Tabada: Shorthand

Mayette Q. Tabada

ESCAPISM would have been welcome but my soon-to-be-81 mother decided to butt heads directly with an APC (armored personnel carrier) when I recently called her.

“Mga tangke de giyera (war tanks)” patrol the streets of Cebu City, reported my mother.

With relish, she added: So many of us here are “gahi’ gulo (hard-headed)”.

Her remark did not make me blink. My mother was born with steel plating bolting down that part of the brain that flips on the obedience switch.

She has mellowed, though, donning a mask and face shield when she leaves thrice a week for hemodialysis at a hospital as Cebu City weathers the changes of acronyms in the season of quarantine.

The mask forestalls her signature red lipstick but it sure sharpens those eagle eyes. When I pretended to nap after lunch, my mother, without putting down the novel she was reading, would say in the somnolent hour of siesta, “dili mag-gahi’g ulo (do not be hard-headed).”

Guilt or self-preservation squeezed my eyes tighter, slowed my breath, and, without counting sheep, dropped me off to a nap. “Do not be gahi’g ulo” was fair warning to us youngsters as few things were more calamitous than grown-up meddling.

In our family’s linguistic shorthand, “da, gahi’g ulo” represented just dues for someone with a greater appetite for punishment than reward. When I fell inside a cement trough, sneaking to feed turtles raised for soup by my great grandparents, my yaya fished me out with an incantation of “da, gahi’g ulo” even though I fell in headfirst but, thanks to steel-plated genes inherited from my mother, only had to be washed free of mushed overripe bananas and turtle gunk.

Under special circumstances, the “hardheadedness” representing childhood’s cardinal sin acquired an opacity whenever the elders decided to sidestep messy explanations. Overhearing aunts whispering in shock over a teen pregnancy, I asked what caused the “disgrasya (accident)” and got immediately two answers: “she did not pray the rosary” and “gahi’g ulo.”

Sugbuanon language has nuances hiding meanings like the skirts of old women that inflate like balloons shielding their owners from a stranger’s immodest glimpse of flesh. Since I have sat inside an idling bus watching the same old women with the same voluminous skirts squat by the roadside to pee without the inconvenience of pulling down underwear, I imagine “gahi’g ulo,” as with the rest of the mother tongue, has more meanings than can be encompassed by a politician’s Pontius Pilate act of washing hands.

As my mother, the original maid of steel, pronounced: I hope they have enough tanks in reserve. “Gahia’g ulo ra ba gyud nato.” Take that extra “a” as fair warning.