I wrote this piece when Asian Creative Network: Los Angeles ran a contest as part of a promotion for "The Farewell" that encouraged folks to share experiences of their grandmother or visiting their ancestral land. This was one of the first personal pieces that drove me into a writing frenzy in a long time.
It’s not easy to leave the only home you’ve ever known, but Lola came to the States out of love. My mother made the same journey years prior, with the same hopes that all immigrants have when they come here. Instead, she endured two awful marriages and faced motherhood alone. With all of Lola’s other children married and able to lean on each other, it was a no brainer for her to cross an ocean for her eldest daughter.
Out of 16 grandchildren, I’m the only one my lola saw grow from baby to adulthood.
I don’t know how to ask Lola how she felt about missing years of my cousins’ lives, because there is a huge language barrier between her and me. My dumb toddler self wanted to only speak English, and that stubborness robbed me of speaking the mother tongue. Lola also struggled to communicate with other Filipinos outside the family because she only spoke our regional dialect.
I realize now that living here must have been lonely for Lola. Mom worked long hours and I was in various student clubs. Sometimes Lola would be by herself for an entire day without talking to someone...and to my regret we didn’t exchange that many words when I was home (because again, language barrier).
Still, I learned about Lola’s life in the Philippines in bits and pieces. A cousin remembered searching for crawfish in the river with her. A tita recalled men chasing after my lola in her prime. My mom smiled at the memory of lola being first one to dance at a party, long before she got older and got tired of going to dances.
I didn’t know those parts of lola firsthand, but I still loved the lola I knew. She kept the most vibrant garden in our apartment complex, enjoyed watching I Love Lucy reruns, and I owe my basic grasp of my family’s dialect to her. Lola was a constant presence in my life, quietly watching TV as I studied or waving hello to my friends as we rushed to rehearsals and birthday parties.
Even though Lola had her own version of resting bitch face, it made her laughter and smiles even more special.
Food was the primary way lola sent those smiles my way and expressed things more complicated than requests for the TV remote. For instance, she would often make these pancakes from a boxed mix.
Lola saturated them margarine, so that the edges of the batter would be crisp and buttery. I loved them when I was a kid, and some days they were the only things I ate. Even when I was in college and had long been sick of pancakes, lola would always make them for me when she thought I wasn’t eating. In her mind, I was still the kid who loved pancakes.
“Kaon na,” she would plop a plate in front of me, “Eat.”
My lola rapidly lost weight over the past few years, and her memory also went the same way. By senior year of college, I was in charge of taking care of her during the few weekends I was home. After two decades of Lola tending to me, I didn’t know how to handle the reversal of roles. I was once so focused on midterms that I accidentally forgot to make something for Lola. This was dangerous because Lola is diabetic; low sugar caused her to become sleepy, and eventually she passed out. My mother rushed Lola to emergency room, and I will never forget the look of disappointment she gave me.
Is your work so important that you forget your family, too?
It finally hit me that the tough, steady woman of my childhood was now as frail as a child.
Lola permanently moved back to the Philippines last year because there were more people who could watch her. She couldn’t remember most of her grandchildren.
When I visited last February, my mom wanted to test Lola’s memory. She pointed at me and asked my lola, “Who is that?”
“I don’t know,” lola said, furrowing her brow at me. I couldn’t breathe, and my vision seemed to dim. Who knew that three words could hurt so much?
“No,” my mom urged, “Who is the person you raised since they were a baby?”
Lola shook her head, annoyed at being bothe
red early in the morning, “I don’t remember her name.”
I laughed with others at the table and excused myself. I let the tears fall in the safety of a bedroom. I probably deserved that, after years of not trying hard enough to be a good Filipino granddaughter. Perhaps it was better that Lola didn’t remember me.
But Lola surprised me. She asked my aunts to buy coffee so we could drink a cup together. She frequently told me to eat. She told me to comb my hair, which was something she always scolded me to do as a child. My aunts said that lola always asked where I was (and whether I ate).
By the time I returned to America, I got the sense that Lola always knew who I was, even if she couldn’t always remember my name.
The love never changed.
And whatever else happens, I know it never will.