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Saturday, October 24, 2009
The Luckiest Girl in the World
My grandparents, Felix and Nena Tiukinhoy
If I were to allow myself one regret, it would be that I didn’t write my grandparents’ love story, as my grandfather requested.
I was in college when my maternal grandfather, my Lolo Daddy, during my family’s visits to our hometown of Surigao City, started pulling me aside to recount the story of how he met “that girl”, pointing affectionately at my grandmother, my Lola Mama. They were then in their 70’s, but my grandfather spoke of my grandmother as if she were still his 19-year-old bride.
“That girl,” he’d say, loud enough for her to hear. And, exactly like a teenager, she’d stick her tongue out at him in response.
It wasn’t that I didn’t find their love story interesting enough or worth writing. In fact, I never tired of hearing it no matter how many times my grandfather told it. I would imagine the handsome 22-year-old young man driving an army jeep while stealing glances through the rearview mirror at the 19-year-old teacher who had flagged him down for a ride into town and who now sat at the backseat, trying not to stare back. Their story was dramatic and funny and beautiful--and that was my problem. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to adequately capture it, terrified that I would invariably ruin the telling.
Why me? I agonized onto several pages of my journal. I wasn’t the grandchild studying creative writing or joining writing workshops—that was my sister Tara. I was a mass communications student, majoring in hanging out. I had not written a story since high school and even then those stories were largely confined to my drawer. I didn’t know why my grandfather thought I could actually write a story—his story--as he’d never even read any of mine. I remember wishing I’d fall asleep one night and wake up as Joyce Carol Oates. She couldn’t ruin anything even if she tried.
I was too young and too insecure about everything, especially about my ability at the thing I most loved to do—writing—to see that my grandfather’s request wasn’t about me. In particular, it wasn’t about whether or not I thought I had any talent or capability. It was about a story that needed to be told—because it was a story that was very dear to someone. And that someone was very dear to me.
He must have felt that his life was coming to a close and he wanted his children and grandchildren, at least, to know him and my grandmother a little bit more.
So what if I didn’t think I was talented or skilled enough? That wasn’t the point. The point was that I was supposed to learn some storytelling skills so that my grandfather’s story—the story that I fell in love with—could be told.
My grandfather died six years ago, but I never really dwelled on the thought of not having written his story because I do not indulge regrets; my personal philosophy is that everything that happened—and did not happen--was meant to happen—and not happen. Which, as far as I’m concerned, makes regret—like guilt—useless.
So when my grandmother asked me to edit her autobiography, I was surprised at the feeling of déjà vu it triggered in me. It was my grandfather’s story all over again, especially when a familiar protest echoed in my mind: “Why me? I’m not the editor in this family.” Editing is not my strongest suit, which is why I’m obsessive about rereading my work over and over so that an 800-word article often takes weeks to “get right”. And even then, after having subjected the piece to countless drafts, I still find a few things that have slipped my merciless blood-red Pilot V5 pen long after I’ve sent it off.
But my grandmother’s request strangely felt like a chance for me to rectify a past misdeed I didn’t know I had committed. So I took a deep breath and said yes.
“This isn’t about you,” I kept reminding myself as I sweated over my grandmother’s manuscript. “Who cares if you think you’re bad at editing? Tough shit. Just do it already.”
As soon as I threw myself into the editing work, which my editor sister Tara and I split between us, the this-isn’t-about-me mantra had another important use: it kept me from turning my grandmother’s book into mine. We have very different aesthetics and ways of expressing ourselves and sometimes I had to fight really hard with myself to not completely change what she’s written just because I didn’t like the sound of it. Sometimes, for instance, her references to God have a Carlo J. Caparas tenor to them. But I know where she’s coming from—and it’s not the place that Carlo J. (God Help Us) is coming from, I think—and this is her book and, again this isn’t about me. So I step aside and let her tell her story the way she wants to tell it.
And I’m so glad that I did. Because it cleared the way for my grandmother’s brand of charming, guileless storytelling. Far from sophisticated, her voice is disarmingly child-like, girly—innocent and wide-eyed and excitable. As she usually carries herself with such unerring ladylike poise, I’m not sure if her children and other grandchildren are acquainted with this little-girl side of her.
In her book, she talks about her Intramuros childhood, her family, her teaching with the deep affection of someone who sees what she has and is grateful. And the way she gushes about the love of her life, her Felix, and the 60-plus years they were married reminds me of Bella frothing at the mouth about Edward. (Kelangan talagang isingit ‘yun, di ba? ☺)
“I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” she often says. “I had the best husband. He took very good care of me.” He built her a large, rambling house, enough to accommodate their 13 children (yes—13!). He wrote her passionate love letters, which she keeps under her pillow (and which my sister Dang, the book’s art director and lay-out artist, has been eyeing; she has already asked my grandmother to leave them to her in my grandmother’s will.) He was an old-fashioned man who provided everything she could ever want and need and never let her worry about the practical things, like money. My mom and my aunts, married self-providers, say, like an accusation, that my grandfather spoiled my grandmother. “Talaga,” my grandmother assents, no shame in her whatsoever.
My dad once wondered aloud about my grandmother’s obsession with her book project. He said he couldn’t understand why people want to write about themselves. Was it vanity?
I said, Yes, as with everything we do, the need to tell our own story is motivated by both vanity and something else. I saw that something else in both grandfathers (my paternal one, my dad’s dad, wrote his own autobiography and gave it as a gift to friends and family before he died) and I see it now in my grandmother:When we near the end of a journey, there is a need to remember it from the beginning. There is a need to cradle in our hands the memory of every single thing that defined that journey, that made it what it is. This loving, painstaking remembrance is a way of reassuring ourselves that the journey was worth it.
I see in my grandmother’s book her need to know that her life mattered, that she spent it well.
She still has a lot of spirit in her, which I hope will carry her all the way to her book launch in January 2010, on her 87th birthday. She’s been saying that she sees my grandfather in her room, smiling at her. I sometimes find myself asking my grandfather, in the darkness of my room, to hold off taking my grandmother until she’s signed her book and sipped her champagne and let her friends and family toast her full life.
His girl—and my girl—deserves it.
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