A Bird's Life by Nita Noveno


The first time she showed me the scar, she traced its path with her finger along the soft underside of her knee, like a small winding creek on a map. She was around five or six years old when it happened. Her life back then consisted of farming on the mountains of Luzon with her family and peddling vegetables door to door. One day, a large tuber she lugged on her head slipped and shot down like a cannonball to the back of her leg, splitting open skin on impact. That is how she remembers it. A lifetime later, her eldest brother recalled the event in a different manner. The frail, white-haired man spoke of a mysterious growth on her leg. Someone had sent an evil spirit perhaps, or displeased a witch. These were concerns among her mountain people. Worried for her life, the family sacrificed an animal and prayed for her healing while their father left to make rice wine to appease the spirit. 

He never returned home. 

This story of my mother’s childhood, like so many others, came out of nowhere while she was driving through Ketchikan or massaging her small, wide feet after a week on the ferry. It was as sudden and bewildering as a snowfall in spring. 

Cudiet came to us in the same way. My mother revealed her birth name out of the blue, pronouncing it “Koo-DIE -it” in her egg-shaped accent. The sound of it sent my sister and me into gales of laughter. It became our new joke nickname for her like “Igorot,” the name of her ethnic people. Caroline was the name a Catholic nun gave my mother as a girl when she started attending school. When I asked her why her name was changed—I suspected that her teacher did not think it European or American enough—my mother told me matter-of-factly that “it was easier to pronounce, like Maggie. Maggie and I lived with a local senator and his family in Baguio from fifth grade to high school.” I looked at my mother. She had mentioned Maggie to us before. She was simply a girl my mother met while selling vegetables door to door, a girl whose mixed origins—part black, part Filipino—she could not explain. Now my mother added another layer to the story. She did not hesitate before she answered this question, in the way she did whenever I visited in the summer and probed into her young life in the Philippines before she married late—she was almost 30, an old maid by Filipino standards—and left the mountains. My questions about her father’s disappearance, and living in damp caves with her family during the war were usually met with a blank stare. “I have to look at the pictures,” she would say again and again. Or “maybe Calixto knows.” But this time my mother did not search for the Cudiet answer among old photographs or from the memories of her eldest brother. This time was one of those rare moments when the memory flung open like a door and I was reminded yet again that I did not fully know my own mother.  

I waited for her now at the Ketchikan ferry terminal, watching the Malaspina and the Matanuska among the fleet of dark blue, yellow-striped vessels that sail through Alaska’s Marine Highway year round. They share the names of glaciers. In contrast to the grandiose cruise ships that glide like royalty from port to port in the tourist season, these ferries are year-round workhorses, transporting locals and tourists alike through the Inside Passage. If you were to take one of them, say, from the capital of Juneau north to tiny Haines, you might meet my mother. She works in the ferry’s little gift shop, selling postcards of whales and mountains, wristbands to aid seasickness, and various books on the largest state of the Union. During the evenings, when passengers line up for dinner served cafeteria style, comparing notes of their day’s sightings—bald eagles in flight or a lone humpback breaching waters off the starboard—she can be found ringing up meals at the register. “How are you doin’?” she will ask you in her casual tone of the West flecked with a faint Filipino accent. “Where are you from?” and “How do you like Ahlaskah?”

This amiable mother of mine lives on the ferry for a week, sometimes sharing a cabin with another female co-worker—she often jokes that “if she snores, I wear earplugs”—and then returns home to Ketchikan for a week. She repeats this “on again, off again” schedule until it’s time for her annual vacation. The job provides her with stories that infuse our phone conversations, like the time a big German tourist flirted with her—a widow with two grown children—or the day her ferry was held captive in British Columbia by a flotilla of fireboats protesting the US- Canadian fishing boundaries one early summer day. I happened to see it on the news live while waiting at LaGuardia Airport for my flight to Seattle where I would make my connecting flight to Alaska. “They sprayed us with their hoses!” she said when I arrived to the island some eight hours later.

I come home seeking my mother’s stories. I moved away over twenty years ago. Since my father’s death, she is the one who keeps me tethered to my childhood island home. Population 7,000. I return in the summers for what has become a pilgrimage of sorts. Living in fast-paced, overcrowded New York City has had me yearning at times for life on a smaller scale, for nature in my backyard, for a place unaltered, and in my mind’s eye it is here. It is a problematic journey of course, since, as the saying goes, “you can never step in the same river twice.”

I waited and watched as crew members and passengers disembarked from the dark blue ferryboat. They walked up the wide steel and concrete ramp. My mother appeared amongst them, towing her suitcase on wheels and looking like a naval officer in her uniform returning from duty at sea. She was all smiles when she spotted me. From a distance, I gazed at the short, thick hair that had undergone numerous perms.  She walked like a woman whose small, wide feet had been squeezed into a pair of uncomfortable shoes. She came from the Igorot people, so in my mind her feet were fit to roam the hilly terrain of her birthplace.

“Phew!” she said after a long hug. “A lot of tourists this week!” 

She relaxed in the car as we talked about her week on the ferry. In the driver’s seat of her frosted blue Corolla, I studied the storefronts along the main road of Ketchikan. They resembled the rundown, clapboard rusticity of the Old West, but this old town was reinventing itself in the same way my mother had over the many years. More and more during these short summer visits, I have noticed signs of the inevitable: the arrival of Walmart to our small town, and the increasing number of white hairs on my mother’s head, even though she tries to banish them with drugstore color washes. But as the town expands, my mother gets smaller. At 4’10”, she claimed to have shrunk an inch in height in the past few years. She talks about retirement although she has never been sure of her age and can only guess that she is 63 or 64 that year. Her birth records were lost during the Second World War in her native Philippines when the Japanese soldiers burnt down the family home. It was 1944, after her accident, and they fled to safer ground and began to hide out in the caves. The battle between Japanese and American forces would ensnare the country for a year, and the family lived in the damp darkness for the duration. I imagine the caves smelled of iron ore, of copper, of gold extracted by the big mining company for the last half century until the precious metals, which once poured out of the caves, bled out only in spurts. 

My mother and her family got used to the damp air and adjusted to the darkness. They did not lose any of their own blood. The caves had no doubt saved their lives. Others weren’t so lucky. But my mother barely remembers this time. She speaks only of her birth records. “Destroyed in a fire,” she surmised. 

Thus began her life of reinvention. And September 15, 1938 became her new birthdate.  

My mother has reinvented herself time and again, but I suppose that ferry worker is the role she has played the longest. Her coworkers on the ferry nicknamed her “Captain Crunch” after she steered a lifeboat successfully through open waters. If it weren’t for the photos of my mother slipping and sliding off a large inflatable raft, I wouldn’t have believed that she passed the required water survival training at the local high school swimming pool. She doesn’t know how to swim! My mother said that her coworkers helped keep her afloat. 

“I envy the Filipinos with large families,” she tells me one day as we talked about the new Filipino families moving to Ketchikan. My mother is the fifth of six children. In the mountains of Luzon, her brothers have an average of nine children and her eldest sister has thirteen. In Ketchikan, my mother gave birth to two children; the third child was miscarried. My sister and I moved away, so the ferry crew is her second family. They celebrate the holidays together if they happen to be working on the ship. For Halloween one year my mother donned a sheet with a painted-on web and sprayed her hair silver. “I was Spider Woman,” she told me as I squinted at the photo taken of this bizarre version of a super heroine standing next to a nun and a feline (a member of the kitchen staff and purser, respectively). The passenger-judges awarded my mother a prize for the cutest costume. This is not the mother I know. Back on land, she is a typical American on the verge of retirement, making home improvements with selling in mind, playing bingo as regularly as she attends church, visiting her grown children who have made homes in other states, and mulling over where to live and what to do once she leaves work for good. Spider Woman caught me off guard.

For the next ten years, it seemed all she wore was white. My father was in poor health by that time, so her job followed her home every day. She constantly monitored his increasingly high blood pressure and stopped putting salt in all of our meals. My father was already an old man when he met my mother in the Philippines. He was an Ilocano from the lowlands, thirty years her senior. He had become an American citizen and in 1964 he returned to his native country to find a wife. My mother was almost 30, unmarried and had no prospects. She was working at a low-paying job in a drugstore and went from being a mountain girl in Luzon selling vegetables, to a small town girl in Alaska, selling perfume one minute and emptying bedpans the next. 

These changes in identity seemed as natural to my mother as a bird molting its feathers. But in this process of losing and gaining, I still didn’t know the person underneath. 

While driving midway through Ketchikan, my mother told me a story about a little boy on the ferry who, upon seeing my mother in uniform, wanted to know if she was the captain. My mother took a liking to this little boy from New York. We laughed together on the drive home, talked about the other tourists on board, and decided on our video rental for the night: Cast Away with Tom Hanks. When I spotted A “CRAB FOR SALE” sign, I knew that our first night home would include Cast Away and crabs. The for sale sign was propped in the bed of a small white pickup that was parked in front of one of the city’s harbors. I pointed to the sign in case my mom hadn’t seen it. She immediately yelled for me to stop. We would have Dungeness crabs for our welcome home dinner.  

My childhood home had loomed large in my memory, but now it was as if I was seeing the low ceilings and the small rooms for the first time. It took a day or two for my memory to realign itself with what I saw in front of me. This was the house my father built after he found a wife in the Philippines and had his first child. But the house had changed since his death. My mother returned to an independence she’d had long before coming to the US. She painted our once burnt orange home to a cool slate blue. A sky blue living room carpet took the place of the old plush brown one and the rust-colored sofa was reupholstered in a white jacquard material patterned with pastel blue and green flowers. More framed photos of my sister and my sister’s children and me appeared on the living room bookshelf. I studied the new photos, a shrine of images, glad to see that she had removed the gigantic poster-sized framed photo of me at college graduation from the living room wall and replaced it with a poster of wildflowers. On the kitchen table, next to a vase full of artificial flowers, sat a four-inch “sensitive” plant.

“We call it ‘Touch-Me-Not’ in the Philippines,” she told me as she playfully fingered a tiny branch, “I like to torture it!”

“Mom!” I yelled, laughing at her feistiness, shocked to hear this otherwise harmless woman confess her secret pleasure. “You need a pet!” I joked. 

We both laughed as the plant’s delicate branch shriveled at her touch, drooping like a donkey’s ear. She’d placed it in my dad’s white mug. This mug had sat on a bathroom shelf for many years. It held his bottle of cologne with its “Old Spice” logo ship in full sail. I was surprised to see the white mug at first. I didn’t recognize that my mother had a sentimental attachment to things long gone. I thought that all of my father’s possessions had been donated to the Salvation Army or to family friends, along with other relics like the suits that hung in his closet or his purple Hawaiian shirt, which was now worn like a medal of honor by one of my uncles in the Philippines. But my father’s mug had now become a makeshift planter. 

“They grow big on the sides of the roads in the Philippines,” Mom said about the innocent table plant, mimicking with her arms extended in front of her, moving them side to side like a walking zombie. “We used to do this to them when we were kids!”

This childhood memory arrived unexpectedly as my mother stood at the sink and prepared the Dungeness crabs. We had visited the Philippines together after I finished graduate school. A four-hour bus ride took us past the crammed, fragile shantytowns of Manila to the outskirts, past rice fields, past houses and towns along the stretches of wide highway and small roads. But I did not recall seeing these touch-me-nots on the sides of the road. Now I imagined children casting spells over their kingdom, the huge touch-me-nots bowing deferentially at their bare feet.  

My mother's memory is divided into before the war and after. She can recall little about the time during the war, but she has vivid memories of some of her earlier years in Luzon. Between the ages of three and five, a blissful time before the war, she played kick the can and hide and seek and picked blueberries, placing them in a jar and pounding them with a stick to drink the juice. This time has a firm imprint on her mind. But she does not fully remember other details. She has little memory of her father’s disappearance. My uncle in the Philippines was the one who told me why their father never returned from his journey to make rice wine after her accident. A Filipino guerrilla with the American Forces mistook him for colluding with the Japanese and shot him. My mother eventually got better without the offering to the bad spirit and her family continued their lives without a father. After the Japanese fled, and the war came to a close, they retrieved their father’s bones in the mountains to give him a proper burial.

As steam rose from a huge pot of boiling water and fogged up the windows, I poked my mother’s plant and prepared to poke my mother’s past. The salty odor of Dungeness crabs began to fill the air and we moved into the living room. We started to watch “Cast Away.” Tom Hanks’ character had been stranded on a deserted island and we quietly followed his initial bouts with surviving alone. The years passed and Tom’s character grew thinner. His black hair turned gray and a straggly, long beard hung like Spanish moss from his face. Tom’s character eventually found his way into a cave. 

“Do you remember hiding in caves when you were a girl in the war?” I asked her. I assumed Mom was going to say yes and tell me what it was like. To my surprise, Mom said she didn’t remember this. In fact, she said the whole period “was like a dream.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Only that we walked a lot.”  

I wanted more details. I wanted a story, but Mom could not tell me one. I thought a few prompts might help jar her memory. 

“You don’t remember the Japanese soldiers or hiding in caves?” I asked again.

And then my mother shriveled before me like her touch-me-not. “No,” she said.

Later, as the credits rolled, Mom bounced back and scoffed at the idea of this character’s survival for so many years on an island, alone. She practically yelled at the television set. “Aiee! I don’t believe it!” 

“It could happen!” I replied, trying to defend the Hollywood story. She grimaced and returned to the kitchen to look after the crabs boiling on the stove. I followed after her and thought about what my mother had survived as a child. 

My mother and her family survived the war, but she has no memory of it. No memory of the caves, no memory of the smell of iron ore. No memory of blood shed in the country. Perhaps it is because she had not stayed in the Philippines like her brothers and sister, and had started a new life elsewhere. Her own survival required forgetting. Perhaps distance creates disbelief.

Back in the kitchen with Mom, I wiped the foggy windows with my hand and looked out back. The forest around the family house had been gradually cleared over the years to build new homes. There was now this very large gap in the woods. I looked at my mother as she stood at the sink. Biting into a broccoli stem, I played with the touch-me-not. The plant became our running joke during the week: me feigning a menacing karate chop, gently tapping the plant, it withering, and Mom crying out, tickled, “Heeey, my plant!”  

During that long week my mother poured through the photo album and showed me a black and white picture of herself at twelve: a girl with long braids in a white dress, white anklets, and white shoes. Particularly proud of herself in this picture, a souvenir of her youth and carefree spirit, she told me, “I want to get this enlarged and frame it.” 

This memory was as clear as yesterday to her.

The foggier memories about the caves and the war would clear up a few months after my visit with Mom. A cousin in the Philippines would send me an email message out of the blue. Sammy was the youngest child of my mother’s younger brother. I asked my newfound cousin to see if his father could remember anything about the war and Sammy wrote back to me in his father’s words:

“We were very young when the war started in our country. Carol was about 5 years old. 1944 was the year when the Filipino and American soldiers had a fierce battle with the Japanese. During the war we could not merely stay in our place so we went to a mountain, caves, tunnels to hide ourselves. We traveled at nighttime so that the Japanese would not see us. One day, when I and my sisters were looking for our mother, we met several Japanese soldiers with long-bearded faces and with fixed bayonets. Fear came into our minds that they would kill us, but we thank God because they did not kill us. Maybe these were kind soldiers. When there was no food to eat, the Japanese soldiers came and shot the chickens, pigs, and cows for their food. After many days, weeks, and months, we were still in the mountain hiding. I, my brothers and my sisters felt that we were going to die from hunger so we prepared again to evacuate to another place in Baguio, 21 kilometers from our home, to meet the American soldiers that would give us food to eat. In 1945, the war ended and there was peace in the country. We thank the Lord that we survived during that war.”

I imagined hearing my uncle’s voice in the idiosyncratic English of my cousin’s translation. He had granted me a view of a time in my mother’s life that she couldn’t remember. I had found my story, and like all the others, it was startling. What was I to make of it? What did it say about my mother? Later I would remember the little boy on the ferry who had mistaken my mother for the captain of her ship. In this life of transformation, perhaps he had not mistaken her identity after all.


Contributor Notes

This past winter, my mother and I traveled to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. There was trepidation on her part before we left. The trip required a lot of get-up-and-go and travel through areas of recent uprising. During the three-week tour, the Holy Land unfolded before us: thousands of years of history, the River Nile, Mt. Sinai, Petra, Jerusalem, and countless pilgrims en route. When we returned to the US, my mother of re-invention declared herself a “globe trekker” (after a television show of the same name). Indeed, this identity suits her nicely.

NITA NOVENO was born and raised in Southeast Alaska. A graduate of the New School MFA Creative Writing Program in Creative Nonfiction, she is the founder and co-host of Sunday Salon (www.sundaysalon.com), a monthly prose reading series in its ninth year in NYC. Her writing has been published in The MacGuffin and Ducts.org. She teaches English Composition at LaGuardia Community College and lives in Astoria, Queens.