My chest is tight, and my head is spinning. My heart feels like Manny Pacquiaoâ€™s punching bag after an intense workout. Beaten. Deflated. Achey. Heavy. It has been hard to let the breath into my chest since my grandmother passed away almost two weeks ago, but my will to live apparently is stronger than this sadness. Ever since I got back from Manila, I have felt like my heart has a story to tell. I wrote most of the post below in the middle of the 9-day mourning ritual, and now is an appropriate time to expand upon and share it. Hopefully my heart can feel slightly lighter.
I’m sad I didn’t spend more time with my grandmother, or as we affectionately called her: â€œNanay,â€� which is slang for â€œmother.â€� She never liked being called â€œlolaâ€� which is Tagalog for â€œgrandmother.â€� The most memorable moments I have with Nanay occurred in spurts and bursts of concentrated Nanay time. From ages one to three we lived almost next door to Nanay in the little village of Punturin, and I remember such fun times as getting stomach worms and Nanay applying some crazy herbal remedies to help me get rid of them. There were also the joyous disciplinary measures that she took with me and my brother — my aunts and uncles like to remind me that we were quite mischievous little ones, and as you can see, Nanayâ€™s (and my parentsâ€™) methods worked.
There was also the month when our parents traveled to Australia, and Nanay took care of us — we were living in Hong Kong at the time, and we were still very young, so I don’t remember much.Â One of my aunts, however, reminded me that when Nanay would look after my brother Francis, my sister Rachel and me, itâ€™s almost like she stowed us away in little pockets on her body. My brother was cradled on her right arm, while she fed me a bottle snuggled up to her left arm, and she used her foot to rock my sisterâ€™s cradle on the ground. Iâ€™m sure it took a tough woman to deal with us when we were awake.
After we moved to the states in 1990, our interaction with Nanay (and the rest of our extended family)Â significantlyÂ decreased. We couldn’t leave the country since we didn’t have green cards for almost 13 years, but Nanay visited us once in 2003 for 6 months. She stayed in Las Vegas with my parents while I was finishing up school at USC. Even then, I didn’t get a chance to see or spend too much time with her because I was a few hundred miles away, and we always had a language barrier. Although my Tagalog comprehension was fairly strong, my speaking abilities were almost naught. Nanay was almost the same way except with English. Despite the language barrier and the scarcity of our time together, I cared deeply for her and I know she cared for me and my siblings as well, particularly because my brother, sister and I were her first grandchildren.
When the opportunity arose to celebrate her 80th birthday with her in the Philippines in June 2009, I just knew that I had to do it. Partially, I wanted to make up for all of the lost time since our immigration to the US. Since I didn’t grow up with Nanay, I didn’t get a chance to ask her all of the questions about our family history. I never got the opportunity to hear stories that a grandmother would share during the holidays or while cooking dinner or while cleaning the house. I yearned to grasp where I came from and on whose shoulders I truly stood. I finally got that opportunity during the summer of 2009, armed with pen, paper, and a video camera to capture all of the impromptu and non-impromptu storytelling sessions. I wanted so badly to capture as much of it as possible so I could get an idea of my own ancestry.
What I found out was at once shocking, telling, and also obvious. Listening to Nanay was like watching a really good Tetris player expertly placing the blocks so that they fit together to tell a full and complete story. I don’t have the time here to talk extensively about her story and her childrens’ stories, but I am sure that I’ll compile that all sometime in the future either in the form of a book or a video (since I captured a lot of her storytelling on video).
I do want to share that the way she is now makes so much sense because of how she grew up and where she came from. From an early age Nanay was forced to grow up. Because her mother died ofÂ pneumoniaÂ when she was four years old and her father remarried when she was 14, she realized she had to fend for herself and grow up in the process. I believe her highest education was elementary school, and in her teens, she started a fabric business in Divisoria — a once popular shopping destination in Manila (nowadays it’s most notably and perhaps notoriously known for being a bargain-hunter’s dream for knock-off Louis Vuittons). She continued the fabric business, sellingÂ diligentlyÂ andÂ tirelesslyÂ for days to make ends meet, and when she met her husband, our Lolo Jose, they joined forces. He became the business’ spokesperson, while she remained the brains and the energy behind it. Through the years she continued her entrepreneurial ventures by running a pig farm and transforming their land to rentable apartments and commercial retail stores.
She was resourceful, not wasteful, and lived in relative austerity. After her burial, the entire family went to her house, and I got the chance to see her bedroom. It was almost exactly the same as it had been when I was a child — the bed, her clothes, the decorations, the rosaries, the smell were all the same. The walls were starkly decorated, and everything was orderly and in its place, from her dresses to her shoes, to the extra plastic bags that she liked to keep tucked between her mattress and the boxspring. She, apparently, liked it that way — plain, simple, and uncluttered. She refused to accept new clothes and new furniture and always said that it was a waste.
Her priorities were not on material goods, money, or other superficial things. She was relentless in her pursuit of a better life for her family, and when her children had children, that spirit easily translated to making sure their families were taken care of as well. But her love and care of people extended well beyond our own family. Her tenants, neighbors and fellow villagers easily regarded her as an important, influential and caring matriarch of the community. While she was living with us in Las Vegas for six months, my parents told me that they could tell she was homesick, not for her worldly possessions (she barely had any), but because of the community that she created in Punturin.Â She missed her friends, her neighbors, her people.
It was no surprise then to see and meet many of the people that she considered her extended family at her 80th birthday celebration. The Pavilion was packed with people who loved and wanted to celebrate her. She spoke equally kindly and compassionately to her children and grandchildren than she did to the neighbors’ children that she has seen grow up. Thinking about it now, it made me proud to know that I come from this woman. Her relentless work ethic, thoughtfulness, community-building, entrepreneurial spirit, and caring nature are inspiring. I strive to embody those traits as gracefully and beautifully as she did, while also building a life and family that clearly exemplifies love and selflessness.
I loved hearing her old stories because it made me realize the importance of my roots, while realizing that this is but one step in our entire lineage. Because my grandmother worked so hard to build up her family, my father and each one of his siblings had the opportunity to go to college in the Philippines — a feat that Nanay was never able to complete. Because my father and mother went to college, they were able to take a leap and immigrate to the US. And because of that courageous and fateful move, I was afforded the opportunity for a high quality American college education. Imagine what my children will be able to do, if only three generations ago I came from humble farmers and cloth merchants. The certainty and excitement about how the course of our family’s future has been positively affected is astounding to me. I don’t know if my grandmother ever dreamed that her children and grandchildren would be where they are now, but I do know that I am continually striving for educational excellence and seeking to ensure that educational opportunities are available for all children simply because I want to do what my parents and my grandparents did for me. Just like she made a critical choice to work hard and escape poverty, I am choosing to alter the course of the lives of generations of children.
I am at this critical inflection point because of my grandmother’s choices. I hope to never take that for granted.
As I held her hand one last time on January 28, 2010, I felt her warmth, courage, fighting spirit, faith in God, and love. Although she couldn’t speak, the love permeated through the dimly lit hospital room in Manila. Her hands were calloused, and her legs, although immobile, will never be a cause of pain for her again. As I looked around the room at the teary eyes of her children and grandchildren, I knew that although it was a devastatingly sad time, the beautiful works of her life — her children, her community, and her family — outweighed the sadness.
I miss you incredibly, Nanay. There’s no doubt about that. I thank you so much for how you have built our family and how you have catapulted each and every one of us to be the best people we can be.
For that we are eternally grateful.
Rest in Peace, Nanay Cresencia â€œIsingâ€� Faustino.