Pasko na sinta ko / Hanap-hanap kita / Bakit magtatampo’t / Nilisan ako / Kung mawawala ka / Sa piling ko sinta / Paano ang Pasko / Inulila mo
It’s Christmas now, my darling / I miss you / Why are you so sullen? / You left me alone / If you disappear / From my side, my love / How will Christmas be / Now that you have orphaned me?
– Aurelio Estanislao
When you are five years old, watch out of the corner of your eye as you play in the basement while your mother makes the perfect parol. Take it for granted. Ask no questions until after she leaves you.
Don’t think about it for the next 10 years. Focus on being a good, (mostly) white, Christian girl. But over the years and despite your most serious and earnest efforts, fail spectacularly.
Begin to loathe Christmas. Start with the one where your sister gets spanked for crying when she receives a Lemon Meringue doll in her stocking, because it is one that she already owns. Finish it off at age 23 with the blow torch that is being alone in America on Christmas. If a blow torch is not available, you may also complete your loathing under the broiler that is having sex with some guy you just met but don’t love on Christmas.
The second time you drop out of college, decide you want to be more Filipino. More Filipin-a. (Score 1 Pinoy Point for correct gender agreement pronunciation.) Make a mental list of things that will earn you more points. Do not under any circumstance admit to anyone—especially Pinoy—that you have this list. Do not admit it to yourself.
Have a daughter with a (very nice and really stand-up) white guy and so begin to freak out that she will be even less Asian than you. Instantly proceed to feeling guilty for perpetuating the construct of race and the idea that it can be “diluted.” Then, decide that this is not about race, it’s about ethnicity, which you have full claim to. Know deep down that it’s not enough and never will be; you will never be able to say “I’m Filipina” without an inward twinge of impostor syndrome, of co-option. Plow forward anyway, because what choice do you have?
For your daughter’s sake and for your own empowerment, scour the internet for and order a “Make Your Own Parol At Home Kit” from the Philippines. Feel anxious about providing your credit card; then immediately feel like a piece of shit for being suspicious. Ping pong back to feeling proud of yourself for supporting a business in the Philippines. Proceed to chiding yourself for sounding like such a fucking snowflake. Remind yourself that snowflake is a term invented by the alt-right. Wonder why that knowledge is meant to make you feel better, but does not. Resolve not to write when you’re high.
Open the kit and be filled with disappointment at how small it is, and how colorful the tissue paper. Your mother’s parol was all white, and in your five-year-old memory, it glowed with an ephereal light like the star that guided the Wise Men. Follow the instructions half-heartedly until you assemble a pathetic, patchwork, green-and-yellow parol that could maybe lead a stray cat to a trash bin on a hot day.
Send a picture of this failed attempt to your friend Noelia, who was adopted from the Philippines by a white family at the age of 5. She gets it.
(SYMPATHY BONUS: 15 Pinoy Points for realizing at age 46 that you have been saying “ephereal” your entire life, thinking it was an actual word, and just now found out how stupid you must have sounded, because it’s triggering the spellcheck. Ephereal is not a word. There’s ethereal, and ephemeral, and you somehow mashed them together and therefore should not be a writer. Award yourself bonus points as you realize this is how your mother must have felt a million times over living in America, and let your heart break just a little, for her, and what you have not had to live through.)
An otherworldly, delicate light that burns only for a short time.
(Fuck spellcheck. YOU ARE A WRITER.)
Try to make a parol completely from scratch. No kit, just a trip (you may die but there’s no way around it) to JoAnn’s—the kind of place your mother was always dragging you to as a child, errands about which you foolishly complained. (No wonder she never taught you anything. Subtract 100 Pinoy Points.) Make a mental list of all the other things she knows how to do that you do not: draw, sew, crochet, knit, embroider, refinish and upholster antique furniture, build a fire, cook at least a hundred Filipino dishes from memory without measuring anything, speak three languages, prune fruit trees into an espalier, eat with her hands without making a total mess of it, milk a goat, carry a five-gallon ceramic jug of water on her head without spilling a drop, talk to spirits. Shake off the feeling that somewhere there exists another, parallel universe in which she stayed, where she taught you these things, where she didn’t have to hide herself behind the mask of an American housewife, where men didn’t take her children away.
Pin-ay Points. (+1 for gender agreement.)
Consider using “Pinxy Points,” to be more true to yourself. Psychically sense your mother’s horror at this suggestion, which you will never make to her. Tell yourself that you would never make the suggestion out of respect for her, and certainly not out of fear for your mortal life, that one of these days she just might kill you if you push her too far. It’s her right, as a mother, to make sure you can never 100% rule out that possibility. This fear is similar to the one that has kept generations of Filipino children out of the woods. We all know it’s not enough to tell a five-year-old to stay out of the woods because it’s dangerous. But if you tell her that in the woods there lives a bat with a lady’s head who has a special preference for the blood of small children, damned if that kid don’t go near them woods. You ken go do yer plowin’ and come back and doggonit, there she is squattin’ in the dirt yard jus’ where you left ‘er, diggin’ with a stick.
Wonder if it’s somehow fucked up to imagine your Filipino relatives from the province speaking in the accent of their American counterparts, which, because of your own white relatives, you envision as Southern Indiana rednecks. Give the Igorots an Appalachian hillbilly accent. People from Manila can sound like New Yorkers, the Visayans are totes SoCal, and Mindanaons talk like….Texans, if they had fared better at the Alamo. (There you go, Lin-Manuel, work your magic!)
Try not to think about how your mother used to sleep with an AK-47 and a couple of handguns under her bed. Try not to think about why she still has the receipt for the AK-47 among her most cherished documents.
Do the research. Watch YouTube tutorials on how to make a parol that are maddeningly poorly produced and that take shortcuts you find unacceptable, such as using washi tape to cover up the overlapping panels of tissue paper that are glued, painstakingly and one at a time, to the gently curving bamboo frame. Your mother, by contrast, would precisely cut ten long ribbons of tissue from the same paper she used for the frame, all ten ribbons exactly the same width (which she could eyeball without having to measure or mark the cuts). Then she would spend over an hour snipping down each length of ribbon, along both edges, to create fringes. She held the scissors so expertly and kept them so wickedly sharp that each individual fringe was exactly the same length and width, along all 20 edges of each 2-foot length of ribbon. And then she would flatten each section of tissue paper fringe over the dull edge of her scissors, gently apply pressure, and drag the blade just so against the paper so that the fringe would curl delicately upward like the tiny outer petals of krisantemo, but not so quickly or strongly that the fringe would tear.
(Net 0 Pinay Points for the use of the Tagalog word krisantemo / chrysanthemum. Subtract 1 point for having to look it up on Google Translate; add 1 point for going to the effort to be respectful to your mother for once in your life.)
While your young daughter watches you out of the corner of her eye, attempt to assemble the parol from the supplies you got from JoAnn’s, where they don’t carry bamboo, so you had to settle for some much flimsier reeds meant for weaving baskets. Alternately scream and cry in exasperation as the dowels refuse to stay put. Fail spectacularly (again!). Watch your daughter’s eyes roll.
Throw all the crafting supplies away. Then fish them out of the trash, reorganize them, and put them in a place that’s easy to access, in the credenza right next to the big dining table.
Let rest for four to five years.
Ask your now 16-year-old daughter what Christmas crafting project she would like to do. Let your heart sink momentarily when she replies, ‘A Parol.’ Your sinking heart is only your fear of failure, lying to you. Allow your heart to rise when you remember most of your daughter’s friends are Pinay, and they all think you’re the coolest mom. (How the fuck did that happen? Give yourself 100 Pinay Points for raising your daughter right; take away 10 points for not knowing how you did it.)
Give in. Call your mother, who lives in Japan now, who you haven’t seen in almost three years, and who may or may not be speaking to you for reasons only she will ever know. Get a little excited when she answers the video call, but make an effort not to skip too quickly over the pleasantries and rush to the parol, or she may get suspicious of your motives for calling.
Wait for a rare pause in her stream-of-consciousness ranting about a dispute she’s having with her contractor, who she talks about as if you have met him (you haven’t). Wait a long time. Begin to retreat. Wonder if you should not have called. But dammit, she has intel that she has been hoarding! Get it out of her. She wants you to get it out of her. Decide you will appeal to her as a grandmother. She gets to remake herself, too, as a gentle, cute little Lola who likes to make crafts.
Do the unthinkable and interrupt her. Throw her the ultimate Shiny Object for Redirecting Crazy Lolas, and say the following words, clearly and with conviction:
We Need Your Help Making a Parol.
Cringe inwardly as she corrects your pronunciation of parol in front of your daughter. Resist the urge to blame her for your poor pronunciation.
Then sit back and watch the show.
Three days later, open the package she sent you from Japan, during the first pandemic Christmas in a century, and on the heels of a presidential election out of some sci-fi/horror film that resulted in thoroughly fucking up the U.S. post. Marvel at your mother’s mystical powers, she who managed to go shopping in whatever the Japanese equivalent of JoAnn’s is, an excursion in which she had to wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses so she could pass for Japanese (military families, she has told you, are not allowed to shop at Japanese stores during the pandemic and must buy everything on base).
She will have also managed to pre-cut all the decorative fringe, the tissue paper tails that go on the bottom two points of the star, and the bamboo slats for the frame and their support dowels. And then somehow, she will have found a way to ship said package to Seattle in two days, a package that includes a glue gun (in case you don’t already have one, which you do even though you haven’t used it in four to five years; see Step 5), four different types of adhesive, two kinds of pliers, a wire cutter, 100 feet of light gauge steel wire, 6 packets of zip ties, and generous amounts of only two colors of tissue paper (white and yellow). There are enough supplies for you and your daughter to make four parol. Also, there is a set of silicone nipple pads in a velvet pouch. Why? Because there is no excuse for not filling every available cubic centimeter of space in a package. (-5 Pinay Points for questioning your mother.)
Throw away some of the decorative tissue that your mother pre-cut, because you mistake it for packing material. Realize what it really is and fish it out of the trash and thank fucking god that your husband had just changed the trash bag so nothing was really damaged.
Proceed to making the parol as Lola directed you, incorporating lessons learned from aforementioned failures as well as a helpful blog you found written by a lovely young artsy woman with many many many more Pinay Points than you. Realize she is your ally and not your judge. Realize she reminds you of your daughter in the best way. Realize your daughter is better than you at this crafting thing. She is slow, methodical, meticulous, patient, and uncompromising in her quest for quality. Maybe it skips a generation, as they say. Embrace this truth.
To save yourself a little face, announce to your daughter that this next attempt to make a parol will be a “test run.” You and your daughter will not worry about this one when it (inevitably) doesn’t work out. Tell her that you will learn many lessons from the test, such that the subsequent parol will be much better. Pat yourself on the back for modeling non-attachment to your daughter, who is probably not fooled. Use the yellow tissue paper for the test, because you and your daughter agree to save the white paper for the next one. Your daughter will insist that it has to be all white, without you even telling her about your mother’s parol.
Laugh with your daughter when the yellow one turns out all lopsided. Send a picture to Noelia, who still gets it.
Let rest for two days. Don’t move the supplies from the kitchen table no matter how much your husband glares at them.
Sit and stare with your daughter at the finished, glorious, ephemerally white parol. It is exactly like the parol in your memory, only a little smaller. Realize that’s only because you are no longer five. Look into your daughter’s eyes, which are filled with delight and pride and something else you can’t quite name, but it’s that same feeling you had the first time you made sinigang and it tasted just like your mother’s.
Send a picture of your daughter with the parol to your mother, who probably won’t see it for another seven hours because of the time difference. Then again, she’s a night owl, so maybe she is up.
Read and re-read your mother’s text, the one that says, “It is perfect, I’m so proud of you. In amazement.”
Norea Hoeft is a Seattle-based writer, writing coach, and editor intent on magnifying the voices of womxn and people of color. Currently she partners with pioneers in the field of racial equity, helping thought leaders to write, develop, and promote original works that assist individuals and organizations with transformative change toward racial consciousness and anti-racism. She is also at work on her first novel, which tells the story of reconnecting with her long lost brother in the Philippines.