What did you know about me when you were young?” I asked Angel. The question had been on my mind for years.
“That she took care of you day and night,” Angel replied.
I smiled awkwardly, not quite sure what to say. Growing up in Hong Kong, I’d had all the love and attention from Angel’s mother, my former live-in nanny, that a child could expect, whereas Angel saw her mother for only three weeks a year, when her mother would fly home to the Philippines.
I’d thought that, after my nanny retired, she would finally get to parent her own children. But, when I visited Auntie Zeny’s house, last December, I was surprised to see that her living room was plastered with relics from my childhood, including a foam Mufasa with its head half severed and a stained Santa Claus refrigerator magnet that used to hang on our fridge door.
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Her real name is Zenaida Bantugon, but my family always called her Auntie Zeny. She started taking care of me when I was born, and she stayed with my family for over fifteen years. Back then, both my parents had careers and worked long hours, so whether it was changing diapers, picking me up from school, or steaming fish Chinese style, Auntie Zeny had to do it mostly by herself. The only time she took off, aside from her annual vacation, was on Sundays, when she would put on makeup, douse herself in perfume, and head to church.
Despite the time Auntie Zeny and I spent together, she wasn’t family. For one, we were rarely in the same room with my mom and dad. Auntie Zeny did not join us for meals, eating instead in the kitchen, at a small table affixed to the washing machine. I remember lingering around the kitchen and wondering why she ate alone. She would smile and motion me back to the dining room. They are your parents; I am not, was the point she seemingly wanted to make clear.
At the time, it was hard to think of her as anything but a mother, one who was solely mine. Although I vaguely knew that she had several children, I couldn’t be bothered to ask about them; she was, as Angel said, with me day and night. In the hours before my parents came home from work, Auntie Zeny would take the chopping boards to the dining table and listen to me complain about classmates, friends, and homework as she worked her way through the choy sum and gailan—vegetables she knew I liked. Looking back, all I can imagine are her four kids crowded around the phone, fighting to hear their mother’s voice once a week, knowing the international calling card could expire any minute and cut them off.
The rare times I saw her acts of love for these faraway children were during our monthly trips to a Western Union branch—where I remember whining about the wait as Auntie Zeny stood in line, chequebook in hand—or whenever I watched her seal a shipping box overstuffed with soaps, snacks, and other sundries to send home.
When I visited Auntie Zeny over the holidays, I also met some of her kids, now grown up. I had expected to be greeted with animosity, perhaps due to my lingering guilt for having taken time away from their mom for all those years. To my relief, they spoiled me, serving me big portions at every shared meal—the love language of Filipinos—and surveilling my bowls of stir-fry noodles to make sure I was ready for seconds.
This past January, I flew to Alberta, where Angel now lives, to get to know her a bit better. She’d spent a few years living with my family in Hong Kong, starting when I was a kid and she was in her twenties. But I’d never really understood how she and her siblings related to their mother after spending so much time apart. Nor do I think I will ever truly grasp what they had to go through without Auntie Zeny by their side.
As Angel and I talked, I could see that, as a mother, she was determined to spend every moment at the side of her two playful boys. It reminded me of Auntie Zeny’s propensity to share love unconditionally.