By circumstance, and with a lot of luck, I grew up in homes where grandfathers were fixtures. Today Lolo Ding turns 100.
He died in 1989. I was 13. I used to tell my writing students, I tell the ones who have become my friends: talk to your elders, ask them about their stories, talk to them about their lives. Know that they all lived — parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles — long before we did, separate from who we are, but so intricately tied to what we become, even when we don’t know.
I was too young to ask questions of Lolo Ding. One evening we were alone in Manda and he put an oxygen mask over his nose as I read to him an article from the Newsweek issue in my hands, only interrupting me to say don’t tell anyone about this, which I knew pertained to that oxygen tank beside us. So we sat on that blue couch in Manda, he with oxygen mask, me reading out loud, until he or I fell asleep, or maybe until I was picked up to transfer across the street, where I lived. The next memory is of Papa and I picking up Kuya from a technical rehearsal in CCP, to tell him that Lolo Ding was about to go, he had to say goodbye.
I remember that blue couch now. I’d go settle into it before lunch (or after, school-willing), where the day’s newspaper waited for me, folded carefully to mark the article(s) that Lolo Ding wanted me to read to Lola Nena for that day. The Newsweek articles he dog eared as he read them while on his stationary bike. He listened to me reading to Lola.
There is much reading, and speaking in me still. Maybe still the notion of teaching. As Lolo Ding did, in ways that he might not have known, in his capacity at trusting that I could take in those words without knowing their meaning, in the manner of learning that happens after the teaching.
About music. Lolo Ding enjoyed the perfected Blue Danube piano piece I had to learn, doing a little dance when he chanced upon it, telling me to play it again. He also requested, and often, the song Blue Moon, a piece I learned beyond piano lessons, a song I still know by heart.
About nation. A vivid memory: Lolo Ding holding a huge foam yellow L sign, and waving it up at the sky as helicopters flew over Mandaluyong during a coup against newly installed president Cory Aquino. More vivid a memory: Lola Nena screaming Frieeeend! Baka mapaano kayo diyaaaan! Lolo Ding smiling gladly about his little rebellion. I’m in college, reading Lolo Ding’s first edition Constantino history books cover-to-cover for freshman history class. I proudly hold those worn books with yellowed pages and creased covers in the face of the new editions my classmates had. It is six years after Lolo Ding’ s death.
About poetry. In 1999, the last of my literature electives leads me to a children’s literature class where, told to bring a poem about childhood, I fell back on memory: Lolo Ding made me read from this huge and heavy tome of poetry that came with his Encyclopedia Britannica. “Men seldom make passes, at girls who where glasses” by Dorothy Parker, which Lolo Ding had memorized, which I knew he made me read to tease me, what with my huge plastic rimmed glasses at age 11. He made me read “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, sad and dark as that is, over and over again, as if he was trying to memorize it, as if he wanted me to memorize it, too. In that literature class a decade after Lolo Ding died, I talked about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and I talked about a grandfather who did not only teach me my first poems, but who taught me how to read them, with long pauses and drawls in parts, with an amount of excitement and wistfulness in the right stanzas. I read it in exactly the same way to this class of mostly strangers. I was close to tears.
About death. One summer, Lolo Ding began scouring his dusty med school yearbooks, checking it against his old black address book. He gave me yellow pad paper and a pencil, and I listed down the full name and birthday of each of his batchmates. Lolo Ding would then call the number he had for each of them, getting back to me with either of two things: a new number and address for my list, or a date of death. He said it on the phone too often: Ay, patay na? And Lola Nena would ask: Sino friend? Lolo Ding wrote a small cross on each yearbook entry that required it.
About playfulness. Where secret handshakes are fun, and being taught the piko from his childhood can mean most the summer spent trying to beat him. Where he’d tell me to go with him to Imus for All Soul’s Day: Makikita mo ang birthday mo sa lapida! Which I did, because I was the same birthday as Lola Elang. Where he’d always always have some Goya chocolates hidden in the vegetable crisper of his fridge, or some MY San biscuits in the dispensa, not ready for the taking, but ready for giving. Where he’d play sungka and keep his last sigay between his fingers so I could never get a turn. Where every birthday and christmas (as the former happens too close to the latter), he’d give me a local barbie doll wannabe, the point of which is the dress crocheted onto its body, something he ordered from an assistant in his office.
Where he’d give me riddles to solve: Em, Ay, Crooked Crooked Ay, Crooked Crooked Ay, Pee Pee, Ay.
Or: If You Are En, I E, You Are E!
Lolo Ding’s humor, his spirit, is like a reflection I rarely see, one that reminds me of how a grandfather can take credit for much of what’s me, even when rarely remembered. For the ability to take things in stride regardless of difficulty, the openness to drinks and music with friends, the chance I take to read if not buy a copy of Newsweek now too expensive to subscribe to. In that voice I use when I’d read sections of a poem to a class of students and let it drip with feeling, in the hands that play mahjong, the game that Lolo Ding has ended up teaching us all. In that split second that I take the bottle of moisturizer from my dresser and I see the doll with blonde hair in a green and yellow crocheted dress that stands there still.
In that space between listening to Papa sing “Blue Moon” and hearing Lolo Ding sing it as my 10-year old self played it on the piano.
I always say that I use my mother’s last name to pay tribute to her alongside my father. Now it has to be about the Stuart that my Lolo Ding was. We would all be so saved by this gift of play and poetry, music and merriment, home and nation. We would all be so lucky to remember.