Marie.

Originally published in rationalhero.com

I began to write on my views of the Catholic Church and my own experiences with religion, when it hit me that I had in my possession a story much more powerful. That of a lady named Marie, a spunky woman I am proud to call my maternal grandmother. Marie was an undeniable charmer, a looker with great legs, almond eyes, and for many years, an 18-inch-waist. She was well known for her high cheekbones, smoky voice and her ability to say and act what she felt, whether you liked it or not. A trait, many say, she inherited from her equally strong-willed father.

Being an only child, Marie was the sparkle of her dad’s world and as much as he tried to instill his views on her, even from a young age his bright progeny spoke her own mind and knew exactly what she stood for. Her disappointment in the Catholic Church stemmed from an incident done to her beloved father while she was just a child. Growing up in Baguio in the 1950’s, her parents were living in a mining camp while she was an “interna” at various Catholic schools.

Due to her frail health and upon the family doctor’s recommendation, my great-grandfather enrolled her in the Episcopalian school Brent, because it had better food and medical care. My great-grandfather was a practicing Catholic, so his decision to put his only child in the American missionary run school was one of necessity rather than desire. Sadly, the Belgian Bishop of Baguio didn’t feel the same way and announced in front of the whole congregation during a Sunday mass at the Baguio Cathedral that my proud and religious Lolo and his wife were to be denied the Sacraments for placing their child in an institution that would soil her mind with false doctrines. For many years, my great grandfather, hurt and proud, shunned the Catholic faith. He only began going to Mass again, albeit grudgingly, when he had to “set an example” for his grandchildren.

Some time before Marie got married, the same bishop attempted to warmly hug her in front of her extremely religious soon-to-be mother in law and fiancé. Remembering the pain this robed man caused her father, she pushed him and his rosary far away from her chest, gave him an icy look, and to the shock of her soon-to-be in-laws, walked the other way.

One thing Marie firmly believed throughout her life was the right for women to lead their lives anyway they pleased. A phrase I often heard her say to the girls in our family while growing up was, “Don’t ever be a doormat.” She believed women had just as much entitlement as men to feel empowered, to make decisions that would lead them to reach their own dreams and live their personal passions. Being a prodigious reader, I clearly remember her insisting when I was 13 that I read the Jean M. Auel classic, The Clan of the Cave Bear, because she felt the book’s heroine, Ayla, was a far better example of a woman who we could proudly call the mother of the human race. Unlike, in her own words, “that ninny Eve.”

Throughout most of her life, Marie was a strong advocate of contraception as a choice and viewed it as a way for women to lead lives away from the trapdoor of deprivation in a third world country. While doing charity work with the women of Davao for over almost 20 years, she and her mother were actively involved in a foundation that offered birth control pills, ligations, or vasectomies to any family with three or more children. The local church tried its hardest to fight her private cause. They pleaded, argued, and gave her their cold shoulder. But there was nothing they could say or do that would make her change her mind. She felt that all women deserved this alternative and there was no way in hell the church was going to rob them of it.Through the years, countless women thanked my grandmother for her help. Because of her refusal to bend to the church’s rules, their families were happy, their children well fed and educated, and their lives thriving and nourished.

I will never forget a conversation I had with her at the age of 17 over an afternoon merienda. I had come straight from school to see her while she was visiting from Cebu. As the humid Makati air danced around us, we caught up with each other’s recent lives. “So your mom tells me you have a boyfriend now,” she said rather matter-of-factly. “Yes, I do.” I replied while piercing my cubed pieces of sweet Cebu mango with a fork. She nodded, took a puff from her slim cigarette, exhaled, and said in the same no-nonsense voice, “Are you on the pill?” This was in a nutshell my grandmother, practical and no bullshit. Growing up, I always knew the women of my family were far from the naïve matrons of bygone years who thought that their little fragile flowers would remain virgins till their wedding day. My cousins and I were taught early on to be healthy, responsible, and with partners who valued and loved us. And because of this upbringing, we have never felt guilt or shame from love. A message I have every intention of passing on to my own children.

Marie left us on April of 2008. Though her spirit wanted to keep fighting, a destructive cancer finally weakened her body till we all accepted it was time to say goodbye. I know beyond a doubt that if she were still with us she would be fully behind the passing of the RH Bill. She may not have been a practicing Catholic, but she certainly had her own version of faith, an ideology stronger than that of a religious institution designed by men. Belief in a God who doesn’t want to see women trapped in a life of hardship and poverty, a life where hearts are chronically plagued with pain and worry as to how to provide for their families.

The Philippine Catholic Church keeps claiming that the RH Bill is a destructive force in the celebration of life. To this I ask, how? Through the Bill, women will be able to follow their dreams, couples can raise families when they can afford to have them, and children will have a better chance to grow up with food on their tables and books to read from school. Isn’t living a quality life the best way to celebrate it? A life where there is enough for everyone, thus becoming a bigger number than the sum of its parts so that it churns love like butter till it’s uncontainable and spread onto the community surrounding it.

That is one of the bigger lessons Marie taught me and one that I wanted to share with all you. That a life worth living is one where you can design your path, believe and speak what you know in your heart to be true, not what a religious sect says to be fact, and live your days on earth with quality and fulfillment. If we can all learn a little from her on this, then I think she would be pleased.

Marie in her teens

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