My mother had many superstitions that I thought were, for lack of a better word, quirky…
“Don’t cut your nails at night or a relative will die,” she would say when I was first caught with nail clippers at night.
“Jump! Jump 10 times! You will grow taller,” she would say during New Years Eve.
“Stop leaving your bags on the floor! Do you want to be poor?!?” she would often scold.
Despite living in the US for over 30 years, Nanay kept these superstitions closer to her heart than Lola’s old rosary. Yet, none of these seemingly silly beliefs disturbed me more than Duwendes.
I was by the TV, watching one of my favorite childhood shows, Dave the Gnome, when my mother came to get me for dinner.
She clicked her tongue. “Ah, watching the duwende again, Lili?”
“Huh?” I said, still watching the cartoon.
“The cartoon, anak, the cartoon. That is a duwende, yeah? Oh, what do you call them here…”
“David is a gnome, po,” I said.
“nome? Yes, nome. He is white so he is a good duwende,” she said.
There was a commercial break so I turned to Nanay. She looked so matter-of-fact when she spoke, as if this was common knowlwede. As a child, I believed she and other adults understood more about what is real and what isn’t, so her words took me by surprise.
She is teasing me, I thought.
“Nanay gnomes aren’t real…”
“Shhh,” she put her hand over my mouth, “anak, no, duwendes are real! Don’t ever say that, they will be upset,” she let go of my mouth and made the sign of the cross before muttering, “Tabi tabi po.”
I didn’t argue about it then. As I got older I almost forgot about duwendes, until my mother and I moved to the East Bay. I was in 8th grade when we moved into the ranch-style fixer upper across the street from the local high school. The front yard looked manageable, if in deep need of some weeding and a lot of TLC, but the back yard … that yard was a small jungle. Nothing short of a wild fire could put a dent into the chest high grass and thorny black berry bushes.
I stared at the fenced in jungle from behind our living room’s glass doors and whistled.
“Nanay, you have to see this!”
She was in the kitchen, opening the last boxes. “What did you say, Lillian?”
I moved into the kitchen. “The yard, po. It looks like the last owners let it grow out of control. We’ll need a weed wacker…or a cement mixer.”
She stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow. Her gaze shifted from me to the yard and her eyes widen. Nanay walked passed and stared deeply into the yard, searching for movement. She quickly did the sign of the cross and closed the blinds.
“Don’t worried about the yard, Lil,” she said. She held my cheek in her right hand as she spoke. “I’ll take care of everything. Go unpack the boxes in your room.”
“Yes, Nanay,” I said.
As I turned to go, I hear Nanay whisper, “Tabi tabi po.”
My room had two windows: one facing the street and one facing the backyard. I kept both windows open while I unpacked, blinds drawn to let in the summer sun. After the first three boxes, I began to notice a strange sound coming from the boxes closes to the backyard window. It sounded like a tiny feet of a rat scurrying between the moving boxes. I called out to Nanay.
“Nanay! I think we have rats,” I said as I moved to the window. I didn’t have our broom on hand, but I wasn’t looking to scare the poor thing. I just wanted to confirm if it was a rat or a mouse. As I lifted one box off of another, the scurrying sound got louder. The bottom box was labeled MISC, and contained my childhood collection of rocks, feathers, sand in small bottles, and tiny things I gathered from our trips back home to the Philippines.
How did a rodent get into our boxes so quick? We had just moved in today…
The box labeled MISC suddenly shook violently. I fell on my backside, and scooted back as fast as I could. “NANAY!” I screamed.
She was at my door before I finished screaming. In her right hand she was clucking Lola’s rosary and in her left hand she held a broom.
“Behind me, Lil!” she said.
I scampered to my feet, keeping one eye on the shaking box.
Nanay held the rosary out towards the box and began advances forward, as if the rosary was a shield.
“Tabi tabi po. Tabi tabi po. Bari-bari apo ma ka ilabas kami apo,” Nanay said, with each step. She turned her head and nodded to me. I began to chat with her, “tabi tabi po.”
The box shoot violently with each utterance.
“Tabi tabi po, tabi tabi po,” we said in unison. I creeped up close to Nanay as she reached down and touched the box lightly with the broom.
The shaking stopped. Nanay bent down, still whispering, “Tabi tabi po.” Setting the broom to her side, she knelt down and began examining the box. There were no holes or chew marks to be seen, and the tape had not been disturbed. She took her long nails and began removing the table from the outside of the box.
As she opened it, the smell of Manila Bay wafted into the room accompanied by the sound of children laughing and older, familiar voices, speaking in Tagalog. For a moment, I was back in Lola’s house, gobbling up Halo-Halo, as my mother and my aunts gossiped about this and that. I didn’t notice the tears in my eyes until Nanay spoke.
“Lil, come, look.”
Inside the box was a small replica of our families old house in the province. Everything was there, from Lolo’s old broken down car to the old swing hanging off the porch. I gasped and fell to my knees by Nanay. She hug my shoulders and I could see tears cascading down her cheeks.
On far wall of the box, written with my collection of feathers and sand was “Maligayang pagbabalik,” Welcome Home.