A Prayer Answered
From SIGN: A collection of stories by the members of Seventeen Syllables, curated by Guest Editor, Grace Loh Prasad (introduced here)
“Filipina to be Soloist: Nena del Rosario will play at Young People’s Concert”
— The New York Times, December 31, 1951
A is for the Philippine Archipelago where she comes from, a place few Americans can find on a map. She, on the other hand, can find America easily, zooming in on Philadelphia, where she has won a coveted fellowship from the Curtis Institute of Music. A prayer answered.
B is for the Blue ocean. She crosses it for the first time with her mother when she is 11. The ship is massive. She doesn’t remember the name. Her mother refuses to let her go anywhere by herself. They spend their time in the cabin, reading books in English.
C is for the Choice she has made. Even though she knows it’s right, that doesn’t make it any easier. She cries. She misses the old acacia in front of their house in Iloilo. And puto, the steamed rice cakes that the cook set on the breakfast table each morning. The ones that made the butter and cheese melt.
D is for Daughter. Her mother treats her like a lump of clay to be molded. My face is your face. Your nose could stand some improvement. Here, stick a clothespin on it before you go to bed. Don’t move your mouth so much when you speak, people will see that your teeth are crooked.
E is for Elegy, for the childhood she is leaving behind. The East grows distant, then she arrives in California, the Golden State, after a month crossing the Pacific.
F is for Flamingo Hotel, where she and her mother stay after their ship docks in San Francisco. One night, not enough to get over their sea legs. The other guests are curious. They ask questions: Hey, pretty girl, where are you from? Japan? You speak English? Her mother says: Stay away from them!
G is for Guys. American guys. Tall and slouchy, moving across her vision. They notice her, despite the nose her mother declares is so unfortunate. Her mother scolds, Keep your eyes front!
H is for Heart. She writes to her father: I miss you, Dad! Why didn’t you come with us? The journey was so long, the prairies she and her mother saw from the train to Chicago so desolate. H is for Hunger, which has nothing to do with food.
I is for Inside. She is always inside, her fingers hovering over the piano keys. Her teacher, Madame Mengerva, a stiff Russian woman. You will practice until I say it is enough! She responds: I will, I will, I will!
J is for Judges. Madame Mengerva has entered her name in the New York Times International Piano Competition. Her fingers sweat, she is sure they would ooze blood if they could. She has practiced so hard, she has forgotten to eat. The piano is her constant companion, even in her dreams. The day arrives. She is no longer nervous. She knows the judges gasp when they see how young she is. Such a tiny thing, she has come so far. Her fingers are birds swooping over the keys. Never at rest, not for a single moment. When they land, the world disappears, the judges disappear, there is only the Blue Ocean. She is home.
K is for Knowing. She has done it! She has won. She is only 13! Her mother cannot restrain herself; she makes call after call to the Philippines, even to people she barely knows. While she herself, the winner, stands there, forgotten.
L is for Life. She wants her life to be her own. An important distinction.
M is for Marry. Her mother says, You must never get married. You must devote your whole life to the piano.
N is for Nena. Not her given name of Natividad, which no one can pronounce. Her name appears as Nena in The New York Times.
O is for Ocean, the Pacific, which is so enormously vast it takes 14 hours for the plane bearing her father and brothers to cross. She stares when they greet her, these foreign men, these men she used to consider family. Awkward hugs.
P is for Piano. Enemy. An enormous, black thing with an open lid. Her mother insists, Only a Steinway, or my daughter will not play. The pianist gives concert after concert: Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Radio City Music Hall.
Q is for Queue, the number of people asking to pose with her for a photograph. A sign of her success. She blushes, in her socks and black Mary Janes.
R is for Realization. She is beautiful. She stops putting the clothespin on her nose at night. Her pictures are in The New York Times. Wherever she goes, adoring gazes.
S is for Shoes. She hates the black Mary Janes. And why must she always wear the same kind of dress? The Peter Pan collars make her look like she is seven years old. Now she is 14. She has played in Carnegie Hall. She wants to think of herself as an Almost Woman.
T is for Thankful. Dear Mother says, You should be thankful to me. Without me, you would be nothing.
U is for United States, a country, a state of mind, a condition, and a hope. Unlock your heart, says the young man. He is from a city she has never visited, on an island she has never visited. He drives a red Chevy convertible. He attends Georgetown Law. He is ugly, and cannot dance. Her mother hates him.
V is for Valentine. The young man gives her a bouquet of red roses. Her mother takes them from him and throws them in the trash.
W is for the Wedding they never had. Instead, they run away, elope, leaving behind her mother, the piano, Madame Mengerva, Curtis, everything. Waiting was always her greatest failing. Her first child is born seven months after the elopement.
X is for Xorcize. ‘X’ her mother’s ghost, her mother’s recriminations.
Y is for You… And You… And You. You are her audience now, in Manila where she lives and raises five children.
Z is for Zealous. She practices zealously even though her mother, the tyrant, is long dead. She practices zealously for herself.
Marianne Villanueva is the author of three short story collections (Mayor of the Roses, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila, and The Lost Language) and the co-editor of an anthology of Filipina women’s writing called Coming Home to a Landscape. Her novella Jenalyn was a 2014 finalist for the Saboteur Awards’ Best Novella and she has been a finalist for the O’Henry Prize. Her work is widely anthologized and has appeared in Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, Bellingham Review and many other publications. https://anthropologist.wordpress.com/
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