Inspiration

This Writer's Tribute to Her Lola Is Everything We Want to Tell Our Own Grandmothers

Writer Maileen Salazar honors her grandmother with an essay on her unrivaled love.
ILLUSTRATOR SANDY ARANAS
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Love is a peeled grape. Love is a fish without bones. My grandmother’s heart lies in the food she prepares. All her care is revealed in the perfectly seasoned chicken and pork adobo. All her worries manifest in each precise slice of green mango for the chutney. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter licking a spatula clean of icing, after she finished frosting our homemade birthday cakes. I watched in wonder and anticipation as she carefully tended to the ham she cured in our refrigerator for Christmas. Fifteen years since leaving the Philippines, I order leche flan every chance I get. New York, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and not a single one as good as Lola Loleng made it.

She once said that since she has no wealth to pass on, her years of taking care of us are the only thing she can leave behind. And so she sat by our side at every meal, her weathered hands working to debone the fish and remove the seed and bitter rind from an orange. She cracked the crab claws so perfectly, all we had to do was eat the tender white flesh from the bright orange pincer, our own hands staying pristine.

I was always ahead by three lessons in Reading because somehow Lola Loleng had found the teaching materials and reviewed them with me ahead of time. My grandmother took it upon herself to tutor us for an hour or two after school. She taught me so many things. It wasn’t all grammar or math – sometimes it was how to crush gumamela flower and a bit of laundry detergent together to come up with a homemade soap bubble solution. She took the stem of a kamias leaf, tie it into a circle and we blew bubbles into the sky. I learned at three years old that I could put a salagubang to sleep, by cupping my hands over the restless beetle and keeping it in darkness. Lola would put a string on the end of its leg and we would have a pet salagubang flying beside us for a day or two. She taught us how to plant a summer garden and the best way to harvest camachile high up in the trees. She taught me to sip nectar from blooms as a butterfly would, and how the delicate pale violet flowers that grew on the long hedges at the cemetery where our great-grandparents were buried had the sweetest nectar to drink.

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Plants are her passion. She turned the derelict empty lot beside our house into a vibrant garden of fruit trees, ferns, and flowering bushes. She could coax any plant to flower. Orchids were her specialty. She had an entire greenhouse of orchids, plants who were so selfish with their blooms with everyone else but her. Dendrobiums, phalaenopsis, cattleyas...the neighborhood flower shop bought flowers from her to augment their supply come wedding season. She spent so much time thumbing through books of European gardens, making me repeat the names of these foreign flowers: hydrangeas, lilies of the valley, hollyhocks, iris, all manner of rose varieties. She fervently wished she could see these gardens herself. I often think that half her resentment at her husband’s abandonment was rooted in the fact that he had brought his new Japanese wife to immigrate to America instead, squashing my grandmother’s dreams of walking through a field of larkspur, of rushing through a cascade of falling pink blossoms in the spring, of touching the soft petals of a rose garden in bloom.

My grandfather left. My grandmother had to raise three children alone. I’ve often wondered if that was the ur-event, where all the worry began. My grandmother worries all the time. Pesticides would kill us, so our fruit and vegetables were served naked, without their peels. Deadly parasites lived underground so we never walked around in bare feet. Each piece of fish was shredded to bits as she hunted down every errant spiky bone so her grandchildren wouldn’t choke when eating. We were too thin, always too thin, so she measured out a cup of rice for each one of us and we weren't allowed to leave the table till we finished every grain. When I had my own child, she sent envelopes filled with letters and newspaper clippings, so thick each one needed at least ten stamps.

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Any article on childrearing in the Manila Bulletin or Philippine Star now finds its way to me. Her letters are full of advice, directions to make sure the baby won't die on my watch. Choking is always a big concern. She keeps wishing she could be here, raising her great-grandchildren the way she had raised me.

Truth be told, I keep half-expecting that too. I'd always assumed she would be a constant presence in my children’s life the way she had been in mine. She was there to make sure we ate, took our afternoon naps and evening baths. She repaired each torn soft toy with loving care, her fine meticulous stitches creating the most elegant of scars. Most mornings from six years old on, I woke up at dawn to find her sitting on the edge of her bed, in the room we shared, staring out the window into the far distance. I asked after her thoughts, she smiled and said nothing about them, and hurried me on to start my day. Now that I am older, with two children of my own, I too find myself staring out into the distance with thoughts I can never share with a child of four or seven.

Not that my grandmother was shy about her opinions. Of which she has many, often contradictory. On one hand, telling me that I needed to learn to wash dishes and clean house properly or I would never find a husband. Then a couple of months later, telling me that it was important that I have children, but men were not essential to a happy life. “Besides, men leave,” she said with conviction. Hard earned knowledge for her, I don’t think she ever thought divorce was possible until it happened. “In the eyes of the Lord, we are still married,” she always said. “Well in the eyes of the law, he should have paid you alimony,” I replied.

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My husband met my grandmother early on in our courtship, on a trip I made him take ostensibly to introduce him to my family but also as a test to see if he was serious enough about our relationship to fly all the way to the other side of the world. On that trip, Lola gripped his hand and said, “I am a dying leaf on the vine.” They say I get my penchant for drama from my dad but I’m sure there’s a lot of Lola Loleng in me too. I hugged her and laughed, dismissed her fears, saying “Lola, your own mother, Lola Bulag lived to her 90’s, With your northern Ivatan blood, you’re a lot stronger than most.”

That was almost 10 years ago, and now my grandmother is 93. She seems weaker, frailer, but only in comparison to her past self. Compared to other lolas and lolos of age, my grandmother is in relatively good health. Her appetite is not what it was, but she still enjoys a good meal and her Korean soap operas.

She collects pictures of her great-grandchildren and enjoys the videos of them sent from far away. She still worries, talks about how she is at death’s door every other day, but I think, and I hope, that the hardest typhoon she has ever had to weather is now past. What are these worries after all, compared to the devastation of her husband’s betrayals and final abandonment?

My grandmother went to vocational school, not college. She knew how to sew, how to cook, how to keep house. She could not earn a decent living and she had three children to feed and send to school. Her ex-husband sent money sometimes, but there was never enough for tuition or food. It was only because of the kindness of relatives, who were not always in the best of financial health themselves, that her family managed to scrape by.

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The house had fruit trees, a sugarcane bush, and beds of kangkong beside it. My uncle went to graduate school on a student loan, my mom finished accounting at university and got an office job that helped the household till her younger brother finished college too.

So what if the house everyone lived in got flooded whenever typhoon season came around? So what if date nights sometimes meant you’d have to go ask your younger siblings for some extra cash for meals at Max’s Fried Chicken? So what if there were two bedrooms and at least six adults plus assorted kids living under one roof? Or that she spent long nights with no sleep, exhausted from her mind turning and turning, trying to figure out how to keep everyone and everything together. How to make their way through to being ok again. One time, when things were especially rough, there were letters and letters imploring her husband to help them out. In response, he sent back a diamond ring to Manila, to be pawned or sold. Turned out that diamond was made of glass.

Her children all finished college, some even got graduate degrees. One son immigrated to the United States and after many years, flew her out there to finally see her much dreamed of spring, with the rich profusion of blooms that she had only seen in her gardening books.

She is so proud of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. I know because she tells us so. And because I read a letter she wrote to her ex-husband a couple of years ago. A letter to tell him that she forgave him for leaving, though you didn’t need to read between the lines to know that she didn’t really forgive him at all. She wrote how each day she thanked the Good Lord that even without his presence and support, everyone turned out fine. She wrote about her children’s lives, their marriages, and their wonderful, beautiful children whom she loves. She lists them all— a granddaughter at Harvard, another at MIT, professionals in New York, San Francisco, Manila, and Singapore. She now has a grandson who is a doctor, another an artist, imagine that. All without him. All happy now and safe, despite him. No, my grandmother doesn’t forget. She is 93 and knows the name of every plant within a one-mile radius, can tell me how I cut my heel on a Coke bottle and bled into her hands when I was eight, and how cute my brother looked in that tiger costume she sewed for him when he was four, how he wiggled his tail and preened onstage to an adoring audience. She never forgets. I inherited that from her too.

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My grandmother raised us. She adjudicated our childhood arguments and spanked our bottoms when we misbehaved. She fed us, constantly. The richest feasts, and the simplest, most savory meals. She taught us all the secrets of her world of dragonflies and guava trees, told us stories when we were scared and patted us to sleep on the banig. She managed my mother’s household so my mother could keep on working. She was adamant that my mother not suffer the same fate she had, she wanted to make sure that my mother could always support herself and not depend on a husband’s income. She gave her life so that we could have ours, I know that now. My mother lucked out. Since Lola Loleng was the disciplinarian, it was my grandmother who bore the brunt of all my youthful rebelliousness. As much as I could hurt my parents’ feelings with a knowing remark, my sharpest words were reserved for the grandmother who sang me lullabies in her dulcet tones, and kept vigil with wet washcloths and prayers for long feverish nights.

My grandmother is stubborn and willful. She has lived through earthquakes and typhoons, literally and metaphorically. She is opinionated. “Don’t settle,” she would say, “Mas mabuti pang mag-isa kaysa mapakasalan mo bungi.” She’s a bit of a hoarder, having lived through the war. She doesn’t hesitate to lie when needed. Telling me it’s already 6:30 a.m. and I’d be late for the school bus just to get me out of bed at 5:30 a.m. Convincing me that eating the eyes of a fish would ensure that I would have good eyesight too.

She is clever and compassionate. She will always treat me like I am still thirteen years old, no matter how old I get, no matter what, I am a mother now too.

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I love her so.

She has taught me so many things. I think, most importantly, she has taught me how to grow old. She never had a career or a big outside life. She has spent her entire life in service to the people she loves. When she was stronger, she was also there to help her community and her church. And even now in her weaker state, she is still there for us. I arrive at midnight bleary-eyed after a 21-hour flight crossing oceans and continents, and she is awake asking if I’ve eaten yet, instructing our cook to mix up the tomato-onion-and green mango mix for my favorite shrimp dish.

She thinks about us constantly, her blood kin spread out all over the globe, and sends us newspaper clippings and letters in her round, elegant script. She can no longer prepare the elaborate meals for holiday feasts but we try to carry on the tradition of her Christmas ham, suman, and tsokolate eh, though we cannot even begin to meet her baking wizardry for her cakes and pumpkin pie. I hope to one day make leche flan and brazo de Mercedes with the same skill, and to prepare chicken curry with a green mango chutney that would do her justice.

But more importantly, I want to love as she does, with her whole heart, leaving nothing for herself. I know I will fail, but to even try, perhaps, is a strong, brave thing. Because while others grow old in bitterness, grumbling that the world has forgotten them in their old age, that all their friends have left them, and their families are too busy with their own lives to come pay homage at their feet, my grandmother waits quietly by a window, framed photographs of her progeny lining the shelves, listening to her radio shows and watching her soap operas, happy that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have these rich, full lives that in those dark times, she didn’t even dare think was possible.

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My grandmother’s love is a peeled grape. Her love is a fish without bones. My love for her is the amihan after monsoon season. It is the warm ocean current that runs through deep waters. It is a story of pages and pages without end.

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Maileen Salazar
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