to be happy. She did live that life, so she did not wonder about what could be or what could have been because she had been, and now it’s over. Philomena thought of how unlucky it is that children cannot choose their parents and how most of the time, it is parents that choose to have children. In retrospect, she was quite thankful.
She would remember, as she lay dying many years later, that she had many names. Eleanor, Nor, Nortje, Laila, IbuMangkoedimedjo, Oma, and Moes. All her life she had been known by these different names, and different people called her these different names in different situations. She had learned the pain of having dragged one’s ass from one place to another and the cognitive dissonance of having several names. She was no stranger to ambiguity and ambivalence. She reassured herself, in the silence of her cold bedroom, that it was never anyone’s fault. The broken hearts, the damaged consequences, and the wounded egos—all of them are inevitable in any sort of relationship.
The children were born into this world and they were never theirs to keep. Soon they will build dream after dream, and some dreams are ruined by their parents, parents that they did not choose. Is it their fault? Of course. As adults, they are obliged to be responsible for their actions. Anyone who says otherwise is a goddamn idiot. But then again, there are many ways to say ‘I love you’, and a lot of these things could easily be lost in translation. Does it matter, then, whose fault it was at that point?
At some point, the little eggs must leave the nest, and at that point, they were no longer eggs. What restrains someone from running towards their loved ones who are about to depart as they wave from an airport gate, a train station, behind the fence of an ivy-laced garden, or a wooden door? What difference would that make? Would that keep them at your side for another day? For what purpose?
It is rather difficult to think how hard it was for one to uproot oneself to another place, only for your offspring to come back to the place that was left behind. After all that hard work? What difference would it make?
Well, at one point, one must’ve breathed a sigh that could not be helped. As the world turns and turns you long for it to stop, for you to sit comfortably in your chair without the hours robbing you of your loved ones. You ask whether or not generation upon generation of guilt, of pain, of hurt, of joy, of laughter, and of love was worth all that trouble all your life.
At least she had lived her life then, and most importantly, at least she had come home.