A Historicity of Grandparents

I always believed my dad wasn’t raised well. Once, he told me about his father waking him up at four in the morning—when it was still dark out—to deliver a package of some sort via bicycle. The provincial roads weren’t lit at all, and he wiped out and fell by the roadside, unable to find his bike or the package until daybreak. His father never expressed love or care or tenderness, would leave him the worst parts of the chicken, and beat him for playing jackstone with his sisters, saying it was a girl’s game. My dad never failed to tell me how much he feared his father. And I hated lolo for that. I never met him. He was no one to me—only a man who hurt my dad.

But one day I just thought: History.

My dad was born in 1950, and he is the 9th of 11 children. During the Japanese occupation, our ancestral home was occupied by Japanese soldiers, and my grandparents had to move to a nearby cave. My lolo built furniture and did other work to make it a habitable cave. I can only imagine the Flintstones. My lola tells me a Japanese officer inspected their cave, and told her: Your husband did very well with this.

Lolo was born before 1910, lola in the 1910s. To them, the Spanish-American War was as recent as the EDSA Revolution for the 20-year-olds of today. This was followed by the Philippine-American War and the U.S. Occupation. Of course, Lolo fled China less than a decade after the Boxer Rebellion. In 1914, the first World War broke out. In 1917, the Russian Revolution. In 1927, the Chinese Civil War between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek (lolo was hardcore KMT). In 1941, the Second World War.

My father recalls lolo reading the paper during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lolo shook his head, made a disappointed sound, and told himself: “It looks like war again.” In other words, how much right do I have to blame them for how they brought up their kids to be tough—to never need affection, to respond to emotional hurt not with sadness, but with anger? What do I know of the ruthlessness required of us during worse times? And how offended do I get to be when older Filipinos are suspicious of anyone Japanese?

Is it wrong to do more than accept my grandparents? To admire them, even? My lolo had no five-step plan to quit drinking. He locked himself in a room for a week and got sober. When the police raided an illegal gambling den he frequented, he jumped from the second floor and ran away. My lola never ate the biscuits she received. They always ended up expired—because she would store them in cabinets forever. “Wartime mentality,” my dad would call it.

They did their best. Which is maybe all you can ask from parents in extraordinary times.

The world is ending over and over again these days. I do believe that we’re moving too slow to address and mitigate the effects of climate change. I think we have the worst government in Philippine history. Geopolitical tides are turning, and we are certainly on the brink of a new and terrifying century of human awfulness. I’d like to be woke about these things, but I like to think that—when the time comes—many of us will have it in us to survive. That it’s still in our blood. That we might all find our bicycles at daybreak.

In Memoriam: Wilhelmina Casuela-Domingo

I cried a lot when I was in first grade. I cried so much that my mother volunteered to take care of the kids during lunchtime just so I could see her. I cried so much that my mother can still rattle off the first grade lunch habits of my friends: who made the most noise, who loved sinigang, who ate the slowest—stories that get stranger to hear the older I get. Once, I cried in class because I looked out the window and saw my mother’s face in the clouds, like Simba seeing Mufasa in the sky in the acclaimed cinematic masterpiece the Lion King. And I cried each morning before saying goodbye, because I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again—or because I had all the sublime logical capacities of a dog. But I suppose these are only common consequences of being a son so loved by his mother.

It wasn’t normal—which is the nice way of saying that my behavior was absolutely abnormal. And yet somehow, I’m 28 years old, happy, mentally healthy, and with a black belt in self-acceptance. To this day, I think I have my first grade teacher, Wilhelmina Casuela, to thank for this. If I can pretend to be an amateur psychologist for a moment, seven years old is where traumas set in—where we begin to wrestle with our eventual identities—and Wilhelmina Casuela, or Wimpy as her friends called her, walked into the dark pit of my Being and pulled me out.

I don’t remember much, because it’s true what they say: When you look back on your life, you see only a few moments in great detail. Otherwise, all memory erodes into dust. Once, on a sad day, Ms. Casuela stood in front of the class and said: “Boys, I’m your mother when you’re in school.” It meant the world to me, who had never heard that before. During another sad day, she saw I got a six out of ten on a quiz about telling time—she called me in and made me take the quiz again. On another day, when I once again felt lonely in the company of so many friends, she had me sit with her during lunch break, and asked me to kiss her on the cheek. One day, in 1996, she spoke to my mother and said that she knew I’d be one of the brightest kids in my year.

Nine years later, she died. She was in her mid-40s and it was summer. I don’t remember exactly how she passed, but it was a sickness. My only recollection of those nine years was seeing her in campus a few times for some hey how are you’s. Catching up was for far, far later in life. Catching up was for now. Catching up was for when I’d made something of myself—for when I’d had enough adventures. I’d buy her a coffee with money that I’d made; I’d share the happiness that would be impossible without her existence; we’d talk about politics and falling in love and starting a family, and how I’d want my kids to have second mothers like her; maybe we’d talk about a nice name for a kid; she’d ask me if I still go to church and end up disappointed; and I’d tell her about the good, good fortune of having her in my life. She deserved that twenty times over. She deserved to see us do some good in the world.

Miss Casuela was a good person. I imagine that, in her final days, she held no grudge—and breathed only a pure, untainted love into the world. Perhaps the only pity I feel is for myself. My own self, constantly pained by the existence of debts that can’t be repaid—by the pressure of receiving a teacher’s love for no other reason than simply existing. With a love like that, how could I be anything but kind? How could I not kneel in gratitude for the rest of my days? How could I not begin to love other people for little to no reason? Yes, Miss Casuela, I still cry. I am crying now. But I hope you know that I’ve learned to cry for the proper reasons: I miss you, and I don’t know if I’ll see you again.