Sitting in her wheelchair, my grandmother looked up at me with a polite grin. Her eyes were large and bright with curiosity.
“Do you remember her?” my father asked his mother in Tagalog, pointing at me as I stood in the tiny, drab living room of my grandma’s apartment in Mandaluyong City, just outside Manila, Philippines. “That’s Darleen, your granddaughter.”
“Hi Lola,” I said. “How are you?”
She took a few seconds to consider the words. Then her smile widened and she began to nod slowly, as if to say “yes, she looks familiar.”
I leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. It had been years since I’d seen her last, when she was still living with my family in the U.S. and the dementia hadn’t set in yet. There was a new softness in her face I didn’t recognize.
“Dad was right,” I thought. “She’s different now.”
The realization saddened me. But I also couldn’t help but feel a tinge of resentment.
Although my grandma and I did have our tender moments every now and then, we had always had a complicated relationship. When I was kid, she was often harsh and judgmental, sometimes teetering on the edge of verbal abuse.
“You need to lose weight,” she would say. “No one will ever want to marry you if you stay fat like that.”
She also had a raging temper and was quick to point the finger at me whenever my kid brother would make a mess in her bedroom or something of hers would go missing. (Usually, it was because she had misplaced it.)
“What did you do?!” she would yell, her cheeks red with anger. “I know you did this!”
“It wasn’t me!” I would scream back, desperately trying to convince her.
Even at 8 or 9 years old, I couldn’t stand to be falsely accused. I would defend myself fiercely, to the point of tears. Then when my dad would come to my defense, she would blame him for “spoiling” me and question why he always took my side over hers. Once, the argument between them got so bad she packed her bags and moved to my aunt’s house for several years.
Those types of tensions continued into my teen years and even as I grew into adulthood; up until the point she suffered a broken hip and moved back to the Philippines, where she could get affordable round-the-clock home care.
And then suddenly there we were, in July 2008. I was 26. She was 82. I remembered everything — her criticisms and hurtful words, her impatience — and she remembered nothing.
Irene Ramirez Santos was born Sept. 18, 1926. She grew up in the northern Manila district of Santa Cruz, the eldest of seven siblings.
She was a teenager during World War II, when Imperial Japan attacked the Philippines and occupied the islands. When Manila fell in 1942, she and her family fled north to Gapan City in the province of Nueva Ecija. It was a time when young Filipinas feared being captured, imprisoned and taken as sex slaves by the Japanese military.
An estimated 400,000 women and girls in Japanese-occupied territories across Asia were confined into military brothels and used as “comfort women” by soldiers during WWII. About 1,000 of those women were in the Philippines. And my grandmother might’ve easily become one of them, if she and her younger sister hadn’t managed to outrun a few Japanese soldiers through a set of rice fields near their home one morning.
After the war ended, my grandmother returned to Manila and became an actress. Although she would have rather become a nurse, she was pressured by her mother to go into show business because of her good looks. Eventually she began acting in TV shows and movies. She went by the stage name Yolanda Luna, which is why my brothers and I grew up calling her “Lola Yoly” instead of “Lola Irene.”
Her work in show business is how she met my grandfather, Domingo Principe, who was a well-known Filipino actor and director. Their short-lived romance, however, ended when she found out he was already married, but not before she got pregnant and gave birth to my father in 1954.
By the 1960s, my grandmother had become well-established in the Filipino entertainment industry and had begun writing for radio. Equipped with a 40-pound Underwood typewriter, she composed entire scripts for radio dramas that were broadcast throughout Manila and beyond. As a kid, my dad would have to carry that heavy typewriter into town to get it repaired whenever the keys or return bar would stick. Sometimes my grandma would run out of ink in the middle of writing, and my father would go off running to pick up new typewriter ribbons at the nearest stationery shop.
Over the course of her life, my Lola Yoly searched for lasting love. She had three failed marriages. And including my dad, she had six children with four different men.
Two of those children — my Tito Danny and Tita Anna — died from drug overdoses in the 1970’s, around the time that the Philippines first began its “war on drugs”. Another of my dad’s half-siblings, my Tita Raquel, died in a stabbing in the mid-1980’s, just a few years before my grandmother immigrated to the U.S. via a petition filed by my father. (My parents had immigrated about 10 years earlier.)
As a child, I never fully understood why my grandmother was the way she was. For so many years, my hard feelings towards her got in the way of my ability to truly bond with her.
It wasn’t until after visiting her in the Philippines that summer of 2008 — the last time I saw her before she died in 2011 — that I began to appreciate what she had lived through. The tough, strong-willed woman who had overcome so much fear and heartbreak had suddenly become small, helpless and frail. Her newfound gentleness was jarring, and seeing her that way made me feel guilty. Guilty for fighting with her so much over the years. And guilty for failing to fix things before the dementia took its toll.
The truth is I’ve always been a lot like Lola Yoly. I share more physical attributes and mannerisms with her than I do with my own mother. I inherited her independence and strong-mindedness. I performed in plays throughout grade school and became a writer as an adult. And though I try to keep it at bay, I have the same short fuse and harsh tongue, minus the traumas that must have sharpened hers.
While I try not to live with regret, I am still haunted by my unresolved relationship with my grandmother. I think of her often; when I lose my patience, when I hear a great radio story, when I reflect on my heritage, and almost every time I write.
If I could go back, I’d ask her to tell me more about her life in the Philippines. What was your childhood like? What else did you see and experience during the war? How did you cope after losing Tito Danny, Tita Anna and Tita Raquel? What was it like leaving your home and immigrating to the U.S.?
Maybe then I’d have understood her better, and been able to honor and share her story in the way that she deserved.