Of Letters, September, and Dolores

My grandmother, Dolores Lira, was born September 22, 1912. Lole, as she was called, was born in a time when some of the great milestones of the Philippine development and government are achieved. She was born at a time when people relied on the land for their living. My lola (Filipino term for grandmother) lived through the Japanese occupation and through the second world war. She lived to see the Philippines liberated, lived through a dictatorship, lived through the turn of the millennium.

When she was seventeen years old, Lole married Eriberto and on a public school teacher’s salary and a farmer’s earnings had put through school all nine of their children. Through their hard work, their kids became educators, nurses, doctors, engineers, and soldiers. In her lifetime, she married off three sons and five of her daughters, saw four of her great-grandchildren, and buried her husband and her eldest son.

That’s her getting ready to walk my mom down the aisle

 

Whenever people talk about my lola, it is always with great respect and fondness. I remember thinking back when I was a kid that if I never do anything great or amazing in my life, I would still consider it a life well lived if people talk about me with even half that respect and fondness. Our parents’ stories about her were always filled with love and fun; our lola was a very kind person. Our parents often recalled how they’ve never seen her angry – even during that time when they were kids and they accidentally burned down their outdoor toilet.

Lola valued family, above all. When she retired, she would do the rounds of her children. She would come visit each of her children for about a week or two. She would also never miss a grandchild; whenever a new one is born she would always be there, to visit, to stay and help out, to play.

With my sister when she was a baby

 

When she got a bit fragile for travelling, her children took the time to visit her in her home, and every September, her children and grandchildren would go to her to celebrate her birthday. I remember that the whole family would go to her house in the province (and later on to my aunt’s house when lola lived there) to celebrate her birthday. As much as possible, her nine kids try to be there, while her grandchildren (us) would definitely be there. Doesn’t matter if we fly there Saturday morning then back to Manila Sunday afternoon. We had to be there.

Her birthday celebrations follow the same pattern: manic food preparation, eat the whole day, adults play mahjong, kids hang around. We did that every year and we always looked forward to it.

My lola doing the duck face before it became popular.

 

Being the youngest child of her youngest child, I came late into her life. We have a generation and a handful of years between us; 74 years to be exact. It never became a problem, those years, and the distance between us. Though she is the only grandparent I got (my dad’s parents and my mom’s dad already died years before I was born) and she’s living in Iloilo* while we live in Manila, I have never felt lacking of grandmotherly love.

Why, yes, I was a cute kid. Even when I’m talking with my mouth full. She didn’t mind. Much.

 

See, we wrote to each other. We wrote to each other a lot. This was during the time that there was no internet, no mobile phones, and we don’t even have a phone at home.  Writing letters was our means to communicate. As far as I can remember, as soon as I knew how to write, I was writing to her.

My aunts and uncles called me her pen pal, since we wrote to each other a lot. We usually send our letters through post or through family or friends going back and forth Manila and Iloilo. I remember how it was always a mad rush to write a letter and cram my stories whenever I find out that an aunt or uncle or cousin is going to Iloilo. I think it was the same for her because whenever someone from Iloilo drops by our house, they would always bear a letter from my lola, addressed to me.

What I find surprising when I look back is that never, not once in that whole time, did I consider writing to lola a chore. I was such a restless, stubborn, and hard-headed kid; the kind that’s a bit of a nightmare, if we’re being honest. But my parents never forced me to write to her, I never wrote to her just for the sake of writing, and I never considered the time I spent writing to her as a waste.

I loved writing to her. I would tell her how my days are, tell her how I did at school (I used to send her copies of my report cards), and just simply babble on paper. Her replies were usually what she was doing, telling me to be a good girl, asking me about my parents and sister, telling me how happy she was that I wrote to her, and sending her love to all of us.

I sent her homemade/handmade cards for every occasion. She didn’t even mind that I sent her cliché cards (as in heart-shape for Valentine’s day, tree- or star-shaped for Christmas) and she wasn’t even offended when I sent her a poster-sized letter because I had a crazy moment and feared that because of her age, she won’t be able to read it if I sent her a regular-sized letter. She apparently liked that letter so much that she tacked it on the door of a closet in her living room for everyone to see.

Some of her letters for me.

 

Later on, letters were replaced by quick phone conversations. There are the occasional cards and stuff during special occasions but our communication pretty much became quick bites during weekends. Then she got sick, got a bit forgetful, and our communication became spotty.

Eventually, she forgot my name. She forgot all of our names. But she always remembered our faces, even if she can’t seem to remember from which of her kids we came from.

 

Lola Lole was particularly interested in how we were doing in school. She always asked about our grades. In fact, when she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when she couldn’t remember our names anymore, there are three questions she asked her grandchildren over and over again, sometimes in five-minute intervals:

  1. Whose kid are you (she had 9 kids and 22 grandchildren so I guess she remembers us by which kid we are born to)
  2. What course are you taking up
  3. When are you graduating

She kept saying that she’s ready to die, simply because all her children are already stable. Then she took it back and said that she’d appreciate it if the Lord made her live to know that I graduated from college, taking it as far as saying she’ll wait until she’s sure I’m graduating from college before dying.

 

Lola Lole died February 12, 2006. Though I graduated a year after her death, I felt that she did wait until she was sure that I will graduate on time.

See, I’ve not exactly been a model student grades-wise. I have flunked a subject thrice, another one twice as I have not exactly been studying. I have been put on probation twice and on that second semester of my junior year, I was in danger of not graduating on time. Our school has a rule that if a student doesn’t pass this particular subject by his junior year, he’d have to transfer to another course. Yes, my graduation date relied on Econ 131: Quantitative Economics. If I passed it, the only major hurdle I have to get through is my thesis but basically I’m home free.

February was when I got the result of my third exam, and found out that even if I purposely flunk the next exams, I would still pass, guaranteeing that I will move on to my Senior year and graduation. A week after, my mom flew to Iloilo because lola started getting sicker and sicker. She died a couple of hours after my mom got there.

She waited. More than anything, that is my greatest, most bittersweet memory of lola. She may have forgotten me, she may have forgotten what she told me, but she kept her word and she waited. I don’t care if people say that it was just coincidence and that it is impossible for her to control when she would die. She waited.

 

She would have been a century old this September. Once in a while I take out her letters and read them again, somehow gaining comfort from reading the letters that such a remarkable person wrote especially for me.

She lived a long and full life; her 94 years had been a lifetime of joys and triumphs, of hardships and pain. She may not have been well-traveled, she may not have been rich. but she has remained resilient through all her troubles and left this world happy, content, and fulfilled.

I can only be grateful that I had been a small part of that lifetime, and that I could say, with pride and wonder, that I am a granddaughter of Dolores.

 

 

*Iloilo is a province in the Visayas region of the Philippines, a 55-minute plane ride from Manila. My grandmother lived inPandan, Lambunao, one of the towns approximately 88 kilometers from the provincial capital

2 thoughts on “Of Letters, September, and Dolores

  1. Baby kay says:

    Tears streaming down my face… I miss lola so much! Too many memories… September parties! I’ll show this to mum!

    Hey! I thought i was your penpal??? Hihihi

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