One of the best memories I have of living in the old Dansalan was my family’s friendship with our Christian neighbors, the Carmelite sisters and the Irish priest Father Pong. There were fewer car on the streets which served as our seemingly vast playground. Right after school, I would scale the gate of the monastery and enter the building which they would leave unlocked for me. I would amuse myself by eating lollies they left for me while I wait for them to finish their prayer. After their prayer, they would gather around me and we would have endless talks. First they would inquire about my studies and would be genuinely happy when I tell them I got good grades. They would promise me presents if I continue to earn good marks. They were like mothers to me and they would joke that they really do not need husbands for they already had a daughter in me. The Asar Azan was usually the end of my visit as they would remind me I needed to go home for my prayer too.
Father Pong would often visit our house at night and eat with us. The first time he visited us, we felt so sorry for him because our menu was too spicy for him. In his next visit, my Mother adjusted the spice factor for his sake. But to our surprise, he had quickly adjusted his palate and he looked for that spicy kick of my Mom’s badak and tilapia and complained that the food wasn’t as hot and as delicious as the last time! I did not become a Christian nor any of my family for that matter, not that they wanted to convert us anyway. They remained Christians of course but one thing I know, our relationship made us better human beings, better Muslims and better Christians. We both respected our differences and co-existed peacefully. That friendship was curtailed when my family moved to the University campus and my nun-mothers also moved up hill in their hermitage.
The next time I saw them was more than twenty years later. I was very pregnant then and none of them recognized me. I introduced myself to them but they had not quite grasped who I was initially. They asked me if by any chance I know of a certain Aileen. I smiled because only my family and closest friends know me by that name. I said: “Yes, Sister Anne and Sister Divine, as a matter of fact, that little girl is me, in flesh and blood!” Oh how they jumped with joy and shrieked that they are now grandmothers! The silent monastery uphill became a noisy chatter of nuns as Sister Anne called the rest of my mothers and presented me to them. They have not forgotten me at all nor any of the members of my family. They still knew the (pet) names of my siblings and my cousins who lived with us.
In the light of this madness going on around the world, I remember our relationship with these Christian nuns who consider me their daughter as I consider them my second mothers. Decades have passed and distance has prevented us from nurturing that short-lived relationship but apparently, neither have prevented it from becoming a true friendship that did not need much to become a sincere and lasting one. Our animated conversation was just like the old times and it made me feel that time and distance did not do any harm to our friendship. They were mothers to me and will always remain to be my mothers, even if we may never see each other again. If people will actually build bridges of friendship regardless of religion and race, I am sure we can live and let live. Someday when I return to my country, I will bring my daughters to meet their grandmothers for the first time. I know that they will remember the old me in my elder daughter’s face. It is time to rekindle old friendships and build new ones. We cannot make racism and bigotry win over us who simply want to live in peace and friendship and co-exist.