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A most ardent Palaweña

Puerto Princesa City—Grandmothers are massively underrated. Though they are very much appreciated, no matter how many hugs and gifts and I love you’s we impart, all these seem inadequate in showing the depths of our love for them. More often, we feel like we still haven’t given them enough appreciation until it’s too late.

My beloved grandmother, Lola Fe Tria Fernandez, a retired school teacher from Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, recently passed away, and though I can no longer express my love to her in person, may these words serve as my humble attempt to thank her for all she had done for me, our family and our entire province.

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Lola Fe was well-known locally as an academic: a professor, educator and a school teacher. But she was a great many other things as well, and to dismiss her Renaissance woman-like repertoire of skills and abilities would do her much disservice. She was an accomplished musician singer-songwriter, with a body of work that included several pieces of Palaweño music, notably the “Cuyo Balitaw,” “Puerto Princesa Mabuhay,” the Palawan State University Hymn and “Martsa Cuyo.” She was also an avid historian—a pioneer in the documentation and preservation of indigenous cultural artifacts and local history. Her groundbreaking research on “Ploning,” a popular Cuyono folk song, brought it to national attention, as it was used extensively in Dante Garcia’s 2008 film of the same name.

She was an anthropologist, and was considered the foremost authority on the traditions and practices of Cuyo, deemed the cultural and historical heartland of Palawan. She was also a staunch advocate of preserving the natural beauty of Palawan’s flora and fauna, having published many books about the subject. But most of all, she was a dearly beloved grandmother to an entire province, to which she dearly dedicated her life.

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Despite all these accomplishments, my grandmother came from very humble beginnings. She was born on Sept. 20, 1928, in Cuyo Island, Palawan. Orphaned at a young age, Lola Fe had to persevere through World War II with barely any possession. These beginnings taught her to be humble, and as a result, she would teach us to be thankful for all the blessings we would receive in life, no matter how little. As she grew up, she found love in music and the arts, sparking a life-long passion for music-making, a skill she would impart to her seven highly successful children, and later to her many, many grandchildren.

She also saw the importance of education and invested heavily in her own schooling, and ensured that her children enjoyed the same privileges. Despite having little means, she worked tirelessly to provide for my titos and titas, and was able to send them to schools in the then-growing capital of Puerto Princesa City. She would later become a professor as well, teaching the importance of preserving and appreciating local culture and language. Her efforts resulted in the earliest foundation of academic curricula pertaining to local culture, eventually helping form the Cuyunon identity and its importance in the shaping of modern-day Palawan. Her work might not be as highly publicized or considered glamorous compared to politics or show business, but her efforts to preserve, acknowledge and celebrate her roots are  something worth emulating by every son and daughter of Palawan, and by the entire country.

Growing up, Lola Fe always seemed like a larger-than-life figure. I would always hear about her accomplishments and the sterling reputation she had built from scratch from my friends and family. But every time we met with her every Sunday during the days of my youth, as it was commonplace in the province, all I saw was a very humble and grounded person. Diminutive in stature, with metallic-gray hair and clear, brown eyes, she wasn’t imposing, but she had that timeless serenity, grace and warmth that could only be earned by leading a peaceful, contented life.

“Lola, you will live until 100 years old!” we’d jokingly tell her. She was one of the oldest senior citizens in the city, and for a number of years she did not seem to age. During her 85th birthday in 2015, she held herself with the same strength and spryness as a 60-year-old person. She would smile whenever she heard our joke, but there was an unmistakable sadness in her eyes. “You know, it’s sad to live alone,” she said. “Your Lolo has passed on, as with so many of our friends. So when the time comes, then let it come. I know I’ve lived a full life.”

But we didn’t believe her. Every year she’d joke that she would finally enjoy her last Christmas—then rinse and repeat the words for 10 or more years. Until the inevitable arrived. About a year ago, time caught up with her—sickness ravaged her body, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. From being able to walk anywhere effortlessly, she now required a wheelchair and constant care. And then it only got worse. A few months ago, Lola Fe lost all coherence. She was not even able to recognize her own children anymore. In the space of a year, she became a shell of who she was, and this inevitability, though a familiar experience shared by many families, is still one of life’s most sorrowful experiences.

The last time I visited her was during the summer break. By then she could no longer speak. I held her hands, familiar yet cold, and bid goodbye. For a moment, I believed recognition flashed in her eyes, but then it returned to that glassy look, perhaps seeing something I was not able to see.

Shortly after that, she breathed her last, surrounded by  her loved ones.

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Though Lola may be gone, her memories and lessons remain. The greatest lesson I learned from her was this: Support and love your family wholeheartedly in their endeavors, and always be ready to forgive. When I had my doubts about continuing my BA Creative Writing course, she surprised me by saying she was proud that I followed my passion, and that she was an avid writer herself; she revealed to me the short stories and essays she had written in English—which I would later learn was mostly self-taught. She urged me to pursue my course to its completion and to give a hundred percent in my efforts. Knowing that I was loved and supported by my grandmother was enough to quell all my doubts and misgivings.

Many would undoubtedly remember Lola Fe as a shining beacon of warmth and love. Her death, though a sorrowful event, is also an occasion to celebrate her life. Many Palaweños mourn her passing, but we will persevere as she did, and in turn give back to the city, province and people she so adored.

Franz Fernandez-Legazpi, 21, is a proud son of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. He currently majors in BA Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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TAGS: Family, grandmothers, lola, lola Fe, love, memories, palawan, Puerto Princesa
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