by Michele Gutierrez
My Lola Esmenia laid dead in in her own living room, lying in her coffin and waiting for her children and grandchildren to return from each of their corners of the diaspora to bury her. I was twenty-three years old, but had never been to my homeland, knowing about it only through the faded photographs in my mother’s albums and the textbooks in my ethnic studies classes in college. I travelled from Los Angeles to Bangui, my mother’s small hometown in Ilocos Norte at the northernmost tip of the Philippines, and made the twenty-eight hour journey by plane, bus and jeepney cab.
When I reach the small house my mother had lived in with her seven brothers and sisters, my grandmother had already been dead for four days.
It is evening and I am a greeted by a brown sea of faces. Titas and uncles, cousins, kapitbahay and kaibigan. Cousins of cousins with bright eyes and dark skin. Great grandaunts so old their wrinkles have grown beautiful. Uncles with dark bottles of San Miguel beer always in their hands. Once-strangers, now family.
Their low murmurs question whether or not the slightly awkward girl before them is really the same one in the pictures my mother had sent them all these years.
My mother emerges from the crowd, “My daughter,” she says, “Isn’t she beautiful?”
A young girl twelve or thirteen years old, with skin paler than most others in the crowd comes up to me and touches my face. “Manang, you are so beautiful. Like a movie star,” she says.
I have never been called beautiful, much less compared to a movie star. I wonder if she says this simply to get in my good graces, or because she sees everyone who returns from America through rose-colored lenses.
“No, I am not,” I say, and the girls pulls her fingertips away.
The brown sea of faces part before me to reveal my grandmother’s casket, the top half open like a clamshell. While the outside is white, iridescent like a pearl, it is my grandmother, lying on the pink satin interior that appears to shine. She is dressed in an ivory Filipiniana dress, the traditional formal dress of the Philippines. Tiny pink and crimson flowers decorate the fine banana leaf fiber that the transparent fabric her dress is made from. Butterfly sleeves puff up stiffly at my lola’s shoulders. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a bun that props her head forward from the pillow it rests upon, making her seem as if she is ready to rise at any moment.
“Say hello to your grandma, anak,” my mother says.
She walks directly to my grandmother’s coffin and lays one hand on her head as if my Lola was merely sleeping. I can feel dozens of eyes on me, but I hesitate, because my grandmother does not look like herself.
Could this really be her?
I had not seen my grandmother for years, since she had spent a year with us in the States, taking care of me when I was just a child, right after my mother and father divorced. In my last memories of her, she is with me at our house in Southern California, wearing a worn housedress and smoking a cigar made out of dried banana leaves she had rolled herself, chastising me for being a spoiled American girl for not finishing my rice.
“Do you know how lucky you are?” my grandmother asked me in her Ilocano dialect, “Children in the Philippines are starving to death and here you are being picky.”
I could make out what she said, but could only answer in English, “I’m sorry, lola.”
She then hit me with her slippers, telling me the entire time, “This is for your own good.”
“Do you like it?” my cousin Verna asks me, pulling me out of the memory. My grandmother lived with her too when Verna was younger, except all the way in Hononolu. Verna points to a white banner hanging from the top of my grandmother’s casket. There are shiny blue words that read: You weren’t the best, but you were all we had. Verna raises her hand up and I give her a high five. We laugh and a few of those around us joined in.
Yes, this confirms it. This is the woman who refused to die in the States, insisting on making the long trip home despite the deteriorating state of her body. This is the woman that bore and raised a woman like my mother. This is the woman whose blood still runs in my veins. I accept all of this, and walk towards what is left of her.
The undertakers have preserved her well in anticipation of the long wait she had before her, waiting for all of us to arrive from the faraway places we call home.
“Say hello,” my mother tells me.
She places her free hand firmly on my back. I look down at my grandmother–her furrowed brows forever frozen in place, her skin brown-gray except for a greenish patch on her arm where the makeup used to conceal signs of her decay has been rubbed away by countless fingertips saying goodbye. I put my hand on her casket, close my eyes, and greet her hello. I open my eyes, look down at her, and I wish her goodbye.
I take my turn among the rest of my family, keeping my lola company as the waves of relatives from abroad come sweeping in. The house is always filled with people. It is bad luck, they all say, to leave my grandmother’s body alone unattended. Her spirit may come back and haunt us even after she is long and buried.
I sit on the living room couch watching telenovellas and game shows, my grandmother’s body at the center of all the festivities going on around her. She is never alone and the television is always on. Small children run in and out of the house. In the field behind it, the men sit around tables, playing poker in the shade during the day, and at night, by lantern light.
In the kitchen, Aunts prepare food. Dinuguan simmer in large pots as the women spoonful the stew made out of pork’s blood unto steaming bowls of rice. Chocolate meat they call it. Pinakbet stains the air with the smell of bitterness and bagoong. And dishes I have no names for.
The women gossip, not in whispers like American women, but in shouts. The Ilocano dialect is harsh and Ilocano women headstrong, so when they gossip, they are loud and they always sound angry.
On my second day there, I help the women in the kitchen, pulling the thick stems off the bitter melon flowers for the pinakbet. My Auntie Girlie shows me how, holding a vine up with her right hand. With her left hand she plucks all the flowers off it with one sweep of her clasped fingers.
Auntie Girlie is my mother’s cousin. They were close when they were younger, but haven’t seen each other in decades. Their families had farmed the same plot of land my grandfather’s father had left to his three sons.
Decades ago when my mother asked Auntie Girlie to leave the province with her and move to Manila, my aunt decided to stay, and she’s never left. This is my first time meeting her, but she says she feels like she’s known me since I was a baby. My mother had sent photos and talked about me in her long distance calls home.
“You know your grandmother was very proud of you,” Auntie Girlie says.
“Really?” I ask, surprised.
I think about earlier in the day when I had explored the house and found my grandmother’s bedroom. There was a collection of photographs taped to the wall above her bed, a collage of wrinkled and faded faces of her eleven grandchildren. There were dozens of photos of us. School photos and snapshots of us at various ages. There were photos of us as infants and toddlers at the bottom of the collage, and then more pictures sprouted upwards, arranged haphazardly by my grandmother over the years using nothing but scotch tape. The entire thing resembled a tree to me. Her own personal family tree, I thought.
At the center of the trunk, I found a photo that even I didn’t have in my photo albums back home. It was a picture of me as a toddler being held up by my father.
There were even more photos of myself higher up on the branches of the collage. The most recent one taped on the uppermost branches of her collage—the high school graduation picture I had taken just five years prior.
“She was,” my Auntie Girlie says, bringing me back to the kitchen and to the task of stripping flowers off vines, “So very proud.”
“That’s nice to hear,” I say.
“When she was sick she told everyone not to worry, because you were going to come here and heal her,” Auntie Girlie says.
“Why would she think that?” I ask.
“You’re mom told us that you’re a successful doctor. That you’d come. But your lola died, before you could.”
I drop a handful of flowers onto the table and get up to find my mother.
“I’m not a doctor,” I say, “I make minimum wage at an elementary school helping a teacher with her second graders.” I leave Auntie Girlie in the kitchen even though she asks me to stay, to talk together some more. I search the house for my mother, my heart beating fast against my chest. I’m just a teacher’s assistant, I think. Blowing a whistle in the playground. Wiping runny noses. Not a doctor. Never have been. Not even close.
I imagine my grandmother during her last days still alive, lying on the couch and thinking I was going to come stop her pain. Save her from dying. Postpone her death even just a little bit longer with my stethoscope and some magic prescription pills.
I want to pummel my mother with my fists. I want to beat her down with words. I want to shake the shit out of her.
I find her in the crowded living room talking and laughing with some of her sisters. “You’re telling people I’m a doctor?” I yell over the soap opera playing on the television.
“Who told you that?” she asks surprised.
“Why would you tell my lola that?” I say, demanding an answer.
“Whoever told you that is a liar,” my mother says nonchalantly.
My aunts look at each other and shake their heads. Click their tongues. I want them to say something, but they stay quiet, not wanting to say anything to their eldest sister or me, their sister’s only child.
“You’re a liar,” I say, looking at my mother straight in the eyes.
I retreat to my grandmother’s bedroom. I want to lock the door, but it has no lock. I lie down. I examine the photographs above the bed. I want to be that little girl, from the picture in the center of grandmother’s family tree, looking back at me. The desire pulls the tears down my cheeks. I close my eyes to catch them, and suddenly I am small again. Being carried in my father’s arms.
© Michele Gutierrez