I just got back from a weekend trip to the Philippines to visit my grandmother, who has been ill. My Lola is my hero for so many reasons. She is fierce and loving, strong-willed and gentle, all at once. She's experienced so much adventure, joy, and tragedy in her 86 years, her stories feel like they should belong to several people, not just one.
I grew up hearing these stories, especially about her experiences growing up during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII. Almost a decade ago, I finally convinced her to write about her memories in a series of e-mails.
Here's an excerpt, lightly edited:
I was born to a what we call "kayang-buhay" na pamilya, meaning not poor nor rich either. We had helpers in the home but mostly students from the barrio, children of our tenants. My father was Lt. Sesinando Tolentino, chief of police, and my mother, Arsenia Rosales Tolentino, owned a wholesale and retail store. We lived in our ancestral home, old but comfortable, until the war broke out.
We evacuated to the farm. It was fun climbing hills and mountains and crossing rivers. We never lacked for food, for the tenants brought food stuff, harvests from the farm. We raised our own chickens, planted a vegetable garden. That was the first year of the war. Then the guerrilla fighters came to ask my father to support their cause. He supplied them with palay, chicken, even hogs, until the Japanese learned of it and he was arrested. He was tied to a post for a week under the hot summer sun, then tortured in the late afternoon. I was the only member of the family allowed by my mother to go visit him to spoon feed him porridge and give him drinking water. I was small and thin and looked like a little kid, while my 2 older sisters were dalaga na [young ladies already] and my mother feared for them. Midnight before he was to be executed, the mayor, who happened to be my father's first cousin, "kidnapped" him and the family, and put us in a sailboat, which we used to escape to Lucena City. From Lucena City we boarded a train to Manila. After the war we learned the mayor was tortured but he survived.
Second year of the war: My father worked in a Japanese-owned factory as a security man. The Japanese boss was married to a Filipina. Ate Esther was hired as a clerk in the same factory. We kids went to school. The Japanese government forced all school children to study Niponggo. In a year's time I could speak Niponggo fluently and could write the Katakana.
Third year of the war: As Gen. MacArthur had promised he would return, the Japanese became cruel killing men and children left and right. The Japanese soldiers were looking for my father, but he hid in our ceiling while the rest of us escaped. I carried my old grandfather and hid him behind a hill, tall and heavy he was. I couldn't let him be tortured and die. I loved my grandfather so much. He was a saint, read his Bible every single day and was so prayerful. The soldiers burned our house down when they didn't find us there.
Believing my father had perished in the fire, we children and our mother escaped, walking 129 kilometers to the province where my mom's kumare lived. We walked barefooted under the hot sun, eating almost nothing, even begging for food. We gathered snails (kuhol) from the rice fields and cooked them by the roadside. We ate anything edible, even the bark of the trees. I learned that after being hungry for three days you do not feel the pangs of hunger so much. We slept under the trees, sometimes in houses whose owners would take pity on us. My baby sister was only 4 months old. My mom would look for nursing mothers so the baby could have milk as her own milk had already dried up. There was no milk to buy and my mother gave her boiled rice water. My baby sister died of starvation. Because the cemetery was quite far, we buried her near the market place. It broke our hearts but we couldn't even cry. There so much sufferings around people forgot to smile or cry.
When we got to my mother's comadre's place, we learned that she and the family had left their place. We stayed in a barn of her neighbor's for a week. The family took pity on us and gave us 2 gantas of rice to make porridge. Then it was time to go back to QC by foot again - 129 kilometers - under the scorching hot summer sun. Then one evening while lying on a bench, I prayed this prayer: "God, prove to me that there is a God. Help us to get back to Manila." Then I fell into a deep sleep. Somehow from there, I felt a deep peace and although we did not know where to live when we get back to Manila, and had to walk that many miles again, it was not that hard. While Ate Esther and I were wandering in the market place looking for food, an old acquaintance of my mother's saw us, and she invited us to stay in their downstairs room. We cleaned and washed for the neighbors in order to buy our rice and fish. After 3 - 4 months, my father located us. He was able to escape the fire, went on foot to our hometown, and returned to Quezon City to look for us. When he found us, he had blisters on his feet that were big and red like cherry tomatoes. He was able to find a job as a carpenter, then became a construction contractor. Little by little we were able to stand on our feet.
My grandmother went on to go to college, where she met my grandpa. She became a dentist's assistant, a pastor's wife, a radio broadcaster (!). She and my grandpa had five kids, the oldest of whom is my mom. Everyone who meets Lola loves her — and, incidentally, remarks on her beauty (and she has, admittedly, always been a bit vain — she got her eyebrows tattooed-in when she was in her 70s!). At 86, she has the tenacity to call the shots, even from a hospital bed. She is a regular commenter on her grandchildren's Facebook posts (everyone who's friends with me on Facebook knows my grandma is my biggest fan). And although she has experienced so much tragedy, she is one of the most joyful and gracious people I know.
All my relatives call me a "Lola's girl" because I used to follow her around, when I was a child.
I am, and always will be, my Lola's girl.