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A Sense of Self

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The small town of Uppercross, New York was nothing extraordinary. The population was small. The people were nice. The neighborhoods were diverse and welcoming to all. It was an interesting group of people living in this town, many of them here for the same reason: Kellynch University.

Kellynch University was no ivy league by any means. However, this small, private liberal arts school nestled in this quaint suburb was the home of some exceptional programs. It had a well-known English and Journalism program that brought in young adults from all over the country. It had an Asian-American studies program unlike any other on the east coast. This program was spearheaded by the Ilao family - particularly the matriarch. Ofelia Ilao started the program with her best friend Lettie Rubia. They had the support of Ofelia’s beloved husband, and fellow Kellynch professor, Walter Ilao.

Thanks to the many job offerings a university brings, there were several pockets of immigrant communities that had lived in Uppercross for quite some time. It seemed negligent that an esteemed school such as Kellynch didn’t represent their community. How could they compete with the neighboring east coast schools without it?

The program grew and grew, and the Ilao family became a staple to the Kellynch community. Walter and Ofelia continued to work at the university and they built quite a life in Uppercross. They had three beautiful daughters - Eliza, Anne, and Maria - and all three daughters grew to learn the Kellynch campus backwards and forwards.

The town was devastated the night that Ofelia passed away. The daughters were so young. How could this happen to such a loving family? So, the Kellynch community stepped up. Lettie Rubia became Tita Lettie to the daughters, a surrogate mother, and Walter’s social circle grew and grew. They promised that he would never have to worry about being lonely.

After retiring from Kellynch University, Walter focused on his social obligations. The daughters were glad that he was able to move on, but soon his comings and goings became a fault. He never liked being home anymore. It was too quiet now that his daughters were grown. And so, he went out almost every night. He and his friends would go to new restaurants or take long weekends to visit the beautiful scenery of rural New York. It was this active social life, one that Walter was quite proud of in fact, that was his undoing.

“Isn’t Eliza supposed to be here by now?” Maria whined. She was anxiously scrubbing the counters of her pristine kitchen. Tita Lettie and Anne shared a knowing look. Yes Eliza was supposed to be here. She was supposed to be here 30 minutes ago. This fact surprised no one. Eliza was consistently late to everything. And yet, Maria flitted around her home mumbling to herself about possible car accidents and drunk drivers.

“I am sure she is on her way,” Tita Lettie replied. “While we wait, we can start discussing options?”
Tita Lettie opened the laptop sitting on the kitchen island, and started clicking on the keys.

“He’s broke. Broke! How could this even happen? He was a professor for decades!” Maria moved on to scrubbing the dishes. Her black hair was falling out of its signature butterfly clip, and suds flew all over her crewneck and leggings. It was the uniform of every stay-at-home mom in Kellynch.

“Well you know Papa. He likes to be out, and Mama was the level-headed one. I guess we just didn’t notice how much he was spending. Plus he likes being a big donor to the school. It makes him look good. Keeps our reputation up,” Anne replied calmly. She didn’t agree with this mindset, but she had heard him explain it over and over again. She sat at the island next to Lettie and watched as Maria took off her cleaning gloves.

Maria paused and looked at the clock that blinked 7:30. She sighed, “Maybe Eliza blew out a tire. We should call. She could be in trouble.” She picked up her phone just as they heard the front door open.

“I’M HERE! I’M HERE! Sooooo sorry. Happy hour with the work crew lasted a little too long. My bad! Totally my bad!” Eliza scurried in while fumbling with her work bag and kicking off her heels. “I hope you didn’t start without me!”

Maria rolled her eyes, “Well maybe you wouldn’t need to hope that if you actually showed up on time, like ever. Also, Charlie is trying to get the boys to go to sleep. Could you not screech when you enter our home?”

Anne sensed Eliza’s annoyance at the remark. Eliza narrowed her eyes, and flipped her long hair over her shoulder. She opened her mouth, but Anne cut her off
before it could escalate.

“You know I have an idea. For what to do about Papa’s…,” she made a vague gesture with her hands searching for a word, “situation.” Anne waited until Maria and Eliza turned towards her. She took a breath.

“Why doesn’t he downsize? He doesn’t need to be living his day-to-day life like he is right now. Cutting back -by a lot - seems like the best option.”

Eliza’s brow furrowed, “What do you mean? Stop seeing people? Getting out of his house? What else do you expect him to do Anne. He’s a retired widower. He’s allowed some fun. We can’t all be hermits like you.”

Eliza walked over to the pantry and pulled out a bag of Chex mix.

“Isn’t cutting back like step one? I thought that was obvious,” Maria watched Eliza pick out all the Chex from the bag.

“Okay, then Maria what do you suggest he cut back on,” Tita Lettie responded.

Maria stood there for a second. Her mouth opened and closed. “You know...like - on his day-to-day…?” She scrunched her nose and started putting dishes in the dishwasher, “ I don’t know! It’s just all so overwhelming! This is why Charlie handles all of our finances. I get so bogged down with numbers. All I know is that Papa can’t keep spending like this or he’s going to end up homeless.”

Anne sighed and Tita Lettie looked at her sympathetically. They knew it would go this way. Eliza and Maria in a frenzy. Anne and Tita Lettie cleaning up the mess. The way it’s been since their mom had passed.

The three Ilao sisters couldn’t be more different. Anne, the calm introverted one. Maria the anxious busybody. Eliza the extravagant social butterfly. But they promised their mom that they would never separate. In the Philippines, family is number one. Family is most important. And so, all family decisions were made together - no matter how long it took.

“I was thinking he could move out of the house. The house is his biggest expense, and he doesn’t need all of that space now that he’s living alone. Plus it’s too much upkeep for him. He could move in here - with Charlie and Maria.” Anne suggested.

Eliza scrunched her nose and Maria chewed on her bottom lip.

“That’s our home Anne. You want him to get rid of our home?” Eliza put the Chex mix bag down. “All of our memories with mom are in that house.” She plopped down on one of the stools by Tita Lettie and put her chin in her hand.

Tita Lettie reached out and held her other hand. “He doesn’t have to completely get rid of it. He could rent it out. Continue being the owner, but make some money at the same time. He needs money. Plus,” Lettie continued turning to Maria, “He would love to spend more time with his two grandsons. You know he would. It might be the only way to convince him to rent out the place. He’s a stubborn man, anak.”

Eliza and Maria looked at each other. Anne could tell they were torn, but she knew that they didn’t have any better ideas.

“You have that in-law suite above the garage right?” Anne prompted. Maria shrugged, “I mean, yeah. We use it as Charlie’s home office though.”

“Well how often does Charlie actually work from home? His office is like 10 minutes away on campus. He works in a bursar’s office,” Lettie reasoned.

Maria paced the kitchen, crossing her arms in thought. Eliza perked up, “Well if he rents it, then I can take control of the business side. I mean, at our office we get a lot of people looking to rent a place before buying their forever home. It would be a good commission for me.” She paused, thinking for a second, tapping her manicured nails on the counter. “Okay, I’m in. My boss will be so happy having a nice house up for rent on the market. All of the other houses are total dumpsters.”

Maria, always the last to agree, looked at the three of them. She sighed, clearly put out, but resigned. “Alright. I’ll talk to Charlie...but really he can’t say anything since his family is always around,” she grumbled. “If we’re really saying this will help Papa, then...well I guess it’s all we got.”

“Thank God! This has been soooo stressful!” Eliza yelled. “I could barely focus on any of the happy hour gossip.” She got up and took off her blazer, and threw it on the counter beside her. “Do you have any of those little ube cakes from that bakery? I only ate bar snacks for dinner.”

Maria looked at her, annoyed. “You find renters for Papa’s house, then I’ll give you the ube cakes.”

Luckily, for the Ilao family and despite all appearances, Eliza was an excellent real estate agent. She found such renters soon after the meeting. A lovely young couple searching for a quieter life - Adam and Sophie Croft.

Unluckily for Anne, sweet and content Anne, she had no idea how much chaos the Crofts would bring.