16 June 2012


(I wrote this in April 2010, as another writing exercise. I thought I could use one after a fire completely destroyed the ancestral home—affectionately named the "Big House"—in Quezon City, sending our family into a sort of traumatic shock. Since then we've built another house on the same land and brought grandmother, who is ninety-five, to her “new” home in Manila.)

The last time Lola Auring was in Manila, she wrote things on the walls of the Big House. Wrote with a Mongol Number Two. This here is Josie’s, this is Jose’s, this is Violeta’s, this is Edith’s. Her four children didn’t seem to mind the penciled instructions—only, she could have gone about assigning minor spaces and inheritances in a less pointed manner. We, her children’s children, laughed at the idea. Like the bathroom would go anywhere! As though decades-old spiral staircases were assets! As though we’d leave Manila for Cagayan to take up agriculture and feed the carabaos, a suggestion which she had made more than once, I suppose to secure our future. 

But that is how she has always been: fixed in her ways and whims. Mother and Aunt Josie had the apartments at the back, but Lola had the land, all of it, which she divided, multiplied, expanded, and extended howsoever she pleased. She bought it in the early sixties, so who were we—not technically renters, but tenants still—to not forgive her for such eccentricities? Old age made her feeble, but it was just characteristic of her to keep reconfiguring, though more slowly, more deliberately as the years went by, the chairs and the tables, the plants in the garden and at the balcony, the picture frames and very old portraits, the dinner trays and the candlesticks, the icons that shook precariously whenever someone’s waist did so much as catch the edge of her lace-covered altar table.

It was also characteristic of her, when she went deaf at the age of ninety-two, to have acquired the skill of hearing the songs of angels, and to transcribe these into a form that it was hoped we all could read. She breakfasted at the round table downstairs, and whenever mother or Aunt Josie went to sit with her she talked of what she had heard the previous night, the Hallelujahs and the Emmanuels. Must she be so repetitive? At that age it seemed she must, because the young never listened. We were equally stubborn, really.

What can we do, Lola, what can we do for you, was the question that drove us in efforts to bring forth peace and tenderness in grandmother’s days—to make her feel loved. Can we help you move that chair, can we get you a slice of mango, can we get you a glass of Coke and some Cream-O, it really is scorching hot, and it’s nearly time for merienda anyway? It turned out that she hadn’t stopped doing what she could for us, never mind that she did it in ways that were solely her own.

A year before the fire, during what was her final stay at the Big House, I once came up to her bedroom and heard her struggling with a nasty cough. She was seated on the bed—her white grandmotherly hair undone, loose, and honest, her reading glasses off, her thin spotted shoulders bare and oily-looking—and she was spitting into an empty Selecta ice cream bucket, the one she used for watering the plants at the balcony. I made a move to try and clean up the mess but she wouldn’t have any of it. Instead she pulled me aside, opened a drawer from the study table, and reached for a manila envelope that contained sheets of music, the edges torn and yellowing.

Practice these, Lola said, practice like your grandfathers did so that the angels and the rest of heaven can hear you play. Never mind if you remember none of your piano lessons! Of all things, that was what she would have me do: the dignity of habit, the joy of song, a joy that seemed to fill her heart to bursting.

Two weeks later grandmother took a plane flight to Cagayan to spend the second half of the year in her hometown. I doubt if the thought had occurred to her that it was the last time she’d ever see the Big House. After all, she’d built the place and, with her weary hand, marked it. Erasing the charcoal was never for us to decide. 

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