Sunday, April 15, 2007

My Maternal Grandmother

My maternal grandmother, Matilde Jimenez, was born on March 14, 1905. Her children called her “Inang” (a derivative from the word “ina” which, in Tagalog, means mother) while her grandchildren called her “Inang Tilde.” Her youngest daughter was only eleven months old when her husband, Antonio (or Antonino, but nicknamed “Meno”) Lombos, a caretela driver, died in 1936 of a ruptured appendix, while playing football. For information on my maternal grandparents, I can only ask my only living aunt, Tia Remie and uncle, Kuyang Ben.

Of the little that I actually remember, I know that I was fond of her, and she of me.

I always remembered her to be a hardworking person, selling rice and pan de sal in order to support herself and her five children, my mother Dolores, and her siblings, Felicisima, Ricardo, Benjamin and Remedios. She maintained her own household, with her then unmarried children. Her only brother, Melquiades (Quiades), could not help her much as he earned very little as a taxi driver and had his own family - a wife and six children - to support. While she died at 55, her younger brother died only recently, in his 90’s.

When I was in first grade, she had a sari-sari store situated on her brother’s property, which faced an “eskenita” (alley). My school, the Don Galo Elementary School, which was a few blocks away, and her house were on the same side of the main street-, which as a child I was not allowed to cross - so I could go to her store on my own after class. It was there where my parents would pick me up later in the day as soon as they had time to fetch me. I remember that she would offer me a Coke and whatever bread or candy was available in her store. One of my favorites was a wafer - similar to a Chinese fortune cookie - that had tiny toys inside, including rings that I could put on my little finger. She generously gave me rubber bands and “peks” which I used as toys when playing with the neighborhood children.

For some reason that I never knew, she gave up that store, and instead started selling pan de sal, pan bonete (similar to pan de sal) and rice from her house. My job was to use a wide, flat wooden stick to keep each variety of rice in a neat pyramidal shape apart from the other rice varieties (Milagrosa, Wagwag), which were displayed in the other compartments. There were three such compartments in one big six-legged rectangular box, with sometimes a fourth compartment for mongo. I would help measure the rice to sell, using a scooper that looked like a gallon can of paint sliced diagonally, with a wooden handle at the center of the closed, flat bottom part. The scooped rice was placed in a wooden box called the “salop,” which was open on one side where rice grains were poured. The flat wooden stick was smooth with age and frequent use, and had a rich patina, and I liked caressing it with my hand, like a sword that would not cut, but could swipe away across the top of the salop all rice in excess of the intended measure. Rice used to be sold by the salop, or “kalahating-salop” (1/2) until the government required that rice be sold by weight.

A dress that she gave me has not survived the years, but its memory has. My grandmother was very proud that I was finishing my third grade school year with honors. Although only the top three honor students were called to the stage (as first honorable mention, I was fourth) she took delight in the fact that her first granddaughter (I have a brother older than I) showed promise. As a gift, she gave me a dress. That was very special because in those days, I would receive new dresses only on two occasions a year – Christmas and my birthday – sometimes not even.
I remember it vividly. It was a maroon dress, with small black-checkered design, with a round neck, without a collar, and with covered buttons at the back opening. The neck and armholes were decorated with tiny “C” piping made from the same cloth, sewn in half-moon fashion, one by one, like scallops. The skirt part was sheared, and had a pocket on the right side, the top of which had the same scallop accent.

It was the practice in those days, especially when one is poor, to buy larger clothes and shoes for children so that they would not out-grow them before they got worn out. Since I had few clothes, and it was my favorite, the top got worn out right away. My mother knew how to sew, and so did my grandmother, so one of them replaced the top and sewed it to the old skirt, loosening and lengthening where needed. After a couple of years, the top was still okay but the skirt needed replacing, and it was replaced. Technically, did I get a new dress?

When I was in high school, my grandmother became very sick. This was the first time that I heard about cancer, an illness that would befall at least three members of my mother’s family, including my own mother. My grandmother had breast cancer, and could not afford whatever therapy was available in those days. They could not even afford to give her painkillers. In December 1959, I knew she was dying. Instead of celebrating the season, my mother and her siblings would be huddled with their dying mother in a dark and stuffy room, where she lay writhing in pain on a banig on the floor. I would hear my mother and especially my youngest aunt cry along with my grandmother when she was in pain, but I was afraid to disturb them and stayed outside the door to her room. I prayed fervently that my beloved grandmother would not die during the Christmas season and begged for God’s mercy to let us still have her until after the holidays. When she died on January 7, a day after the Feast of the Three Kings, which then marked the end of the Christmas season, I worried that maybe I had offered her to God sooner than God would have wanted to take her. It was also then that I learned that my youngest aunt’s birthday was on January 8, and I was filled with remorse for not asking for a longer reprieve for my grandmother. It was the first time that I felt the terrible pain of separation that death brings.

My grandmother’s life on earth was brief, but I remember her fondly.

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