Note: I wrote this back in 1996, as part of my master’s thesis, which was a short story collection. Even after all these years, I still like it.
A week before my pa was to come back from his tour, I was trying to explain to Sarah what a sacramental was.
We were in the living room at the dining table, eating rice and tiny dried fish, dilies. Sarah, whose parents didn’t believe in anything, looked at the Marian shrine across from the piano as if it were some strange voodoo idol and said, “You know, I’ve been at your house a zillion times, and I know you told me what that shelf with all that religious stuff is, but that picture of Mary still gives me the creeps.”
“Well, she looks like she’s waiting for something to happen, and it looks like if you stand in front of that shelf –”
“Okay, shrine. If you stand in front of that shrine, whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen to you. And any moment now, she’s gonna move her eyes and look at ya!” Sarah shivered. “Spooky.”
I laughed. “I think you’ve been reading too much on the White Lady, Sarah.” The White Lady was a Guamanian legend about a jungle witch who sought out lost travelers and turned them into her zombie slaves. “There’s nothing spooky about that shrine. My mom dusts it every weekend like it’s just another knickknack shelf. She clears off the shelf, dusts that. Then she dusts the candles and plastic flowers and stuff on the shelf. The she puts the stuff back on. Sometimes she makes me do it.”
“But you told me you did something with it, like pray and stuff.”
“Well, yeah. When Mom’s worried, she’ll light a candle and pray and then blow the candle out. Before I got my First Communion –”
“Hey, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it for that.” Sarah was still a little sore about being grounded during Kim’s and my First Communion because her mom thought Kim and I were trying to convert Sarah to Catholicism, which was funny. Because after that incident, Sarah started asking questions about my religion, which was okay with me so long that Mrs. Montgomery didn’t find out.
“Before I got my First Communion,” I continued, “I prayed in front of the shrine. Well, I mostly kinda stood there and thought about Mary, but that’s a kind of prayer, too.”
“What, thinking about Mary? I thought you’re supposed to ask for something, like when you’re poor you ask for money and when you’re sick you ask to get better.”
“Well, yeah, you do that to, but you don’t usually get what you wish for.”
“So what’s the point?”
“Well…” I chewed on the crunchy dilies and soft-steamed rice. A hard question. What would Sister Pauline say? “It’s kinda like a sacramental.”
Sarah frowned. “What’s that?”
“You know when you have a picture of someone you love who’s far away, and you keep it near you because when you look at it, the person doesn’t seem that far away anymore and you feel better just looking at the picture?”
“Yeah,” Sarah replied. “My dad.” She looked a little sad because her dad was overseas and had been for nearly a year now. So it was just her and her mom, and her house was now too quiet for Sarah.
“Well, a sacramental’s like that picture. It’s a reminder of someone who loves you, but, unlike the picture, the person in it can FEEL when you’re looking at them in the picture, and sometimes they can look BACK.”
Sarah pointed at the shrine. “So that Mary shrine is a sacramental to remind you of Mary?”
“So,” Sarah said, “does she ever look back?”
I chewed contemplatively for a few seconds. “I hope she does.”
Sarah shivered. “Ooo, like Bloody Mary.”
“No, it’s not!” Bloody Mary was another legend — not Guamanian — in which if you locked yourself in a dark bathroom on Halloween night, stared into the mirror, and said, “Bloody Mary” thirteen times, the face of blood-drenched anti-Mary would appear on the mirror. The thought of it made me shiver in the heat of the afternoon. “That’s just a story!”
“Okay, okay.” Sarah scooped up the rice and dilies with her fingers, Filipino-style, off her plate and pushed the handful of food in her mouth. I taught her that, how to eat Filipino-style. “What else are sacramentals?”
“Well… medals and scapulars.”
“They’re kinda like necklaces with pendants. You wear ‘em on your neck.”
“Where do you get them?”
“Someone usually gives them to you as a gift. I guess they buy them somewhere.” I shrugged.
“Well, you must have a lot of things to remember since you have all these sacramentals all over the place.”
“They’re not all over the place. They’re over there.” I nodded over at the shrine.
“You know what I mean.”
Sarah and I heard the crunch crunch crunch of feet on gravel just outside the screen door in the kitchen, so we weren’t surprised when we heard a knock. “Hellooo! Anyone home?”
“Sounds like Auntie Linda.” I went to the kitchen and saw the figure of Auntie Linda, Grandma Tes’ daughter-in-law, a plump, short Filipina with no-nonsense short black hair. She was dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy blue jeans and was holding a canvas bag.
“Oh, Ellen, your Mom home?” she asked as I opened the door for her.
“She’s in the back.” I went to the backdoor and yelled, “Mom, Auntie Linda’s here!” I saw Mom rise up from her digging in the garlic plants.
“Linda! Kumusta!” Mom said, stepping into the kitchen. “Would you like some dilies?”
“Oh, no, no,” she said, but Mom, the perfect host, was already getting out a plate and ladling out rice and crumbling up dilies on top of the rice as Auntie Linda sat before the kitchen table, sitting across from Mom in what was usually my father’s seat. “So, manong Ray is coming back from overseas?”
“Yes, next week.”
“Ah,” and then Auntie Linda said something in Tagalog that sounded like mooka tooka bawgoota to me but meant nothing. Then she added, “Then you must get something to wear for him!”
“Get your Auntie Linda some water, Ellen.”
As I got Auntie Linda her water, she and Mom ate and talked in that half-English, half-Tagalog way, which I had learned a long time ago to keep as background noise, like birds chirping outside my bedroom window or the sea rushing into my ears as I swam, since I hardly understood a word of it. Most times the fact that I couldn’t understand didn’t bother me because the sound of my parents or my Aunties and Uncles talking was comforting, like when one is falling asleep to the thick, warm sound of parents talking. Only when my parents argued or were talking about me did I wish that I understood, which got especially bad if I managed to understand a little of it, although sometimes I could figure out what they were saying. So when I heard “Ray” in Mom’s and Auntie Linda’s conversation, I knew that they were still talking about Pa and wasn’t surprised when, while I was setting down her water glass, Auntie Linda asked me, “Well, Ellen, are you excited that your pa is coming home?”
“Yes.” I thought her question was silly but didn’t say so.
“What will you do when your pa comes home?”
“Open his presents.”
For some reason, Auntie started laughing, and Mom said, “Ellen!” so I added, “And give him a big dinner.” But it was true; I was excited about getting Pa’s presents. They were always neat. The last time Pa came home, six months ago, he gave me a pretty Japanese doll wearing a red kimono and golden sticks in her hair. It was now in my room, next to the teddy bear Mom got me a year ago at the flea market in Agana.
“Will you be going with your mom at the base to pick up your pa?”
“Yes,” I replied, but Mom said, “No, Monday’s a school day.”
“But, Mom! Pa’s coming home! Can’t you write a note?”
“You’re pa will still be coming home, as he has done before. You will not miss school just because you want to see his ship come in.”
I looked at Auntie Linda and Mom to see if they needed me, but they seemed to be enthralled in some conversation, which they conducted in mostly Tagalog with some English thrown here and there. I went back to the living room.
“Bummer that you can’t be there to see your dad’s ship come in,” Sarah said. She had overheard.
I shrugged. “It’ll probably be crowded and noisy anyway, like last time.” I dug back into my lunch and pretended not to care.
The last time Pa came home I did go with Mom, and I was so short that all I could see while standing underneath the late summer sun were the legs of other military relatives who were jammed onto the ship dock and the heat simmering above the bodies into the air. Mom had made me wear my good dress that time, which was red with white flowers, went down to my knees, and, even though it had shoulder straps, always made me feel prickly, especially in my back, where drops of sweat trickled down the valley between my shoulder blades, making me itch and squirm. I had wanted to scratch, but Mom had my right hand, and my left had hibiscus to give to Pa.
I pretended not to care, but I did care because what I didn’t want to miss was the military brass band. It was always behind the crowd, but the players were so loud that they might as well have been beside me, trumpeting into my ear. Trumpets and French horns and tubas, going oompah-oompah, in a quick march. The only time I had heard the military brass band was during Christmas and when a ship came in, and since Christmas was a long time ago, I wouldn’t have another chance to hear the neat music until Pa came home after THIS shoreleave, since Mom wasn’t going to bring me this time.
It WAS a bummer.
Sarah and I brought our empty plates to the kitchen, where we saw that Auntie Linda and Mom had also finished eating and had cleared space on the table. Sarah’s eyes went big as Auntie Linda pulled out the contents of her canvas bag — little embroidered cloth pouches, red and blues and oranges and greens, shot with gold thread. She laid the pouches out onto the table and unsnapped one.
“What’s she doing?” Sarah whispered to me as we put our plates in the sink and ran water over them so the rice bits wouldn’t dry and stick.
“Oh, Auntie Linda? She’s selling jewelry. She buys, sells, and trades to Filipino women, like my mom. Remember my ivory dove necklace my mom got me? She got it from Auntie Linda.”
“Is it okay for me to be here?”
“I mean, I’m not Filipino.”
As if to answer Sarah’s question, Auntie Linda turned around in her seat. “Come, come you two! See what you like!”
Mom had moved to a seat closer to Auntie Linda, so Sarah and I sat in the remaining seat next to each other, and we saw my mom and Auntie conduct their business, me for the zillionth time, Sarah for the first.
Auntie showed Mom a gold bracelet with little oval jade stones along the middle of it. “18-carat gold with real jade. It hooks, see?” She looped it around Mom’s thin wrist and threaded the hook through the eye.
Mom lifted her wrist, turned it left and right, and brought it back to the table. “No, I have enough jade. And I don’t like the hook. Do you have something that clasps?”
Auntie Linda began to bring out a ropey silver clasp bracelet, but Mom said, “No silver. Silver makes me itch. Just gold. And I have enough bracelets. Maybe earrings.” So Auntie set aside the silver bracelet, unsnapped another pouch, and shook out a couple of gold earrings shaped like teardrops.
“How about these? They’re 14-carat with posts, not clips.”
“Let me try them on.”
Auntie and Mom continued their business, speaking mostly in English because it was business, so Sarah and I easily followed the conversation. As far as I knew, Mom only bought jewelry from Auntie Linda, who sometimes visited her customers or her customers visited her or she set up shop during one of those large Filipino parties. But it was funny to think of Auntie Linda’s customers as customers because they were her friends, all Filipino women, who each had her own pouches, her own jewelry to sell and trade, her own large jewelry box in the bedroom. And where there were Filipino women, there was an “Auntie Linda,” a de facto jewelry trader who, in business, also brought camaraderie among Filipinas. In fact, one of my own real aunts, Pa’s sister Auntie Ria, who lived in Los Angeles, was an “Auntie Linda.”
Mom looked at herself in a hand mirror, conveniently provided by Auntie Linda. “What do you think?” She turned her head to Sarah and me.
“Looks fine,” I said, trying not to sound bored, and I turned to Sarah, who was silent. I was surprised to see her eyes glued to Auntie Linda’s pouches as if they were a magician’s bag, filled with spells and fantastic objects. But the bags were only filled with jewelry, which my mom had bought for herself and for me over the years. To Sarah, however, they were special, and I turned from Sarah to Auntie Linda and my mom with renewed interest.
“Hmm.” Mom took off the earrings and placed them in front of her.
“You got any men’s rings? Size ten?”
Auntie Linda shook out the remaining contents of her pouches, including a little chain necklace with a tiny tan stone with a ribbon of brown cutting across the middle of it like a chocolate line bisecting a marble of nougat. I had seen the stone before; it was called tiger’s eye, a pretty enough stone. I had plenty of tiger’s eye stuff, so it didn’t mean all that much to me. But I noticed that Sarah lifted herself a little from her seat to see the necklace, and I realized that Sarah, with all of her little girl things in her bedroom, didn’t own any jewelry except for a pair of cheap stud earrings and a plastic Mickey Mouse watch.
Auntie Linda looked at the fat rings, some gold, some silver, some engraved, some smooth as obsidian, and said, “No, no, nine-and-a-half, eleven. Oh, sorry, Grace, I don’t have tens with me, but I can come back tomorrow with them.”
“Okay.” Mom looked up from the rings and noticed that I was looking at the necklace in the middle of the table. “ Do you like that, Ellen?”
Sarah eyes snapped up from the table top as I replied, “Well, it’s okay.”
“It’s 10-carat gold, and the stone is called tiger’s eye because it has a dark stripe in the middle of it,” Auntie Linda said. “Would you like to try it on?”
I shrugged as Auntie Linda stood behind me, unclasped the necklace, and brought it around my neck, which rose in goosebumps with the feeling of cool gold against skin. I heard the clasp close with a snap behind my ears, and the tiger’s eye, which was at my throat, moved down to the middle of my chest and rested above my heart.
“How’s it look, Sarah?” I asked.
Sarah’s eyes were still wide as she answered in a small voice, “Beautiful.”
“Hmm.” I looked at the tiger’s eye, which meant so much to Sarah. “It is a pretty necklace, Mom.”
“Okay, then,” Mom said, “we’ll take the earrings and the necklace. Ellen, go get my bag. It’s in the living room, on the sofa.”
Leaving the necklace on, I rose from the table, and Sarah followed me into the living room.
“Wow, Ellen, does your mom always buy you stuff like that even if it isn’t your birthday or anything?”
“When she has some extra money, she does. I think she does it so that when I grow up I can buy and sell from jewelry ladies like Auntie Linda.” I checked around the sofa but didn’t find my mom’s bag. “Also, my mom sometimes gives me her old jewelry, so I suppose I’ll give some of my stuff to my kids. I guess it’s so they’ll have something to remember me by.” I found the bag on the piano bench across from the Marian shrine.
Sarah’s back was to me as she stared at the shrine again. “Kind of like a sacramental, huh.”
“Huh?” I looked at the shrine and saw all the medals and scapulars draped around the Mary statuettes, candles, prayer cards, and I remembered what she and I were talking about before Auntie Linda arrived. “Yeah. Kind of like a sacramental.”
“Ellen! You find my bag yet?” Mom called from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Mom!” I answered. When Sarah and I went back, Auntie Linda and Mom were talking, mostly in Tagalog since business was winding down
“Mom, can me and Sarah go over to Kim’s?”
“Okay, but be home by supper. And be careful! You ride your bike too fast!”
As Sarah began to wheel her bike from carport, I said, “Hold on a sec.”
“Huh?” She turned around in time to see me remove the necklace and hand it to her. “What? But your mom bought it for you!”
“So it’s mine to give. Anyways, I already got a necklace just like it. It’s not as if my mom’d miss it or anything. C’mon, here.” I motioned to Sarah to turn around, and I clasped the necklace around her neck. “There.”
Sarah stared at the tiger’s eye.
“It’s a sacramental,” I said.
She looked up. “Well, yeah. I already knew that.” And she gave me a playful shove. “Dummy.” She hopped on her bike.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, getting on my bike. “Then what’s it supposed to remind you of?”
Sarah smiled. “You.” She raced ahead of me, and I pedaled to catch up.