At eight years old, my task was to read to my Lola, then blinded by cataract and cancer. Articles from the two newspapers and the monthly Newsweek Magazine that Lolo subscribed to were already chosen early in the morning, long before I was due back from school at noon. Lolo, having read some of these articles by the time I arrive for my task, would doze off as I read to Lola. Meanwhile, Lola would be attentive to my mistakes in pronunciation and enunciation, and try to explain what it was that made reading certain words difficult, in between reacting to the opinions of the day’s columnists.
Then, reading for me wasn’t a matter of logic, or understanding. Many of the things I would be given, I had yet to have the mind for. All the page had for me were letters and words, mostly devoid of meaning. And so I would ask Lola, “what is it that makes “breath” and “breathe” different from each other? “The e in the end, hija,” she would say.
Soon after we got the newspaper routine down pat, we started getting into Nancy Drew novels. The act of reading became mine. Finally, Lola and I were in the same boat – I was age-perfect for the novels, and she was old enough to sit down and get lost in an adventure. There was also nothing much she could do, but listen to me read.
But now, Lola was secondary. She was joining in my enjoyment of the book, instead of being the reason for having it in my hands to begin with. I read everything out loud and, now more confident, would sometimes pretend to be a newscaster with a camera in front of me. Sometimes that same camera would be filming me, playing the role of the caring daughter reading to a sick mother in the old people’s homes that I saw too much of in American TV shows and movies. Many other times, my words would drift off or become unrecognizable, as I would nod off without meaning to. I had yet to be allowed to drink coffee.
But always, even as I got older and the task of reading to her actually became my time for books, I would be rewarded with what was meryenda in Lola’s house: leche condensada. A classy name for what really are only Fita cookies dipped in a tiny platito of condensed milk. It was while I ate that Lola would start telling her own stories and I would, for that brief moment, become her. I was at the mercy of that story Lola was weaving from memory, reminding me that she’s had so many lives that I had yet to know, that so much had been done before I came to her table to have my version of cookies and milk.
Lola would talk about her life as a señorita in the center of the plaza, living in the biggest house near the Church of Tiaong Quezon. She told me of World War II and how that house was taken over by the Japanese, how she was forced to move out and live away from what had been home all her life. She talked about going to medical school and being one of the first batches of Filipino women doctors; she reminisced about meeting my Lolo in the midst of those changes, and coming to terms with the fact that she would become wife and mother, housekeeper and doña, landlord and sister instead of becoming that professional called “doctor.” Lola would talk about a time when she and Lolo could have fantastic vacations and go to parties with their med school friends, now rich and powerful in their various practices.
I marveled at Lola’s lives long gone and how they remained stark to the mind of a woman like her, whose sharpest visions are made of memory, and whose colorful life was being written as it was being told me. But Lola was rarely happy about any of these stories. Always, she would talk about her present as if it was pointless, because after all, what was good about her life was now in the past. As I ate my cookies, Lola became lost in her own self, repeating the one statement she would utter more often and with more certainty as our routine got older: sayang, hija.
Lola got tired of talking after a while, and she asked that we start doing crossword puzzles over my cookies and milk. It took some getting used to, this kind of “reading” of blank squares slowly getting filled. It was repetitive, sometimes boring, almost always exhausting. But Lola was quick to imagine those squares and what they looked like. “It’s blank-blank-p-blank-blank-blank-e-s-s, a word for absence or loss, Lola,” I would say.
Lola quickly answers: emptiness.
*this is a section of the essay that won second place in the Palanca Awards 2008. today is the 100th birthday of Dr. Concepcion Umali-Stuart — Lola Nena — who taught me about being critical, about engaging with the state of the nation, as she listened to the radio and had me read the news to her every day.