The house that Ena built

Hugs, tears and a big feast as a Filipino maid takes her 'Singapore daughter' home

The red tin roof was barely four months old when we first glimpsed it as our van strained past the potholes on the village path.

It had replaced the old roof, blown away by Typhoon Haiyan which devastated several provinces in the Philippines last November and left thousands dead.

But the concrete house it rested on, one of the few still standing after the havoc wreaked by the typhoon known locally as Yolanda, represents something that is also more secure: my family's relationship with our maid.

Enalin Santiago, 45, has been working for my family since 2003. She has been giving her family money to improve their house each time she returns home, about once every year or two.

On her most recent trip home, I decided to join her for a brief visit to meet her family. Ena, as we call her, has been with my family from the time I was 13.

She does the cooking and cleaning at our apartment for my parents, my brother and me.

Nobody in our family had ever visited the Philippines with her.

Last year, as she told me about the destruction Yolanda wrought on her village, and subsequently the recovery, it was the first time I had begun to imagine what life might be like for her family back home. I knew I wanted to meet them, and to my surprise, she too had the same idea.

Ena asked my grandmother along, having told her family all about the wonderful woman who dispenses advice and kindness.

And even though she has known my boyfriend for only two years, she welcomed him too.

From Changi Airport, there is a direct flight to Iloilo City. Then, it is a three-hour journey by road past an eclectic mix of malls and shophouses in the city, then bamboo huts interspersed with concrete houses - a stark sign of who has "made it" and who has not.

In the town of Sara, the route turns off onto a dirt path leading to Ena's village, where almost everyone is a farmer.

On that hot afternoon, we pulled up next to her tomato patch.

At other times of the year, the farm grows brinjals and rice.

I found myself staring in awe at the house and about 30 relatives who had arrived to welcome us.

As soon as we alighted from the van, we were greeted with hugs and kisses from Ena's mother and daughters. Her husband shook our hands warmly.

Others who spoke less English smiled from the sidelines.

Ena gave us a tour of her house. It had its humble origins as a two-room hut with a roof of coconut leaves. But over the years, Ena's home improvements took shape, adding a room here, another there and finally, a proper roof.

It is now a home with a breezy living cum dining room, a kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms - one for Ena's daughters Joy-Joy, 16, and Inday-Inday, 11, another for her and her husband Norberto, 51, and the last for a nephew.

A piece of linoleum covers the floor in pretend blue tiles, making you forget the plain grey walls and tired wooden furniture.

The house was wonderful. "You are all part of it," Ena told me.

The money she earned looking after our home in Singapore has gone into building and extending hers. The longer she has been away, the more it has grown.

This year, Ena stopped the house "projects" to devote her savings to Joy-Joy's university education - she graduated from high school yesterday and hopes to study accountancy.

You could not tell how long Ena had been gone from the way her daughters looked at her with love and hugged her tightly. But little things gave it away.

Like how, at one point, Ena could not recall her mother's age, and got her daughter's wrong. "My mind is full of Singapore," she said.

Even as joyful introductions and shy handshakes were made, I felt a tinge of guilt at having spent all these years with my Ate (Tagalog for big sister), while her younger child Inday-Inday grew from a year-old baby to a girl as tall as her mother.

There was a period when Ena would cry after phone calls home, because Inday-Inday would call her "auntie" instead of "mum".

But all that was forgotten on that day of reunion.

After a thanksgiving service conducted by the village pastor, we all sat down to lunch. Two of Ena's brothers had cooked up a storm.

Ena had told us before the trip that her family would buy a whole pig for us and true enough, we found pork in three different dishes including sticky rice and curry, jostling for space beside steamed crabs and deep-fried duck.

More food was laid out on an outdoor table for all the relatives who had come, and Ena and my grandmother gave out gifts of clothes and chocolates.

As we tucked into the delicious fare, we asked Ena why she had not cooked these dishes for us in Singapore. She laughed sheepishly, admitting she did not know how to.

She had moved to Malaysia to work as a maid soon after graduating from university with a degree in elementary education. Then she spent a few years back home, during which she married Norberto and had two babies, before leaving her family to work for our family in Singapore.

She learnt to cook a mix of Chinese and Western cuisine in our home, and it was my grandmother who taught her to prepare the Filipino speciality, chicken adobo, from a cookbook.

Seeing all that Ena left behind each time she returned to us made me all the more thankful. She has seen my brother and me through childhood tantrums and the growing years, and still packs lunch for me to take to work every day.

We have celebrated 11 years of birthdays and Christmases together in Singapore. She refers to me as her "daughter" to her friends. And she says she hopes to stay with us for as long as she can.

In Singapore, where the turnover rate for maids is notoriously high - more than half the maids placed by agencies between February 2011 and February last year left their employers within a year - our long-term relationship may seem unusual. Yet, finally meeting her family seemed like a natural step forward in our relationship.

Even her husband was all smiles. From Ena's descriptions, we were expecting someone quiet and serious, but instead we met a man with a sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye.

Surveying his farmland, he told us that he toiled under the sun every day even though it was bad for his darkened skin. "I just want to support my wife in our finances," he said.

Norberto and Ena count themselves fortunate; many others have not been able to withstand the long years apart, casualties of a dream for a better life for their families.

"I have learnt to be both a husband and a wife," said Norberto, describing how he works at the farm and cares for his two girls, guiding them in their studies as well.

We were there for all of three hours before we left the red-roofed house. I wished we had three days.

Ena and her daughters spent two nights in Iloilo City with the three of us. We rode in jeepneys, squashed hip-to-hip with 20 other passengers. We went sightseeing and shopping.

My grandmother then took Ena and the girls to the nearby resort island of Boracay for their first holiday, while my boyfriend and I returned home.

Before we parted, I shared a tearful hug with Joy-Joy.

"Thank you for taking care of our mother," she said to me.

It should really be the other way around, I thought.

"Thank you for sharing your mother with us."

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