A white rectangular wooden box with a polished surface and token curlicued bronze-colored engraving on its sides greeted my sleep-deprived and travel-weary eyes. As I entered the funeral home that early morning, I noted with wry amusement that Auntie Vim and her friends were entertaining themselves with their private jokes coupled with comical dancing. Mithi was lying fast asleep on the sofa nearest the coffin. The bright lights and heavy scent of flowers were an assault on the senses, very jarring in the cool and quiet air of a December morning. I nervously and slowly approached the coffin and peered into the wrinkled face of this once proud woman now shriveled and utterly lifeless. As I marshaled my thoughts and feelings, I noted how unbecoming the pink lipstick was against her brown leathery skin. I inwardly flinched when I saw that the white lining of the coffin on which she lay had the texture and look of plastic. I suddenly remembered how she hated plastic plants.
Lola was undoubtedly a major force in our lives. The first thing that we usually associated with her was how she practically rammed formal prayers down our throats. The 5:30 AM daily rosary, the 6 PM Angelus, the Wednesday novena, and the Sunday mass were rituals I always wanted to squirm my way out of. But of course, my efforts were futile. She would just glare at me and murmur that the devil was with me. Cocoy, Mithi, Anto, and I were the grandchildren who really lived with her for a long time and bore the brunt and blessing of her presence. I know we all have our stories to tell. Most of them filled with resentment and maybe, disbelief (you fill in the blanks why disbelief); pride at her strength, intelligence, culture, and sophistication; and a bit of sadness that the loving, affectionate, and doting grandmother was not what we really experienced. Lola used to threaten the forever bickering Mithi and Anto that she would haunt them from her grave if they do not stop fighting. Cocoy got flak from her for phone calls he received from girls (as if it were really his fault that girls were drawn to him and flouted Lola’s convention that girls should never be calling boys). And I? Well, I certainly drew her ire for a lot of things such as giggling with boys, receiving visitors at home who were in basketball shorts (“walang urbanidad”), giggling during rosary time with Coy, Mit, and Anto (again, the devil was just with us), coming home in the wee hours of the morning, waking up late, playing judo, being with men, being just like my father, being a smartmouth, being me. I always said that Lola had picturesque speech and she damn used this to the hilt. I certainly can understand why another grandchild of hers cannot forgive her. She was a strong willed woman who was surrounded by women of her stock and that was not exactly a recipe for harmonious living.
Last Wednesday, I went to Mass as offering for Mommy’s birthday. The Mass was followed by the Novena of Perpetual Help. I realized I could say the whole novena by heart without even once looking at the monitor where the prayers are projected. When it came to the singing of “Mother of Christ,” I was a bit shaken because Lola always sang
this song with such fervor. Lola used to always ask me to lead the novena and sometimes even instructed the helpers to listen well and learn how I pronounce the words. (She always said that language is caught, not taught.) It struck me that even as I resented her while growing up, her values made indelible impact on me. Who would have thought that the very prayers and rituals I wanted to skip are now things that help nourish me.
Mama and Lola were always locking horns on how the children should be raised. We slept late and woke up late and were not too keen on doing household chores. One time, I got a bad sprain from a judo tournament and Lola was mercilessly harping on Mama for allowing me to play such a sport unfit for girls. Poor Mama. While she was attending to my injury, she angrily and tearfully explained to Lola that she supports her children in doing what they love. I just sat there quietly—a witness to many more confrontations of the same theme. But later, as I progressed and gained more stature in my sport, Lola said I was “beauty, brains, and brawn.”
When Lolo died, Auntie Vim talked to me and told me that I should sleep with Lola in their room and be her companion. I dutifully obeyed. It was hard not only because does she wake up in the unholy hours of the night to loudly and exaggeratedly recite her prayers, but she tells the “horror stories” of the family in general, and that of my parents in particular. I was ten years old then and she impressed upon me the disaster of being in debt. She told me of an old man who bought a fish for thirty centavos on credit. The old man promised the vendor that he would pay her at a designated time. However, he suddenly died without having settled his debt. The old man could not rest in peace and haunted his wife and told her to pay the vendor. The wife went to the fish vendor but the vendor would not accept the money and said that it was to serve as her abuloy instead. Still, the old man could not rest in peace. So he himself appeared to the vendor and asked her to receive the payment from his wife that he may finally rest. Twenty-two years down the road and I still remember that story vividly. I actually told that story to Jun early in the year when I decided to zero out my credit card debt. It was indeed a liberating experience. She also told me the story of how she did not want Papa for Mama. Lola was more inclined towards Mama’s lawyer suitor and she made no bones about it. Eventually, Mama left for Manila and broke up with Papa and considered accepting this suitor instead. But surprisingly, Lola intervened on behalf of Papa and grudgingly
acknowledged and appreciated his sincere love. Or so her story goes. Nevertheless, Lola has always eloquently stated that no man is good enough for her daughter. Papa bore the burden of this declaration as Lola periodically still expressed this through the years.
Lola was one for the finer things in life. She was the one who taught me how to properly set a table and which part of the folded napkin should be facing the fork. Always have fresh flowers. Always be properly dressed. Always speak straight English, etc. Plants are a thing of beauty and a very poor household that takes good care of plants and manages to have curtains as well commands her respect. She and Lolo got together over Wuthering Heights—or rather, “fell in love over Wuthering Heights.” But there was this one time I asked her if she was in love with Lolo when she married him, she only looked at me in distaste. Matters of the heart were apparently not up for discussion. But she advised me to give vent to anger by tilling the soil. Indeed, she spent a lot of time in the garden. Upon her behest, I painstakingly lined various parts of the garden with stones. It was an exercise in patience, she said. In retrospect, I think it was very zen. She always said that she was bequeathing the garden to me. At the back of my head, I only went, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” Now as I’m reflecting on her life and how it has affected mine, I wonder, “Was she serious?!”
“If you can’t say something nice about someone, better shut your mouth.” This is perhaps one of Lola’s statements that I often quote when the need arises. As soon as I utter these words, in my mind I reluctantly affirm that I am indeed my Lola’s granddaughter. “TOO” (Think of others.) and “Chew your food THOROUGHLY.” always spouted from her mouth when we were at the dining table. Those words may not seem like much but they could have very well bred the generosity and the fine appreciation of food that run through the family. Lola was the first environmentalist we ever knew as Mommy is wont to say. I remember Lola telling me before that the water will eventually run out and thus we should do our best to conserve it. With this El Niño plaguing the country now, I could almost swear she was using a crystal ball then. She always went through the trouble of
watering the plants with wastewater using a dipper and pail instead of the very convenient garden hose and she would make sure that I do the same when it was my turn for garden duty (which I was forever trying to get out of). Lola was also the first feminist I encountered as she bluntly told me that I should always have my own money to buy my
sanitary napkin and not depend on a husband.
One Christmas, after I prepared her meal and read a prayer to her, she said, “You bring Christ to me.” And I almost fainted. He he. Just kidding. That was really just revelatory for it clearly marked a healing in our “colorful” relationship. In her final conscious moments spent with Mommy, Mama, and Auntie Pang, I learned that Lola mentioned my name. Whatever that may mean, it certainly strengthened the reality that this woman is truly a part of me, whether I like it or not. I have always declared that there really is no love lost between me and Lola. She was hardly the ideal, warm, and affectionate grandmother. Her words could be that of a viper but she was the one who wrote my moving valedictory address. She could be harsh and exacting but she always discreetly pressed a P500 bill into my palm when I left home. Even as I cried during her burial, I did not exactly feel that I lost someone I dearly loved. Then I had this frightening dream of her after her death. In the dream, Lola was restless and violent and would not “walk into the light.” Finally, I had the courage to confront her and asked what she wanted. She did not say anything but continued in her restless thrashing. I then just shouted at her, “Okay, we love you and we are proud that you are our lola.” (Cocoy was also in the dream, in the background.) Then she just disappeared. I’ve only had two dreams of Lola after she died. This is the scary one. The other one, she was admonishing Auntie Pang to go to Mass more often. These dreams may just be the workings of an overactive subconscious but they certainly underscore the need to address certain life issues.
In the commotion of preparations for Lola’s last trip in this world, from Cosmopolitan Funeral Parlor to the Davao Memorial Park, the detail of who was going to ride in the hearse as escort for her body was overlooked. As fate would have it, Papa and I were inadvertently assigned to be co-passengers in that lead car bearing her boxed remains That journey was very slow, sad, and quiet as Papa and I were each alone with our thoughts; guards to the lifeless body of a woman who deeply wounded us but at the same time gave us our life’s treasures.
Vida Mia Valverde is part owner of the St. Camillus Dormitel in Bajada and her Lola Juanita was a former principal of Bangoy Elementary School. It is the 2nd death anniversary of Lola Juanita come November 30, 2010.