Leaving Lola – Part 1: Staying Up
Part 1 of 3
Reese said, “When you are there, you should blog about funerals in the Philippines” and I first thought, “Wow, that’s sort of a morbid subject”. Little did I know that funerals in the Philippines can be emotionally lush and symbolic celebrations, especially if the person lived a long life — like my Lola did.
When I heard the news, I was doing my share of door duty at People Power and in the blink of an eye I was packing my things – my Lola – the matriarch and our last link to her generation -had passed away. My whirlwind trip ended 40 hours later at my family’s ancestral house in Alaminos, Laguna Province — amidst a flurry of tears and painful embraces.
Why had we not gone to a funeral home? Upon entering the house, there was my Lola’s coffin, she inside, dressed in pina, jusi and pearls, surrounded by roses, sampaguitas, blessing cards and the people who loved her. The funeral was in a few days and until then, we would stay with her body here in the house, on the land she has lived on for almost a century.
“It’s Made In the USA,” said Tyrone, an uncle that I was just meeting right then and there, pointing at the sturdy chariot. “That’s why it’s more expensive.” (Apparently, I’m not supposed to call him Tito Tyrone, because he’s not my direct uncle, but a cousin’s cousin of my mom. “Tito” as a term of respect for elders is purely an immigrant creation that created community in a lonely new land.) More relatives would stream in, most of whom I had met when I was a baby, to others I thought I had never met before but whose features were strangely similar to my own… “I’m the eldest son of your Lolo’s younger brother — your distant cousin. I used to take care of YOU.”
Funny enough, they told me that I looked a lot like my Lola when she was smiling or laughing.
And they stayed late into the night, praying, singing songs, exchanging memories. They came from the city, but mostly they came from the “lupa”, the land that my family has owned since the 1800s when friars parsed and distributed it to only a lucky few, thus setting the stage for the class divisions that are still present in the Philippines today.
This was rich land, before Dole and Del Monte ravaged it’s pineapples and mangoes, putting its bounty in tin cans to be sent (ironically) to North America where unaware kids like my cousins and I could snack on fruit cocktail as part of our brown bag lunches along with sandwiches and other bologna.
It’s also land where not only coconuts and lanzones grow, but also children… poor ones with parents who work hard for little money and can’t pay rent or a mortgage, and so rely on the goodness and compassion of others, like my Lola. Others might call them squatters, but if they are here tonight, they are family — and they are crying and praying too — they have lost someone with qualities that are now too rare in this day and age.
This is Juan. He and his family live on the very edge of the Bicomong-Punzalan land which backs right on to the makeshift houses on the ‘riles’. His family was doing odd jobs around the property when he was born — totally blind. “Lola took care of him, that’s why he is here all night”, said my mother. “She took care of a lot of people by giving them an honest day’s work — even when the work didn’t necessarily need to be done”.
Why would you pay for work that didn’t necessarily need doing? And what was the work arrangement? “They didn’t ask for payment,” said Mom. “But your Lola always tried to take care of everyone. She knew that we couldn’t live without them, either.” I guess this is how the ecosystem works — when you are blessed, you should find a way to share the blessing. You don’t choose your lot in life, but you sure can do good with what you have. “Your Lola was too generous.”
And that’s how it was, night after night. Staying up and making sure that there was always someone to keep Lola company. Sometimes the room was abuzz with memories and stories and sometimes the silence was deafening as the reality set in that we wouldn’t be seeing her for a long while. Here, there is no attendant to tell you and your guests to leave. No one to lock up and tell you to come back tomorrow at 10am. Just an open door, welcoming you in at any hour you want to arrive — any hour you want to pay tribute. This is NOT North America where we impose business hours on mourning and so we stay up.
Sometimes, I even found myself being the last and only one awake. I’ll admit, I felt a bit like “Johnny” in a scene from Ang Pamana. I’m happy to report that I saw no mananangals… but I’m sure there was a ghost or two present — good ones.
I suppose that this is what the tradition is all about – you don’t leave the body, and the spirit never leaves YOU.
Even in death, we take care of each other.
CLICK HERE to read PART 2 of Leaving Lola – Walking with Ghosts