Maid in Manila

I last saw my former maid Erlinda, more commonly known as Linda, in 1988, on a pleasure trip to Manila a year or two after my family moved from there to New Delhi. She was still working in our old neighborhood and, as I heard it, had got pregnant by the security guard at the Polish embassy next to the house of her new employer.

I arranged to meet Linda on the sidewalk outside her employer's house, or maybe it was the sidewalk outside my old house. Exactly how this was arranged I can't remember and can barely fathom. By mail, I guess. Perhaps I called the employer's house? That's lost to time.

I had taken a taxi into the gated community, stopped at an address, and there she was with a six-month old baby in her arms. We had greeted each other, chatted, I held the baby, and I wondered what passersby would think of the young foreigner and the slightly older, plump, dark-skinned, uniformed maid, exchanging a baby on a sidewalk in Forbes Park or Dasmariñas Village. I knew what they'd think. They wouldn't suspect the guard on duty next door at the Polish embassy.

The baby was Lilibeth, now 22, and she contacted me via Facebook a few weeks ago and invited me to her wedding in Manila next month. Instead, I flew in to see her and Linda last weekend.

Lilibeth had arranged an early lunch at Haiku, a Japanese restaurant in the Greenbelt Mall in Makati. The day before the meeting, I reconnoitered the location of the restaurant. I implored a local friend, Apollo, to accompany me for moral support. The lunch took place at the same time as the Manny Pacquiao fight against Joshua Clottey, so the streets of Makati were deserted.

Apollo and I got to the mall early. He carried the gifts I brought: a thick wad of snapshots from the ‘80s with a few current pictures of my sons. A small turquoise ring of my late wife's that she never wore. Plus an antique santos, a Virgin Mary, that we bought in Manila years ago, Lilibeth's wedding present. I tried cleaning it of 25 years of grime but didn't make much progress. I knew Linda would be very good at that.

As we neared the restaurant, I told Apollo to stop. I wanted to smoke a cigarette before meeting Linda because I was nervous. Apollo wandered while I smoked. I was accosted.

"Are you Mr. Spaeth?!"

It was Linda, hugging me, crying, a lot older than I imagined, especially around the eyes, not-very-well tended hair, plump as I recalled, and, to my surprise, she only came up to the level of my nipples. More hugging, hand-squeezing, tear-wiping, dragging me toward the restaurant and Lilibeth, and chatter, much chatter. In the shower that morning, I tried to remember Linda's peculiar way of speaking, which I replicated in my 1991 novel The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. It still came as a surprise.

From The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club:

"Yrlinda's eldest brother had been ill and she performed a skit of his short, sad life. She strode across the room in a demonstration of fitness. 'First,' she said staunchly, "he healthy.'

Then came the illness. It had something to do with his legs. 'He fine. Then he sick.' She began walking with a queer wobble. 'He healthy, then he sick in the legs.' The legs got bandier until, suddenly, the wobble stopped altogether. 'Then he dead.'

Other children were born to the family and one was named Linda, spelled in the normal way. But something happened to that Linda, making the mother 'very very sad.' Subsequently, another sibling – either a sister or brother – also contracted 'brain' disease. The sister (or brother) died (or remained an invalid). The next child was Yrlinda …

When Yrlinda was baptized, the priest was perturbed, not because he himself had the unbiblical name of Father Jojo, but because the baby was nameless. Babies can't be baptized without names.

Enter the neighbor, or the distant uncle, who announced to the family that he had been visited by a duena, a Philippine fairy. The fairy told him that to stop the family's run of bad luck, the baby had to bear the same name as one of its siblings.

'Didn't the priest object to this?'

'No,' Yrlinda replied. 'My whole family is Catholic family.'

On the leprechaun's advice, the family named its child, once again, Linda. 'And that's how I got my name!'

It was a nice happy ending, if a bit incomplete. She never did explain her peculiar spelling. 'And then everything fine in my family!'

'You had more brothers and sisters?' I inquired. 'And they were all healthy?'

'No,' Yrlinda said. 'My mother die. She old, very old, very very old. Yrlinda made a grossly puffed-out face.

I diagnosed the mother's complaint as goiter. But, as usual, Yrlinda contradicted me. 'She died on road.' Yrlinda laughed discordantly."

I can't duplicate our conversation last Sunday any better than that. The good news was that a former employer of Linda's, who apparently owns Haiku restaurant (although this was confused in the telling, as was the introduction to Linda's nephew or some other relative who works behind Haiku's kitchen counter) has set her up for life in a house she doesn't live in. Linda takes care of the empty house, and she and Lilibeth have their own quarters in the back yard.

Lilibeth is marrying a 33-year old man from the Bicol region, whom she met when he was doing some work on the house they attend to. Linda sternly described how she made Lilibeth check the official record as to his marital status. The Philippines has what I consider a unique civic registration system in which you can check if someone is or has been married. (Divorce is illegal.) He came out clear. Lilibeth is very pretty and slim. The Polish embassy guard must have been good looking. And, one can only assume, Linda never checked him out in the marital registry.

Toward the end of the lunch, Linda put on the turquoise ring – her hands looked old – and said with misted eyes that she remembered my wife wearing it every evening as she drank beer and smoked on the patio at the back of our Dasmariñas house.

I nodded agreement.