Mayela the Brave
Born to privilege in the Philippines then uprooted to a new life as a post-war Army wife in Queens, a near-centenarian New Yorker looks back on nine-plus decades and nine thousand miles.
Photos by Alison Brockhouse
When my grandmother Mayela was five years old, rumors of a wandering thief passed through Plaridel, the town outside Manila where she grew up. Taking it upon herself to protect the local general store that belonged to her mother, Mayela spent a few nights at the shop, waiting for the burglar. In the Philippines in 1920, “general” was a literal term. My grandmother hid in a coffin. When the thief broke into the store on the second night of Mayela’s vigil, she popped out of her hiding spot, screaming. He ran off and plagued the town no longer.
While the story seems implausible, my grandmother swears it’s true. Mayela Feldstein, who just turned ninety-eight, forgets what she’s had for dinner (not that the nursing home cuisine is worth expending memory on), but most of her recollections of the past are sharp. “I didn’t know fear,” she says. The coffin escapade “was just a game. My father encouraged me to be brave.” Her father, my great-grandfather Julio Reyes, is…