Author’s note: This is an excerpt from Chapter Three of “A Reason For Being” and this excerpt centers on my Great Aunt Esther (my grandmother’s eldest sister). I remember when I first met Lola Esther (as how I called her), I was quite young. After I met her that first time, all I saw of her was in photos taken at family gatherings. She was the enigma that was only told to me by my grandmother, Lola Fe. When I finally saw her again, I was in my late 30s, and she was in her 90s. It was the first time I’ve seen her in years, and also the last time. As I prepare to graduate with my second MFA on May 6th, I am thinking of her and all those years of opportunities of getting to know someone and failing to do so. All I have left of her memory are those days spent at my Aunt Lucy’s funeral in 2011.
To this day, I am profoundly grateful for those moments.
Aunts and Nieces
Day 2: The events
The luncheon at the club was located in the heart of Kennewick, a social gathering place for the retirees and club members. It was three days before the funeral and Lucy’s golf ladies decided to give Lucy’s family a luncheon at the exclusive club. The place smelled of French fries, burgers, and new golf equipment. It was 90 degrees in Kennewick and the lingering of grandpa Rico Suave’s strong cologne combined with the odor of the greasy food left a not so attractive eau de stankiness essence. How endearing for a man his age to not let himself go.
But, this was Lucy’s favorite place because her townhouse was nearby and it was easy for her and Satan to drive whenever they felt like golfing. I stood outside the banquet room frozen with trepidation because inside waiting for me was my great-Aunt Esther, or as I call her Lola Esther because she was my grandmother’s older sister.
It was a place that one would not normally see a group of Filipinos.
In between the moments of fear and awkwardness, I couldn’t help but laugh inside at the situation. It was either face Lola Esther or make small talk with the golf ladies, who I’d noticed knew a great deal about me from the stories that Lucy had told them.
The last time I was around a matriarch of our family was with my own grandmother, Fe. That was about 21 years ago. I feared that my cultural mannerisms were rusty, and that Esther would think I had become too American—forgetting the proper rules of cultural etiquette when someone as ancient as Esther was in my presence. As a child, I grew up with the relentless etiquette lessons that are expected in children. The lessons included how to present oneself at the dinner table, how to speak to adults, how to conduct oneself in public and with our elders. As an adult, the expectations were even greater. I had to prove that I’d conquered and achieved what was expected of me: a wife, a mother, and an educated woman with a goal to succeed.
I peeked around the door to the banquet room only to see that my family members had formed a line to greet our matriarch, who was sitting at the head of the table. Esther had aged since I last saw her, yet she sat, regal as ever. Her left hand was hanging in the air, parallel to her chest as every one of my family members took her hand and placed it on their forehead. It was the act of respect, the most important practice in our culture, a way to pay respect to your eldest. The last person that I had showed this gracious act toward was my grandmother. Esther looked up and saw me at the door. Her eyes still had the ability to demand attention from across the room. My grandmother’s one time nemesis (because the two disagreed in life just as deep as they loved one another), the sole living heir of Vicente and Mercedes Suarez’s family.
As a young girl, Esther developed a quick tongue and a very diabolical mind. She was able to walk into a room filled with people and observe and assess the dynamics of the room. To understand how Esther viewed the world, a person would need to know her role in the family order of things. She was the 1st born daughter. The second daughter was my grandmother Fe, my maternal grandmother who took her role of the second born quite seriously. The 3rd daughter, Noemi, was known as the ‘beauty’ of the three. Noemi also took her role seriously till the day she passed away. Lastly, the 4th sibling happened to be the prized son, Vicente, named after their father, the Honorable Vicente Suarez. Vicente II believed his role was to be the ruler of the household. That was put to rest by Fe, who early on established that while she may not be the prized son, she was the prized daughter who could do a man’s job with her eyes closed while praying the rosary in one hand. Vicente II had not an inkling of hope against her.
This left Esther with a role that was ignored: the eldest daughter who wanted to become more cosmopolitan and move to Manila. She would be the one overlooked and would always fall short compared to her other sisters. What Esther learned early on was that there was no pressure to be a matriarch like Fe or maintain a beautiful perfection like Noemi. All she could do was make sure they maintained their roles by making it more difficult for them—causing and wreaking havoc kept them on their toes.
In physical stature, Esther stood at 5’2, while Fe stood at 5’7 and was considered to be tall for a Filipina. Noemi, on the other hand, possessed an exotic beauty whose origins could not be determined: French, Chinese, or Spanish? Her beauty was so striking that she married an American who became one of the highest ranking officers in the Army. Esther, on the other hand, inherited the traditional Filipina beauty—which meant that her skin was light enough that she would not have been mistaken for one of their maids. I imagined that situations questioning her status in society often came up with Esther and she would have been more than glad to correct any misconceptions. Her responses to conversations illustrated her wittiness such that oftentimes the recipient of her quick-witted tongue found themselves speechless.
Esther saw me peeking from the door, and I walked in smiling at her. My family parted, and all eyes filled with a wicked sense of humor as they watched for Esther’s reaction.
“Auntie, tiene este si Jeng!” My mom’s loud voice cut the silence since Esther had lost most of her hearing.
With fake confidence, I walked up to the matriarch, grabbed her left hand (that she had already stuck out as if it was meant for a long lost lover rather than her long lost great niece) and touched the top part of her hand to my forehead, grateful that I was wearing waterproof foundation so no trace of evidence of my manners remained because walking around with an imprint of the back of Esther’s hand on my forehead would clash with the fake grace that I was attempting to convey.
I smiled at her and kissed both sides of her cheeks. Her eyes were laughing at me.
“Jeng. Do you remember what you said to me when you were 6 years old?” she asked me in English. She spoke with an accent of the old family, a mixture of Spanish and European. It had been years since I’d heard this accent. It was an accent of clarity, precision and every articulated word spoken from a place of old family.
I shook my head no.
“You told me ‘Oh no, that’s how I’m going to look like when I get old? I don’t want to get old!’” Esther laughed.
I stood beneath a comfort of familiarity and an overwhelming flow of memories I had thought long forgotten flashed in my mind like those flash cards used to test children. 1 + 1 equals your childhood! In my mind, I clearly responded, “No, Lola Esther, I don’t remember that.” Instead what came out of my mouth was a language that I thought I no longer had access to.
“No mas tiene naalala ko po.” It was my voice that spoke Tagalog and Chabacano. A hybrid language I grew up speaking and thought had lost between reading Sense and Sensibility and Vogue. Just as some family legacies and cultures are slowly dying, so is the language of my mother’s family. Chabacano is known as Philippine Creole Spanish, and it is labeled as a hybrid language that Filipinos from some regions in the Philippines grew up speaking. Jose Rizal spoke Chabacano, and many believed it was a language of the upper social class and of those Filipino families who married into the Spaniard lineage. My ancestors were those families. However, such ancestral families and social beliefs were becoming the historical past—as Chabacano is a language that will soon be extinct; only a few speak the language fluently. Esther looked at me and smiled even bigger. There, in that moment, I saw her. The woman who once argued with my grandmother about some land in the Philippines. She was the one who loved Lucy as if Lucy was the daughter she never had. At 97 years old, she made the trip to Washington State from California to watch as her favorite niece was buried. I looked at her and realized we were sixty years apart and grieving knows no age.
“Are you married, Jeng?”
“Yes, I am Lola.”
“You didn’t invite me to the wedding.”
“I didn’t have a wedding. And, you’re too old to fly to Alaska.”
“Every Suarez woman deserves a beautiful wedding.”
“Lola, every Suarez woman deserves a good marriage.”
“Yes, very happy.”
“Good. That’s what I like to hear.”
Esther looked around the room and noticed two of my cousins sitting at our table. She bid them to come over. Elliot and Paul made no hesitation to obey her request. They kneeled right beside her and waited for her orders.
“You two are very handsome young men! I only ask a favor of you two, ha?”
Elliot and Paul nodded.
“You are both going to be at my funeral. You see, I want good looking men to carry my casket in the church… You do not have to carry it very far. Just a few steps from the front of the church to the inside of the church. I am not very heavy, you see. I only weigh 95 pounds now! You two promise me that you will carry my casket in the church, ok?”
She was looking up at the boys, and as I studied her face, I felt the silence between us as an understanding for one of the many the reasons why we were in Kennewick: we were both aunts, and nieces. The grief was equal, unrelenting, and carried with it a devastation that clings to the very core. At 97 years old, she would never be the same person she once was, and at 37 years-old, I refused to remain the same person that I once was. We had no idea that our lives would intersect one last time, and that we would never see each other ever again.
Elliot and Paul, who both stood at 6’0 or so, nodded their heads in confused unison not fully understanding that they were being commanded with a very important task, which they would be expected to fulfill. And, they did exactly what they were asked four years later when they travelled to California from North Carolina to bury Lola Esther. They carried her intricate casket into the church, which must have weighed far less than what she suspected when she was alive.
“Ok, you go along now. You’ll get more instructions when I die.”
Esther looked at me and winked.
“Jeng, you make sure to stay with Lola this weekend, ok? I’m going to need you to stand next to me, ok? You didn’t invite me to your wedding, so you make sure I do not fall this weekend, ha?”
“Yes, Lola. But, please remember to behave,” I said.
For other excerpts from “A Reason For Being,” please see the links below: