There are people who come into your life and then when the season is over they drift out. You may have fond memories of the time you spent together, but there was no lasting bond. Then there are those who slip quietly into your life and no matter how brief a connection, they are indelibly written on your heart. For me Merlyn is one of those people.
The year was 1982, my husband and I were stationed at Clark Air Base, in the Philippines. We had recently moved on base in preparation for our first born child's arrival, after taking a Maternity Discharge from the Air Force to become a full time mom. It was common for Americans to hire local domestic help, since it was very affordable and housework was much more "involved" without many of the modern conveniences Americans are accustomed to. When living off base, we had hired a housekeeper to clean and to stay at the house while we were at work, to make it less attractive for theft. This arrangement worked well when both my husband and I were working all day, but when I separated from the military and was home all day, I found it a little invasive to have someone in the house with me all the time. Since moving on base eliminated our security concerns, we found our housekeeper other employment and had our new place to ourselves. But the birth of our first child was traumatic and I was left very weak, so when the demands of a new baby and housekeeping started putting stress on my health, we started looking for someone to help out. A neighbor had a housekeeper named Cely, who I knew to be hard working and responsible, so I asked her if she knew anyone who she thought would do a good job. She smiled shyly and said, "yes Mam", and went back to her work. "Yes Mam" could mean yes or no, since often embarrassment about not understanding what was asked led to that kind of polite, but not very helpful answer. So I really didn't know whether I had gotten my question across or not.
Early the next morning, I found Cely standing at my back door with another young woman. Cely introduced the young woman as her sister Merlyn and said she would, "do good cleaning for me". She turned and left, leaving Merlyn with me on the back porch. Feeling a little awkward since I hadn't really agreed to hire her, I invited her inside and offered her something to eat. She looked uncomfortable and asked, "I clean?", so I showed her where everything was and she went to work. When my husband returned home at the end of the workday, the house was spotless, the was laundry done, (by hand no less), she had picked flowers and arranged them on the table to compliment the delicious banana dessert she had made for a snack for "Sir" when he came home. She was hired.
I still struggled with having another person in the house all the time since the housekeeper lived with you during the week and went home on weekends. But Merlyn was quiet and unassuming so I eventually adjusted. There were some rules... it was my kitchen... I did the cooking unless otherwise discussed and I took care of the baby, period. I had seen other Americans relegate the care of their children to the maid to the extent that they discovered sometime after they returned home to the States, that their youngest child didn't speak English... no kidding. So we went on, her keeping house and me keeping the baby. I of course allowed her to hold him and play with him but I never left him in her care. Then one day when he was 6 months old, I was trying to trim the baby's nails. He was having fits over the process, so Merlyn asked if she might try. I said Ok and went downstairs to answer the door. When I returned, I found my son on the floor sound asleep. His bottom in the air and his arms stretched out in front of him . Merlyn had set up a little manicure station in front of him on the floor, towels, bowl of water, cotton swabs and made a game of it. He had been distracted from his tantrum and lulled to sleep, then she quickly and gently clipped his nails... no tears no fuss. From that day forward I knew that he trusted her and felt safe with her, so I started letting her help me with him.
We worked in the house together, sometime I would teach her to cook American favorites, or she would teach me to cook my Philipino favorites. We took the baby on walks, I would talk about first aid for small children, what to do if this happens, what not to do if that happens, how to aid if the baby was choking, over and over until I knew she was sick of it, but in time she was a walking encyclopedia of child care info. She was bright as a new copper penny and learned quickly. She was kind and patient and did exactly what I told her where the baby was concerned. So eventually, I felt safe to leave her with the baby. The one thing I had to make sure of was that she was aware and cautious of strangers near the baby. Kidnapping and selling of American babies wasn't uncommon, sometimes even on base. So one day I asked her, what would she do if someone tried to take the baby. She looked at me with flashing eyes and stated "I would die before I would let anything happen to our baby!"
Merlyn started out as household help, but before long she was a member of the family. She was like my little sister. We really weren't that far apart in age, she was 18, I was in my twenties. We never once had a cross word, as a matter of fact most of our time was spent smiling and laughing. We loved her and she loved us back.
|Merlyn and I giving the baby a bath. circa 1982|
|A portrait of our "family" in Merlyn's Granparent's village. Merlyn and Nathan are in the front, my husband is at the back right and I of course, am behind the camera. Circa 1982|
That is when we started writing letters. She had a work contract with a Chinese family, who treated her like a slave. They were cruel to her and she was very unhappy. Many of her letters would begin like this, "Dear Sir, Mam and Nathan, I hope you are well. I miss you.Please don't forget me, especially Nathan " In the upper right hand corner was a notation "11pm in my bed". She would write about her day, her missing us and wanting to be there to see Nathan grow up. She didn't complain, but I knew that she was miserable. She finished her contract and found a different situation in Brunei, with another family. Her sister joined her and life was better.
Our letters went on from 1983 to late 1989. During part of that time she was back in the Philippines where we tried for almost a year to get her paperwork approved for her to come to live with us in the States while she attended school. We thought that we could help her to have a better life, one where she wouldn't have to work for foreigners as a servant. But the US government denied our request to sponsor her, saying that since she was from a poor family, she must be trying to immigrate and they were denying her immigration. We were all very disappointed. Devastated really... She was very grateful for the efforts but didn't want us to keep trying. She said she had heard about good work to be had in Kuwait. She said that she had some friends that worked there and that she was going to have them find her a job. I advised against it, saying that I feared for her safety. We offered to pay her way through school in the Philippines, but as before she knew she would be pressed into marriage if she stayed there, so she began the process for a job in Kuwait. She was gone to Kuwait before our next letter arrived. We got a return letter from her sister Cely, in the summer of 1990, saying that Merlyn had gone to Kuwait and would write us when she was settled. We never heard from her again. We tried to contact her family, but were only able to find out that the family no longer lived where we were sending our letters.
*In August of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Many people died in the early days of the attacks, in that number were domestic workers in the homes of the affluent Kuwaiti's. Shortly after the invasion, stories started coming out about the rape and murder of Philipino maids by Iraqi soldiers. Many of those who survived the attacks fled to refugee camps. Here there were people from all over the world, who were living in Kuwait during the attack, and couldn't get out. Of those in the camps many died of sickness or injury, others survived and somehow made it home, still others had no way to get home and remained in Kuwait to continue working in hopes of finding a way home. The Philippine Embassy in 1991 and 1992 was filled with Philipino maids who had fled from their employers due to harsh treatment, physical and mental abuse and rape. The laws of the land do not protect servants employed by their citizens, so little was done to aid them. The Philippine Embassy was not equipped to house and feed these refugees and could only give them a little food and a place to stay. If they were lucky, the women might be deported and get sent back to the Philippines, otherwise they would eventually have to figure out how to save themselves.*
When I found the stack of letters in my dresser, and opened the thin and now fragile airmail envelopes, waves of memories came flooding back in. Thoughts of our happy little family, of being young and on an adventure. How we had bonded with this sweet young woman, and knit her forever to our hearts. She opened a window onto another world for us. My heart aches for her struggles in the years after we left, for the rough, unfair treatment she received at the hands of her employers. When I think about her going to Kuwait, and they fact that we never heard from her again, I feel sick to think of what may have become of her....
Whatever her fate, her letters have left me a reminder of her spirit, her kindness and her courage. And if by some miracle she survived, I hope she is safe and snug, living the happy fulfilling life that she worked and sacrificed to obtain.