Tita Norma Wore a Headscarf

Two hunched-over, broken-down, little old brown ladies amble up your block. Their wrinkled heads wrapped in wool scarves, their tiny bodies tucked tight beneath thrift store coat upon thrift store coat—they’re bible thumpers, the most forlorn kind. They’re Been-There Done-That Born-Again evangelists, Women of The Lord who were once women of the flesh.

Gusts of winter wind blow their coats open and the scarves off their heads and you worry that their small frail bodies will be swept away. But they are sticky like spilt Sunday mass wine, they have stuck to this neighborhood every Sunday for decades, and they are here to redeem souls like coupons.

The man down the block, with his blonde burly beard and a COEXIST bumper sticker on his Subaru, he slams his front door hard in their faces. As does the new age Buddhist girl with a lotus-flower tattoo behind her ear, who has just returned from a trip to Tibet. The other night, she’d come over with a bottle of wine to explain her newfound understanding of the nature of Tibetan oppression, how her new-found enlightenment helped her transcend jet lag. And the mother of the blue-eyed twins across the way? She says loud and proud, “get off my property, morons.”

In fact, every one of your neighbors slams their door in their faces. Realizing they are losing this crusade, these missionaries take out their cell phones and dial frantically.

Reinforcements arrive.

Soon the whole neighborhood is rife with saintly saved women, their tote bags overflowing with holy books and xeroxed pamphlets. Bibles are tossed back and forth over awnings like hot potatoes, curses are shouted from inside doorways, and all these old women do is wave goodbye. Yell, “have a blessed day.”

When those two little old ladies finally hobble up to your apartment, you hide. Turn out all your lights. Close all your curtains. Collapse into a ball and shiver in the corner as the doorbell strikes again and again like the last call for Sunday service. Each ding makes your heart shake and you bunch up tighter hoping they won’t, like a god-given miracle, find their way in.

You knew converts like them before. Women who’d held their tongues tight their entire lives, like your childhood friend’s once-sensible mother from Kingstown who could not hold down a man, like your beloved high school biology teacher from Jakarta who’d learned English reading Darwin, like your second cousin from Cebu who came here for a future and now speaks of nothing but the Second Coming. Once, these were women you loved to talk with, but soon enough they were women who neither laughed nor cried but told only stories of how they were saved. You wonder what changed them, who changed them.

After fifteen minutes, the two women retreat. At the first knock, you’d quietly crept up to your peephole to find them holding hands in prayer, pounding on the door with the heavy crucifixes that weighed down their necks. You only saw the tops of their covered heads and the wrinkled skin of their mangled hands. When you no longer heard their knocking or footsteps you opened the door quietly to make sure they were really gone and find they’ve tacked a pamphlet to it. A written reminder that you can hide from them only for as long as you can hide from God.

You shake it off. Later that night you go to the block potluck and everyone is tittering about this Sunday’s spectacle. The mother of the twins asks the room, who do they think they are, anyway? They must be kept away from sensible children. The lotus flower neighbor laughs that next time she sees them, she’ll invite them in for a meditation on the power of the goddess and the sanctity of quiet Sunday afternoons. You take the blonde bearded man home because on some nights you coexist in the same bed, and as you watch him sleep he comes to look like a stranger you once wanted to punch in the face.

The next morning the pamphlet is still on your kitchen counter and you smirk, shove it into a drawer already too heavy with fast food delivery menus. You think about the movie Deliverance, the eeriness of it, then you think about the word itself, and then the women with their bibles fade out of your memory.

Soon enough, though, through the grapevine you’ll hear that one of those women was Tita Norma. The other? Your mother. When they knock again next Sunday, you’ll find yourself hiding again. Peeking from behind the window curtain, you’ll watch your mother shrink as she walks away in defeat. You’ll hide and think a good daughter would open that door, but a better mother would not have run off in the middle of the night with a new God.

You think it would be best to place yourself in front of her pounding little fists that thump salvation, that tap tap tap submit to Jesus, yet you hide in the tiny tile corner like you’re hiding from the devil, a midday glass of wine in hand, not the blood of Christ nor the Eucharist.

Months later, after hundreds of knocks, maybe thousands, after you can no longer order Tom Yum soup or Dim Sum or even a deep dish pizza because the guilt of shutting your mother’s happiness into a menu drawer finally starts to get to you, you’ll finally open the door for her. Drown her in excuses. How would I have known it was you? And wasn’t it you who taught me to never answer the door for strangers? How did you even know I was home? And what are you doing out in this Chicago cold again, anyway? Seeking salvation for Tita Norma? Don’t you know you’ll never find it?

She’ll say she is out here in this cold praying for you. That when she prayed for you before, to the old god, the deaf one, it was clear he hadn’t heard—she’d prayed to him every day for decades and still, your Tita Norma remains unwell. Your brother is still unmarried. And you, my dear daughter, are just a tramp.

She’ll leave you with another pamphlet, you’ll worry about her health but worry more at your own silly fear. Since when does Christ frighten you, you’ll ask yourself. And since when do you hide from little old ladies? 

Mom had secrets like you wouldn’t believe. She came to the States with one little suitcase, now shoved into the back of a closet, held quiet with a tiny lock. When I was kid I once tried to pry it open, but she stormed into the bedroom, smacked me across the face and said, “you’ll never get it open, I’ve swallowed the key.” I leafed through my parents’ dusty old photo albums trying to find her face couched between those of her family’s, round sepia faces, I imagined, ones I’d never seen. I left all those photos back home, she said. And the typhoon swept them to sea.

After twenty years I still couldn’t name all of her siblings, when I asked what neighborhood she grew up in she only said the outskirts of Manila, and every long distance collect call she accepted brought her voice down to a toothy whisper.

The only things I do know about Mom are the things I have seen—for decades she prayed to her childhood god for her daughter, her son, and Tita Norma. Most days, she laid out dinners for dead relatives and when they were finished eating, she tossed the leftovers out the door to feed the neighborhood strays. Every day, she attended six a.m. mass and was home in time to cook breakfast. Before meals, she made the sign of the cross so often and fast that sometimes I grew dizzy. The only possessions that seemed to mean much to her were an assortment of Virgin Mary statuettes, a stack of prayer cards, a holy bible, and a trunk-sized collection of rosaries.

Our house was Mom’s own little church. Throughout the years, she’d become the neighborhood women’s nondenominational sage, the house a place for them to scream salvation, or simply to scream. When our young Korean next-door neighbor needed advice on how to quiet her surly old husband, she came to Mom’s table. When Natalya, the mother of seven from down the block, found herself finally with an empty home, it was Mom’s couch she came to sit on and wet with fat tears. When Ellen from Ireland’s fourteen-year-old daughter got knocked up, she and Mom prayed rosaries for days. All the neighborhood women had come to our door at least once, and Mom took on the celestial glow of the Holy Mother.

Mom may have been holy but she wasn’t a preacher. She was quiet with downcast eyes, she was well-behaved and took instruction. She got by by not getting in the way. For example, at the mall one day a man with a burly blonde beard walked up to us and asked where in the world my father was, thinking maybe he’d get laid. Mom smiled, ignoring his plain audacity and said I’m sure you’re a nice man, but I am not interested. He followed behind us as far as the lingerie store. Then in the food court, a mother with skin the color and pallor of the soft serve ice cream I was eating, sat down beside us and scolded, don’t you know it’s wrong to give a child dessert for lunch? Mom took the cone out of my hand and thanked her, waited to give it back until the woman walked away. By the time we were at the cash register at Kohl’s, about to pay for my new school clothes, I was praying. I prayed as the pimply employee cut up our credit card, as she muttered “stupid chink,” as my mother apologized profusely, making the sign of the cross, I prayed that we could become shrouded and unseen. Mom took my hand and the hangers of clothes and put everything back where it came from, smoothed creases, flipped over price tags, saying not a word but squeezing my knuckles white.

She never did get to tell that man that dad was at home in front of the TV, or the scolding mother that ice cream is a perfectly suitable meal for a child, especially on a Saturday, or the pimply cashier that a cut up credit card was better than no card at all.

You visit another country and you have to respect its customs, Mom always said. Here in the States, she respected customs so obediently that she’d become them. She wasn’t even a visitor anymore, she had the papers and the wedding ring and the two half-white children to prove it. The only things from the old world Mom openly displayed were her Catholicism (vehemently), her accent (unwillingly), and her desire for a material comfort that did not contradict her work ethic or piety.

So on the day I met Tita Norma, I was not surprised that this oldest friend I’d never met lived just down the street. My secretive mother was full of surprises.

Back then, Tita Norma lived with her daughter in the subsidized housing behind Comeback Covenant, though the two didn’t pray to that god or anyone like him. Tita Norma and her daughter worshipped facing east, bowing and saying prayers under their breaths, five times a day.

Mom had warned me that if they got up for prayer during our visit, I was to wait politely and look away. Mom had also warned me not to play dress-up with Tita Norma’s daughter. No dresses no scarves no makeup no nothing. They are going against God and I don’t want nothing to do with it, she’d said.

The apartment was seven stories up a crumbling staircase and as Mom and I climbed, I could feel her start to shake. Even now, I still forget it’s not heights she’s afraid of. At the top of the stairs, we didn’t have to knock. Norma stood outside her door and seemed to quiver with impatience. She grabbed Mom and squeezed her until her shaking ceased.

Tita Norma wore a headscarf. She tied it under her chin as she beckoned us inside. She pulled it over the bruise on her cheekbone, tugged it over the purple thumbprint on her chubby neck, tucked her stray hairs under its shroud. Smiling serenely at my mother, who she hadn’t seen in years, she began to babble on in a muted frenzy until Mom stopped her mile a minute mouth. No hablo espanol, Norma. Y, you know that.

Ya allah Norma said under her breath. I forgot. Your mom and I are like sisters, from other mothers. From other countries! she said to me. Norma was ecstatic. Boisterous. So excited I thought she’d burst through her own skin. Before we slid off our shoes to come in, Mom asked her, are you sure he won’t be here?

Beneath her head covering, Tita Norma’s long, thick braid rebelled. She raised me into her lap to appraise this best friend’s child she was only now meeting, and I thought I could use that braid to lower myself out the window. From then on, for the rest of my life, Rapunzel was short and stout and Salvadorena with a jet-black mane.

Aziza! Ven aqui! Tita Norma yelled. A frail girl came out of her bedroom, wearing a headscarf, too. Hers was white, without wrinkles, its edges embroidered with pearls. It tightly circled her perfect face. Norma’s daughter was impossibly pale, her thick kohl eyeliner and dangling gold earrings betrayed that she was only ten years old. A preteen angel nymph. A Muslim Virgin Mary. You two will be friends like Ladylyn and I are friends, Tita Norma said and gave us both the once over. Aziza said to me, Nice to meet you. I’m moving soon. As if to say, no. We won’t be.

Mom and Norma sat down at the kitchen table and shooed us away. Before Aziza relented, she grabbed two yellow onions from the pantry, peeled their skins off with her fingers and held one out to me, taking a bite into the other. No thanks, I looked at her skeptically. Suit yourself, she said. But it’s just like an apple, only sweeter.

In the living room, Aziza sat down on the opposite end of the plastic-covered couch. She couldn’t stop talking about her new family, the new house they were moving into, the shiny new neighborhood in the city’s northern suburbs.

The house has a swimming pool. And a basketball court for Mohammed.

Who’s Mohammed?

Aziza rolled her eyes and said, my brother.

What color is the house?

White.

How big is it?

Bigger than this place. Bigger than your place.

You’ve never been to my place.

Somehow, I just know that it’s bigger.

How many rooms?

I don’t know, fifteen?

Can I visit you when you move in? She had to think about this for a while.

No, she said, and adjusted her earrings, tugged at her headscarf.

Tita Norma’s living room was stacked high with cardboard boxes. The boxes stood collecting dust, daily reminding Norma of everything she was about to lose. Those layers of dust served as reminders that all she had cherished could be packed away for ages, neglected and useless. Porcelain trinkets dusted daily, hand-polished silver serving ware, Aziza’s toys sprayed in disinfectant, her husband’s trousers that she herself had pressed, all her fine wifely work was now being moved to a big house, far away, without her.

In the kitchen, Norma was doubled over the table, sobbing into her fists, and Mom was doubled over Norma, hugging her and petting what was exposed of her hair. The knot of Norma’s headscarf loosened under Mom’s touch.

Don’t mind her. She’s always crying these days, Aziza said of her mother as she lined my eyelids black.

She doesn’t want to leave?

That’s not it. She’s not coming anyway. Come now. I want to show them your new look.

Long before Aziza and I were born, Tita Norma and Mom lived together. They were inseparable friends. Both colonized by the Spaniards (who by the way, they adored), both devout Catholics, both with mouths full of shit-talk about their respective homelands; both their mouths were parched and unsated until they came to the States, they said.

They had also had their differences. Norma was boy crazy and Mom was ambitious. Mom wanted a life all her own and Norma wanted to share: her food, her clothes, her affection. Mom imagined her life in the States would go by busy and professional and in an instant, like a three minute long pop song or a commercial for a chemical disinfectant. Norma pictured, however irrationally, a life of American immortality. Mom went to bed praying, Norma fell asleep dreaming.

Back in the day, Mom and Norma were hot. Sriracha and Cholula, their young admirers thought. Ginger and cayenne. Norma’s face was perfectly round and brown and the whites of her eyes left you feeling unholy. Mom’s lips were full and thick but red like Mary Magdalene’s sin. But, always the delicacy and never the dish. A man could stuff his mouth full of potatoes and pretzels and Pillsbury, after all, but their mothers had warned against swallowing fiery peppers by the fistful. Would they be able to handle the burn?

Mom and Tita Norma’s favorite bar was the Night Cap. They’d pinky sworn to only date American men, who were better-educated and purportedly more polite than the apes back home. The Night Cap was a typical Chicago dive, the sort you used to see on every other unassuming street corner, but it was full of young doctors and lawyers and engineers who worked long hard days and went to bed alone. Every Saturday night when the seedy place was cleared of tables to reveal a dance floor, stuck with gum and cigarette butts and just a hint of last weekend’s trash, Norma and Mom were always first up to dance. Singing Abba in their silly accents. Giggling like country school girls because that’s what they’d been before they were green card-wielding immigrants. Dancing in their awkward, sex-censored Catholic way, short stout bodies emulating tall lanky blondes. All eyes were on them.

Then came the men, their stiff narrow hips shimmying embarrassment, circling the two in an awkward courtship ritual, offering love or affection or devotion or money. Mom and Tita Norma would go out for a drink and come home full of six, not a dime of their own money spent. Mom only revelled in the money she’d saved. Norma went home and carefully considered each drunken proposal.

When Sunday morning rolled around, Mom would be dressed for church, shaking Norma awake, reminding her that the men she’d fawned over last night were no replacement for the one who created them.

When Norma’s steady American boyfriend left her for a pale dumpling of a woman, Norma was devastated. I’ll marry anything that walks! she declared. He turned out to be the owner of the Night Cap.

It was a good match. Mr. El Adawy was handsome and Tita Norma was loyal. Mr. El Adawy was frugal, had put away a considerable amount of money to start a family, and Norma was tired of working. The only condition of their marriage was that Tita Norma convert.

There were lots of things about Norma that Mom could tolerate, but this was not one.

What about that Pole from the pub? I see him eyeing you, his eyes are blue. SO blue. He’s an engineer. And a Catholic. Mom pleaded.

No Ladylyn. I’ve made up my mind.

So, you like men from the Mid East? How about that Lebanese? He’s a doctor, Norma. A doctor. Who cares about his hook nose? A doctor and a Christian.

Ladylyn. Give it up.

So Mom did. Mom and Norma packed up Norma’s belongings and after one last hand holding prayer Norma moved out of Mom’s apartment and in with Mr. El Adawy. Mom attended the wedding, silently praying for Norma’s soul the entire time, and didn’t see her again until Norma was in her forties and wearing a headscarf.

In the kitchen, Mom and Tita Norma ignored our pleas for attention. Perhaps they hadn’t heard us, so locked were their eyes on one another. Aziza took me into her bedroom, crowded with boxes like a corn maze.

Mom talks about your mom all the time, Aziza said.

What does she say? I wondered.

That she abandoned her the same way Dad did.

It wasn’t just Norma’s converted soul that Mom worried over every day for a decade. My mother had suspected all along that Mr. El Adawy would one day save up enough to afford a second wife. At the kitchen table, Mom’s bright eyes brimmed with I-Told-You-So’s as she listened to Tita Norma.

Mr. El Adawy was not a hitter but Tita Norma had driven him to do what any man would have done, Tita Norma said. The bruise on her cheek and the thumbprint on her neck were her own fault. She’d known all along that the day would come. If only she’d prepared, if only she’d had time to prepare. Always so busy with her two young children and her endless store of in-laws, the past ten years had gone past in an instant. Most of her time was spent appeasing her youngest sister in-law who found her cooking atrocious, her oldest brother in-law who believed his niece and nephew would grow up godless, and her ancient mother-in-law who expressed disappointment in harsh muttered consonants that Tita Norma did not understand. Norma’s own children always sided with their father and their father, once valiant and straight-spined, turned out to be both the family pushover and it’s articulator of Norma’s flaws. She went through her married days a lone whirlwind, and her only times of peace were her three-minute intervals of prayer.

Norma’s husband had not mentioned the other woman. He’d simply said, we’re moving. It’s time. Norma wailed for days, looking to her children for comfort. Perhaps they were too young to understand their mother’s sorrow, or too excited to leave their cramped apartment, but they would be the first to tell you that their mother was a nut. And any onlooker would believe the children, as she now spent her days pressing pants and packing boxes like a swift, obsessive robot.

In Norma’s kitchen that day, Mom was ecstatic that she would finally have her Norma back. She sat on her hands that held a peace offering: a rosary with the tiniest crucifix. But When Norma announced she was leaving Mr. El Adawy and not Allah, Mom was confused. She said a quick Hail Mary then, but wasn’t it this God who caused all your sorrows? Wasn’t the God we shared before your marriage much more kind? Forgiving? Generous?

No. Norma said. You are wrong. Your god gave me nothing but grief. This one now gives me peace.

Now that she was proceeding with a divorce, giving up her son and daughter and nagging in-laws, her husband and her housework and her weekly allowance, Norma found solace in prayer.

Meanwhile, Aziza unpacked boxes and draped scarves over me. First, I was a mummy. Then, I was a misshapen tent. Finally, I was her sister, she said, my hair covered, my earlobes pierced through with a safety pin, swollen but bejewelled by two little pearls.

When Aziza and I finally emerged from the bedroom, Mom’s face was sour and her shoes were already on. Say goodbye to Aziza, she said.

Mom dragged me home in silence, in shock at having Tita Norma for only a moment after so long, at my head in a hijab. “Listen, anak,” she said, turning to Tagalog the way she always did when serious. “One day, you’ll fall in love with a man. This man will try to erase your past and make your life his own. He will convince you he loves you and you’ll believe him. But one day, without notice, for no reason, he will hate you and throw you away. You’ll have to start over again and you might not be able to. By then, you might be too old. Too rundown. Do you understand?” She asked.

You mean like you and dad?

No, that’s not what I mean. She sighed. That is different. Your father is a good man. No passion, no lies. A Catholic. She said.

So you mean like Tita Norma and Mr. El Adawy?

Exactly. Her shoulders dropped in relief.

Aziza says Tita Norma is just an idiot. She doesn’t have to give up her family. She wants to.

Mom turned to me, her face contorted. Her hand stiffened and stung my cheek, making the same noise it did when she anxiously slapped her palms together in prayer. I tugged Aziza’s scarf off, letting it trail behind me before I dropped it into the street.

Mom didn’t mention Tita Norma again for almost twenty years. After that visit, we returned to life as usual. I do suspect that the person who dialed our number daily, only to hang up when someone answered, was Norma, her voice stuck indefinitely in her throat. I often wondered about her, about how often, if at all, she saw her daughter. If she stayed on in that dismal apartment alone. If she’d remarried, if she’d shed her headscarf.

It wasn’t long after Mom was priced out of the neighborhood that I moved back into it. Mom’s old home, her own little church, was gutted and aired out, its only parishioners a family that does not pray to any god. Sometimes, during these Sunday spectacles, I think about knocking on my old door.

By the time Tita Norma attended her first service at the Comeback Covenant, Mom’s faith was already on the outs. Dad was gone, her children had left and neglected her, she could no longer afford the home she’d made. Like a broken wind-up doll, she started attending mass several times a day, writing notes on post-it’s of sins she may have forgotten to confess, until her bedroom wall was covered in blaring neon squares, her prayers unanswered, her body unable to leave bed. When her lease ended she tore the notes off the wall one by one and burned them.

Then one day Tita Norma came knocking, more than fifteen years late. Mom thought she was seeing a ghost. My best friend I’ve looked for you everywhere! she squealed. And by then Mom was ready for a new life.

It started with a Saturday luncheon, packed with old ladies from all corners of the earth. Then came the sermon, delivered by a man with a voice like an angel, a body like a Greek myth, a smile that had these old ladies melting in their chairs. He espoused universal love and tolerance and the power of the Woman, the duty of the Woman to spread God’s word. He hearkened to their suffering, their pain, their loss. He listened, nodded understanding, which was the most any man had ever offered any one of them. He armed them with pamphlets and tiny bibles and let loose his missionary army.

Tita Norma went out into the cold a new woman but continued to wear her headscarf. At first, Mom didn’t get it. Wrapped up in these scarves was a history of pretty women concealing their wild manes. But by then she knew better than to say anything.

One Sunday morning, I invited the two old ladies in for tea. Tita Norma greeted me like no time had passed, like I was family. I came to know that Tita Norma never visited our churchly home because she simply was not allowed there. Not by her husband, who worried Mom would turn her back, and not by my mother, who held a grudge bigger than her faith, big enough that she’d replaced her oldest friend with a pious memory. My mother had made it her mission to remove that gauzy mess from Tita Norma’s head. She was willing to take her time if she had to. She would ultimately lose.

I wanted to hear Tita Norma talk about those lost decades between her and my mother. I wanted to hear her ask my mom, “did La Virgen not wear a mantle? Do nuns not hide their heads in fear of god and men? Do you not hide as well, when you put curlers in your hair? And this whole story you pity me for? Of my family leaving without so much as a thank you? What had that to do with my headscarf? Family abandons, god abandons. Your tongue is kept tied, your thoughts kept to yourself, you’re either wearing a headscarf or not.”

But Tita Norma didn’t need to ask. Mom finally understood. It only took a lifetime. It was why now she evangelized at my door, at my neighbors’ doors, why now she spewed every aching word held tight in her chest for decades out to the world, into anyone who would listen. It was why now she walked with Tita Norma instead of with the memory of her. The Comeback evangelists were not spreading the word of God. They were spreading the stories of themselves.

Tita Norma wore a headscarf. She tied it under her chin. It detracted from the crow’s feet that grew out the corners of her eyes. It hid her thick silvery braid. She spoke soft and fast but proud behind her headscarf as she told stories to unkind strangers. At times, it fell over her wide open eyes, whose whites, now yellow, vowed you were unholy but still young. 

 


Image Credits: Flickr- Adam Jones