By Monika Todoc
Always packaged safely in our nearly oversized luggage was the family’s yearly sense of fleeting closure alongside two weeks’ worth of clothes and toiletries. Every December, we were to haul the gifts all the way to Bicol in the Philippines, where my lolo and lola lived. There, we would often share the celebration of welcoming the New Year. December meant the immediacy of our reunion, and of our parting. “Punta kayo ulit dito,” were the words that brought us back to provincial grounds. The countryside had always been the only place city life couldn’t touch. It was the bridge and a transition to another world. There was, in my childhood memories, the slight pause in life as time rewound itself to begin again.
Homecoming and the new year
I remember my lola fondly smacking my right cheek with a dry kiss and calling me “neng” over and over, constantly being smothered by her big body and her even bigger love as she welcomed us home every December. Lola, with her rough calluses on her hands, her brow matted with sweat, and the hint of woodsmoke on her oversized clothes. The grime on one side of her face never overshadowed her bright smile as she greeted us with open arms. Her curly tuft of gray hair hid most of the lines that wore down her expression. Yet the smiling eye wrinkles never disappeared. It was always a relief that she was still well enough to till the grounds and tend to her garden. This was the kind of love we could never shy away from.
She was beautiful, even beyond her prime. She was a strong, vigorous, and robust grandmother past her 70’s. In my eyes, she had become the woman she strove to be.
With her bulging stomach pregnant with the hardships she had faced upon raising my father strong, she wasn’t called “Lola Fat” for nothing. She was the ultimate breadwinner of her family. To us, she was a living wife, mother, and grandmother. She had the strength to keep watch over their Carabao and tend to the gabi plants that grew in the backyard. Numerous pajamas she had sewn for me have piled up over the years. Not once had she failed to welcome us with renewed vigor, despite us staying for a mere week. Lola Fat’s presence always allowed us to set aside all the formalities. There was never a sense of awkwardness in our meetings.
December in the province
I was able to learn who Lola Fat was despite seeing her only once a year. After all, my father would often tell me many of her stories. She was a headstrong and caring woman who taught him how home was the vast paddy fields in the outskirts of Camarines Sur. Every day, farmers labored to feed their family. Mt. Mayon’s majestic beauty was ever present and striking in the distance, hazy against the skyline. He was lucky that Lolo was able to return home every night, towing along their Carabao that they had raised to plow the fields. Every night, they would gather by the dinner table to eat Lola Fat’s cooked gabi leaves.
He was taught that it was always enough to recognize kindness and love even in the smallest of gestures, and that family was every woman’s priority. She was the inspiration and comfort to their life of hardship, bringing the rest of the family together.
Battling the storm
My father recounted the time when he was just my age, when a thunderstorm blew away the roof of their house one day. How they had feared losing their home. “There were leaks everywhere. Things strewn around, kitchenware cluttered the floor. I wanted to save the Cheez Whiz, funnily enough, but he wouldn’t let me,” he chuckled. Still, one of the fondest childhood memories he had was looking over his father’s shoulder at Lola Fat as she struggled to carry his younger sister away from the devastation that used to be their house. Her ailing body had not been a hindrance to her at all, despite her shortness of breath and rain beating down her back. She was a pillar of strength of their household.
She was the hero my father had learned to mirror over the years. I’d often steal glances at his frame. It was more the long wait at Suvarnabhumi Airport; the Thursday nights where we had to stand in line for hours just to hail a cab. It was the shopping mall districts, bus terminals, and subway stations. There was no thunderstorm to battle, vastly different from the kind of life my father was familiar with back then. Back then, with my smallness, I had been child enough to cry. He had never told me I was growing heavier, until I was already too big to carry.
If only I could feel those drops of rain on the tip of my nose and the wind howling against my face. I did not understand the provincial life he once lived. I could not sense, back then, the hero in my father as he sought to be the pillar of strength Lola Fat once was.
A visit to the city
The years my grandparents took the initiative to visit us, we were finally settling in the Philippines. They were all slowly adapting to the new kind of city, as we were. It felt even longer before we saw her again. How excited Lola Fat was to see our youngest! We could never measure her love through the extensive phone calls we had with her every 10PM, nor the food trips she had planned together with Lolo as opportunities to spoil us with her generosity.
It was as if her ailing body was nonexistent to the rest of us, and nothing could stop her. She had always brought with her the warmth of her bear hugs, the gentle strength of her grip as she held the palm of our hands, and the largest amount of love she had to offer.
Delivery and the news
It was three days before an expected arrival of my grandparents when Lola Fat’s gifts arrived on our doorstep, surprising the rest of us. She had sewn a box of pajamas and dresses for three days and two nights straight, just for me and my two younger siblings. We were part of her greatest blessings, she had said, and she had wanted to spoil us with her love.
“What’s this?” my brother and sister had asked. For there were the blue intricate flower patterns and sewn ribbons on every garment as we pulled them out from the cardboard box. We could only imagine the amount of blisters she must’ve had and her fading eyesight. Perhaps she had even hunched over in a crouched position to see the most minute of details. It was as if age had never mattered to her. She was still a headstrong woman who was responsible for shouldering an entire household, the kind and gentle mother to my father. She was still Lola Fat to us.
Three days later, on the day we expected to see them on our doorstep, we received the news from our relatives that she had died on the way to visit us. They told us it was due to heart failure, most probably from having exhausted herself from the sleepless nights before from sewing.
Of love and memories with lola
Perhaps the largeness of her body had been the most obvious giveaway to her illness. We could not point out the true cause. Perhaps it was fatigue that had accumulated over the years. Perhaps, as a result, it was the life of poverty that she had grown accustomed to. For it had never been about herself, but always about raising her children strong.
Love manifests itself in many ways. Change was one of them, they say. Lola Fat’s love manifested on my face as the weeks turned into months. I felt my body turning into a grown woman. My face changed from that of a child – I was a lady now, people said. I was just like her when she was young.
Hence, she was no mere memory. Her largeness had always been reminiscent of her bigger love. In our firm grip of her, there remained warmth of her embrace. She was the kind of mother who had lived her life to the fullest because of her family. Love was to accept the differences of every person, and that poverty did not define the family. Love, for her, was unconditional.
For her sacrifices and devotion, we knew her. In our eyes, she had always been the headstrong and independent woman teaching us the love of family through her efforts. She had always been a strong woman full of heart. Her ideals remain present in our actions, her words in our thoughts, and her experiences live on in our memories of her.
Monika Todoc graduated with a degree in BA Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Her childhood in Thailand has cultivated her love for literature and music. She writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction, and plays the piano.