Tina V. Cabrera



I met Grandpapa in a photo: bushy eyebrows, full lips, wavy hair cropped close to the head. Dressed in a wool suit jacket worn over a white dress shirt, bow tie with a crosshatched design. He was a young man in the photo, and I was ten.

Three-quarter face photo in sepia, crookedly cropped and set in a 12 x 18 inch frame. Indiscriminately written on the back of the photo in blue ink cursive, Miguel Cecilio, and the year 1938.

Grandpapa Miguel Cecilio's moustache, small patch above his lip, resembled Hitler's. And yet, he looked more like a poet asking the camera to linger long. His eyes.

Mama told me she was born in 1941, though her birth certificate says she was born in 1940. Whether the truth is the former or the latter, the point is that this photo of Grandpa must have been taken only two or three years before Mama was born. Mama said he died when she was three. He looks no more than 30 in the photo, which means he became a father and died at a relatively young age.

Papa says that Filipinos tend to date their photos arbitrarily, meaning they'll often pick up a photo taken from who knows when, and write the date or year that they look at the photo, as if truly seeing it for the first time. So then no one knows for sure if this photo of Grandpapa was really taken in 1938. Maybe Grandmama (assuming she's the one most likely to have labeled the photo) decided to date it on the day Grandpapa gave it to her, rather than writing down the year it was actually taken. Or, if Grandpapa didn't give it to her, perhaps the photo slipped out of the pages of a magazine, cookbook, or out of Grandpapa's private diary only to be discovered accidentally. Perhaps Grandmama found it stuck between the cushions of his favorite armchair, or underneath the kitchen sink. No one knows for sure, but what this means is that there's the possibility this photo was taken years before 1938 — say as early as 1930 or even 1928. If this is the case, then this man who would become my grandfather became father to my mother at an older age than imagined previously, which would mean that he didn't die all that young after all.

Whatever the case, what is known for certain is that the man in the photo, Miguel Cecilio, left behind a family in Spain (a wife and son) and some time later married a woman in the Philippines, the young woman named Lourdes who became my grandmother, who was a mere teenager at the time. He and she had two daughters together.

Only one photo remains of Grandpapa Miguel Cecilio, an up-close profile of his face with a moustache and brown eyes. He appears young in the photo, and by any standard, a handsome man.

1944 (or 43)

Grandmama told her two daughters — Josephine, the woman who became my mother and Patricia, the woman who became my aunt — that their father had been killed by a wild boar while hunting, that he bled to death after being gored by the boar. Apparently, this happened when my mother was 3 years old.

Adult male wild boars develop tusks that serve as tools and weapons. Adult female boars also have sharp canines but not protruding like the male.

Wild boars forage in the early morning hours or late afternoon. The male lowers its head, charges, and then slashes upward with his tusks. The female — whose tusks are not visible — charges with her head up, mouth wide, and bites. Such attacks are not often fatal to humans, but may result in severe trauma, dismemberment, or blood loss.

Miguel Cecilio did not lose a limb. A female boar — in an effort to protect her young — might have charged him. He did not stop to observe whether the boar attacked from a solitary position or from a sounder.

It isn't vital to know whether the boar that gored Miguel Cecilio was male or female. Either way, an attack could lead to blood loss, which could lead to one bleeding to death. The story goes that Miguel Cecilio bled to death from a fatal wound, whether a bite or a slash. Such attacks are not usually fatal to humans.


By the time Mama reached midlife, she had had six children. I, the youngest of four girls, one day inquired about Grandfather Miguel Cecilio. Call him Grandpapa Miguel Cecilio she said, even though you never met him. I told my classmates the story you told me, I said to Mama. My friends giggled and asked me to tell the story again and again. Had Grandpapa really been killed by a wild boar? At last, Mama told me, the story goes that he really died of a fatal illness, most likely cancer, one of the real leading causes of death. I was disappointed. I preferred the heroic tale over and above this ordinary one. But if it's just a story, I asked, then how do you know it's true? She said she didn't know for certain, and that this was a story in circulation, among relatives and family members that made its way from the Philippines.

Grandpapa only knew his daughter — the woman who became my mother — until the age of three. He never knew that she would die of a rare cancer at the age of 58.

Only five percent of women who get uterine cancer get this most deadly kind. This is what the doctor told us. Because of this stark statistic, I remember the doctor's name. There's no way of explaining it, Dr. Schumann said. It's a proven medical fact. He told us the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, as we hovered over his desk, Mama absent, sleeping from the operation that emptied her of her uterus and ovaries. She did not speak of it, at least not to me, not openly. Not until she knew she was really dying. Why me, she said. And I created a story to explain it, inside my head.

Mama's uterus had been overworked, giving birth to six of us children. She and Papa never used birth control. It wasn't something they talked about — at least not openly. She drank cases and cases of soda, and now weighed over 200 pounds. She was the daughter of Miguel Cecilio, who died — not justifiably, while recklessly hunting a dangerous creature with horns — but from a reckless, indiscriminate disease. At least that's what the story says.


Mama must have placed his photo so prominently on the end table near the entrance to the kitchen, between two fancy candelabras, for a reason. This way, she could look at it inconspicuously and admire it as she wandered through the house each day.

This habit of photo worship most likely began when Mama was very young.

1950 (A Story based on Mama's Stories)

Grandmama Lourdes built a shrine. She kept the shrine for years after Grandpapa's death, dusting and polishing the crosses and frames each week, one at a time. At the time there were plenty of other photos of him. None of them were in color. Some were sepia, others black and white. Mama happened to grab the photo that would become the only surviving one, rescuing it from the fire that burned the entire shrine and all the other photos when she was nine (or ten). The fire was put out in time to save the home and their lives.

All of this occurred a short time before Grandmama sent Mama and Auntie Pat away to a Catholic orphanage.

There, the nuns were not kind. That's what Mama told me. She said one of the nuns had a crush on a well-developed teenage girl, and that the nun had even touched her. The nun in charge of Mama and Auntie Pat stole some of the valuables that Grandmama had sent along with them in a box — gold and silver necklaces, money, and beautiful stationary for writing letters home. That is why Grandmama never received any letters from her daughters while they grew into young ladies. The nun left the photo of the young girls' father, Miguel Cecilio, alone because it did not appear valuable — neither the photo nor the plastic frame in which it was held.

Josephine slept with the photo under her pillow. She often snuck it out at night after the nuns made their rounds and, under the sheet with a small flashlight, she admired the smooth skin and beckoning eyes. She tried to match any memories of her father with the man in the photo, but her attempts failed. She tried to picture the shrine photos before they burned, but the flames always got in the way. In time, the only memory she had was the figure in this one photo.

Mama and Auntie Pat's beds sat side by side, and often, after the nuns made their ritual rounds, the sisters would scoot their beds together into one. Auntie Pat asked for her turn to sleep with the photo under her pillow, not because it was of any real importance to her. As the younger of the two, she wanted only to emulate the older. In fact, being the younger, she felt no kinship with the handsome man in the photo who happened to be her father. But in order to be the good big sister that she knew she should be, Mama acquiesced and hesitantly handed the valued photo to her sister every other night.


At last, in the bloom of their youth, Grandmama removed Mama and Auntie Pat from the orphanage and brought them back home. Josephine, now a teen, lacked the same fervor she had had for the photo of her father and gave it back to her mother, who set it inside a drawer (she couldn't keep it on display as she was now married to another man). The photo survived the passing years of forgetfulness, and somehow ended up once again in Mama's possession.


One day, on her way out the door, Mama forgot to look at the photo. At mid-day, she tried to see her father as a living, moving being in color, holding her three-year-old self on his knee. She failed. Rather, she saw a large rifle mounted on the wall. When she blinked, the rifle was gone. In its place was an overcoat, which, when she approached it in her daydream, smelled like medicine and Lysol.


There are one or two photos of Mama lying dead in her casket. To this day, I refuse to look at those photos. She's wearing a colorful dress. I only know because I chose the dress in which she was laid to rest.

I look at this one surviving photo of Grandpapa Miguel Cecilio. Bushy eyebrows. Full lips. Wavy hair cropped close to the head. Mama's brown eyes.

I see absence. I tell a story. I look again.

Tina V. Cabrera earned her MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University in 2009. Excerpts from her novel, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as Quickly, Crack the Spine, Big Bridge Magazine, Vagabondage Press, San Diego Poetry Annual, Fiction International and Outrider Press. She is in her second year as a PhD student in English and Creative Writing at UNT (University of North Texas) with a focus on Creative Non-Fiction. You can visit her writer's blog at cannyuncanny.wordpress.com.

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