My grandmother’s house

Last night I thought of Lola Carmen. I was sorting through some pictures and I found one of the last few ones taken with her before she passed. I miss her. She was spunky and sparkling and full of mirth, a real character. How can I not miss someone like her?

Growing up I would often tell my sister that in terms of business and earning well, I wanted something along the lines of what Lola Carmen did. Lola Carmen was a jeweler and on top of that she had a cluster of houses for rent.

I never met Lolo Julio, I only saw pictures of him always spiffily dressed — a man tall, dark and handsome with brooding eyes. Mommy says he was very strict and square, understandably so because he was a military man. I guess I can safely say that Lola Carmen was his complete opposite. She followed no rules, except her own, and went by the mantra that the most important thing in life was being anchored on God and knowing how to pray to Him, have a real friendship with Him. That being so, it was no surprise really that nothing fazed her. Absolutely nothing. She had nerves of steel and all the storms in her life she weathered very gracefully. She soared through each one of them on little more than just wings of prayer. And as she believed in her heart, they all came to pass. She always emerged victorious and whole.

She was widowed at quite a young age and aside from the stories I heard and the pictures I saw growing up the only tangible thing there is to showcase just how much Lolo Julio loved Lola Carmen and vise versa are the love letters they wrote to each other that we found among her things after she had passed on. They were bundled together in a tin that once upon a time held candies. I get all teary-eyed when I remember that and writing about it is not much different. I feel like crying again now. I have always somehow felt that maybe, just maybe, although she never really admitted it, a part of her died with him and that she bravely continued living because she had eight children to single-handedly raise. Now that I am all grown up the bigness of that shakes me. It must have been far from easy for her but she never once let on with any of her children, much less her grandchildren, how high the mountains were and how difficult they probably were to sometimes climb.

She made ends meet because of her sharp business sense. She would tirelessly sell jewelry, and it was no dire task for her really, because she enjoyed that. She unapologetically wore beautiful jewelry all the time, even when she was just home. I always say that is how jewelry should be enjoyed — they are not to be used to impress, you wear them to please yourself. The stones are pretty even when there is no crowd to see them sparkle. Even during her last few years when she hardly went out and just stayed home in her bright-colored muumuus she was never without them. She was the first one I saw who would pile on several rings on one or two fingers, mix yellow gold bracelets with white gold ones on her wrists. On her it always worked.

Lola Carmen’s house is the heart of Martinez Compound in Cebu City. It rests on top of a little hill with a sweeping driveway and below it, a cluster of bungalows are for rent. It has been that way forever, as far back as I can remember. The bungalows encircle quite a big park with a cemented court in the center and around it is a grassy patch where trees grow randomly. It is a beautiful property and it seemed gigantic to me when I first went there as a little girl.

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My first real memory of the big house found me crying. We had taken the big boat from Ormoc to Cebu, I was feeling a bit woozy and seasick but I completely forgot that when we stepped in through the main door. My sister and I ran around the big place. It was much too big and I got lost. I ended up in the laundry area and I started crying and screaming for either mommy or my yaya because I could not find my way back to where there were people. For a kid so little it sure felt like being lost in a forest. In the house there are two long staircases, seven rooms, three dining areas, a kitchen, a huge sala with tall and wide almost floor-to-ceiling windows that hold a piano and two full sala sets, a Japanese room that has since been converted into a prayer room, a foyer that curves into an entertainment room where the TV is and on one wall, a bar that has since functioned as everything but what it was meant to be. Back when Lolo Julio was still alive and they used to throw their grand parties, the bar was always fully equipped and functional and there would be lots of dancing and singing in a crowd of elegantly dressed ladies and smartly suited gentlemen. Our generation saw that bar already converted into a storage space of sorts; it held family albums and loose photos and a gamut of odds and ends. There is also a narrow passageway at the back of the three rooms downstairs, connected to the then-Japanese-now-prayer-room with two doors that lead to the garden and pool area. That is another big space, lush and green and from there we can look out and down at the cluster of bungalows that are dotted around the park. There are many fruit trees in the garden, mango and tambis and lomboy trees, and lots of flowering plants and shrubs.

The floor of the big house is patterned with black and white tiles and my cousins and I used to keep ourselves amused by skipping alternately on them, stepping only on either all black or all white. The rooms upstairs have wooden floors that creak and squeak with every step. My mom and her three sisters used to share one huge room. Their four brothers occupied the adjacent rooms (although I think the eldest, Tito Manjo, stayed in a room of his own downstairs) and on the hallway were their study desks, huge deep ones with lids that opened, built in the wall in one neat row. When my sister and I stayed there during our college years we stayed in that huge room together with our cousin Johanna. The study desks outside were also already used as storage space. Dotted intermittently around the house were several bauls, carved wooden chests that held Lola Carmen’s clothes and those of her daughters. There we found and would often wear their old dresses and for one New Year’s Eve we even had a costume party where all of us female grandchildren wore costumes that once upon a time belonged to our mothers. They wore that during school plays.

The ghosts in Lola Carmen’s big house were real and present. We heard them and occasionally even saw them. Although we were scared of them we also learned to live with them. After all they never went away, and they probably never will. The sound of floors creaking in the wee hours of the morning and someone swimming in the pool or taking a shower in the dead of the night were incidents most everyone was used to. Doors would lock all by themselves. Lola Carmen used to say it was just Lolo Julio or Lola Munday, her own mother, who had red hair. The maids would often see a red-haired woman dressed in period clothes brushing her long hair on Lola Carmen’s dresser upstairs. Always she would be singing, according to them. Lola Carmen’s room was always the one with the strangest happenings; big beds would actually move from one end of the room to the other! If I think about it now, it is spooky but the way it was presented to us made it acceptable and tolerable. After all, how can you be so terrified of your grandfather’s or great grandmother’s own ghost, your own flesh and blood?

I have many beautiful memories in Lola Carmen’s big house, we were blessed to have a bunch of uncles and aunts who loved us and took good care of us whenever we spent our summers there. Tito Gabby always cooked for us, would draw for us and stay up late and deep into the night to watch tv and talk to us, his nieces. Tito Rico and Tita Liclic always found time to play hide and seek and Simon Says, Tito Monette was always jolly and would make such delicious fresh fruit salad, Tito Freddy would take us to the grocery with him. Tito Manjo and Tita Naida were based in Manila so we pretty much saw them only during special occasions in Cebu. Tita Ofie died very young so my only memory of her really was when she visited us in Ormoc. She had wrapped the tips of her fingers with cone-shaped aluminum foil and pretended to be a wicked stepsister. She also brought us beautiful paenetas decorated with porcelain flowers. They were a joy to behold and seemed so decadent and luxurious especially for a child well under 10.

I last visited Lola Carmen’s big house in Cebu October of last year for the wedding of my cousin Monica. After the wedding and before the reception we all went to there to simply just be in the house and maybe run into a ghost or two. Lola Carmen, Tito Manjo and Tita Liclic are among them now.

Tito Gabby is the only one who lives there now. Tito Rico and Tita Monette live with their daughter Rachelle in one of the bungalows and so does Tita Naida together with her daughter Karo and her children Kerrina and Keenan. The big house is well-maintained and neat but there is a gentle sadness about it. Maybe because it used to be so busy and full of people and now it is just Tito Gabby and the occasional batch of relatives that visit. It sounds hollow when we walk through the many big rooms, our footsteps echoing. The walls show the patina of time, the furniture and antique jars stand quietly speaking of story and history, the throw pillows on the sofa are properly propped, untouched. It is neat, too neat in fact, and there is hardly any activity anymore. I feel that as it is now, perhaps the cluster of bungalows down the hill is a much happier place because there are more people there, more signs of life. Even Tito Gabby has built his own little place there among the bungalows. He has a gift for fixing houses. I am thinking that maybe he too finds it lonely in the big house and he just stays there out of a sense of duty. Lola Carmen always told him never to abandon the big house and being the dutiful son that he always has been, he has kept his word. Many things have changed. Where did the spirit of house go? It always felt like being in the midst of a burst of sunshine there before, when Lola was still alive. When she passed, it sure felt like a part of the house died with her. I realize now that she was the thread that held everyone together in the fabric that was family life. All of a sudden there was no figurehead, and that somehow displaced all of us, in one way or another. The sun still shines in the Big House in Martinez Compound but in a very quiet way. It feels sad and lonely when I think about it now.

The only thing left to hold on to are the memories, although I believe there is plenty of space new ones to be made. In a future generation, the Big House on top of the hill will vibrate with energy and activity again. I dream of being able to help restore it to its old glory, make the bar functional again, find a separate storage space for all the albums and memorabilias, turn the Japanese room into a real Japanese room again or abandon that idea and make it into a prayer room entirely. I would love to see the garden manicured again although there is wild beauty about it now that everything has pretty much grown in random abandon. I will pray for that to happen someday. Then Lola Carmen’s house can be enjoyed again by everyone in the family for what it truly was all the years she was alive; a big happy space where the sound of laughter rings loud and clear, where friends and family get together often and much, and where faith and prayer were enough, if not the only, real tools you need to be equipped for life.

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Centering Prayer is a prayer that is beyond thoughts, words and feelings, where we consent to God’s loving presence and healing action in our lives. Please come to an Introductory Worksho on Centering Prayer on October 18, 2008 at Roozen Hall, Don Bosco Parish, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please register at the parish office or call Contemplative Outreach Phils. Center at 7500-231.

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The Pink Kitchen, a benefit food festival, is on Oct. 18 and 19 at the Rockwell Tent. It is tagged as the yummiest event of the year. There will be over 50 chefs who are celebrated for their culinary expertise but most of whom do not exactly have commercial establishments open to the public. That being so this event will be a real treat. We all love to eat and by simply being in the venue on either of the said dates and doing just that we are supporting a very worthy cause. All proceeds will be for the benefit of ICanServe’s flagship project, “Ang Ating Dibdibin.”

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