Nicole La Chica
ur family photo albums followed us from house to house. When my parents were married, my mother was the caretaker of those big albums. Early pictures were all black and white. My mother set them in chronological order, capturing birthdays, Christmas and New Year holidays, and other family events. There was a stability those photos gave me. They became our family history, and when I wanted to see our family’s beginnings and gauge the changes we had gone through, from clothing to location, I consulted the albums.
I certainly needed continuum in a family that was about to break up.
My father, a Singapore jazz musician and avid amateur photographer, took most of the photos. There were several of him and his band at work at the cabarets and clubs. When a new batch of photos was developed, my mother would make it a family project. We’d gather around our low wooden, glass-top coffee table where the latest photos would be laid out in rows. She would say, “Don’t touch the picture here,” as she pointed to the center of the black and whites. No smudges were allowed. She showed me how to pinch hold them by their pointed ends and carefully place them in the triangular paper, and later, plastic photo corners. I’d imitate her and would correct my older brother and sister when they didn’t hold the photos just the way our mother had instructed.
As a child, I made a ritual of album viewing. I’d get out the stack of albums, place them on the coffee table, sit in a comfortable chair just a few inches from the table and stretch out my short legs, my ankles on the end of the table top. As I balanced an open album on my legs, I’d take a deep breath and dive into the pool of memories, beginning with Album One, Picture One.My parents standing next to each other, my mother in an evening cocktail dress, my father in a Barong Tagalog, a traditional Filipino shirt, as they pose stiffly, side by side, in front of my father’s expensive camera set on a tripod. They look ideal together. I’d wish all our days were as silent and perfect as the copies before me. Those thick, spiral bound albums were accessible when I wanted to link hearts with family and friends and return to happier times.
There were two pages that were the highlight of the albums whenever visitors came over and there was a lull in conversation. Out came the albums. These pages were dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor whom my father had met during the latter part of 1950s. She was already a big star, and her visit to Singapore made headlines and brought out reporters, professional photographers, and anyone who could get a pass to see her.
My father was fortunate that he happened to be working at the Great World Cabaret, the venue for Ms. Taylor’s photo shoot. He was filling in for his deceased brother-in-law, Lino, who had played saxophone in the orchestra of the Great World Cabaret. A few months earlier, Lino was in a motorcycle accident, run down by a bus and killed. He left behind a pregnant wife and six other young children. To help his sister with finances, my father stepped into her husband’s spot in the orchestra.
During break time, he joined the curious crowd to get a glimpse of the star, and was able to get closer, get her autograph, and photos of them together were taken. Their heads were almost touching. That particular photo of Elizabeth Taylor and my father took a prized position in our family photo album for decades. There were other photos of her and her late husband, Mike Todd, when they visited Singapore circa 1958, but that photo of my father and Ms. Taylor captured an intimacy that I had never observed between my parents.
My father in the photo is in a suit, his thick black hair slicked down with Brylcream. He is bending forward, leaning in as he stands before Ms. Taylor and she is autographing something for him. It was such an intimate photo and at my young age, Ms. Taylor struck me as someone who held more of my father’s attention than my mother ever could. In some childish way, I worried that my father liked Ms. Taylor better than my mother. She was a “timeless beauty,” as my mother would say, and despite my worried concerns about Liz Taylor being the other woman in my father’s life, she was probably the only woman my mother was not jealous of. My father, a very handsome man, had his own following of young women.
I would stare, captivated, at that photo of the dark haired Ms. Taylor, her sweet demeanor as she pondered what to write, and there was an unmistakable sparkle in my father’s eye, looking as if to say, “Don’t you all wish you were in my shoes.”
Even after my parents split up, my father continued to take photos of us and display them. The albums weren’t put together so meticulously, the way my mother did them, but I still enjoyed arranging the latest ones and continuing her tradition. Those pictures were a constant in our lives. Life changed but the images remained. But after my parents divorced, one of the photos disappeared.
My beautiful Aunty Nene
During the time of my parent’s breakup, Aunty Nene, my father’s sister, who had been living in the Philippines for most of her adult life, returned to Singapore for an extended visit. Aunty Nene came at a time when I needed a mother figure. She helped fill so much of the emptiness I felt with my mother gone. She was in her mid-thirties and I was almost seventeen. This was the first time meeting her and we quickly bonded. Not much taller than my own five foot frame, she and I would link arms as we went shopping and sightseeing.
We shared similar features as I looked just like my Dad and so did she. Her hair was short, just like mine. She would cover her mouth when she laughed—giggled really—as she had a few teeth missing. She had a childlike manner and made me laugh, telling me stories of her childhood and my Dad’s. She listened to anything I had to say, which was typical teenager stuff about crushes on cute guys and articles from magazines. My favorite times with her were spent gleaning the ads and clothing teenagers wore in the American magazine, Seventeen. She also taught me Tagalog, the Filipino language. I picked it up quickly and it became a way we could communicate without everyone knowing what was being said.
Aunty Nene after all those years married and living in the Philippines was no longer a Singapore citizen and her visa was about to expire. As time drew close for her to leave, I had to find ways to disconnect. I told myself that I would visit her one day. Saying goodbye to her was just as painful as when I said goodbye to my own mother. It took me months to shake off what felt like a broken heart.
After she returned to the Philippines, we corresponded regularly. Aunty Nene introduced me to her oldest daughter, Jeanette, who became a pen pal. Jeanette sent me a photo of herself and she looked exactly like her mother. Aunty Nene was so proud of her children. She told me how intelligent and hardworking Jeanette was. I, too, was proud of my first cousin.
Life progressed, my mother moved away to England and remarried, and I met an American who asked me to marry him and move to California in 1973. As I adapted to my new environment and learned the ways of Americans, my life got too busy to write regularly. Eventually, I stopped corresponding with Aunty Nene and my cousin Jeanette.
Aunty Nene never visited Singapore again and passed away in the 1990s.
On a visit in February, 2009, I finally met my cousin Jeanette and her family who happened to also be visiting Singapore. I still remembered her from the photo she had sent me when she was about nineteen.
A breakfast was organized by my sister and we all met at her place. As I approached my sister’s home, I could hear Filipino-accented voices mixed in with Singlish (Singapore English). I saw a bunch of people who resembled my father’s side of the family at the dinner table.
Right away, my eyes fell on a woman sitting next to a Chinese looking man. I could see Aunty Nene in Jeanette. In fact, I had to keep telling myself it was not Aunty Nene but her daughter. As we chit chatted, exchanged emails, addresses and information about our lives, and took many photos of our gathering, I got out the photo albums. I reached the pages with the Liz Taylor photos and said, “You know there used to be a really great photo of my Dad and Elizabeth Taylor, but I don’t know what happened to it.”
My sister said, “I t thought you took it.”
“No, I thought you took it out for some reason, or maybe Ange took it,” I said, referring to our other sister.
My cousin Jeanette in a soft voice said, “I have a photo of your dad and Elizabeth Taylor.”
“You do?” I was confused. How did she get it?
“It was in my mother’s belongings when she passed away,” Jeanette said.
“You’re kidding! Your mom took it when she visited all those years ago.”
“I guess so,” she said.
For the rest of the visit, I marveled at Aunty Nene removing that particular photo, and apparently two others from another album. I shouldn’t have been so surprised because when I first left home and would return, I, too, would take a few photos without asking permission. I needed to bring with me my family, friends, and my childhood. I never dared to touch the Liz Taylor ones, though, as removing them would be like severing a relationship with a loved one or removing a headstone at a cemetery.
A year and a half later, in August 2010, my cousin Jeanette passed away from cancer. Before she passed away, and a few months after our meeting in Singapore, Jeanette emailed me three scanned photos that her mother had taken out of our albums. One of them was the cherished photo of my father and Elizabeth Taylor.
It was Aunty Nene returning a part of my childhood to me.BW
Nicole La Chica was born and raised in Singapore. She now lives in south USA. Armed with degrees in Criminal Justice and Writing, she has a penchant for organizing words and rooms. She wrote Let Bygones Be Bygones and Makhtub Journey-Bali.
She trains ESL teachers and spends her time thinking up stories about life’s quirkiness. Her stories reflect her love for Southeast Asia. Nicole spends time catering to her two Lhasa Apsos, who along with her multinational family, enjoy her culinary skills. She is presently completing her novels: A Murder in Singapore and The Book of Angel.
She is affiliated with The International Food Whisperers and has a blog at: