|Red caught Mamang's playful energy in this snap. Her smile, the glint in her eye|
A little over three years ago, one of my proudest endeavors was to reconnect and rediscover my paternal family. Central to that narrative is Mamang, my paternal grandmother.
When I started reaching out to family in Zamboanga, I didn’t know what to expect. It had been 26 years since I last saw the family. With the reverberating drama from my parents’ divorce, I wasn’t certain how welcome I would be. Previous attempts to reach out to each other ended up as tales of missed connections. I’ve grown up not expecting much of anything, and always ready to move on, a defence mechanism, a protective shell that had served me well. I told myself, if I wasn’t welcome, I would have been happy enough to drive by the homes we used to live in, and simply take photos to bring home to my kids -- not very different from the tourist snaps I share with them from my other trips.
First contact was through a phone call. While working in Manila, I received a call from an unknown number. It was Mamang, calling from Zamboanga. She asked me how I had been, confirmed the details of my trip, inquired why I’d be staying for only a few days, and assured me that they were looking forward to see me. She sounded pleased from hearing that I’d done reasonably well in life, and I loved the singsong way she spoke. She urged me not to waste money, and simply stay with her instead. I was too afraid to accept, and felt tears and a childlike sense of wonder after we dropped the line. Had to catch my breath with a walk around the office grounds. Time blurred and I was a 5-year old child again. The hope that I could share my paternal family with my kids grew in my heart. We were not going to be outsiders looking in. We’d be part of the photograph, part of a story that's been missing in my life for so long.
|Looking sprightly as she accompanied us to pay respects to our dearly departed|
It’s been like a fairytale since. The warm welcomes in the airport. Mamang, Tito Bong, and Tito Ondon welcomed me into their homes, and regalled me with much needed stories – truths and perspectives I needed to hear. We had conversations about things we can't change in the past, about how our limited understanding can drive regrettable action, the fragility of life, and unburdening through forgiveness. We received gifts held for us for a long long time from grandaunts and granduncles who have passed away, and saw photos in each of the homes where cutouts of my brother and I were pasted into group photos. They found ways and means to keep us close.
|Seeing Mamang for the first time in 26 years :) A vision of how I might look like when I'm in my 80s|
During that first visit, Mamang was full of strength and vivaciousness. She was 81 years old then, but could read messages in her phone unassisted, and carried herself with such grace. She insisted on fixing her hair and wearing face powder every time we left home, and accompanied me in visiting cemeteries to pay respects to everyone in the family who had passed away. She lit candles at Fort Pilar, walked around Rio Hondo, and clearly enjoyed going around town. I loved stories of her sneaking away from home on her own, at her age, to meander the streets, meet with friends, and window-shop in solitude. She enjoyed being outside and exploring. These stories were told by her children and grandchildren with a combination of both concern and pride. Free-spirited like a teenager, she loved her independence fiercely. From her stories, I could tell she was also very proud of her children and grandchildren, and had them in her thoughts constantly – both the ones she could find a way to help, and the ones who were somehow out of her reach.
|First time Roo and Red met their Grand-Mamang :)|
She encouraged me to reconnect with my father, and within a few months of seeing her in Zamboanga, I visited my father and his family in Tarlac.
|Such a beautiful smile from Mamang, as she and dad exchanged stories|
Since then, I’ve made a commitment to visit her and the family in Zamboanga every year. The following year, Roo, Red, my Mom, and my younger brother accompanied me in this adventure. It was beautiful seeing grace and healing happen, with both sides of my family reconnecting. Such a simple thing – but it was unreal being with both my mom and paternal family in the same dinner table. Mamang held up until late in the evening, through catch-up conversations at Garden Hotel’s lobby restaurant. She was noticeably absent during the picnic sundowner at Vista del Mar. This was when I first sensed that she was tired, and health issues were becoming more real. It was startling to see fragility in her, and I treasured the moments of her strength even more.
|Mamang, through the years|
This year, back for the third consecutive time, we managed to rally the troops despite Martial Law being declared throughout Mindanao region. My dad, Mamang’s first born, flew from Manila. My elder brother, Mamang’s first grandchild, and his daughter flew from Ilo-ilo. Roo, Red and I flew in from Singapore via Manila. Mamang has just come from the hospital, and looked more tired that I remember seeing her in the past couple of years. We made certain we had the time to simply sit still, share long leisurely meals at home, and tell stories. Precious time to build and link a patchwork of memories. It was beautiful to see Mamang shake off the exhaustion with genuinely happy smiles for her sons, her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It was heartwarming to see my kids play in the home I used to play in as a 4 year old girl, and to see them enjoy the simple things, playing with Rambo, enjoying Mamang's reactions to their antics and the connection. One of my favorite images of Mamang is an image taken by Red, while Mamang was just chilling in bed. The smile Mamang gave Red was so bright, it makes it unimaginable that we will never see the same light shine again.
|Mamang with the girls - Three great-granddaughters|
As I look back, I’m so glad we chose to spend that time the way we did. While time was short, we count ourselves lucky to have known her, and been touched by her light. We hold stories close to our hearts and keep the memory of her alive in the retelling. You are missed, Mamang. And I am forever grateful for how you have lit the hope in my heart, and put fragments of my life together with your welcoming words.