I feel stuck writing this piece. A lot of starts and stops. So many tangents, and yet I don’t want to say “tangents” because everything is connected. I am also scared of getting too emotional. I’ve always been scared of getting too emotional. I want to write something funny. Funny and powerful. I feel like I’m being too serious. Emotional doesn’t have to mean depression and sadness and melancholy. And yet, I am choosing to write about mothers, life, and death. I don’t know if I’m quite ready. I don’t think anyone is ever ready.
I started writing about the memories of my maternal grandmother, who we called Nanay, which means “mother” in Tagalog. She lived with us in Michigan from the early 1970s until her death in 1996. She died at age 88, and I was about to turn 22—a week before graduation from college. I don’t think if I cried at her funeral. I felt like she lived a long life and although I was really sad, I was also trying to be ok with everything and focus on the long life she lived and celebrate that. But let’s be honest: I also hated showing my emotions in front of people, especially emotions of sadness. Only emotions of sadness. I’m ok with showing frustration, anger, and happiness. I’m still that way. I’m like my stoic dad. I have internalized some shame about showing sadness, that it’s a sign of weakness. But then I feel guilty for not crying when I’m supposed to. I feel guilty for not showing sadness and acting like a robot. The vicious cycle of humanness.
I do remember feeling embarrassed that my parents kept taking pictures of my dead Nanay in her casket at the funeral home. I would have to pose with some of my cousins.
“It’s to send back home to our family in the Philippines.”
It just felt macabre and unsettling. I didn’t want to pose by the casket. Did only Filipino families do that kind of thing? But I did what I was asked. Did we smile? Did we actually pose by the casket, or did my mom just take pictures of Nanay, and I’m mistaken that we were in the photos with her? What makes me think we had to pose? I can’t check, though, because those photos are somewhere in the Philippines.
I didn’t experience a flood of tears when she died. But I definitely experience, on a daily basis, a flood of memories and pictures. Snapshots and actual photographs—we still have tons of old family photographs that my brother likes to scan every time he visits my Dad in Florida. Some memories are very vivid, and others kind of blurred, and pieced together from stories from other family members.
Nanay was born on October 13, 1907. Her name was Leogarda Delacruz. She married Jose Ibisate. They had three daughters—Erlinda, Gloria, and Teresita. They lived in Manila. Leogarda ran a sari-sari store—a convenience store. Nanay had a 4th grade education, or maybe a 6th grade education. Jose died young, when Teresita—the youngest daughter—was in high school. All three of her daughters went on to medical school, had families and careers.
In the 1970s, Nanay immigrated from the Philippines to the United States. She lived with her youngest daughter, Teresita, who was a physician in Detroit. She got married and gave birth to her first child, a girl named Theresa, in 1974. Theresa is me.
Teresita went back to work soon after she gave birth, so it was helpful to have her mother there. She watched me, cooked, and cleaned the house. Nanay and I slept on the floor of her bedroom when I was a baby.
Nanay rarely smiled in photographs. Snapshot: A color photo of me as a baby sitting in little chair on the ground, my legs swinging, smiling and sticking my tongue out. My grandmother is sitting at kitchen table looking down at me. She’s wearing a summer housedress, one of her bra straps is falling down her shoulder. Elbow propped up, her head is resting in her palm and she is barefoot with her ankles crossed. I never knew if she was smiling, or if she’s just tired, or both. Or neither. To me, it’s as if she’s looking at me and thinking all at once: “You tire me out Theresa. Ayyyy. But you are my cute apong babae and I love you and you make me smile. “
Then came Ronald Joseph in 1976, my brother. We called him R.J. Nanay continued to childrear, cook, clean, take care of the house, and take care of the family.
Nanay was a very devout Catholic, had a bible and rosary on her nightstand, and pictures of saints. Leogarda learned some English from going to church every Sunday with the family, and watching the soap operas on ABC in the afternoons while she folded laundry and ironed clothes. But she spoke Tagalog. To her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren, Filipino friends that came round. Her English was very basic. “Thank you.” “Welcome.” “Bus!” “Yum yum!” And the names of the characters on “General Hospital.”
Snapshot: A black and white picture of me and my brother with our cousins in Europe. In 1982, Nanay was shipped off to the Netherlands with us to visit her middle daughter, Gloria, and her family—a husband and two girls, my cousins Raquel and Gina—for the summer. Someone was wearing clogs or wooden shoes in that snapshot, I swear it. I was 8 years old, and R.J. was six. We had to translate. Nanay was the adult, the guardian, the elder. But with her limited English it was up to us kids to get us from New York to Amsterdam safely. I resented my parents for a while after that, because I felt like I was put in a position with lots of responsibility. What if we got lost? What if ended up on the wrong plane to Moscow? We didn’t, and we were fine, but I still resented my parents. I had also wished at the time that Nanay had spoken and written more English.
Nanay would kiss us not with her lips, but with her nose. She would put her nose to our head or cheek and sniff in, like she was breathing us in. My cousin Danica called them “Nanay kisses.”
Why did we call her Nanay, instead of Lola? I still don’t know, but I have some theories. The leading theory is that since she lived with us and my mom called her Nanay, we just all called her Nanay as well. We were never told to call her Lola. But we called our paternal grandparents Lola and Lolo. They lived with us for a spell too, but not nearly as long as Nanay.
She is my grandmother, but in so many ways she was the mother. She was my other Nanay. She didn’t help us with our homework, or enforce a curfew, or teach us how to drive. But she was always there. She yelled at us in Tagalog and chased us around with her slipper if we misbehaved or spilled milk all over the kitchen floor trying to make a bowl of cereal. She gave us hugs and Nanay kisses. She raised us.
I try to not to regret anything. But I do regret that I didn’t learn Tagalog well enough to communicate with her. I lived with Nanay all of my young life and never had a conversation with her. Back then I wish she spoke more English; now I wish I had spoken more Tagalog. Typical. I wish I had known more about her. I wish I could have communicated with her and asked her more questions about her life. I don’t know if she would have told me stories, but at least I would have tried.
It’s totally ok that I didn’t cry at my grandmother’s funeral. I have cried a lot about loss since then. I did cry while I was writing this. I needed to write about my grandmother first and see how this process would go and how I would feel. Because I’m scared to write about my mother, who I called “Mommy” or “Mom.” But I need to write about Mom and remember her. Because she is gone too.
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