Feature · arts
When family transcends borders and travels through time
For Hannah Reyes Morales, photography is a way to contend with a turning world.
It’s 5:03 pm here in Tokyo. It’s 4:03 pm at home in Manila, 11:33 am in Tehran, 3:03 am in New York, 3:03 pm in Phnom Penh. Lately I’m always checking the time, imagining the fall of light where my friends are, tricking myself that maybe knowing the time where my friends are makes me closer to them.
My mother lost her best friend yesterday. She was Ninang Ditas, my godmother. She had been ill with cancer for years, without immediate family, and my mother was her caretaker. I last saw Ninang in hospital, tiny and fragile, grey eyes expressive as ever.
At the news of her passing, I panicked. I didn’t know the time or the light where she was. I looked for photographs of her on my phone, finding one of her hand holding my mother’s, a rosary entwined in their touch. It was taken on the last day I saw her.
I checked the time stamp: a little past noon. My mother was seven minutes late for her best friend’s final moments.
Credit: Courtesy Hannah Reyes Morales
In my search for Ninang I found a photo of a note she had written me years ago, describing my mom’s first visit to the obstetrician. I was an unplanned pregnancy, and my mother was terrified. Being born out of wedlock was a grave taboo in the Manila of the ’90s. Some schools wouldn’t take a child whose mother could not present a marriage certificate. Not all churches would perform a baptism.
My mother didn’t feel she could break the news to her family, so she told a friend.
“‘She looked at me and said ‘I heard her heartbeat’ and we both cried. And from that day you have always been her heart,” my godmother’s note reads.
The vision of my mom and Ninang brings me comfort: two single, unwed, devout Catholic women, one of them pregnant, holding each other outside a doctor’s office, crying over a heartbeat.
In school, I was told my family wasn’t family at all because there was no father. None of this made sense to me. Ninang felt more like family to me than my father. She’d been family from that moment in the doctor’s clinic.
My whole life, I’ve been raised by friends: first my mother’s, later, my own. So I learned at a very young age the grief that comes with friends’ departures when mine began leaving the Philippines. I couldn’t conceive of what the distance meant. How could a place be so far away that the time is yesterday?
I was still in Manila when friends returned, sporting new accents and different clothes. They had gone to camp. They had seen snow. They had boys in their school. I consumed their stories wide-eyed.
Credit: Courtesy Hannah Reyes Morales
Later, I would leave Manila too. I met Jon, now my husband, and we moved to Phnom Penh. We lived with friends in an apartment overlooking the Mekong River and it was home.
One of our housemates was a Polish girl named Marta. I have a vivid memory of our reflection in the mirror after swimming. “Look at us,” she told me, and we both laughed. I knew exactly what she meant. We were like coffee and milk. It was unbelievable how different we were. But more incredible still was the togetherness we had found.
Since then, my work has given me community far beyond Manila’s borders. Loved ones stretch out across the globe. For the click of a shutter or the tap of a screen, I can see instantly through the eyes of others, and they through mine. I look at people and wonder at the miracle of having found them, of friendship that collapses even the greatest of distances.
The life I choose is one of constant coming and going. But the very thing that brings my family together — a thirst to look outwards — is the same thing that pulls us apart. The grief I felt as a child, when my friends left, has stayed with me. The panic I felt not knowing the light of my Ninang’s passing lurks in the shadows.
I recently learned that no two heartbeats are the same, a wonderful reflection that we are truly, and uniquely, of our own time. No clock can measure this. But as in my work, so in my life: Taking photographs has allowed me to contend with a turning world.
It’s now 6:16 pm in Tokyo. It’s 5:16 pm in Manila, 12:46 pm in Tehran, 4:16 am in New York, and 4:16 pm in Phnom Penh. On many days I wish I could fold the Earth until the light can shift, until our hands can hold, until our clocks finally read the same time.