The Old Office on the Side of the Road

By Jennie P. Arado 

Nay, ano ’yang adopted?” I asked my mother.

Noong unang panahon, naga-drive kami ng tatay ni’yo.” she answered. “May narinig kaming nagaiyak sa gilid ng kalsada, sa may basurahan. Nagtigil kami, bumaba, at gitingnan ang basurahan. May nakita kaming baby, madumi. Kinarga namin, pinaliguan, at dinala sa simbahan.” The words came out of her mouth as if they were straight from a bedtime story, my eyes ogling in curiosity for what might have happened to the poor kid.

My mother ended her story with the details about her and my father taking the clothed and cleaned baby to the church and baptizing her with my name. She smiled as she finished her story.

I was four or five years old then and often spent most of the remaining hours of the day in my mother’s office, just a few meters from my day care center. That particular afternoon of storytelling, I was sitting on a monobloc chair too big for my size. When my mother reached the end of her story, she paused for a little while as if hinting she was done with her story. Her officemates looked at me as if waiting for a specific reaction I should be doing by now. They had weird smiles on their faces. And that’s when it dawned on me what my mother was implying.

I slid down the plastic chair like melted sugar oozing down the floor as syrup. I threw a racket flailing my arms on the side while my legs kicked as hard as I could. “Hindi ako adopted! Hindi ako adopted!

That was probably my first memory of a tantrum I have ever made. My eyes were brimming with tears as I looked up and saw the satisfied smiles of my mother’s co-workers. Some of them laughed. My mother scooped me up and carried me in her arms as everyone else went back to work.

The National Irrigation Administration office along General Santos Drive in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, became a second home growing up. This is where my parents first met and became a couple before my father, a civil engineer, decided to resign and work abroad. I spent most of my afternoons after class in my mother’s office playing Solitaire in the vacant computer, coloring the rainbow she would draw to keep me busy, or showing her officemates my high quiz scores.

From Tony Ko Day Care Center, which is just a few meters and on the opposite side of the road from NIA, I would trot outside the school grounds with my teacher and a few of my classmates who lived across the street. Teacher Mary Ann would hold us by the hand as she checked the highway, left and then right. Confirming that it was already clear for us to cross, she would shout “Dagan!” and our little feet would go scampering away from her toward the other side of the street.

Once safe, we would look back to her and wave goodbye as she went on her way. I would also wave goodbye to my classmates and march to my mother’s office.

My mother always reminded me to stay far away from the road, even from the shoulder, as there might be trucks losing their balance or their brakes, and it would be difficult to avoid a little kid who stayed too close to the road. She was very specific, but I did get her point and never stayed too close.

There was a particular lunch break my mother took me downtown. I was in my white dress with huge colorful pineapple detail prints. We were on the side of the road opposite her office waiting for the vehicles to clear so we could cross. My mind, already used to the “Dagan!” shout as a signal to run, grew more and more impatient as my mother waited. I managed to break free from her hands that held my wrist tight and ran for the street as I would normally do after Teacher Mary Ann yelled “Dagan!

Everything happened so fast. An incoming jeepney swerved away from my direction and awkwardly winded up on the shoulder of the opposite side of the road. No one was hurt, but some drivers on the road threw hateful remarks at my mother.

Kapti na bala mayad imo bata. Di pagbuy-i!

They wanted my mother to hold me tighter and to not let me go. They didn’t know that she did and I was the one who wriggled my wrist away from her grasp.

As they shouted at her, I froze in the middle of the road, more terrified of what my mother would do to me than the supposed danger my carelessness had brought. She was embarrassed of the scene and the danger her child had caused. With crouched shoulders, she quickly escorted me toward the safe side of the road. She didn’t forget my subtle punishment, though, that came in the form of a deep pinch on my side. I thought maybe I did deserve it for embarrassing her.

Back in her office, she told a few co-workers about what I had done. She also told our family until this story became a family legend that would never be forgotten until we reached adulthood. I don’t remember if she ever told Teacher Mary Ann about it, but the stories to her officemates and family didn’t fail to mention that it was with the practice with Teacher Mary Ann that I learned to run fast through a highway.

I grew up calling my mother Inay, exactly how she and her siblings used to call their own mother. My maternal grandmother grew up in Laguna, while my maternal grandfather in Batangas, both of them Tagalog and chose to be called Inay and Tatay by their own children.

Being raised in a municipality, which later on became a city, that is mostly inhabited by Ilonggo people, hearing a little girl call her mother Inay is very unusual. Kids my age called their mothers Mama or Mamang or Nanay. I called my grandmother Nanay.

It became a prank I put my classmates under all the time.

Jen, malakat nanay mo sa PTA meeting bwas?”

Ha? Wala na man ko nanay. Patay na man nanay ko.

Hala, di ka mag-amo sina. Kalain na.

For little kids like us, it was a morbid and an unacceptable statement. But I was not lying. My grandmother, whom everyone in the family called Nanay, died even before I was born. My mother is Inay, not Nanay.

I didn’t want to traumatize my classmate with me casually talking about someone’s death though, so I had to briefly explain that Nanay was for grandmother. She became at peace with it. And I thought that was one life I saved from trauma.

The case was different in my mother’s office, however. When I started going to school at Tony Ko Day Care Center nearby, I also became the resident kid in the office. When they first heard I was calling my mother Inay, they started calling her Inay and not anymore the usual Mareng Lydia, Mads, or Lyd that they were so used to calling her. Inay became her office name.  At first, it was done to spite me—to make it seem like they were stealing my mother away from me.

Before I knew it, everyone else in the office did. Even the tall, intimidating boss—who I remember was in a red polo shirt neatly tucked in khaki pants and had hair combed back and whom I remember as Sir Alcantara—would sometimes kid around with his subordinates and call my mother Inay as well. Whenever we called her from home, we would no longer mention her name. We would just ask if Inay was around. And everyone would know who we were referring to.

It became something beyond the control of a four- or five-year-old kid especially that I preferred to be quiet in the corner near my mother’s desk and would love to have nothing to do with the adults. Whenever they came squatting in front of me so that they could be on the same level as my eyes and talk to me, I would look away. Sometimes I would hide behind my mother. Once, a kind lady gave me food, maybe a bread, placing it on my hands. Perhaps threatened by the personal space intimacy with me that she was able to conquer, I flung the bread away, and it landed grimly on the vinyl-tiled floor. My shyness was disguised as disrespect and rudeness.

She let out a fake laugh and assured my mother that it was okay, that perhaps I was not in the mood. Inay looked sternly at me before she picked up the bread from the floor.

I was sorry and was as shocked as they were for how I behaved. But I didn’t know how to apologize and instead stood my ground and pretended I was actually being rude or not in the mood. But adults could have extensive understanding and patience over little kids.  So despite my extreme shyness bordering to rudeness, they still talked to me. They still gave me occasional treats until I felt more and more at ease. I was still on my most comfortable reading or coloring pictures in the corner alone, but I became less hostile to everyone.

I remember my mother was friends with people in her office named Roming Depita, who was a funny old man with no teeth; Ronnie Pendon, who was thin but friendly; Grating, whose Hiligaynon accent stood out the most among all the other Ilonggo people in the room; Grace Billones, who my mother said was the kindest and who later on migrated to America; Ester, who married Joel from the Engineering Department; pretty Hilda, who moved to Switzerland with her family; and Jo, who once washed my butt while my mother was away and I had to poo.

They all worked in that shabby, old office from 8 AM to 5 PM—the latter always signaled by a loud pounding of a rusty cylindrical metal. The sound could surprisingly be heard in the second or third building from the guardhouse. Everyone would go home by 5 PM. There was rarely an overtime.

The office was later on renovated again and again.  But I remember my mother’s department’s wooden door leading to a vinyl-tiled room with spacious tables, each with their respective full names taped on the table’s front, easy for the visitors to see.

Immediately after entering, there was a divan with red foam on the ride side of the room. Originally, it was placed there for visitors to sit on while waiting for their turn for a government transaction. But it became a comfortable bed for me. I slept after lunch and be woken up by my mother when almost all the lights in the office had been turned off. “Maglakad na ako. Dito ka lang?” she would ask softly so as not to startle me.

Her face would be close to mine, so the words were whispers, but I would notice the dim room and ceiling at the background.  Everyone had left. She would have her shoulder bag on one shoulder and my kindergarten bag on the other. I would jump to my feet, afraid to be left alone. On days when my father was home for vacation from his contract works abroad, he would fetch us from NIA with our 1994 white Nissan Pathfinder.  When I was lucky, our pickup would go to the city’s poblacion to buy groceries from the supermarket instead of going straight home. He would honk or wave a goodbye to a thin security guard I remember to have a huge mole on the temple. The security guard would wave back, remembering my father from several years back.

On some occasions of me sitting alone on the backseat with my father on the driver’s seat and my mother on the passenger seat, I imagined the story of how they saw a crying baby on the side of the street and decided to pick her up and adopt her. I tried to think which intersection in the city they could have seen the child, if the story was indeed true. I pictured black garbage bags carelessly dumped outside an almost full circular trash can, perhaps with the fading names of the politicians who “donated” the trash cans painted just close to the brim. Sometimes I also imagine my parents washing the dirty baby carefully with their hands. I asked questions to myself including the whereabouts of the priest or the real parents. In the silence of my father behind the wheel or despite my mother telling him a story of what happened to the office earlier, I tried to argue with the bits and pieces of information I remember from past stories.

Sabi nila sa Pingoy [Hospital] daw ako pinanganak.”

Sabi nila kumain daw si Inay ng madami no’ng anniversary nila ni Tatay, kaya kinabukasan naglaki tiyan niya, sinugod sa ospital, at pinanganak na ako.”

Their wedding anniversary comes a day before my birthday, and my elder sister used this information to trick me into a child-friendly story of how my mother conceived me.

Weighing these past stories that I heard before, it became harder to believe that I was adopted. I could not be adopted. That would be weird. I was a middle child and the third daughter. Who would think of adopting a daughter when they already had two? Who would think of adopting after having conceived two children successfully?

Future rides from my mother’s office to the supermarket, then, became more and more different. I no longer thought about the bulging black garbage bags or how filthy the poor baby was. Time and time of thinking about it, I came to my own childish conclusions that it was just a joke meant to entertain my mother’s officemates. Anyway, adults were always amused and pleased with an irritated child that they had teased.

The National Irrigation Administration in Koronadal City is still along General Santos Drive, but a lot has changed. The first building nearest to the guardhouse was taken down a few years ago. The space was allotted for the new NIA office building.

The third building from the guardhouse where my mother’s office was, had already been renovated countless times. The divan with the red pillows on it was no longer there. The wooden tables did not anymore have the names of the employees glued on the front.

Many of the familiar faces who laughed with the adopted joke had already retired, including the office chief Alcantara in bright red polo. There were new younger faces in the office when I last visited a few years after college graduation.

The cylindrical metal was entirely eaten up to destruction by its own rust and was no longer pounded by the security guard with a mole on the temple. He was still the guard together with two others on duty on some other shifts. Instead, from a traditional bundy clock there was a polite biometrics that says thank you after every thumbmark reading.

The first time I came back to the office as a young girl, I was probably in high school—still a little shy, but I no longer hid behind my mother.

Abaw, Inay, amo na ni si Jennie nga ginadala-dala mo sadto diri sa office?” Nong Ronnie, who was just a few years younger than my mother, was surprised to see how I have grown.

I smiled politely to Nong Ronnie before my mother and I proceeded to her office at the far end of the room. She let me use her computer for a few minutes before a young woman, perhaps a fresh graduate, knocked on the open door.

Inay, may kape ka dira? Mangayo kami bi. Mug na lang dayon.” She took what she needed from my mother’s wooden cabinet and did not forget her “Salamat, Nay” and a promise that she would wash the mug and return it immediately. She disappeared with the extreme rising and falling Hiligaynon accents of the voices heard outside my mother’s office.