From her childhood growing up in Baguio City in the Philippines to her life in San Jose, California, Nellie Abellera would say she’d lived a modest, ordinary life. Her biggest adventure in the Philippines was moving to Manila, where she went to college and worked as a bookkeeper. The bright lights and bustle of the city was exhilarating and so different from the quiet, slower pace of her mountain hometown, where the scent of pine trees and flowers often filled the air. But in Manila, in a country on the verge of independence, it was an exciting time, and Nellie was a young woman, self-reliant and ready for a new chapter in her life.
Nellie loved to dance and often went out with friends to dance clubs on weekends. She had suitors, but none she considered serious enoughto give up her new, independent life. That is, until she met a handsome sailor who swept her off her feet, on the dance floor.
Domie was tall and lean with dark chocolate eyes that lit up when he laughed. And could he dance. When he held her in his arms, it seemed the other dancers, all elbows and toes, melted away, and the street sounds of jeepneys, buses, and vendors hocking wares just outside the club doors, faded away. But soon Domie was in a dilemma. He’d fallen in love, and his shore leave was ending, so he did the only thing he could do. He asked Nellie to marry him.
Nellie hesitated. She wanted to wait. She wanted to be sure. After all, she was still in school and wasn’t thinking about marriage. Many years later, she would joke that she was tricked into getting married. During his next shore leave, on the pretense of going out dancing, Domie surprised her with a trip to the justice of the peace, accompanied by his sisters.
While she regretted not finishing college, she didn’t regret being a new Navy wife and seeing the world. In three years, she was living in Hawaii with two infant sons, Daniel and Edward. She loved Hawaii, perhaps because the islands, with its luscious vegetation and warm, balmy air that you could feel on your skin, was reminiscent of the Philippines. She wished they could have stayed longer and dreamed they’d visit again some day. It was a dream that stayed with her the rest of her life.
After a brief stay in Maryland, the Abelleras, now a family of five, were living in a small French fishing village off the Côte d’Azur. In Villafranche-sur-mer, they lived in a modest, two-bedroom apartment with noisy pipes and a narrow balcony that barely fit two adults, let alone three energetic, young children. But when she opened the long dark green shutters to let the morning light fill the living room, a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Ocean lay before her.
Nellie’s life, like other Navy wives, was not unlike that of a single parent. Domie was often gone on tour for many months at a time. The resourcefulness and independence she developed growing up and while living in Manila became essential, especially in a country where she didn’t understand the language. Education was always important to her; she viewed it as a gateway to a better life. Regardless of her struggle to understand the French culture and people, she made sure her children, who were now four, five and six, were all enrolled in school.
Although multilingual, Nellie’s knowledge of English, Tagalog and Illocano were of little use. But her young daughter, Lisa was learning French while attending a nearby Catholic school, and was eager to practice her new language, even if it was only to find out the cost of a can of corn at the neighborhood grocery store or to haggle over the price of a silk scarf under the canvas canopies of the open-air markets Nellie loved to frequent. Sometimes they would take the train to shop at the Italian open-air markets just outside the French border.
After nearly six years, her European travels had come to an end. Domie was approaching his twenty-year mark in the Navy and eager to settle down in one place. After his transfer to Moffett Field in Mountain View, they purchased their first house in east San Jose, and Domie retired from the Navy as Chief Petty Officer, an accomplishment she was especially proud of. They moved into a small three-bedroom house, a half a block down from the school and in walking distance to the library.
While not as glamorous as the French coast, Nellie was happy to settle in San Jose where she and Domie knew quite a few people. She’d made a few friends during their stay in Europe but like most Navy families, they eventually moved on to different parts of the world and lost touch with them. In their new home, Nellie became very busy in her role as wife and mother, which meant an active schedule for her children. She signed them up for violin lessons, boy scouts and girl scouts, swimming lessons and even ballet lessons.
Where Nellie felt inadequate was in the kitchen. The role was better suited for her husband, a professional cook. She just couldn’t keep from burning things or using the wrong kind of tools for stirring or flipping. She was more comfortable with Domie in control of the kitchen, often remarking that while he created, she merely invented. It was true no one could match Domie’s skills in the kitchen, whose dishes like dinuguan and marinated flank steak had their children salivating in anticipation, and it was also true some of Nellie’s less successful concoctions, usually made from whatever available ingredients there were in the pantry and refrigerator, ended in the garbage, but no one else could make adobo, spaghetti, pancit, and fried chicken as well as she did.
Their house was now filled with constant movement, whether it was the children playing games or practicing scales or Domie busy with home improvement projects. During this time, their two youngest, Christopher and Anne were born. By now the house was too small to fit their growing family, and shortly after she brought Anne home, they started looking for a new home. It was good timing. The Santa Clara valley itself was changing; its orchards and farmland were disappearing, making way for new tract homes and new industries. After many months of searching, they found a large enough home at the base of the Calaveras hills, in north San Jose, for their burgeoning family.
Domie had landed a good paying job at the Postal Service, but it was still a struggle to support five school-aged children, who seemed to grow faster than the weeds in their new backyard. She was eager to return to work as soon as the three older children were in high school, partly because they could use the extra paycheck, but also because she loved the idea of a life outside of the home. Taking the postal service test was empowering, especially when she scored slightly higher than her husband. Domie’s only concern of her working was the void it would leave in the care of their children. They solved the issue by Domie taking the graveyard shift at the Santa Clara post office, while she took the evening shift in the San Jose post office. By then, the three eldest children were capable of taking care of themselves and were enlisted to help with their younger siblings.
Nellie enjoyed working at the postal service and made good friends there. She took pride in her job. She had a perfect attendance for many years, frequently maxing out her sick leave. Long after she’d retired, she remained sharp as a tack. Even at eighty, if you mentioned a city located anywhere in the country, she could recite its zip code from memory.
Gratified that her earnings contributed to her sons’ college tuitions, Nellie was proud of her children who’d been able to get a higher education and graduate with honors, something she’d wished for herself. And in their accomplishments, she’d too accomplished what she always wanted for them: a good education for a good start in life.
Although her children had moved out, her family grew larger. With her children finding wives and husbands, she found herself blessed with more daughters and sons. From this blessing, she became a grandmother of eight grandchildren, all of whom she loved dearly. And when her beloved Domie lost the battle with his own illness, it was this extended family who helped fill the space left by his passing.
Nellie soon rediscovered her love for music, which had been more of her husband’s interest in the past. She especially enjoyed the music of Michael Bublé and Bruno Mars. She was an avid reader and news aficionado, and this continued, but her main recreation was taking regular trips to Reno and local Indian casinos. When asked what was their allure, she replied how she loved the bright lights and lively sounds of casinos, and how the people who worked there treated her like their special guest.
During Nellie’s illness, her extended family became even more important, more precious to her. She was proud of all of them and the people they’d become. She was happy they each had made a place for themselves in this fast-moving world, imagining them living much more extraordinary lives than she.
If only we could lead lives as ordinary as hers.