Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. Lola made no sound. My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that?
Africans in America/Part 1/The Middle Passage
It was like that. Seven years later, in , Mom married my father and moved to Manila, bringing Lola along. Lieutenant Tom had long been haunted by demons, and in he silenced them with a. Mom almost never talked about it. She had his temperament—moody, imperial, secretly fragile—and she took his lessons to heart, among them the proper way to be a provincial matrona : You must embrace your role as the giver of commands.
You must keep those beneath you in their place at all times, for their own good and the good of the household. They might cry and complain, but their souls will thank you. They will love you for helping them be what God intended. My brother Arthur was born in I came next, followed by three more siblings in rapid succession. My parents expected Lola to be as devoted to us kids as she was to them.
While she looked after us, my parents went to school and earned advanced degrees, joining the ranks of so many others with fancy diplomas but no jobs. Then the big break: Dad was offered a job in Foreign Affairs as a commercial analyst. The salary would be meager, but the position was in America—a place he and Mom had grown up dreaming of, where everything they hoped for could come true. Dad was allowed to bring his family and one domestic. Figuring they would both have to work, my parents needed Lola to care for the kids and the house.
Years later Lola told me she was terrified. Her parents lived in a hut with a dirt floor. Lola could build them a concrete house, could change their lives forever. We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, , all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then.
Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln and His Generals After Antietam, 1862
In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. I was 4 years old when we arrived in the U. But as my siblings and I grew up on this other shore, we came to see the world differently. Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Is it possible?
Mom let out a sigh. My parents had borrowed money for the move to the U. My father was transferred from the consulate general in L. He took a second job cleaning trailers, and a third as a debt collector. Mom got work as a technician in a couple of medical labs. We barely saw them, and when we did they were often exhausted and snappish. Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. An idiot could remember. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank.
Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal. It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen.
Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. She often slept among piles of laundry. Pompey, go find the doctor. Get on back to work, Pompey!
Tom forbids Pompey from attending school but opens the way for Pompey to drink in a whites-only saloon. Near the end, Pompey saves his master from a fire. I remember thinking: Lola is Pompey, Pompey is Lola. One night when Dad found out that my sister Ling, who was then 9, had missed dinner, he barked at Lola for being lazy.
Her feeble defense only made him angrier, and he punched her just below the shoulder. Lola ran out of the room and I could hear her wailing, an animal cry. My parents turned to look at me. They seemed startled. I was It was my first attempt to stick up for the woman who spent her days watching over me. The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons.
Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs I had problem joints , she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. In the old country, my parents felt no need to hide their treatment of Lola.
In America, they treated her worse but took pains to conceal it. When guests came over, my parents would either ignore her or, if questioned, lie and quickly change the subject. For five years in North Seattle, we lived across the street from the Misslers, a rambunctious family of eight who introduced us to things like mustard, salmon fishing, and mowing the lawn.
Football on TV. Yelling during football. Lola would come out to serve food and drinks during games, and my parents would smile and thank her before she quickly disappeared.
A relative from back home, Dad said. Very shy. He once overheard my mother yelling in the kitchen, and when he barged in to investigate found Mom red-faced and glaring at Lola, who was quaking in a corner.
I came in a few seconds later. What was that? I waved it off and told him to forget it. I think Billy felt sorry for Lola. I could tell by what she served whether she was merely feeding us or saying she loved us. Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We spent our first decade in the country learning the ways of the new land and trying to fit in.
Having a slave did not fit. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from.
Human Trafficking: Prices and Statistics of the Modern Day Slave Trade
Whether we deserved to be accepted. I was ashamed of it all, including my complicity. But losing her would have been devastating. After a series of fallings-out with his superiors, Dad quit the consulate and declared his intent to stay in the United States. He was supposed to send her back. Both times she wanted desperately to go home.