Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Me at five months being held by my grand aunt Rita, with my brother Carl looking on.  We lived in a wooden home with tin roofing in the 60s.  You can see her sewing machine at the bottom left corner.

She was my grandmother's younger sister, Rita Perez Torres, born in 1901.

She never married and was the true mother of the household of six children, all born to a single mother, my great grandmother, Maria Perez Torres, born in 1874.

It was she who cooked and sewed and changed diapers while my grandmother, the oldest of the six, worked from the time she was 16 years old teaching in the public schools.

Everyone called her Nina (godmother) because she was the godmother of many children.

Nina never learned to speak much English.  When she did speak it, she sometimes mispronounced the words, including my own name!

I was already 9 years old when she died, so I have clear memories of her.

There were some years she worked, in the kitchen of the public elementary school, for example.  But that meant she could be back at the house by 2pm or so.  As soon as everyone was up in the morning, she made breakfast : fried rice, bacon, eggs, toast, coffee.  She cooked the evening meal.  She kept house.  The only brother, Pedro, went to his ranch.  The two others in the home, sisters, went to work.  Two other sisters had already married and had their own homes.

Nina was always cooking.  One thing I will never forget is flamengko, a mixture of raw eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and a little liquor (rum, whiskey, what have you).  It was supposed to invigorate you and give sustånsia (sustinence, strength) to the weak.  I adored the smell of it!


Nina ran the house like a convent.  For years she would not allow TV into the home, and this was in the 1950s and 60s when we had only one TV channel (KUAM) and only from the late afternoon till midnight.  But she saw sin lurking in every corner.

She once pointed to the TV and looked at me and said, "Isao."  "Sin."  This was in 1970.  All I remember were shows like Gunsmoke.  Maybe it was Miss Kitty that turned her off.

She relented and allowed TV into the home when her sisters would take her to the neighbors for what was supposed to be a visit, but was timed so that Peyton Place was just coming on the TV.  Nina got hooked on Peyton Place and that's when she allowed TV into her own home.

I was only 5 years old and she asked me one morning what I wanted for breakfast.  I asked for bacon and she said I couldn't because it was a Friday in Lent.  I was only five!

Every night at 8 o'clock the TV was turned off and we all knelt in front of the living room altar (every room had an altar, or at least a religious picture or statue), and prayed the rosary.  If there was a novena to be said, she lead it.  In Chamorro.  There was no English at all in our prayer life.  The Angelus was also said in Spanish.  They sang nothing but Chamorro hymns.

The Christmas novena was my favorite, because of the belen (nativity scene) with fresh lumut (moss) from the jungle; the neighborhood kids came in and joined us, and hard-rock candy bought ten years earlier was passed out to us.


Nina was the heart of the family.  She grew attached to one nephew whom she helped raise and when he had to return to his parents, she practically died.  When another nephew married outside the Church, it took her years to recover and I wonder if she ever really did.

When another nephew was seriously injured in an accident, I saw her looking at pictures of the crash, which showed him bleeding, and I saw her cry and shed tears.  But this was a few years after the accident, and he was fully recovered, but she still was crying.

An older distant relative said that if she saw you walking past the house, she'd call you in to get something she had cooked or baked (she was always doing one or the other or both).  If you turned her down, she would cry right in front of you.

Nina kept a list of everyone's birthdays, wedding anniversaries, date of death - everyone's.  Distant relatives, godchildren, friends.

In 1971 she was diagnosed with cancer, in her neck.  I saw the tumor.

Her sisters decided to send her to Lourdes, with her youngest sister who had travel experience, was young and strong and spoke excellent English.

But the cancer did not go away.  Towards the end, she was in much suffering.  She would say in Chamorro, "Asaina!  Na' la' atdet este i piniti-ho, sa' ti chumilong yan i masa'pet-mo gi kilu'us!"

"Lord!  Make my pain worse, because it doesn't equal your suffering on the cross!"

Nina and her youngest sister Asunción (Chong), both dressed in brown as they were Secular Franciscans (Tetsiåria).

On January 28, 1972, Nina died.  I remember the drive from Saint Jude Church to the cemetery in Togcha.  The line of cars went from the descent down to Pago Bay up to the hill going up to Yoña.  Those were the days when everybody went to funerals and stayed for the whole thing, and didn't just pop in to pay respects then leave.

A rare photo - all five sisters together in one photo.

Nina is the first one on the left side sitting on the bed, her cancer advanced, months before her death.  This was in the new, concrete house built in 1971, which still stands.  To the right is my grandmother Maria, the oldest; next to her is Asunción (Chong), the youngest.  Standing on the right are the two sisters, besides my grandmother, who married.  First is Josefa (Epa) who married Antonio Cruz Artero, and then Ana, who married Judge Vicente Camacho Reyes.

The lady standing on the left was married to a Rodriguez, our distant relatives.  My grandmother's grandfather was Pedro Rodriguez Torres.

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