“The day I was born I was born free and that is my Privilege.”

Remembering an English 197 Reading

What Is Serendipity?

Twink Macaraig

Mica heard a word, a most wonderful word. It happened while Mica’s parents were talking and they didn’t realize that she was listening. Most of the time, Mica didn’t bother to listen when grown-ups talked to each other. They used long words in flat, serious tones and rarely had anything exciting to say. But one evening Mica heard something so different from anything she’d heard before.

“He says here, the key to any great success is not just luck, but serendipity,” Mama was saying, as she was browsing through a shiny magazine. And as she said it, Mama’s face looked the way it looked when she was describing how she used to play Chinese jackstones when she was a little girl or the natilla that Lola used to bake. Then the look was gone, Mama was her regular self again. Her grown-up conversation with Papa continued.

“Serendipity,” Mica said softly to herself. “Ssehh-rehhenn—“ she stretched out the sounds “—dpithy,” she finished quickly, producing three little pops. It’s like a song, she thought. Serendipity-doo-dah! Mama made it seem like such an important word, but it was so simple to say.

Mica didn’t know what the word meant, but she liked the sound of it. She like it very much, indeed. It sounded like something she would yell when Mama and Papa said that it was alright to yell as loud as she liked. Like the time she looked down the dark wishing well in the back of Lolo’s house in the province. Instead of calling ”Hello,” she would shout “Serendipity!” and the echo would laugh back, “Tee-hee-hee.”

It sounded like something she would say whenever she made an amazing discovery. Like the time she learned to cross her eyes and saw two of everything. Or that feeding a carabao wasn’t anything to be scared of. The carabao ate the grass out of her hand, and its tongue was just a little wet, like her own.

She wanted to find serendipity so she could surprise her mother with some of it. Mama was looking very tired lately. But first, she had to find out what serendipity meant.

As Mica lay in bed, the word wouldn’t stop repeating itself in her head. She asked her Yaya Paz, who was crocheting a blouse by her bedside, “Yaya, what is serendipity?”

Yaya Paz replied, after thinking awhile, “I think it’s the name of a mischievous, little mermaid who likes to watch children build castles on the beach. When it gets dark, or the children have been playing too long, Serendipity blows the water to wash away the sand castles so the children know it’s time to go. Then, tired from blowing so many waves, Serendipity goes home, deep in the ocean to her mother, who sings a song to send her to sleep.”

As Yaya Paz hummed the lullaby that the mother mermaid sang, Mica figured that she was being tricked, but she didn’t mind. She felt her eyelids growing heavy. But still her dreams were about serendipity. What in the world did it mean?

At breakfast the next morning Mica thought hard, I haven’t heard Mama use that word before, not Papa or Lolo, not even Teacher Marilyn. It must be something kept secret from little kids like me. Could it be a secret food, she wondered, that gave you powers like Popeye’s spinach?

She looked around her. It couldn’t be the pork and beans. She ate it all the time. And it certainly couldn’t be the champorado.

There was a clear bottle on the table containing bright strands of yellow, white, and orange and some tidbits of red. Papa ate this sometimes with his tapa or longganisa, but Mica had never tried it before. It looks so tasty, but it has never been offered to me, Mica realized, not like the kangkong that Mama insists I eat. Could this be serendipity?

But it didn’t taste at all the way it looked, or so Mica thought at first. She imagined it would taste like the gaily colored candies that hang from the window of the sari-sari store. Or maybe like pancit because of the fine noodle-like shreds. But this stuff was kind of sweet, kind of sour, and kind of something else she couldn’t describe. How could Papa eat this? She ate a little more, trying to figure out the taste. And slowly, bit by bit, she decided that it wasn’t bad at all!

Mica was convinced that she had found the secret of serendipity. This food that looked pretty, but tasted strange, but tasted good, but tasted different. This is serendipity, she decided, or it tastes very much like it. This is the key to great success. She couldn’t wait to tell Mama when she got home.

But Mama wouldn’t be back for a while, so Mica went to the park to play. It had been several days since she was last there because Mica had gotten tired of the same old jungle gym. But now everything—the sandbox, with the circus animals painted on the roof, the swings that squeaked, and the striped seesaws—looked fun once more.

“Serendipity!” she shrieked, as she whizzed down the slide. She went down so fast that she reached the bottom just as she finished the word.

“Serendipity!” she hollered every time she swung forward, using her toes to give herself a mighty push. With her eyes shut and her head tilted back, she could hear the wind rushing past her, as though murmuring a reply.

Then she felt something on her nose. Something so tiny and faint she might not have noticed it at all. It was a golden leaf from the giant sampaloc tree above. It was raining sampaloc leaves, and they were falling gracefully to the grass. Except for the one golden leaf that had found its way to Mica.

“This means I get a magic wish,” Mica said to the sampaloc tree. “For every leaf I catch, I have a magic wish.” Then, a new thought came into Mica’s head. What if serendipity wasn’t something to eat after all? What if it was right here on the tip of her finger? What if serendipity was this golden sampaloc leaf bearing Mica a magic wish?

“Of course! Of course!” Mica cried with the delight, as she kept the leaf carefully in her pocket. “The more serendipities I catch, the more wishes I get. Then I’ll wish great success for Mama so that she won’t be so tired anymore.”

Mica watched for another shower. With the next breeze, she lifted her skirt to use as a net. Then she ran back and forth, turning and twirling, trying to be at the precise spot where each lead was going to fall. It wasn’t easy to do. There were far too many of them. And they were blowing about in all sorts of directions, making Mica miss a few. But Mica didn’t give up. She waited breathlessly for each gust of wind to send down another shower of leaves and off she would go, clutching the edge of her skirt, catching as many serendipities as she could.

Pretty soon a little girl in pigtails was doing the same thing, joined by Mang Jun, who caught what he could with his salakot. Even the yayas, who had been chatting intently on the park bench, hoisted their aprons and joined in the merry scramble for falling wishes.

When Mica grew tired, and her neck ached from looking up too long, she counted her leaves. There were seventeen in her skirt . . . plus the first one in her pocket . . . that gave her eighteen serendipities in all. Mica ran home with the golden leaves in her fists, raised above her head, the way runners do when they cross the finish line first.

“Serendipity!” cried Mica as she burst into her bedroom. So thrilled was she over her catch that she bounced on her bed over and over again until she could almost, just almost, touch the ceiling.

I’d better keep these before they get lost, she remembered. She took her piggy bank down from the shelf and dropped the sampaloc leaves through the slot. One, two, three, four. . . she was getting to eleven when something caught her eye.

It was a little doll from many months before. It had come in a goodie bag from a cousin’s birthday party. The doll was made entirely of cloth, her thick limbs stuffed with what she felt like sand. She didn’t bend or talk. Her eyes didn’t close when you laid her down. In fact, her entire face was painted with only two colors: black for the eyes, lashes, brows, and nose; and pink for the cheeks and heart-shaped lips. When she first saw her, Mica didn’t think that she was a very nice doll. She was too squat; she was hard to hug at night; and she just wasn’t very pretty at all.

“She’s not meant to be pretty. She’s a pincushion,” Yaya Paz had said then.

Mica couldn’t imagine why she would ever want to stick pins into anything. So she lost herself instead in the bubble pipe, the floral stickers, and all the other delightful things that were in the goodie bag.

The doll was put on the shelf, propped on top of Mica’s books, and was forgotten until Mica noticed her now.

She’s been there so long, quietly waiting for me to care for her, Mica realized. She felt ashamed for all the games that she had played with all her other toys which the pincushion doll hadn’t joined. Or the times that she couldn’t find anything to do and didn’t even think to take the doll from her perch.

“It’s not your fault you’re plain,” consoled Mica, as she took the doll tenderly in her hands. The doll’s dress had faded and her face had turned slightly gray from the dust. But her expression remained sweet and patient and wise.

“I bet you’ve been watching over me all this time, haven’t you? You’ve been guarding me at night when Yaya Paz says monsters and mumus and white ladies can sneak in through the window. You’ve been protecting me from harm like an angel,” Mica said.

The doll seemed to nod.

“I’m sorry, old doll,” Mica whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t pay any attention to you.”

The doll kept her cheery smile, and in her black-dot eyes Mica could see forgiveness.

“From now on, you’ll join me and the others. You can help me fix Baby Rose’s hair. You can cook rice with my mini rice cooker. You can even ride my magic pony.” Mica was thinking of all the fun they would have together to make up for all the loneliness the doll must have felt during the many months that she had been ignored.

“And from now on, I will give you a proper name of your own, like all the other dolls. I will call you—“ Mica knew that it could be nothing else but—“I will call you Serendipity.”

Serendipity looked pleased and proud. Just then Mica heard a car drive up. “Mama!” Mica rushed to gather the day’s treasures to present to her mother.

Mama looked up from the bills that she was sorting through. “So what did you do with yourself today?” she asked.

“Oh Mama, I have found the key to great success! I have found serendipity!” Mica announced grandly.

Mama looked closely at Mica’s face, her eyebrows crinkled, as if she was trying to concentrate really hard. “What is serendipity, Mica?” she finally asked. “What do you think it is?”

“Yaya Paz said it was a little mermaid, but I think she was fooling me. I’m sure it’s at least one of these things, Mama,” she said, putting the jar she discovered at breakfast on the table. “It’s this stuff that looks like candy pancit, but doesn’t taste like it. It looks soft and wet, but has a tiny crunch when you bite it. It tastes weird at first, but after a while it’s delicious. Try it, Mama. It’ll give you super strength. Or it’ll make you super successful. Then you won’t look so tired anymore.”

Mama stared at the bottle, but all she said was, “Hmm, most people call it achara, but it does taste interesting, come to think of it.”

Mica emptied the contents to her piggy bank onto her mother’s lap. “Or it’s these golden leaves, Mama, from the big old sampaloc tree in the park. If you catch them before they fall to the ground you get a magic wish. I caught eighteen serendipities in my skirt today. You can have some, Mama, or you can have them all. I can always catch some more tomorrow.”

Mama had that funny expression again, the one she has whenever she talks about Chinese jackstones or natilla.

“Maybe the wishes won’t work unless I go and catch some myself,” Mama said. “May I go with you next time?”

“What a great idea!” exclaimed Mica. “You can wear your swirly skirt the flowers so you can catch lots of them. I’ll wish for a baby brother and you can wish for great success . . . But wait, I almost forgot . . .you have to meet my old new friend. This is Serendipity.” Mica handed the doll to her mother.

“She’s not very cute and she’s a little worn. But she’s sweet and loyal, and she never complains. If you make her your friend, she’ll keep away evil spirits so that you’ll find success for sure.”

Mama was smiling broadly now.

“I call her Serendipity because she seems like one to me. Am I right, Mama? Or is serendipity the magic leaf? Or the candy-colored food? That’s serendipity, isn’t it?”

“You’re absolutely right about all of them!” Mama burst into merry laughter. She swept Mica up into her arms and explained, “Serendipity is whatever you think it is, wherever you find it. When you feel joy in something that other people may overlook. When something makes you happy even though it doesn’t seem all that important. When you find something special in something ordinary. When you find something by accident, that is serendipity.”

Mica was thrilled that she had been right all along. Serendipity was everything she thought it was, as wonderful a word as it sounded. She hugged Mama tightly, then thought to ask again. “So would you like some more of my serendipity, Mama? Your magazine said it was the key to great success.”

Mama stroked Mica’s cheek. “I would love for you to share it with me all the time, Mica, not because the magazine said so, but because you have so much of it. And someday I want to be just as great a success as you are.”

Mica felt a great warmth flow through her. She rubbed her face against Mama’s dress to get as close as she possibly could and to smell the familiar jasmine scent Mama used. As her mother bent to kiss her forehead, Mica noticed that for the first time in a long, long time, Mama didn’t look tired at all.