By By tata ramon
About my Mother, part 1
posted 15-Aug-2012  ·  
2,370 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

By August 13 of this year, five years would have passed since my mother, Mrs. Dominga Arcilla Sarmiento, gave up her mortal life after some four decades of battling with diabetes and its complications. She was 81. But even while she was a sick person for almost half her life, she was also a healer. Surely, it may be said that motherhood in general is nothing but a vocation of healing, but my mother’s healership was more remarkable than usual because she actually practiced as a traditional para-bulong. I write about my mother’s healership as a way to pay tribute to her, but also to be able to make commentary on our culture and society. Her healership was intimately intertwined with her personhood and her times; it was a defining aspect of her being a woman, a mother, a wife and a member of the community. Healership was how she made sense of the world she found and created a place in it.

The making of my mother as a healer started quite early in her life. It naturally rubbed into her because her own mother, my grandmother Nay na Ela, was a traditional healer, and so was her aunt Mamay na Hasmin who took my mother as some kind of an adopted daughter when she was in her teens. But her old folks did not directly teach her the practice of healing. Her learning was experiential. An anecdote she loved to tell us was how she was her first patient. While a young girl, she would on many occasions be left alone to fend for herself because Nay na Ela would be out fulfilling house calls to distant places that could involve a few days stay. Her sister Clemencia, pushed by poverty at home and pulled by the lure of the city, had relocated to Manila at the young age of fifteen to work as a domestic helper. One time, she felt intense stomach ache. With nobody to help her, she went about even in her pain putting together a concoction of herbs from the yard and applied it on her. Needless to say, she got well. 

 An aspect that I believe contributed in large part to the shaping of my mother into a healer was her experience of suffering early in life. They say that the best healer is a scarred one, and speaking of wounds, my mother had her good share. When she told about her past, she would weave narratives of suffering. She was orphaned by her father at age four and so her mother took the brunt of providing for the family. Nay na Ela managed to make both ends meet not only by practicing as arbularyo but by making and vending native delicacies such as ibos, suman and sinukray. My lola would marry again, but my mother’s stepfather proved abusive thereby aggravating economic poverty with physical and emotional battery. 

But aside from her specific personal circumstances, life in the Virac that she knew (her growing years were from the twenties through the forties) was generally a difficult one, despite our romantic notions of su mga kaidto as golden age forgone. Back then, it was an ordeal just to provide for the basic needs, and doing the routine tasks of daily grind were truly punishing since the modern-day amenities commonplace now such as faucets, electricity and automated transport were absent.  Life may have been uncomplicated then but going through the business of existence was sheer physical distress, punctuated every now and then by destructive typhoons, as if all the day-to-day wear and tear was not enough.

But there was more. It was not until the fifties that modern medical know-how was available in Virac.  Before that, sicknesses that are easily curable at present were debilitating people and killing them, especially the more vulnerable ones, the children. In my mother’s family, only two siblings survived as three others died in early childhood of illnesses such as diarrhea.  And it is not as if this was unique of my mother’s family. Every family in the neighbourhood told of the same story. As a young boy listening to the exchanges between my mother and her circle of contemporaries, I got a picture of how these middle-aged housewives saw life then: it was one of pervading suffering, pagtili-os, mostly with the physical body that was on the receiving end of various ailments. Life’s struggle therefore was the combat of these challenges, so much so that a family’s saga consisted of the string of these health predicaments that came its way and the measures to overcome them. So it became aspects of family lore how they were put to test by the good Lord by afflicting this or that member with such and such kamate-an.  In the same light, treasured tales of victory were how these tests were overcome by resorting to the wonderful curative efficacy of some herbal regimen or the amazing abilities of a celebrated healer.

The final touch of scourge on that era was the worst possible infliction that people apply on each other, which is war. Growing up in Virac, I came to divide people I knew into two groups: on the one hand were my parents’ generation and those before them who all experienced the Japanese occupation, and those who did not on the other.  The former impressed on me as survivors of untold hardship, veterans of extreme ordeal, people who have seen it all. Theirs was the wisdom of the wounded. Receiving parenting from them meant learning the ropes of life according to the rhetoric of suffering and the practice of hard work. Reared by my mother, I came to understand life as a healing vocation, a mandate of nurturing through active combat of life’s imminent threats.  

If my mother herself was the first recipient of her healership, the next set consisted of us her children. In the late fifties, with a growing brood (we totalled eight siblings) and expensive medical costs, she was compelled to summon her latent healing aptitude in order to deal with medical problems that commonly afflict children. It all started when she decided to resort to chewing mam-on (a concoction of buyo leaves, betel nut, apog and pinilpig that when masticated produced thick red spit). The saliva paste from this mascada was such a proven remedy for gas pain when applied on the affected area. Previously, she would request her red-spitting neighbour to make buga on her suffering child. But it became such trouble to rouse the neighbour from sleep if the gas pain attacks happened deep in the night. So my mother learned how to become para-mama herself.

Later, it was my mother’s turn to spit her efficacious mam-on on children of neighbors.  But gas pain was merely one among myriad of health problems that visited her children. So my mother started to come up with other natural and herbal remedies to deal with these illnesses, which in most cases had remarkably worked, something that the neighbors did not fail to notice. Soon, she was ministering to neighbors and it was only a matter of time that she was receiving requests for home visits from other families far and wide.

In the span of some two decades between the late sixties and the eighties, my mother had an active practice of traditional healing in Virac.  In the process, she had assembled a body of knowledge and methods regarding sickness and its cure, on a specific array of conditions. Her theory and practice of healing is one that may be characterized as naturalistic, meaning that she accounted for health and sickness according to the natural order. She was reluctant to implicate the spirits in this; she did not reject the possibility of involvement of the spirit world but thought that she was incompetent to deal with it.  She insisted that she was “scientific” in her approach. She vehemently denied any suggestion that she was kowtowing with su mga dai naheling. During this time, modernization was the aspiration and the reputation of an arbularyo, commonly associated with superstition and ignorance, has grossly been deflated in society. My mother did not want to be the odd person in a family devoted to education and “progress,”  especially because her husband was a science teacher and her children were building reputation in school “learning.”  In moments of self-pity, she would decry the fact that her poverty did not allow her to pursue higher education (she finished only second year high), feeling left out in a family that produced professionals in the sciences and the medical field (two dentists, a nurse, an engineer and two Ph.D’s among others). During such occasions, we would be careful to point out that we had taken after her (dai man ga bunga ning santol ang bayawas), that she was a scientific healer, and would have been an excellent medical doctor given the chance. She would know we were telling the truth, and my mother would beam with pride and self-assurance. 

According to my mother’s reckoning, health is achieved by maintaining harmony and balance with nature. Sickness therefore is caused by the imbalance of the forces that permeate the world, such as init, ripot and hangin. This is a worldview indigenous to Filipinos and is very much similar to other Asian notions such as the yin and yang of the Chinese and the Ayurveda of the Indians. Effecting a cure is done by restoring the balance and harmony, principally herbs and other natural objects. Her manner of application is largely external, such as dong banyos or implasto. She was quite aware of the implications of having people ingest cures. And she would try her hand only on conditions she knew she could handle. She was aware of other causes of disease like infection and organ failure. In such cases, my mother would recommend the sick to consult a medical doctor. She would also advice people to combine western medicine and the traditional ta mayad na sana ta gakatarabang-tabang. She knew about complimentary approach to curing, way before western medical science belatedly recognized it; she was advanced for her time.

The sort of cases that my mother dealt with were non-life threatening conditions such as trangkaso, pasma, impasto, kulog ning tikab, tulak, payo. But she did have some spectacular cures na hinabu-an na ning doctor. Her clientele counted not only neighbors and family friends but a myriad others from all over downtown Virac and from all walks of life. But the more distinguished patients included priests (she once cured Msgr. Sorra of a lingering trangakaso and pasma) and even the wife of the former Director of the EBMC.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss the one health condition that she was singularly competent about, the so-called nerbiyos which afflicted almost exclusively middle-aged women. For me, this specific aspect of her healership is significant because it had profound bearing on her personhood, specifically her being a woman who existed in her particular time and social circumstances.   

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