I never knew my lola. Every few months, I would hear her voice crackle through the phone from the other side of the Earth. On the mantel, I would see her in picture frames, always dancing or smiling or laughing. When I would pull from the bin the blanket she had crocheted for me, my hands would touch the same stitches hers made.
Then when I was fourteen, she got sick. Her lungs weren’t working. My dad booked a flight. I knew I should do something, feel something, write something. But how do you write to a stranger who has impacted your life in countless ways?
There are few things that carry the same weight as death. Whether they’re massive, overwhelming events or quiet, invisible realizations, there are certain things that wield powerful truths, forcing you to look up from your tiny, little world and see everything else. There in the “everything else,” I saw my lola. I pictured her clutching my dad’s and his siblings’ hands in front of the Philippines airport. I saw her take a deep breath and stand a little taller as she surveyed the bustling landscape where she would build a life for her children. I watched her take my life and my children’s lives and the coming generations’ lives in her hands, molding the clay with her own human-sized life and human-sized strength and fashion it into a monument of a love so powerful it traversed the miles, years, and any other obstructive measurement between us.
And yet, on this side of the world between cultures, continents, and lifestyles, there are things I’ve never heard about. There are things that stayed in the “everything else” and kept my lola a stranger to me. I never learned Tagalog. I heard my mom’s parents argue with the brash, clobbering syllables. I used a few Tagalog words before I knew the English ones. I called my brothers kuya and made my little cousins call me ate. But, it was never like English.
The time I felt most immersed in Filipino culture was at the holiday gatherings. We crammed ourselves into someone’s home and my brothers and I would greet each of the lolos and lolas. As we hugged and they squished our cheeks, they always asked us, “What’s my name?” With over fifty relatives, one or two gatherings per year, and it’s-too-late-to-ask-now embarrassment, I honestly did not know. I recognized their faces each year, but they remained nameless. Wandering around the house, I attempted to listen to the conversations, tentatively nodding and joining the roar of laughter after unknown punchlines while the lolas rambled on in a world that was completely muffled to me. I was immersed in their world but I was not a part of it.
However, there was always one table where I never felt out of place: the food table. Surrounded by rich caldareta, tangy pancit bihon, and creamy kare kare, my taste buds understood the language my tongue could not. In the grand spread of tins, woks, and tupperwares, the dishes would often include with strange ingredients and unique flavors, but they were the flavors I grew up with—the ones that felt not like home but felt like me.
When we visited Florida to see my Lola Susan, my lola’s sister-in-law, she taught me how to make my favorite dish: pancit canton. Barefoot in the white tile kitchen, she held the wok and wooden spoon in her hands as she drew out the names of the ingredients. “Some shriiimp and some garliiic and some spinaaach. Whatever you have, just throw it in.” Sizzling in the wok, the savory aroma of the noodles and medley of ingredients filled the air, growing richer in flavor and depth with each new vegetable Lola tossed in. I loved being around her and her sunshine smile and laugh that tickled your own lungs. Constantly telling stories, she brought unknown history out of the “everything else” as she sprinkled our lives with new flavors.
But then she handed the wooden spoon to me. “You mix, you mix,” she commanded. Actually, it ended up tasting even better than how I remembered. Now, here, I’m in charge of making the pancit canton. Although sometimes people can be far away, that doesn’t mean their recipes will go uncooked, or their stories untold, or our lives unchanged.
When people talk about legacy, they talk about going back to their roots. But here, America is like a grafted tree. My lola broke herself off of the tree she had grown from in order to be tied to, pushed against, and grafted into the tree of America. Though she went back to the Philippines before she died, she left the branches of her family to grow here.
There are still stories I will never learn, Tagalog I will never grasp, and names I will never know. Older generations pushed into the future, toiling to cultivate a garden of captivating beauty while we are left wondering what lies below the surface. But perhaps, for now, we can be satisfied in the present, enjoying all the flavors of the pancit canton and embracing all the branches of the tree.
In my lola’s last days, I looked around at the worlds I belonged to and the ones I didn’t and I decided that it was a gift. It was a gift of both sacrifice and gain, estrangement and connection, hello and goodbye. At the end of my letter to a familiar stranger, gardener, and hero, I wrote, “Lola, I wish I could give you a garden as beautiful as you are, and the one you’ve created with your life, but all I can give you is gratitude. I love you.”
So here I am, wooden spoon in my hand, mixing the ingredients that my lolos and lolas have already tossed in the wok, and ready to add a few spices of my own.
Ysa Quiballo is one of the Editors-in-Chief of the yearbook at Niles North High School near Chicago. She loves creating art through words, food, and paint and strives to live up to her name, which means “consecrated to God.”