My ‘Ima’

young bayang

I’m sitting under a giant mango tree in a tranquil place where I will be teaching yoga tomorrow. I love it when I’m here. As I write, pearly white geese are wobbling a few feet away from me, oblivious of my presence or perhaps indifferent to it. Like me, they’re at peace here, able to escape the vileness of the world outside. On my way to this very spot, I walked past a couple of chickens and roosters and couldn’t help but think how lucky they were for not ending up on someone’s dinner plate. Of course, there are the people – the privileged few who have the means to stay here and listen to the sound of crickets and ghekos at night, walk around the greenery and amongst the pretty peacocks, eat clean and cruelty-free food, are able to call on someone to serve their needs all day and night. These are hardworking, busy folk, for sure, and they deserve to partake in the luxury that surrounds them. Among all of them, I’m luckiest because I not only get to be here without expense, I also get to reach out to people and do what I love. Yoga has taken me to places I would never have gone, both internally and externally, and my heart is brimming with gratitude.

It is, however, also broken.

As I take in the loving energy that envelopes this place, it suddenly hits me that someone I love dearly had never gotten to enjoy something like this. Not that she would have cared. My grandmother wanted nothing more than to be in her home, tending to her garden and cooking her famously delicious meals for her loved ones. She wasn’t one to mope and think about what she was missing out on by staying put. Once she grew roots, she stayed planted. And there, she flourished. She and I are as different as night and day in that regard. I continue to seek adventure and long to see as much of the world as I can while she was content being in her kitchen, doing her magic.

Years ago, a friend of mine, who was managing a cultural website, asked me to write an article about anything uniquely Filipino. I was living abroad and often homesick. So, I wrote about my grandmother and her cooking skills – her intuitive way of knowing when to add more seasoning, or, say, how much vinegar was needed to make the carabao’s milk coagulate and turn into cheese. She would whip up three dishes at a time all by her lonesome, every day. All my grandfather and myself had to do was plop our butts down onto our chairs and eat. Sometimes, she would look at us as we munched on quietly, trying to hide the need for a quick validation. When none came, she’d ask “How’s the food?” And we’d reply a perfunctory “It’s wonderful” or “Delicious” and she’d be satiated, a satisfied countenance overtaking her. It took very little to please her. That was a uniquely Filipino trait, I thought, but also uniquely hers.

She knew how much people appreciated her cooking so she made her kitchen skills her vocation. Cooking, I realized, was her way of loving. For example, she would spend the entire day preparing “biko”—rice cake with squash – and “maja blanca” – rice cake with coconut milk – that were so very hard to make. The term Herculean wouldn’t be an exaggeration because stirring a potful of sticky rice requires super strength. She would ask the menfolk to do the stirring for her, of course. (My uncle confessed that, after helping her out with this, he got sick the next day from pure exhaustion). After laboring for hours, she would give it away to our neighbors, leaving us with as little as three plates to devour. This irked me no end because I loved her desserts and I’d be left with not much! When I was a young girl, I remember her preparing pastillas de leche and, once, handed me a bowlful to taste. I sat in front of the television to mindlessly watch Saturday morning cartoons and, before anyone knew it, the bowl was empty. Instead of getting mad, she let out a belly laugh.

While she was very aware of her gastronomic wizardry, never once did she brag; it was simply not in her nature to seek attention. In fact, she loathed it.

My grandparents had clear-cut roles: He brought home the bacon; she kept house. It was an easy setup that didn’t require thought, debate or discussion, with each of them appreciating the role the other had in the household. My grandmother was never made to feel she was doing less. In fact, she controlled the purse, which made her truly the queen of the home. This is why all of us in the family, despite changing times and gender roles, regard housework as WORK. We saw how tough it was for my grandmother to plan meals, cook, clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, feed the pets, water the plants, pluck weeds from the garden all by herself without a whimper. She quietly went about these tasks every day, often without help because she liked doing things her way.

And, boy, did she dote on me. She called the doctor and stayed up all night to care for me when I had severe asthma attacks. She attended PTA meetings. She cooked and fed me soup when I needed nursing from a fever. I was a sickly, fragile child that needed extra care; she and my grandfather provided that. My grandfather would fling five-year-old me on his shoulder and keep me there all night because I couldn’t breathe. My grandmother, in turn, would make a mountain out of pillows so I could lay in bed with my back reclined to ease my suffering. I remember them holding back emotion – perhaps frustration – over their inability to help me and stop me from crying when these asthma attacks and burning fevers came. I would experience the same kind of helplessness as I watched each of them, four years apart, take painfully labored and shallow breaths in their final moments. “So this is what it’s like,” I thought, marveling at the fragility of life, the sacredness of it all, and the overwhelming sadness I felt as I saw them slowly slip away.

I still wonder what kind of strength it took for my grandmother to live four more years after my grandfather’s death. That she survived him for that long is testament to her character and joie de vivre. She still made us laugh with her wisecracks and laser-sharp observations of everyday things: how scandalously short my skirt was, how gray her hair was becoming, how loud that girl on TV was. She prayed harder than ever. She endured the loss of feeling on her limbs and accepted with grace and dignity the fact that she won’t ever walk again. She never complained, never made demands, never was the prima donna. She accepted whatever time we could give her. She sometimes asked for more but if it could not be given, she understood. I will also forever try to know what got her through those years of solitude because I can’t imagine being imprisoned by my own body, living only in my mind.

Ima-radio

Perhaps, it was constant communication with my grandfather that made her hang on for as long as she did. They loved to talk to each other – I would wake up at dawn to sounds of them discussing things or going over the events of the previous day. When he passed on, she stealthily continued to converse with him, maybe thinking we couldn’t hear. But we did. I did. And each time, it broke me.

Now, in the quiet of night in this lovely space filled with trees and the sounds of nature, loneliness overcomes me. There are people who share my grief, of course: my mother and her siblings, my cousins, other relatives. But our sadness is unique to each of us; we all have our own ways of coping. I have a feeling that, as time passes, I will feel the gravity of her death even more. It is something I need to endure, without complaint.

***

A few days before her 94th birthday, lola and I were talking as I lay in bed next to her. She was on her side, her right arm on my belly.

“I’m old,” she said. “I’ll be 94 soon.”

“Ninety-four is young, Lola. Ninety-five, though, IS old. You’ll be an old woman next year,” I joked.

She lightly smacked my stomach as we both chuckled, and afterwards she sought my arm and stroked it. And just like that, it was the two of us again, my Ima and I, sharing another moment out of the many we’d had. Right then and there, with my mind painfully aware of the passage of time, I whispered a prayer of thanks.

 

Comments

  1. Aimee Rae says:

    Such beautiful prose. My condolences to you and your family, Louie.

  2. My condolences, Louie.

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