BY TESSA PULGAR
The market in San Pablo City is an overwhelming collection of vibrant odors, colors, and vendors shouting deals in Tagalog across their stalls to the passerby. Every few moments, my cousin Lana and I stop in awe. There are tilapia flopping out of their tin buckets, jade necklaces swinging haphazardly on wooden pegs, and fruits I cannot name laying out in vivid spreads. I remember my dad telling me that the market was my grandfather’s, or my Lolo’s, favorite place to go in the mornings. The chaos is comforting in the sense that for a second, I forget the reason why we are in the Philippines.
The further we walk through the narrow aisles, I’m reminded of the shipping ports in the adventure novels I used to read. We watch as several men, their clothes and skin weathered from the sun, heave a roasted pig over their shoulders. One of them with smiling eyes winks at us and jokes Ano ang tinitignan mo? as they pass under the next tent. What are you looking at?
Amidst it all is Lola, my grandmother. She strides confidently ahead of us, sunglasses on, eyes trained forward and unfazed by the din of the crowd. In the current of people moving around her, eyes follow her. She wears a 1960s shawl draped around her wavy hair, a burgundy sundress, and heels that click on the stones slick with God knows what. If we were in one of my novels, she would undoubtedly be a queen undercover, making rounds in her kingdom.
In some ways, I guess she is royalty. She owns the only hotel in the city and her father was the first person to put tilapia in the lake, the main fish eaten in the area.
She notices the same man with smiling eyes. She gestures at the pig and greets the man as if they’re acquainted. I struggle to understand my mother tongue as words and laughter snap between them, dancing in the air. Lana notices and nudges me as she translates.
With a pig that skinny?
The man laughs and gestures to the stern woman standing behind him, clearly the one in charge. They go back and forth so quickly that Lana can no longer keep up. Lola is fierce, when she wants to be. Lana and I watch nervously. Her tone changes, any semblance of joking long gone, as she haggles more seriously, finally settling on a price of 2,000 pesos — around 40 US dollars. The men hoist the pig once more, wrapping it and putting it on their truck to bring to Lola’s hotel at night.
Salamat po. She says curtly. Thank you.
Before we leave, she lets us each pick one thing from an old lady sitting at the edge of the market on a red blanket. Lana chooses a bracelet and I choose a children’s book in Tagalog. When I see Lola shoot me a look, however, I opt instead for a bag of vivid, reddish-pink rambutan fruit. The old woman cuts one open for me, her eyes crinkling at the corners. She looks like you, she says.
I understand because it’s something that has been repeated to me in Tagalog before. Lola looks over to me, as I struggle to wipe the rambutan juice oozing down my chin, and laughs. I stare at the ground in embarrassment.
Before they retired back to the Philippines, I used to visit Lolo and Lola’s home in Staten Island every weekend. 32 Ladd Ave. Everything about the house, from the red carpet to the disco ball, modest for Lola’s standards, screamed: “Look at me!”
And for good reason. Lola threw parties fairly frequently. All of my Titos and Titas would stream in, characteristically, an hour after the party was scheduled to start. While I referred to all of them as uncles and aunts, to this day I have no idea how many of the people at those parties were my blood relatives. I would stand by the door, greeting them, as they smothered me in embraces and pinched my cheeks. Kamukha mo siya! You look so similar. She looks like you.
I would stand awkwardly, smiling as Lola proudly passed on my praises to them.
She could be a flight attendant, ano?
She’d beam, while my dad would grumble, Mom, she’s not going to do that.
If Lana and my other cousins weren’t there, I’d find a corner and curl up to read one of my books.
One time, when I was around nine years old, Lola found me behind the bed in the guest room, immersed in the third Narnia book. The confusion I know too well crossed her face again, as she urged me to go downstairs. She didn’t understand books, and in her world, social anxiety was as mythical as the ghost stories from her childhood. Ay nako. Stop being so antisocial.
She scolded me when I cried.
It was always Lolo, who would rescue me from my purgatory at the table, chomping glumly on the leftover egg rolls. He’d creep behind me, serenading me with a Frank Sinatra song and sit, cracking jokes until I couldn’t stop smiling even after he left. He was always happy when I laughed at his impressions, even though he could never fully copy Morgan Freeman with his thick Filipino accent.
When I cried, he would sit with me in a peaceful quiet.
Lolo collected stories. I knew about everything from his childhood to the winning shots he made at his basketball game his senior year of high school. When he told Lana and me stories of the Aswang, a vampire from Filipino mythology, we were intrigued. The vampire looked like a human during the day, and at night, its top half would fly away in search of victims. He told us about how butterflies were the ghosts of ancestors and loved ones, coming back to visit us. After these stories, my cousins and I would sit in the dark during our sleepovers, giggling and screaming at the slightest noise in the living room.
I remember after two weekends of this, Lola scoffed, Why are you filling their heads with nonsense?
I talked back once, innocently, but enough to warrant Lola’s wrath.
Why are you always so mean?
Her eyes widened. A sign of the coming storm. Talking back to elders is something that is never tolerated.
Lana wasn’t even part of the argument, but we both threw our heads back and ugly cried for an hour. Lola continued to berate us, chastising me on anything from my frizzy hair to my shyness. It was always Lolo who calmed her down. He’d whisper her nickname. She’d simmer down and reluctantly take us to Toys R Us. As cliche as it was, they were the perfect opposites. Even then, I began to wonder: How could someone I look so similar to be so different from me? As a child, I secretly hoped that I was more like Lolo. I didn’t want to be the fury and the gale that was Lola, regardless of how beautiful and strong I could be if I emulated her.
As we zip through San Pablo on a tricycle taxi, her shawl remains snug around her shoulders, containing every stray hair. Back at the hotel, the staff is already preparing for the final day of Lolo’s wake.
For seven days Lola has halted business, and people have been coming in and out of the sunroom where Lolo’s casket is. For all seven days, the body is not allowed to be alone, so there is someone with him all twenty-four hours of the day. Sometimes, his friends will catch up with each other and play cards. Sometimes, people will sing songs. I think Lolo would’ve liked to see it — all the people reuniting and dancing.
When Lana and I finally go inside, she is still moving between the sunroom where the vigil is being held and the hotel. She directs the men, who have just arrived with the lechon, the roasted pig, to place it on the table in the hotel.
When the final night of the vigil approaches, everyone is in the room. All of Lolo’s friends and family. I see relatives from Calauag, the seaside village where he proudly scored the final point for the basketball team in high school. I see his coworkers from the mill. I even see the mayor of San Pablo City along with ex-convicts Lolo sent care packages to.
As people go around the circle telling their final stories about Lolo, Lola stands up.
I’d like to say something.
We were both twenty, in the heart of Manila, she speaks, her voice shaking as she pushes her hair out of her face, damp with the humidity. I met him at the church. He had only gone to service once. But once we met each other, he would keep going to church to talk to me on Sundays. He started courting me after.
She went on to talk about his humor and his stories. The way she had been a quiet girl in San Pablo, who kept herself busy by organizing things and building. The way he brought puto home from Brooklyn every time he came home from his accounting job. The way he’d make pancakes and coffee, singing good morning in his vibrato.
The surges of memories hit me. The processing I had been trying to distract myself from takes hold and releases something inside me. Lana and I stand shocked as we watch Lola’s strong facade crumble. She looks small and delicate in front of the crowd.
She searches the room as if looking for something and not finding it. Her eyes settle on my cousins and me. We stand up and hug her for a long time, storming together, all the rain, clouds, stories, and memories.
When everyone leaves, and it’s just us in the room preparing to sleep on the floor for the final night of the vigil, a white butterfly floats in the room. It lands on a frond above Lola’s head.
I think that’s him. She looks up and smiles the biggest smile I’ve seen since Lolo was alive.
We all lay on the floor staring at the stars through the sunroom roof, holding each other to fall asleep. The butterfly stays on the plant the whole night in a peaceful quiet. I fall asleep, with the realization that Lola and I are not as different as I thought.
Tessa Pulgar is a current Honors undergraduate in the Bandier program at Newhouse, and is set to graduate in 2023.