Marcy's_Vacation_in_Paris_1992(1)Susan Soriano2

Marcelina Soriano in Paris in her sixties and in New York City in her forties.

My late mother, Marcelina Tan Soriano, was a pistol.  She wasn’t a wild thing, but she had heart and she had grit.  She could snake clogged pipes, wring the neck of a bound-for-supper chicken—and brag about being the only hospital worker on her shift to give a big hug to the AIDS patient in the corner room. 

She cared deeply for my father, her three daughters, her home.  But she also cared deeply about her job. 

Though she was married to my father for decades—they died within eight weeks of each other—she never went out of her way to promote the MRS degree to me or Linda and Liz, my two sisters.  She’d offer only two messages, again and again and again. 

(1) Be happy.  (2) Learn how to take care of yourself.  

So here’s the surface stuff.  She was gorgeous.  Radiant.  Like other Filipina women at the time, she styled her coarse blue-black hair into permanent waves.  There was a beauty mark by her lower lip.  And after patting her face with a thin layer of Cover Girl powder, she’d dab a bit of Muguet des Bois or Shalimar behind her ears.  Then hum.  Or whistle.  Despite her father’s superstitious ban against whistling, she loved to do it—and she taught her daughters how to whistle too. 

But there were no beauty secrets, and zero mother-daughter trips to the cosmetic counter or lessons about hose—though, gee, I could have used them.  She was more likely to read the latest Perry Mason over Betty Friedan (who’s that?), but she fantasized that her daughters might consider medicine—or journalism. She took us to the library every week.  She bought us typewriters.  

My grandfather, Jose, could not imagine a time or world where either his wife or his daughters might work—or even want to work.  Though he yanked his four daughters and two sons out of high school when the Japanese marched into Manila in 1942, he kept the family together and an eye on a postwar real estate business that would provide the safety net he needed for his sons and daughters.  My mother was terrified of him: he was shrewd in business and controlling as a parent. 

So he was stunned when my mother, who had been in the care of specialists in New York City after a (probably fortunate) medical misdiagnosis, announced that she was marrying a waiter, and planned to move into his tenement apartment in Manhattan.  Jose disowned her.

For five years (during which my parents had their first two children) they managed to survive—until the icebox went kaput.

Marcy was sure that my dad had the savings to replace it. Surprise! There was nothing.

So—though it made her feel scared and weird and disconnected—she cleaned houses.  Then, through a friend who was an RN, she heard a rumor about openings for nursing assistants. 

She showed up to apply—and was told she was mistaken; there were no openings. 

“But I’ve already bought the uniform and shoes,” she replied.  They were in a bag; she’d brought them with her.  

I have no idea what the hiring manager at Manhasset Medical Center thought. (Who was this crazy woman?) But Mom was hired provisionally—and stayed for 35 years. 

This ended up being her life’s work.  She loved sharing a lot of icky medical details at the dinner table every night, and as her squeamish daughter, I often went Eww.  But I realized that even if she won the lottery, she’d never give this up: it wasn’t just for a paycheck.  She loved the people contact, the sense of purpose—that even emptying bedpans and changing sheets mattered. 

Her drive and competence were noticed.  Nurses would grab her by the sleeve and say, “So ever consider nursing school?” 

She and I never got into it.  

Mom, didn’t you think you could make it?

Or maybe she’s saying to me now, “Susan, I really liked what I did.  I really liked where I was.   I was happy.   It’s all I needed.  Isn’t that enough?” 


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  • Andrea Barbakoff May 14, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your mother. She clearly passed much of herself to you, strength and beauty.

    I spent a good day with my mother, communicating more with song, touch and cupcakes than words. She is the best person to nap with.

  • Susan Soriano May 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm


    So terrific to connect with a reader whose mother was a nurse. Great, great profession.

    You mention that your mother’s siblings were farm workers. I did not mention this in my short piece, but my father (who was 20 years older than my mom) spent his first years as one as well. Hard work, but essential work.

    Thank you for reading my piece.


  • Toni Myers May 12, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    I like her a lot. What a cool woman! And the smiling photo at the window…she is indeed beautiful.

  • Robin May 12, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    This is so wonderful … the words and the resemblance. Happy Day, Mother (as a friend of mine says).

  • Bracha-Nechama Bomze May 12, 2013 at 10:48 am

    What a poignant portrait of an extraordinary woman who knew how to find and spread happiness, to take stellar care of both herself and others, and to model these attributes for her (profoundly appreciative and insightful) writer of a daughter.

    When my friend Michael (Marcellino, actually!) was dying of HIV disease in 1987, I entered his hospital room to find him weeping. Asking whether Michael was in pain, he replied, “No. I just wish somebody here would touch me!” I took his hand in mine only to hear I was the first person to do so in days. Would that my Marcellino could have known your Marcelina, Susan Soriano. Thank you.

  • Cheryl May 12, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I love this mother’s day essay about the mother who was a nurse’s aid and a great encouragement to her daughters. My mother was an LPN, then RN, and the got her BSN when it was said it would be required in our state (never was). She graduated from college the year before I did and was the first of her siblings to graduate.They had all been farm workers in CA before the machines to pick cotton came in. just an FYI: My mother is African American, graduated nursing school in the late ’50’s, and college in 1982. She became a nurse because of the lack of business jobs for black women. She ended up loving it, particularly working with geriatrics. Sorry so long. happy Mother’s Day to all who mother in some way or form!