Mayela the Brave

Born to privilege in the Philippines then uprooted to a new life as a post-war Army wife in Queens, a near-centenarian New Yorker looks back on nine-plus decades and nine thousand miles.

Mayela the Brave

When my grandmother Mayela was five years old, rumors of a wandering thief passed through Plaridel, the town outside Manila where she grew up. Taking it upon herself to protect the local general store that belonged to her mother, Mayela spent a few nights at the shop, waiting for the burglar. In the Philippines in 1920, “general” was a literal term. My grandmother hid in a coffin. When the thief broke into the store on the second night of Mayela’s vigil, she popped out of her hiding spot, screaming. He ran off and plagued the town no longer.

While the story seems implausible, my grandmother swears it’s true. Mayela Feldstein, who just turned ninety-eight, forgets what she’s had for dinner (not that the nursing home cuisine is worth expending memory on), but most of her recollections of the past are sharp. “I didn’t know fear,” she says. The coffin escapade “was just a game. My father encouraged me to be brave.” Her father, my great-grandfather Julio Reyes, is semi-mythical to me, and though we’ll never know now, I wonder if he happened to have stashed himself behind a closet door with a baseball bat during my grandmother’s nocturnal watch.

Mayela can’t actually recall what Julio did for a living besides act as Plaridel’s chief mover and shaker. “When it was time to vote for the mayor, whomever he backs up, the whole town goes with him,” she says. (My grandmother often recalls memories in the present tense.) “Everyone runs to my father for questions. He gives advice. I don’t know, he talks and the thing gets done. He had so much influence in the town. Not that he has more money, just a lot of influence.”

Julio came from a prominent local family and earlier in life had been the aide-de-camp for General Aguinaldo, the leader of the Philippine Resistance Army during the Spanish-American War. He was a landowner who made sure his children were well educated. Mayela speaks English, Spanish, Tagalog, and some French. She can’t remember when she learned to speak English, but knows she was fluent by the time she started kindergarten—school was taught in English. As a young woman, she went to Manila to train as a nurse, and was the first to graduate from a recently opened nursing school.

My great-great-grandmother Lola (center), with her children and grandchildren. (Archival photos courtesy Susannah Edelbaum
My great-great-grandmother Lola (center), with her children and grandchildren. (Archival photos courtesy Susannah Edelbaum)

Her sister Remedios, better known as Meding, became a Spanish professor. She was younger but always frailer than Mayela, and passed away in her late 70s after living out her life in the Philippines. There are only a few existing photos left of Anthony, the baby of the family and Maria’s favorite child, according to Mayela. He had floppy hair and a movie-star jawline, and as a solider in World War II, was killed during the 1942 Bataan Death March, an eighty-mile transfer by the Japanese army of tens of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war to the Japanese-held base at Camp O’Donnell. After the war, an Allied court ruled that the march was a war crime and executed a number of Japanese generals who took part.

Mayela lost her brother, and almost everything else, to World War II, but the war brought her together with my grandfather, Sam Feldstein, a sergeant major in the U.S. Army. He was posted to the Philippines as part of the first cavalry division before the war started, in 1939. The country was still a possession of the U.S. and the Army functioned like a governing arm of the nation. Sam was in the Army’s police unit, in charge of traffic control. He met my pretty, immaculately put-together grandmother when he asked her for directions in a park. They were both about twenty-five. “It was like we had always known each other. I never loved any other, except for Grandpa,” she says. “He had a girlfriend when he left the States, whom he fell out of love with when he met me. We got engaged, and he was so crazy about the Philippines, he invited his ex-girlfriend to visit the country! I was going crazy wondering what my position would be, but it never happened.” Before the Japanese invasion, he came to family dinner to court her. Julio and Maria bought a six-pack of Coca-Cola to cater to their American guest, and never offered it again after Sam, who grew up in the Bronx, drank all of it in a sitting.

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Mayela and Sam’s early marriage was profoundly disrupted by the war, near starvation, and Sam’s capture by the Japanese. Before they married, my grandfather wrote loving, daily letters to my grandmother, a fact that she doesn’t currently admit to, claiming these days that he just sent messengers. My mother, however, has a stack of about eighty remaining letters, numbered in the order they arrived. They’re all from Sam to Mayela; hers to him didn’t survive and there apparently weren’t many to begin with. The envelopes aren’t postmarked because there wasn’t any mail; they were delivered whenever Sam found someone who was going to be passing through town. Sometimes he wrote more than once a day, and in the stash we still have, he complains bitterly about Mayela’s lack of correspondence. “When am I going to hear from you?” he writes, also repeatedly expressing his concern about getting her father’s approval to marry her. They wound up marrying without it, in a hurry, the day of the Japanese invasion. In a letter from December 18, 1941, Sam writes, “I can’t understand why I haven’t heard about this”—“this” being Julio’s consent. But they were wed three days later by an American priest, a man named Greer, who had been giving Sam his Catholic conversion instruction and who was later tortured and killed by the Japanese.

Sam was also captured, which Mayela discovered while ministering to Japanese wounded. Filipino medical staff were forced by the Japanese to tend to their own in the same camp where American soldiers were being held. She spotted her husband at some point and knew he was still alive, even if she couldn’t do anything to help him. The Filipino nurses and doctors who were made to care for the enemy did, however, find ways to sneak in very basic medicine, undetected, and slip it into places where the prisoners could pick it up, and Sam was able to smuggle a few notes to Mayela.

Sam escaped twice from the camp, and in 1944, after his second recapture, was sent to Japan on a slave labor ship. When the war ended and he was liberated, he weighed about 110 pounds at six feet tall. He was suffering from pellagra and beriberi, nutritional deficiencies that together cause wasting, nerve damage, skin lesions, and generally violent, intense pain. He’d also had most of his teeth knocked out. Nonetheless, Sam convalesced and returned to Plaridel, where he and Mayela started their family. They had three children in quick succession: my mother, Carol, in 1947, David, a year and a half later, and the baby, Bonnie. As a nurse and an American Army man, they were well off. Mayela remembers that she didn’t have “enough children to be cared for by all the people who want to take care of them.” The babies each had their own yaya, or wet nurse. One of the earliest photos of my mother is of her as a curly-haired toddler, being held up by her yaya, a smiling, toothless older lady who is totally bald.

Mayela, Sam and child
Mayela, Sam and child.

My mother’s early memories are of mangoes falling off trees and eating oysters until she was sick. A houseboy caught lizards for her under the porch of the family home. They had a deer and a pig living like pets in the family yard, though both were eventually sent to the butcher. Betsang, the pig, would come when beckoned by Mayela’s mother. Julio brought home the deer. “My father went hunting with his friends once in a big while. They shot this deer and wounded it and they didn’t know where to put it, and we had a big yard, so my father fenced in part of it. But you can’t keep them forever.”

Many Filipinos were still starving, though. When the family dog, Stinky, got hit by a car, impoverished villagers asked for his carcass. In what my mother calls his “Sgt. Bilko act,” Sam, as the head of the mess hall, used to arrange to have huge deliveries of leftover Army rations, which would otherwise have been chucked, made to Plaridel.

David was particularly fond of that pet deer, whose name Mayela can’t recall, and she wasn’t eaten until after the family left Plaridel for good. In 1952, my grandfather was called back to the U.S. He and my grandmother came over separately, and during her voyage Mayela had her three under-six children on her own for the first time in their lives.

The USNS Aultman, which Mayela took from Manila to the U.S.
The USNS Aultman, which Mayela took from Manila to the U.S.

My mother, who was five, remembers my grandmother keeping her and her siblings on leashes so that no one would fall overboard the USNS Aultman. From Manila, they stopped in Hawaii and then were stationed for six months in barracks in San Francisco, a transit posting for Sam until the Army decided where to place him permanently. Then they were shipped by train across the country, a trip during which no food was provided, and Mayela’s disillusionment with the life of an American Army wife began to set in. They arrived at Fort Totten, in Queens, where they were housed in regular barracks with no kitchen or any non-improvised way for Mayela to feed her kids. Mother and children subsisted on cans of Campbell’s soup from the commissary, which my grandmother bought because she recognized the brand. My mother remembers Mayela, without a stove, heating the cans by holding them under hot water running in the bathroom sink.

Worse than the lack of amenities was the prejudice Mayela faced for being Asian. Other Army families didn’t let their kids play with hers because of their race, and when she finally couldn’t stand it anymore, the family left the barracks for an apartment in Springfield Gardens, Queens. This was better, thanks to a next-door neighbor, Julie, who eventually became better known as Aunt Julie. She was friendly and curious about her new neighbors, because she had two brothers who’d fought in the Philippines during the war, who had written home nice things about its countrymen. She and Mayela became like sisters, and she helped watch Carol and David and Bonnie since my grandmother had started working as a nurse again. In part to stave off prejudice, but mostly because it was just his way, Sam had accompanied his wife to her interview at the hospital. “When I went to Parsons [Medical Center] for the first time, Grandpa was sort of interfering,” remembers Mayela. “I said, ‘Sam, will you please shut up, I’ll handle it.’ It was the first time I ever spoke to him a little harshly and his eyes popped open.” Anyway, she got the job.

In 1953, the U.S. government moved to pay reparations to World War II soldiers who’d been prisoners of war. As my mother remembers it, they were given all of a dollar for each day they’d been imprisoned, which meant that Sam, who was captured and recaptured for a total of several years, got a check for somewhere around $1,200. His plan for this money was to buy my adored grandmother a fur coat. Mayela—who, until she moved into a nursing home three years ago, still had pristinely wrapped, untouched, decades-old Christmas presents tucked away on shelves in a nightmare of a garage—was horrified. She didn’t want a coat; she wanted a house.

Sam’s reparations were converted into a down payment on a modest, one-story brick row house in Bayside, with an open shared yard in the back and a Catholic church for my grandmother to attend around the corner. Mayela lived in the house for fifty-five years and went to the same beauty parlor for the same dyed jet-black, cannonball updo and bright red pedicure every week of every one of those years, excepting occasional travel and visits back home.

Family photos decorate the walls of Mayela Feldstein's room at the nursing home
Family photos decorate the walls of Mayela Feldstein’s room at the nursing home.

Immigrating to the U.S., for Mayela, was nothing like the American dream. In the Philippines, she had been surrounded by family, with a nanny for each of the three children. In the States, they were decidedly working class. These days, she sparingly brings up details of those few years of upheaval. “Things are strange because they looked different,” she recalls. “In the Philippines, everywhere there’s grass. Bayside’s not like that—grass is so apportioned where it should be. The people get dressed differently. But they were very friendly to me.” She never brings up the profound difference between her youth in the Philippines and the beginning of her life here; there are stories about abundance in Plaridel and, sometimes, difficulties in New York, but she never seems to draw a contrast. Between her unshakable religious faith and her ability to keep up appearances, Mayela is very good at remembering the best of times.

Sometimes, though, she opens up, revealing small insights into certain difficulties: “It was the hardest part of my life. I had to take care of the three children and go to work. We went through that, thank God. Also Grandpa [Sam] had to come once in a while to take care of the kids.” The children acted out, at least until my grandmother, who couldn’t deal with it anymore, enrolled them all in a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. “Grandpa was away all day and now David and Bonnie think they can get away with anything. They make up things sometimes, and threaten to tell Sam. And Grandpa, thinking that he’s being fair, he punishes all of us.” She laughs while relating this. “He makes everyone go to bed early. As soon as he hears the start of an argument, he made everyone go to bed. But he was strict just to solve the problem.”

Sam remained a sergeant at Fort Totten until the beginning of the Vietnam War, when he retired from service. To say that he was volatile is to put it mildly. He adored my grandmother—that fur coat!—and cared deeply about his family, but his worry about them could border on paranoia. My mother has high school memories of potential dates showing in suits to receive Sam’s version of the third degree: “He had this fear of anything bad happening to his family. He wanted a family more than anything, but he was afraid to let us out of his sight.” In retrospect, it seems likely that he had an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mayela remembers his ways mildly, however: “He’s just always meddling, this, this, or this, everything was wrong.”

Nevertheless, after the move to 215th Place, Mayela and Sam settled in. It was the sort of place where you couldn’t help but do that—neighbors dropped by unannounced, the kids played together in the empty lot at the end of the block, and everyone fed everyone else. They recreated the full, social family life they had had in Plaridel. My grandmother became a mainstay at church, and was a mother, and later a grandmother, figure to many of her neighbors until she moved into the nursing home in New Hyde Park, where they still visit her. (While totally lucid, she’s not very mobile.)

The mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood was filled with kids, and there was always an extra place or two at the dinner table and some childhood friend to fill it. “They’re already there, might as well feed them,” Mayela recalls. They accumulated household pets and bought a car that my grandmother learned to drive. The family went strawberry picking at fields that don’t exist anymore in Wading River, farther east on Long Island. There was always fresh fish from Sam’s excursions to Oyster Bay (“As soon as he comes home from work, he has the fishing pole in his hand. He’d rather fish than eat”). My grandmother went back to Plaridel to visit, eventually inheriting the family home. But she sold it almost twenty years ago, declaring at the time that she intended to stay in her Bayside house to the end.

Mayela retired, reluctantly, from Parsons Hospital when she was in her early sixties. Sam died twenty years ago, from lung cancer, when he was seventy-eight. (He had had a pack-a-day habit since he was a teenager—first Pall Malls, then the Camels that I remember. The only time he didn’t smoke was probably when he was in prison camp.) My own memories of the beloved little Bayside house, from before he died, are of a cramped, smoky, inviting home, every room as filled as it could be with nicotine-coated furniture. After Sam passed away and everything was thoroughly cleaned, it turned out the dark-wood upright piano was actually blond.

The author with her grandmother.
The author with her grandmother.

When we came over, my grandmother usually cooked chicken adobo or fed me Kit Kats and white rice with butter to my mother’s chagrin. There was always Tang, for some reason, which I didn’t like. And when I was really little, Sam still spent time at Fort Totten, mostly fiddling around with electronics for sale at the PX. He had two VCRs for no reason, I think, other than to send me pirated videotapes of Muppet movies. It was a joint effort between him and my grandmother: They’d rent the movie around the corner, he would do the copying, and she would hand-letter a sticker label with the name of the film on it and send it off to me. The charade stopped with “Home Alone,” the first time they got a video that had some kind of security setting that made the pirated copy unwatchable.

At the nursing home, Mayela has had to change her hairstyle from the perpetually dyed updo to a thin bob in a slightly more natural shade. I miss her cooking, the different house cats over the years, Sam chain-smoking and yelling about something or other. Mayela does, too. With every passing year, Plaridel is pulled further into the past, and the times she remembers most fondly are the ones that took place in New York.