Her eyes spill out unspoken stories?in the form of wrinkles that etch deeper and longer with the passage of time. From the corners of her eyes, they branch out like patterns on the wings of a butterfly?crawling all over her face, etching curves on her cheeks or fashioning waves on her forehead.
These scratches of age may reveal themselves as random graffiti for marking territories, as if declaring, The fine lines around my eyes are the marks of generations I witnessed coming and going. The folds below my mouth are the stories I wish to tell but can only whisper.
I witnessed these lines curve and swirl and dance with the rhythm of time, until they turned themselves into beautiful baybayin: the hushed characters of our history, striving for survival, like every one of her silent stories.
?Agidaw, apo,? Lola Mila often complains as she tries to stand up. ?Taktuhod man, masakit.? She means her knees hurt.
I can only assume that the Visayan word agidaw means masakit, aray or any other word intended to mean pain and hurt. Lola Mila, my maternal grandmother, is the only one in the family with a Visayan tongue. We pick up a word here and there from living with her. For her part, she tries to speak in Tagalog to be understood, especially here in Laguna.
However, her hybrid of Tagalog-Visayan oftentimes creates her strange ways of saying things. When referring to someone, she usually adds the word ?him? before a noun. She interchanges it from being a pronoun to a determiner to an article, such as him apo for ?my grandchild? (aking apo) or him Iste for ?Cristy? (si Cristy). The term him for her has turned to some sort of a modifier whose syntactic rule she has made all her own.
One morning, I tried to humor her with it.
?Lola, hindi po him Cristy,? I explained, handing her a cup of coffee. ??Her? Cristy po. Babae e. ?Her? dapat.?
Sensing my tone, she was smiling when she replied: ?Loko man akong him Kibin.?
?Yan, tama po. Him Kevin. Lalaki.?
Lola Mila does not know the date of her own birth. Once we asked her about it, she said that she was told it was raining when she was born, in August. Which specific day and year?and if it was really in August, even she could tell.
Always a jester, one of my uncles teased her about it. He told her of the probability of successive rainy days in August. Did it mean we have to celebrate her birthday accordingly, too?
To this, Lola Mila crumpled her face into a smile, replying, ?Tuyaw man ?tong him Panke,? which translates to me as ?Silly you, Panke (Frankie)?. ?Lagi man akong niloloko.? She said she was always being made fun of.
She once shared that she only went to second grade. (Or was it third grade?) As it turned out, her short time in school didn?t amount to much. She can neither read nor write, not even her own name. Any transaction requiring alphabets on paper are done with the help of my mother, the eldest of her four children. If she finds it hard to keep letters and words in mind, what more of dates?
When it comes to her hometown, she remembers well. Whenever she sees news on TV about Samar, she never forgets to remind us that she grew up there. Then come stories of loved ones, of family left behind.
At a very young age, she went to Manila to work as a housemaid to a rich family. She washed clothes, cleaned the house and took care of their kids. ?English speaking man ako, apo,? she would say, bragging to me how she learned a foreign language from taking care of the kids. When I asked her to try what she remembered, she looked at me proudly and say, ?Good morning,? ?Thank you,? and ?No speak English, no speak English.?
Only once did Lola Mila visit her family back in Samar. It was after her wedding, bringing with her a daughter and a husband. By then, she had left her work in Manila and was living with her husband in Laguna. When I asked my mother if she could remember this visit in Samar, she said that she had but a faint memory. She could remember herself as a young girl with Lola Mila and Lolo Rudy (my grandfather) visiting a place with water everywhere. Apart from it, everything else was blurry, she said. It must be, given that it happened decades ago.
Oftentimes, I catch Lola Mila telling stories about her experiences in Manila and Laguna with her eyes fixated elsewhere. It is as if the stories are being told not really for us to hear but for her to remember?and to keep remembering. Other times it also feels like she tells her stories out loud to her distant relatives, wishing the wind will take her stories across islands and whisper them back to those she really wishes to listen: her family back in Samar.
My mother told me how Lola Mila had a drinking problem when she was younger.
After working in the mountain, Nanay said that they would often find Lola Mila drunk for taking in lambanog way too much for her to handle. They would know it at once for her voice could be heard from afar as she screamed and cursed in the air. Neighbors would keep themselves away as far as possible from Lola Mila as she walked outside, waving a bolo in her hand.
?Nakakahiya talaga,? Nanay said, ?Dalaga ako noon tapos si Inay (Lola Mila) e laging ganun.? Mother recounted how she would often hide behind a tree, ignoring mosquitos biting her, just as long as she could be far away from home. She would only come back when the cursing stopped because it would only mean that Lola Mila had already fallen asleep.
?Hindi ko rin alam,? Nanay answered when I asked her why Lola Mila had to drink a lot back then. There must be a reason for her drinking, I argued. But she said she never really knew. Up to this point, there are things about her even Nanay could not understand.
?Basta, para s?yang laging galit noon,? she said.
A few months ago, my mother asked me to paint Lola Mila.
?Remembrance natin,? she said. Nanay explained to me how much it would mean to her if I made a relic to remember grandmother by, especially in the future.
Almost every night for a month, I stared at Lola Mila?s face on the screen of my laptop. The lines I saw and the colors I needed, I tried to recreate on a fifteen-by-twenty-inch canvas. During those nights, the more time I spent looking at her face, the more I became aware of its every detail. I realized how most of her features, especially her eyes, reflected on my mother; how the dimples on her cheeks are as prominent as mine; or how the shape of our faces, without a doubt, are taken out of the same mold.
All the while, the memories I have of her and the stories my family shared about her kept on playing in my head. What was it like to go through what she had gone through? To be in strange place to work for strange people using a strange language. To be far away from people I cared for most. To wonder for my return. Will I drink it all up just to drown the frustration for not being understood and not being able to express myself? Will I be angry all the time? And for how long?
Though the sight of Lola Mila was a constant of my every morning, growing up, I felt like I saw her the clearest during those few nights.
Like our Baybayin, the wrinkles all over Lola Mila?s face are marks of her age and life. Running from her nose, down to the sides of her mouth are two think arches, curving whenever she smiles at fond memories of distant relatives never to be seen again. Longer lines on her forehead are fading horizons, ebbing away with the tide of time. And most interesting of all are the short and subtle scribble-like lines on the corners of her eyes, branching out like patterns on butterfly wings, curving and swirling and dancing with the rhythm of time?beckoning to be decoded, asking to be read.
Each line is a character that has stood the test of time, accruing to tales of hybrids of dialects she fashioned her tongue into, of birthdays celebrated despite of not really knowing, and of people she grew up with but to grow old without. We may not be able to completely decipher the language of her face, but we will always care to try?until the hand of time decides to mark us, too; until we have our own stories to be read, like hers, written in beautiful baybayin.