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Lola’s beautiful America

America is where they told me my grandmother was. She sent us balikbayan boxes twice a year when I was a little girl. It smelled wonderful and fragrant when we opened them — what my sister called “smells American.”

There were always goodies inside for every member of the family: food, snacks, biscuits, thick towels, magazines, books, bags, sweaters, lotion, name it.

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They were everything we couldn’t buy in the local grocery store, so we looked forward to the midyear and Christmas boxes. In that, we could have a taste of America.

Lola petitioned all her children to go to the United States. The young ones she brought there in the 1980s, and so they lived there, became Americans, married, and had children.

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In the 2000s, the petition for my one remaining aunt in the Philippines was granted, and so she went, too, bringing along my closest cousin with her. They, too, became Americans.

My mother was the only one of her children left in Manila. When her petition was granted this year, 2018, she wrote the American government thanking it for the offer — and also declining it.

My family is one that was torn apart through the decades because of migration. I associated Lola with a weekly phone call and printed pictures as I grew up, though Mom would tell stories about Grandma as a little girl who looked out for her many siblings in poverty-stricken, post-American and post-Japanese war-bombed Cavite.

Lola came back to the Philippines a fair few times, and I loved it when she did. She would cook in horse quantities — corn, siopao, bulalo, name it. She would buy us gifts, sing around the house, and she would take us to places.

But she always had to fly back to California. She worked hard and provided for the entire family, including for my school tuition until college.

When she retired, she divided her pension, sent it to her children and grandchildren, lost her house, and battled lung cancer until she died. The last time I physically saw her was in 2007.

Lola wanted us all to go to America. It was beautiful, she said, and so I dreamed it. And so I saw photos of it. And I saw it on the news. And, yes, I said on the phone: Lola, it looks beautiful.

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I entered the University of the Philippines the same year Lola went back to the United States. I learned things about the Filipino-American war that were not in our elementary history books. I learned about politics, the US naval bases, the shared exercises between our countries. I made friends who did not support Filipino-American relations.

Year by year I questioned more, criticized historical events more, asked why American law would prevent families from being together.

Lola would still call and remind me to take care of myself, and to be better than what I was then. She said she was proud. She told me about diplomacy — that there would always be faults and thin lines, but there were also always solutions. And it was better to look for solutions than to be angry all the time. And I took that to heart.

In my first contractual job in the Philippine government, I took home a monthly pay of P12,000. I found my strengths and had my share of failures. I began to provide for the family, and fell short so many times.

When I felt bad, I’d tell Mom, and Mom would tell Lola. She used to ask to talk to me, to tell me about her work as a secretary at the Subic American naval base, and at the Blue Cross of America.

She told me she had a white-skinned boss who doubted her for a long time — years — because she was brown-skinned, but in her retirement, embraced her as a friend.

She said that work was a struggle, but patience and hard work would do the trick.  “Anak, I’m proud of you,” she said. And that year, she told us she had cancer.

I began studying urban planning for my master’s degree. I left the government to work for disaster rehabilitation and resettlement under the USAID Rebuild  program.

The strongest supertyphoon to ever hit the planet devastated the Philippines, and we had to go from island to island, region to region, without sleep, and with public backlash, to do our work.

Whenever I went home to Manila, Lola would call and say I was like Lolo by nature, because never in her life did she think I would do that work for the country, and that I could provide for my own family at my age. She always said, in a voice that grew older every time, that she was proud.

I continued to have a life with the airport as a second home, and that didn’t stop when I worked for the UN-Habitat in 2014. We were helping empower local economies in Mindanao when Mom called and said Lola was at the hospital, and that she was going to stay there instead of at her apartment. They put a tube in her neck so she could continue to breathe. They gave her a TV, and a nurse, but they said it was going to be painful.

Auntie and Uncle took turns taking care of her. And so we were always put on the loudspeaker, so she could hear us when we called. She responded by writing, then by nodding, until it came to just her eyes blinking, and tapping her foot.

I was in a hotel during fieldwork in Mindanao when Mom called. Auntie said Lola had had heart attacks, and that she recovered, but was getting weaker by the hour.

At the airport in Manila, Mom and I talked to Auntie on the phone, and she put us on the loudspeaker. I told my Lola I was very happy being in a project with the United Nations, and that work was a lot better than when I started.

That was the last thing I ever told her, because she passed away the following morning. Auntie said that, for the longest time, Lola was already nonresponsive to conversation, but she tapped her foot when she heard my voice.

By blessing and by privilege of a professional fellowship granted by the US Department of State, I later stood on American soil. I saw Washington at eye level and learned more about better public spaces, communities and planning.

Finally, I know what Lola wanted to tell us: That it was an entire experience to be in America, and a life there would be more beautiful than what she knew to be in the olden times of the Philippines.

But the greatest attraction I wanted to see — more than the White House, the US Capitol, or the many exquisite monuments and parks — was a grave in California, where Lola was laid to rest.

The most meaningful activity I wanted to do was to lay flowers for her and tell her that, yes, finally, I know, America is beautiful.

That now I know why she wanted us all to migrate and stay with her. She wanted to make life easier for all of us, and she wanted us all to be together as a family. But it never happened.

* * *

Ragene Andrea L. Palma, 27, was one of 10 Filipino fellows in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Professional Fellowship Program-Spring 2018 Cohort.

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