My grandmother looks fascinated every time I take her picture, but she doesn’t like to be photographed she told me. I took this photo more than a year ago after a very lengthy prodding. For her, the idea of dressing up for a photo-op is absurd. But since I am his favorite grandson (I suppose so), although she was reluctant, I was able to convince her to wear this dress and pose for a portrait.
I call her Lola Leoning. She’s my father’s mother. I spent the first three years or so of my life with her and my father’s younger sister. After that, my parents brought me back to Mindanao where I was reunited with my other siblings. I seldom visited her since then not until I left for college to study in Iloilo. Not that I was shocked, but the first time I saw her after so many years of being away caused my childhood memory of her to be confused with the now-frail grandmother who was even running to meet me after I alighted off a provincial bus. She has more gray hair, wrinkly face and arms, and she seemed to have gotten shorter.
I am all aware what happens to one’s body once old age seeps in, but it appeared that in my mind I took my grandmother an exception to the rule. I do not want her to grow old. I just want her to remain able, strong, and a smart woman I remember her to be. Although she still is the hard-headed, self reliant, and articulate woman that I know, I can’t deny that a lot of things would never be the same again. She’s turning 84 this July but I cannot remember a time she celebrated her birthday. Maybe that is the way for her to defy her age, but I don’t feel she is consciously trying to avoid old age. She, for me, is aging gracefully. I can still remember the time when I went with her to register for the 2004 elections. Since one of her children was running for public office in another municipality, she had to register herself in that place. And that means walking several kilometers aside from the bumpy tricycle ride we both had to endure just to make sure her son wouldn’t have two fewer of the total votes he would get. Along the way, while we were walking, I volunteered to hold her hand but she shoved it away. We passed by dried up rice paddies and ravines under the scorching sun still she maintained her composure as if to tell me “hey young man, I’ve been doing these things and walking through this way all my life.” It was she who even asked me if I was all right.
I was surprised that she knew a lot of people in that place; she even chatted with two middle-aged women before going inside the registration booth. While I was filling out the form, my grandmother approached me, handed to me her blank form and asked me in Kiniray-a, the language she speaks, to read and translate for her what was written. It tore my heart. She never had a chance to learn how to read and to write. It explained why she didn’t react every time we watch the nightly news programs in Filipino when ordinarily she would voice her opinion if we were listening to AM news program in Hiligaynon, or why she keeps a thick Bible inside her room but I never saw her reading it even if she is a devout Catholic.
I just thought that there are a lot more things to know about my Lola Leoning. She smiled coyly in front of the camera as the last requirement to complete the registration and was fascinated with her picture on the monitor of the computer. Then she told me it was time to leave.
A year after that, when I bought my first digital camera, I took pictures of her and saw the same fascinated face.
For me she’ll never grow old.