Memento Mori

KENNY He didn’t know it was possible to just go home, and that there would be people there, and it would be okay.
— Homecoming

In the absence of their parents, Edith and Kenny close ranks to try to protect each other. Dad’s completely checked out, and toward the end of the play, the siblings realize that he may, in his own way, be mourning his wife by distancing his children. The home is a strong symbol of family in the play, and in the last scene, we see Kenny, Edith, and Benji go in to a family dinner without Dad. Unlike their father, the young people manage their grief and broken family by forming a new community and redefining their home and family on their own terms.

Even though EDITH shows the kids dealing positively with their loss, Dad’s grief-stricken situation is one not uncommon among Asian-Americans, especially those who have emigrated to America. C1 board member Elisa gave us a heads up on poet Julie Feng’s thought piece on how Asian-American communities are affected by mental health illnesses such as depression and the attendant stigmas attached to admitting to suffering. Julie links to studies that highlight connections between mental health disorders and factors like immigration, acculturation, assimiliation, and inter-generational trauma.

One interesting connection between these factors and the play is the way Rey plays with the characters’ isolation — Edith and Kenny, though geographically isolated, retain a strong connection to Mother and to their house, land, and Benji; Dad’s isolation keeps growing as he runs from his mistakes and is self-imposed. Feng aligns with Kenny and Edith, advocating connection and communication as ways to combat the stigmatization of mental illness and grief. She says,”Parents, guardians, spouses, siblings, friends, teachers, doctors, and counselors need to be vigilant. They need to believe the people in their lives. This is a problem than can be fixed – as long as we actively decide to do better.” Throughout EDITH, we see the kids strive against all odds to stay together and stay bonded — from Kenny and Benji surreptitiously passing notes in class to Edith breaking out of school to reunite with her brother.

Comparing Edith and Kenny’s continuing connection to their Mother to their fractious relationship with Dad makes this quote by Dr. Lourdes V. Lapuz, a psychiatrist from the University of the Philippines, stand out. Writing about the importance of mothers in Filipino culture, Dr. Lapuz said:

A person grows up in the Filipino culture with one paramount assumption: that he belongs to someone. When he presents his self to others, it is with his family that he is identified. He belongs to the family as a whole as well as to it’s members. Between the parents, there is a further choice as to whom one belongs. Almost always, it is the mother. The loyalty, allegiance and the sense of obligation are stronger with her than with father. One must never cause her hurt or displeasure. The greater attachment to the mother is, of course, inevitable not only because of biological circumstances, but also because of the prolonged intense emotional nurturing of received from her. Here is where to belong gains the meaning of to be loved, cared for, and protected.

Though Dad ends the play unreconciled with his children, Kenny and Edith seem to understand more about themselves and what brought them to this point as the play ends. Kenny leaves open the possibility that Dad will join the family again: “He’ll come in, eventually.”

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For Mother, on Mother’s Day

EDITH Fergie. I wish mom was here. Now you sound like Kenny. I know she’s here, like that. But I wish she was here here. Like, not dead. So she could protect us, instead of me.

— For Mother

Today in rehearsal, we continued working on Act I, particularly the climactic moment where Edith shoots, thinking she’s aiming at Benji’s mother. Though it was ironic to think about Edith possibly shooting mothers as we rehearsed on Mother’s Day, the moment brought up thoughts about what Edith’s life will be like without her mother and how the characters in the play deal with Mother’s death, which lends the play a deep, but often unacknowledged, undercurrent of grief.

“Everyone will have a mom and a dad. So I’ll have a you and a Benji.” (Photo by Paul Fox.)

The events of EDITH are contemporaneous with essayist Hope Edelman’s seminal study of grief in young women — her book Motherless Daughters was published in 1994. Like Edith, Edelman lost her mother to cancer when she was a young girl. The idea for the book grew out of her frustration with the lack of resources for young women dealing with an irrevocable loss. The thesis of the book stated that “losing one’s mother early shapes a woman’s emotional terrain for life.” Edelman wrote that motherless daughters like Edith have “a keen sense of isolation, a sharp awareness of our own mortality, …[and] the strong desire to give our children the kind of mothering we lost or never had. We look elsewhere for nurturing, but don’t know how to receive it. We tend to be hyper-independent, always braced for rejection and unable to ask for help.” Much of these descriptions apply to Edith, whose isolation is increased by her remote surroundings and whose hyper-independence is fed by her perceived need to prove to Kenny that he needs her so he will not abandon her like their father did following Mother’s death.

Book

Each year on Mother’s Day, Edelman publishes an open letter to other motherless daughters. This section especially stood out as evocative of not only Edith’s relationship to her late mother, but as a description of her journey toward becoming a young woman and navigating that path without female role models:

Those of you whose mothers have recently died, who are still immersed in the necessary and normal stage of acute grief – for you, I know, it’s hard to believe that the pain you’re feeling will lessen over time. It takes up so much of you right now, I remember. It may even help you still feel close to your mothers. I remember that part too, and it was hard to let that go. But please, let it go when you’re ready. This sorrow won’t always define you. Mother loss will always be part of your story, but it does not have to be your story. Your story is a gorgeous, unique tale that’s going to be full of highs and lows and pain and happiness, all the things it means to be human. You just got a heavy dose of the hard part too young.

You may feel now that your life will never be the same again. I won’t try to tell you otherwise. You’re right. A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it. You recognize it as part of what has made you, you, and then you’re ready to move forward with that part integrated into your beautiful, complicated whole. This is the highest form of acceptance, I think.

Edelman’s complete open letter can be read here.

Traversing space by halves: Isolation and Filipino immigration

One of the threads running through our conversations around EDITH has been how the time period — the pre-Internet and cell phone ’90s — and Midwest setting of the play serve to isolate the characters. Left to fend for themselves on the abandoned farm, Edith and Kenny inhabit an even more insular world. Benji, who begins the play solidly in the care of a loving, over-protective mother, is fascinated by what he sees as the Tolentino siblings’ freedom. He marvels that Kenny can cook and frequently asks after the whereabouts of Kenny and Edith’s Dad, who we learn is a doctor.

This brings up the question of how did Kenny and Edith end up in a farm in the middle of nowhere? Little information is given about Dad and Mom, who remains present in the stories Kenny tells and meals he cooks for Edith. “[Mom] felt like he was distant … if you want proof that space cannot be traversed, he’s it….” is all Kenny has to say about Dad when he finally opens up to Benji about his own under-protected home life. Though Filipino families are generally tight-knit and stay connected across several generations, Edith and Kenny seem to have no extended family. An answer to their familial and geographical isolation may lie in the immigration patterns of Filipinos to America.

The migration is generally divided into four waves, starting when the Philippines were still under Spanish rule in the 1830s. In 1898, the United States and Spain engaged in conflict, which the U.S. won. As part of the settlement treaty, Spain sold the Philippines to America. The U.S. did not grant independence to the Philippines and instead occupied the country as a U.S. colony. Governor-general William Howard Taft (who became president in 1909) believed that educational cross-pollination was important in establishing a good relationship with Filipinos who resisted American rule. Thus, the U.S. sent teachers to the Philippines and subsidized the American education of almost 15,000 Filipino students, or pensionados, between 1903 and 1938. Because the Philippine islands were now a U.S. colony, Filipinos were allowed to travel to and settle in the States as American nationals. This second wave of immigration caused the Filipino population in America to skyrocket, and Filipinos became the third largest group of Asian immigrants in America. Many young Filipino men moved to Hawaii and California, seeking work as laborers and migrant workers on sugar and produce farms.

The status of Filipinos changed again in 1934, when the Philippines became a commonwealth under the Tydings-McDuffie Act. The Act paved the way for Philippine independence but reversed the status of prospective emigres, who were no longer considered American nationals. By law, only 50 Filipinos per year were allowed to move to the U.S.

World War II halted Filipino immigration to America almost altogether when Japan invaded and occupied the Philippines. Following WWII, however, the U.S. finally recognized the independence of the Philippines, and 100 Filipinos per year were granted leave to emigrate. Significantly, this count did not include Filipina spouses of U.S. servicemen, who were allowed to join their husbands without restriction. The post-WWII decade saw another important Educational Exchange Act pass in 1948. This act allowed foreign nurses to come to America for further professional training and study; better pay encouraged many of the Filipino nurses who took advantage of the law to stay in America, where a nursing shortage provided plenty of opportunities for work as medical professionals.

The fourth wave of Filipino immigration began in 1965, when the U.S. further relaxed immigration restrictions, giving preference to people re-uniting with family members already in the U.S. and people trained in high-skill jobs. Thousands of Filipinos already trained as doctors and nurses entered the U.S. post-1965 to take advantage of the continuing U.S. need for doctors and nurses. Because of the shortage, Filipino medical professionals were often recruited to work in rural areas of America that were most in need of doctors. Filipino immigration continued to climb after 1965, reaching its peak through the ’80s and ’90s. Today, Filipinos and Filipino-Americans still represent a high percentage of medical professionals; nearly 20% of the Filipina-American population in the U.S. works in the medical field, most often as nurses and nurse practitioners. Given this timeline, it is perhaps likely that Kenny and Edith’s parents were children of such highly-skilled immigrants, or even themselves part of the fourth wave of Filipinos to immigrate to America.

The possibility that Dad and Mom could have immigrated to America without the aid or support of family and friends adds a heartbreaking layer to Edith and Kenny’s story. The knowledge that Dad is a doctor who spends his time away from his own children caring for others colors the way the audience sees him all through the play — until the revelation in the final scene that Dad may be more than just the “interruption” that Kenny accuses him of being.

Further reading on the history of U.S.-Philippine relations and Filipino immigration can be found here. In 2013, AsianWeek ran a great in-depth look at Filipina nurses in America.