What would you do if you lived till you were 96 years old? What would you do in that time? What kind of life would you lead? Would you look back with pride? Fondness? Or shame and regret? Would you remember anything at all?
Grandma turned 96 years old today. She’s at the point where I can’t ask her such heavy-handed questions. But what I can tell you is that the proof is in the pudding. Grandma has 3 sons, 7 grandchildren and 10 great grand children. She’s survived WWII under Japanese invasion, when she put chicken blood on her clothes and blackened her naturally light complexion with dirt so that the Japanese would keep from raping her. She suffered the death of her first husband, who was woefully murdered over an argument regarding a transaction of water buffalo. After that she somehow, she picked herself up and married again and had her last 2 boys.
She left everything she’d ever known and came to the US in the 70s, working with Dad in the burgeoning Silicon Valley, making microchips in a long factory line for semiconductors. A decade later, she welcomed me and JR to the States not only as full-time grandma, but also as babysitter, cook, and guardian angel. Every morning, she’d prepare our breakfasts and lunches and would walk us to school. Promptly at 2:15pm she would stand outside the school gates with her trusty blue umbrella, waiting to escort me and JR home. My friends always thought it was weird that she’d use that umbrella as we walked in the sunshine. I never understood it either. In fact, I have no memory of ever walking in the rain with that umbrella.
Our family business that put me and JR through school was built on her special recipe of spices for our homemade lechon. To this day, no one knows that perfect blend of salt, pepper, lemongrass and love that makes our lechon the most delicious people have ever had. Every day, she’d go through her chores of sweeping up in front of the house, taking out the garbage and whatever else the house needed. I’d tell her that she shouldn’t be doing such things at her age, but she said she liked doing them because she felt strong. Every night like clockwork, she’d plop herself down in front of the TV and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
In my early adult life, she worried about my virginity and questioned my choice in men and choices I made in my relationships. To that end she only offered this sage advice regarding my supposed purity: ‘if the flower is touched, it loses its fragrance.’ Is it any wonder that she’d always try to sniff the top of my head whenever I saw her? She was a born a singer and poet. She’d preface her Happy Birthday songs with beloved Ilocano folk songs. And on every Mother’s Day, she’d recite a poem she learned all the way back from 7th grade, about how very important it was to love your mother.
Her small birthday today made me sad. She didn’t remember me again. But as we made our goodbyes and put her to bed, she insisted on escorting us to the door in her walker. She has always been this way. No matter the hour, she always wants to properly bid goodbye to her loved ones. And through this small and simple act, she begins to remember me again. She repeats my name over and over and I am overwhelmed with bittersweet love. She sings her goodbyes, saying how much she’ll miss me. I’m the last thing on her mind before we part ways again. Perhaps that’s what’s most important. What if this would be the last time I would see her?
I shook the thought out of my mind and did my best to sear that moment in my memory. As she said her goodbyes, she pushed her walker forward, dancing and singing. That’s how I always want to remember her, dancing and singing into the light. And I know somewhere deep inside her memory, she will always come back and remember me.