AT 81, my mother is still a stereotype-buster. I was shaken awake at dawn by Mama making a video call via the tablet given by her siblings on her birthday.
Despite this being the first time in eight decades that she is dipping her toes in digital media, she is more omniscient than ever, empowered by Netflix and Messenger.
Did you quarrel your husband? she asks in greeting.
I check my husband—unharmed and sleeping—and tell Ma she should ease on the action movies before bedtime. She tells me she has not slept since she discovered Netflix.
She demands to know why she cannot see us on the screen. Is my husband really okay?
Except for projecting some murderous harpy’s designs onto me, Ma exploring the world wide web reminds me of the power of renewals and our rites to preserve them.
Last year, counting down to her 80th, I roped in my sister to the superstition of not mentioning she was 79 and rounding off her actual age to end with the good-luck figure of “0.” My nieces thought they were flying in from Sydney for Lola’s 81st birthday last year.
So this year, after my sister explained the mechanics of our “dagdag-bawas (add-minus)” scheme with Ma’s age, my older niece had only one conclusion: “fake news.”
“Pwera buyag.” According to the Sugbuanon advocate Lilia Tio, folks say this to protect the subject from a reversed blessing. When my sister posted that Ma looked girlishly happy holding her tablet in my aunt’s Facebook post, I muttered “pwera buyag” to ward off illness or any misfortune brought about by a passing “diwata (fairy)” overhearing the praise and getting envious of a mortal’s blessing.
I am too lazy to explain on Messenger to my logical nieces that what seems like “fake news” from the old country has a place in the age of Covid-19. When my younger niece started menstruation, her Ma tried to convince her to wipe that first blood on her face to prevent future pimples.
Predictably, this dermatologic heresy shocked my nieces, whom I love despite their rigid rationality, “pwera gaba.” According to Ms. Lilia, this is the reversal of “pwera buyag,” deflecting any punishment from a person who has uttered an unkind thought.
Yaya, who raised my sister and I as if we are her own, sprinkles her talk with these expressions. She also killed a chicken and wiped its blood on my sister’s forehead on her eighth birthday, “pwera buyag,” as well as carried out that first blood anti-pimple incantation on her (only after chasing and catching my sister, who squawked as if possessed by the chicken spirit).
Yaya never did that for me, I accused my sister. Yang loves you, too, she said. You were just hard to find among your books and drawings, “pwera gaba.”