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The Way She Was
memories of Lola Posta's hundred years

Until before she died, she had insisted that she must have been more than a century old. And we believed her. But for lack of the original birth certificate, we chose to play safe and placed her age at a round 100. She would always protest. Having gone through so much during her lifetime, she seemed to be saying, she could not but be more than a hundred years old. The issue about her actual age took a livelier turn when the Philippine Centennial was celebrated in 1998.

...she always argued that she was definitely not younger than
a hundred years...
and one could somehow detect the most subtle trace of satisfaction
and self-esteem
at having survived
so many wars
and deaths...

There was a tragicomic irony to this controversy. On one hand, she always lamented the fact that God had allowed her to live far longer than was humanly decent, having suffered grievous losses when she was younger, and having had to bear the indignity of being ignored-only partly true-by the people she loved as she hobbled on into her twilight years. On the other hand, she always argued that she was definitely not younger than a hundred years, that she was probably a hundred and five, and one could somehow detect the most subtle trace of satisfaction and self-esteem at having survived so many wars and deaths, and every conceivable kind of personal crisis.

Lola Fausta—or Posta, as friends and relatives alike were wont to pronounce her name ever since one cares to remember, though it is possible she began sporting the name at a certain point in late middle age, or at the beginning of grandmotherhood—carried the family name Santos, a common enough surname in Malabon, Rizal where she was born, and certainly quite common anywhere else in the entire archipelago for that matter. A truly unremarkable name, unless one belonged to the upper branches of the Santos tree in this country—as in, say, 'de Santos' or 'Abad Santos'—although it would be difficult to construct a singular Santos genealogy as the name must have been an arbitrary choice open to the Indios throughout the Philippines when the colonial rulers decided to hispanicize them, even if only in name. She was a commonplace Santos, who gave birth to children with commonplace qualities. There will never be a mention of her name in any history book, and she can only live on in the memory of her descendants, and perhaps in some fragment of literature or the personal diary of a grieving grandchild.

While everything about my Lola was the epitome of commonness, she stands immortalized by the fact that she belonged to that exclusive Centenarian Club in the Philippines, whose surviving members by this time, the first year of the 21st century, must now number only in the few hundreds. And if her calculations were correct, that she must have been several years past a hundred at the time of the Centennial in 1998, she would be in the even rarer league of Centenarians Plus.

In 1998, to which we look back now as a watershed of sorts, to have been a centenarian or older was rich with implications. You were born during the dying years of the 19th century, and you spent your childhood during the first decade of the new century when the country was still recovering from defeat at the hands of the new colonial master that replaced Spain. You were growing up as a citizen of a new Filipino nation born in a revolution of staggering impact but with indeterminate results. You would remember how cities and provinces looked like long before the war years—the stretch of "peacetime" (pistaym to the ancients) between the two world wars which was also the cusp of our modern times defined primarily by the politics, arts, culture, and lifestyle of the New World, kneaded heavy-handedly and willy-nilly into the moldy dough of whatever it was that passed for a Hispanic heritage. You were thus exposed to continuing changes in fashion, social mores, modes of thinking, and to all kinds of Western—particularly American-influences.

Thus my grandmother, as a bystander who with countless other Filipinos were destined to be mere bystanders to history, witnessed the continuous influx of Yankees into the country, marveled at the first motorcars which appeared on Manila's streets, and became fascinated with the new look in clothes that provided the Filipina of the 1920s and the 1930s the cultural accoutrements for a newfangled liberatedness, the early prototype of swinging sosyal.

It was he who taught Lola Posta how to sew and design clothes,
and he even made her his living mannequin modeling the dresses that he produced from his sewing machine—

My Lola may have belonged to the lower middle class, but in her teens, she found the ticket to the enjoyment of an ersatz fun-filled society life: she became a dressmaker, a modista, a trade taken up by most female and some male members of her family, particularly her uncle my grand-Ingkong Ebo whose last years coincided with my early youth, and about whom I should write someday if only because of his family's complete collection of the four greatest comic books in Philippine history, Hiwaga, Tagalog, Espesyal, and Filipino, plus some of the lesser ones. It was he who taught Lola Posta how to sew and design clothes, and he even made her his living mannequin modeling the dresses that he produced from his sewing machine—she remembers the viuda alegre, cuerdas de abundancia, sigalot ng pag-ibig, parisienne and londres (how fascinating to have heard these names and phrases uttered by a centenarian who never spoke any other language in her long life except for her native Tagalog Malabon)—and all these fashions she herself learned to make, and sold to an admiring clientele who mostly were well-to-do, and she could remember the favorite colors of the skirts of the day, carmen, lila, asul, and that these were always paired with kimono or blusa.

Indeed her being a skilled dressmaker in her teens opened doors to a different world. She was befriended by some well-off girls of the town who brought her along to their parties, but the most memorable of them all was a contemporary named Regina, daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple who lived in Gagalangin, Tondo and was obviously drawn to this fair-looking, hardworking modista making a living in a simple thatch-roofed house tucked away in a looban of Malabon's warren of eskinitas.

What she remembered with utmost fondness, a story told over and over at every opportunity for reminiscing throughout the post-war years up to the time she was nearing dotage, yes and right up to her last days on earth, was being fetched by Regina in her family carruaje which was outfitted with the finest appointments and trimmings, upholstered in velour, and drawn by a magnificent horse the color of chestnut and hence was called a kastanya. She may never have taken a ride in one of those dazzling black American awtomobil in shining chrome which was inevitably the cynosure in every town and city where they made an appearance, but Lola Posta would never have exchanged that horseless carriage for the royal one which brought her and friend Regina without fail to every major dance party in town, to all the fiestas in the neighboring towns, even beyond the province of Rizal.

In a life full of ironies, she was surprisingly an unyielding wallflower by choice, preferring to exchange pleasantries with new friends, or pleasurably basking in the attention of the public as she paraded the latest fashion of the day which she herself had fitted up, but absolutely refusing to dance with any man, as if the touch of the opposite gender—on hand, forehead, shoulder, cheek, or waist—was something completely alien to her. Wistfully, she would describe herself as virginal and demure, and the first man who ever touched her had to marry her before he could do that. In contrast, Regina was the compleat flapper, though not scandalously so, and had the time of her life dancing away nights in the fast-stepping, hand-waving, faddish numbers of their generation, and I have black & white visions of these scenes, as though from silent films, gleaned from my grandmother's tales of youthful joie de vivre.

They were like a precious pair of dainty gloves, inseparable, and because she became practically an adopted daughter of Regina's parents, she had all the trappings of spoiled girlitude and the accessories of charm that could only fill the waking dreams of the less advantaged women of her own social class, in a world of femininity where class was never at issue, or so it seemed to carefree girls like herself and friend Regina. Either both of them wore the dresses that she had made, or Regina paid for other fashions which were lent to her, and her generous Chinese foster parents, who conveniently were owners of a shoe factory in Gagalangin, let her wear any pair of shoes she fancied on the shelves, which carried all styles imaginable from America and the Continent. Among her favorites were the media entrada, and boots of any length—calf-high, knee-high, or the borsigi which, as she recalled, reached up to the thigh. For fancier occasions, which included dine-outs for just the two of them, she wore knee-high stockings of white lace.

...and there was no one she talked to who would not have heard of her Regina tales, such being the kindness and generosity she would never get to know again for the rest of her life.

Thus a great part of her teens, and her early twenties, were spent in a festive frolic through early life with Regina, and they were unofficial queens of any carnival, habitues of the finest Chinese restaurants, unfailing guests in dance parties, and regulars in excursions to the favorite spots of the day: Antipolo, Los Baños, the fishponds of Binuangan where one could have a feast of all kinds of seafood, as well as beaches near and far.

She could not remember when she saw Regina for the last time. Perhaps it was in the days shortly before the war, or during the war itself. Nobody could tell her, when liberesyon came, what had happened to Regina and her doting, kindly Chinese parents. She made fleeting references to unconfirmed reports of Japanese soldiers doing some terrible things to her friend and her family, but never dwelt too much on it lest what could be imagined only deepened her sad remembrance of a beautiful lost friendship, but Regina lived on in her memories, and there was no one she talked to who would not have heard of her Regina tales, such being the kindness and generosity she would never get to know again for the rest of her life.

Yet even if Regina had not become part of her youth, she had enough leisure activities to keep her busy. She listened to the radio to be able to keep up with the top hits, though there was no indication that she preferred American music to the local one, for indeed she always regaled us her grandchildren with her renditions of Tagalog folksongs and classics, Nasaan Ka, Irog, Mutya ng Pasig, Sa Kabukiran, her voice thinning and becoming high-pitched as she aged. She went through all kinds of Western magazines, though again there was no indication that she ever learned to read, let alone write and speak, English, and her favored magazines, imported and otherwise, were those that had pictures of the fashion in vogue as well as photographs of the superstars of the period, from Hollywood and the local tinseltown. The predilection for kaputian among Filipinos would certainly have been nurtured by such influences, as my Lola did exhibit this fascination for the fair-skinned, not only treasuring her clippings of creamy white models and actresses, but even, when she started giving birth to children, wishing for them the same quality of fairness people saw in the país, a word she used and which she said referred to the white foreigners in their midst, and indeed an uncle of mine, the youngest in her brood of seven, was said to have been ipinaglihi sa 'Merkano, for he was fair of skin and with mestizo features, but this was certainly more due to my Lolo's Spanish blood than any psychogenetic effect of hero-worshipping the white Americans, or being obsessed with photographs of them.

There were supportive parents and relatives who tolerated and were even pleased with Lola Posta's easy-going ways, because they knew she worked with as much zest as she partied, perhaps even more so, earning a livelihood from dressmaking, and as she grew older, she also learned to be a weaver. It was not unusual, she told us, for a household in Malabon and presumably other places to have a manghahabi, for weaving was a traditional craft young women were expected to know. In fact dressmaking was something of a new art and trade, brought on by the phenomenon universally known as fashion, and she thus became not only a weaver but also a costurera.

She never so much as hinted about how she had fared in school, what grade she had finished. I never got to ask her what her favorite subjects were, as school was never a topic she seemed to have an interest in. This seeming unconcern with learning, apparently abetted by an appetite for the social pleasures of parties and fiesta-hopping, had a sad and unexpected result after she had gotten married and begotten children. At one point, she had hauled off her children not yet out of primary school to her husband's homestead in the wilds of Batangas, there to eke out a living as seamstresses and helpers to their parents as the latter cleared the land and planted it to fruit trees and vegetables, and the deprivation of school would cause a strain on their relationship with their mother which never was resolved until the day she died.

Her life as an itinerant merchant of jewelry, mosquito nets,
and straw mats lay not far ahead. The early death of my grandfather set the course of her life, and that
of her children, for
the succeeding years.

That dark period apart, Lola Posta was every bit the quintessential Filipino woman of the age: hardworking, devoted to family and the values it stood for, rather strict on her children, and—after my grandfather died in his early forties—always looking for means to augment income with which to buy life's simplest necessities. Everything seemed to cost less then, reckoned in centavos, but then people earned in centavos, too, or at best a few pesos. That was the main reason why she sought to be good at weaving, and later at selling what she herself had woven. Her life as an itinerant merchant of jewelry, mosquito nets, and straw mats lay not far ahead. The early death of my grandfather set the course of her life, and that of her children, for the succeeding years.

Lolo Insiyong, as grandfather Florencio was called, came into Lola Posta's life like the proverbial knight in shining armor, and there was almost a literal truth to this, as she would remember him appearing before her for the first time in a neatly pressed, starched, and sun-bright white long-sleeved shirt with a gaily colored necktie, and stiff khaki pants that seemed wrinkle-free. He introduced himself as a tobacco agent from the company she recalled being referred to as Relova, from which he later resigned to be employed by the Bureau of Health as a distributor of medicines to far-flung barrios all over the country, supervising the loading aboard ships and accompanying his precious cargo to various ports. Lolo Insiyong she spoke of reverentially, and it would seem that the words kind, patient, forbearing could not have fitted any other living, saintly person. He was also very neat about the house, a trait she discovered only when they had gotten married, but the quality that she found most fascinating, and this she would recount with her endearing toothless smile, was the fact that he could put up with the notorious temper that she had developed as she strained through the difficulties of raising a family on a minor bureaucrat's income and the uncertain earnings of a part-time dressmaker and seasonal traveling merchant which she was.

One of the most oft-repeated anecdotes was of her letting out a litany of complaints, punctuated by her trademark cursing which always seemed to us, in our growing years, as part of the native language of Malabon folk, and her constant nagging which could go on for hours on end, taking up a good part of the day, only to be answered at long last by what could be a classic in the art of the laconic: 'Are you finished'? That was all, no riposte, no hell-raising of his own, not even the silent rage of a walk-out. He just went back doing whatever work was at hand: digging a new bed for vegetable seeds, transplanting sprouts and seedlings, clearing a new swath of cogon for his growing orchard, cutting down the dense thicket of bamboo, fashioning makeshift implements from available material, or gathering new fruits to distribute to his children, especially his daughters on whom he doted so, and they would never forget that he always looked out for the largest, ripest succulent atis to sweeten their child's summers with.

To the end of my days, I will always rue the fact that I never got to meet Lolo Insiyong, after whom, my grandmother used to say, I must have inherited my love for farming and an obsession for wanting to retire in the old barrio where I was born. If I adored my grandmother, I know I would have worshipped the man who was the world to her, and would have tried to become the man he was. The Batangueño she had married was not your run-of-the-mill Batangas macho. He must have been quite debonair without the least streak of male deviousness. And he was supposed to have been possessed of physical strength and endurance, otherwise he would not have managed to work the farm single-handedly, with only minor support from his frail daughters and still too young sons, until the day he had a sudden fatal seizure, having been weakened by years of toil in the rugged outback of Cupang, leaving my grandmother to look after seven adolescents all by herself.

But mercifully, my grandmother started having lapses
of memory, and it was just as well, for memories of children forever lost from sight and touch must be
the most painful of all.

Grief piled upon sadness, and what could be sadder than surviving your children who disappear like shadows out of your life? She lost three of them, including the first and second daughters who were my Lolo's favorites. They were stricken with various illnesses when they were quite young, and I often wondered what she—in her twilight years, blind in both eyes, and barely able to hobble around by feeling the walls with outstretched hands—must have been thinking of, must have been feeling inside, every time she recalled the names, faces, voices, smiles, and motions of those children long gone from her early life, and gone long before their time. But mercifully, my grandmother started having lapses of memory, and it was just as well, for memories of children forever lost from sight and touch must be the most painful of all.

Sometimes, at her most lucid, she mentioned them by name, and spoke softly of what they were like, and of the diseases that took them away, and then she would fall silent, as though struggling to remember more.

In the endless conversations—more like interviews—I had with Lola Posta, she only had the faintest recollections of what it was to live during the American occupation, but she certainly remembered more of the wartime years under the Japanese. Even these memories gradually grew dimmer as the years passed, and while one could actually get her to talk animatedly about those peril-fraught and frightening years, she was more likely and increasingly to be agitated by the absence of people within hailing distance, by her frustration as she groped about for her pair of slippers lying just beyond her reach, by too much heat in the room or too much wind from the fan, by her inability to tell what time of day it was, and by her hunger pangs which seemed to come on more frequently though she was brought food more often than she was able to remember.

A thin, short lad, but spry and spirited in my rural elements, I accompanied her
on these journeys to the hinterland, and I vaguely recall old huts where we stopped and were offered food and water.

My own recollections of Lola Posta go back to my grade school days in the '50s. During the summer break, we would come down from Baguio to spend a few weeks in the old hometown in Batangas, and it meant adventure for me if she also happened to be there, visiting from Malabon, bringing with her assorted gold jewelry and precious stones from Meycauayan, Bulacan, which she kept secure in a handkerchief. These she would sell to old friends and relatives to any conceivable degree of affinity scattered across the fields and forests and barrios of our part of the province. Having sold her merchandise, she would then buy sinamay cloth and mosquito nets in the mercado of Bauan to bring back to Malabon for the next cycle of selling.

She was erect then and the picture of perfect health, able to withstand the heat of summer and the rough terrain over which we walked. A thin, short lad, but spry and spirited in my rural elements, I accompanied her on these journeys to the hinterland, and I vaguely recall old huts where we stopped and were offered food and water, and the dark forbidding agbang, the dried-up river bed which dipped down and rose and led out into the light again, overhung with primordial foliage and trees where huge bayawak lizards and imagined ogres lurked.

Always, Lola carried gifts and offerings to the rural folk who were relatives and their children. She did the same going up to Baguio and coming down again to Manila, pleasing countless highway vendors from Pangasinan to Bulacan who came up inside the bus offering their foodstuff pasalubong, and none of them came away without having sold something, balut, pinipig, tupig, kalamay-sa-bao, boiled bananas, pastillas, putong Polo, whatever their basket or bilao was decked out with, to this old lady with a soft spot for vendors and a softer spot for the folks she was coming home to or visiting. She would gently brush aside her young traveling companion's protestations over her spending too much, then give me more than my fill of the goodies she had bought.

But I mention this part of my childhood only to remember how strong, and filled with optimism and an almost elfin spirit, and how enterprising my Lola was in her fifties and sixties, which seemed to have been the prime of her life. I look back at those years with much admiration for her, and much sadness, too, because she was a picture of solitude and desolation in her final years, abandoned by her sight, then by her sense of taste. She was hardly paid a visit by her remaining children who were also grandparents by this time and were either too infirm, too busy, or too far away to call on her as often as she or they would have wanted.

Lola Posta died last year. Hundreds of relatives near and far—in consanguinity, affinity, and physical distance—attended her wake and funeral. The wake was a feast and party she would have yearned to get invited to. It was more reunion than mourning, more story-sharing than lamentation, as each one, especially her children and her surviving cousins and older relatives, spoke of her life, her adventures, her relentless travels, the children and grandchildren she lost, her simple dreams, her simple needs, her growing difficulties, her periods of lucidity and humor, her surprise outpourings of remembrance of things past and deeds done, and finally her downward spiral to speechlessness and unrelieved sorrow.

A hundred years old? A hundred and five? The unimportant answer is in a birth certificate hidden in some discarded or forgotten drawer, or buried in the earth where it has long been turned into ash or compost. But Lola Posta is alive in our collective memory, and may live on for several more centuries, to be remembered for all time—if our writings and stories will endure—as that distant source of life, the giver of gifts and laughter and adventure, the proof of our fragile humanity, that brief but lovely spark of a girl who lived life as only she could have.

(First published in Philippine Express International, London, 2000. Prize-winner in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in the same year.)

© Edgar B. Maranan

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