I write this in memory of a woman whose memory left her in peace long before she left this world in peace.
Add one more to the list of my life’s regrets.
The day I told my daughters we were going to the wake of their great-grandmother, they were shocked, not of her passing, but that they had a great-grandmother who was still alive until a few days ago. My grandmother was 95 years old. I deprived them of memories with a truly memorable lady.
My grandmother’s failing memory meant she could no longer form any new memories. Those lost years included the year I got married, and when my daughters were born.
I couldn’t bear to explain to my girls while they were growing up that one: they had a great-grandmother; and two: I will have to re-introduce them each and every time to their great-grandmother whenever we met. I spared my daughters the confusion to spare them the loss that I feel now.
I will remember our time together for all of us.
Our memories are not just a sequence of events we piece together. They can contain a smell, a taste, a touch. When memories fade, I try to hang on, grasping at wispy tendrils.
I will remember my grandmother’s ballerina music box and musical fountain.
The music box did not inspire me to become a danseur, in case you’re wondering. It made me wonder about the inner workings of gadgets that can play tones just by rolling a cylinder and magnets twirling a ballerina in the space of a small box.
My eldest child is a ballerina. Here I feel a small sense of continuity. Lola would have been happy if she could have remembered a great-granddaughter who dances.
I will remember that Christmas had a distinct sound.
It was the Christmas songs coming from my grandmother’s phonograph player: a bear of an appliance. It was a huge cabinet occupying as much space as the sofa. The player hibernated for most of the year until the start of December (not Septem-brrr when malls conscript Jose Mari Chan’s voice to remind you to start shopping for gifts).
When it was time, the player would open up its chest to reveal rows of shiny vinyl records. Each vinyl would have its turn to be tickled by the record player needle. Starting with the familiar scratching sound, it leads to a very young and definitely African American Michael Jackson exposing his mother’s infidelity to children, unaware that fathers stood in place for Father Christmas by wearing red thermal underwear.
I will remember that Christmas had a distinct taste.
It was the Christmas ham that my grandmother painstakingly cured very early on before the actual day. An impressive slab of pork meets my grandmother’s fragile hand holding a syringe as big as three fingers. All the juices are injected methodically and the excess sprayed on the outer layer. Sugar crystals are then massaged liberally onto the skin.
Yet, as traditions go, she was open to new ideas. I suggested she used her recipe on a chicken dish which I probably saw on television. From then on, there were enough leftover Christmas ham and Christmas chicken to tide us over until our birth month of February.
My tummy remembers.
I regretfully remember the look of disappointment on my grandmother’s face during a Christmas dinner.
I gave a commonly insensitive fruit cake joke. I blurted out that people didn’t really eat fruit cake but passed the same fruit cake around the following Christmas. Her face slowly changed. I had to eat my words by eating a slice of the fruit cake she baked. I shudder remembering the taste of the weird green gumdrops inside it.
Kids, the lesson here is that what makes a joke good depends on who your audience is. Knock-knock jokes are sure-fire hits with the old folks. If it’s a joke you got watching Jokoy on Netflix, chances are it will appeal to a very narrow demographic.
I will remember the smell and taste of my grandmother’s pound cake.
She mixed the ingredients in a deep stainless steel bowl and used an industrial mixer. I use “industrial” because the entire body looked all metal with a 1950s look. It puts today’s mixers to shame, the same way that the die-cast Voltes V robot toys put all-plastic Transformer toys to shame.
The mix is baked in a pound cake pan, the kind with a tube in the center and a removable bottom. The tube opening is big enough to fit the neck of a one-liter glass bottle of Coke. I would soon see a couple of pound cake pans inverted on standing Coke bottles and be enveloped in the aroma of freshly baked cakes. My cousin and I would each be given a slice of cake wrapped in wax paper. Since we were at most six years old then, we were always more excited for the crust left in the cake pan, which we picked off with bare hands.
I will remember how my grandmother gave me, then only five, my first of many Blend 45 cups of coffee. That first cup eventually led me to my present welcome addiction to single-origin Arabica. All those cups of coffee (if the non-existent old wives are to be believed) probably stunted my height just enough for me to forget a career in professional basketball. When I drink coffee, I remember her.
These days, I sprinkle Blend 45 in my children’s milk because they like it that way. They feel like they’re drinking Starbucks fraps. I make coffee for the wife as well; Blend 45 for her first coffee of the day and special brewed coffee for her countless cups throughout the day. (I think we will not hear the end of it from Ahma – my mother-in-law – now that we have revealed the kids drink coffee.)
I will remember summers when my grandmother “made timpla” her sago’t gulaman: sugar water with drops of vanilla flavoring and filled with pearls. Every time the kids and I guiltily drink milk tea with pearls, I remember her.
I will remember the first and last trip she and I took to her hometown of Casiguran, Aurora.
We rode a non-airconditioned dilapidated provincial bus. Fighting cocks on the roof clucked loudly every time there was a bump in the hundreds of kilometers of unforgiving dirt road. I woke from my doze on each and every bump for the next six hours. In the face of an approaching vehicle, we swayed closer to the edge. Most parts of the zigzagging road were eroded to one lane. Dusty and dangerous, every time the bus teetered on the edge of a cliff, my only calming thought was my grandmother traveled this way every year and she was still around.
I will remember the small hovel in which we stayed when we arrived in Casiguran. I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s living conditions. Here comes the “but.” There is no quicker way to describe a house with ramshackle damp wood and flooring interspersed with cement and soil. It was just too much (or too little) for a city mouse.
I kept thinking this must be a test. I just needed to sleep here one night and I would wake up in a cushioned bed soon enough. No such luck. Was she so oblivious to the stark difference between her Teacher’s Village house in Quezon City and a small-town countryside dwelling to even forewarn her grandson?
I kept all these thoughts to myself lest I see the fruit cake look again. At least, she remembered to pack three days’ worth of her trusty adobo to tide us over until I found a way to unchain my ankle and run back home barefoot.
Apologies for the abduction joke but I was really made to stay an extra day against my will.
By the time we finished going around the town, it was already Good Friday and we all know from all the visible old wives in this small town that no one would dare travel on a Good Friday.
God was dead on Good Friday. If you ever so much as get a paper cut, it will not heal until forever or until Easter Sunday, whichever comes first.
God knows, Good Friday felt like forever and no listening to the radio either. No matter. It wasn’t possible anyway since the town only had four hours of electricity per day.
Going around town, we ran into an old childhood friend of hers and she was like a child again.
We visited her father’s resting place in the cemetery. The gravestone was a bit dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. It was touching to see a daughter remembering her father all these years with handpicked flowers and candles.
This is how I choose to remember Lola Mommy. Different snapshots of our years together: a very small portion of a long life well-lived, caring for family, relatives and friends.
My wife and I spend as much quality time as we can with the children, making memories, snapshots that we hope will last their lifetimes.
It is only when there is no one left to remember us that we truly pass away. Would that we all die with our loved ones remembering us this way too.