Some of my cousins and me with our awesome Lola Pinang, taken about six years ago.
When someone changes your life, you write about them.
We received news Sunday night that my grandmother, Lola Pin, passed away in Bacolod, a city in the Visayas region of the Philippines. She was 93. I lived with Lola and my grandfather for four years while I went to high school, and their house was a compass for all of us as we grew up and moved away. Living with them were the happiest years of my young life, and they were influential in how I found my way to the kitchen, because it was Lola Pin who started my love for cooking.
My mom flew home last night. I couldn’t join her, but she asked me to write something about Lola. I don’t know if this will be read at her funeral on Sunday, but I wrote it anyway. Putting this together wasn’t easy. It was difficult because my grandmother was awesome, and I had many stories about her and I didn’t know where to start. It was difficult because I was far away, and writing this made me remember home, and for the first time in many years I felt very, very homesick. But knowing that I was doing this for one of the best people in my life allowed me to just sit down, find the words and write.
And so, here we go. Thank you, Lola, for everything.
One of Mama’s favorite quotes is something author Amy Tan said in one of her novels: “A mother is where all things begin.”
This is how I feel about Lola Pin. If I go back through my histories to remember who I am, where it was I came from, who it was who set in motion the stories of my life, I would have to say it was my grandmother.
Though her early life as a farmer’s daughter made college seem inaccessible, her tenacity earned her a degree in nursing. She was the only one among her siblings to complete her studies. Just for this, especially this, I can’t thank her enough. Even if she gave up her career later on to raise five daughters, the fact that she sought and worked for that education despite the circumstances of her time made me want to do it myself. I learned to value my own education because I was, and continue to be, the granddaughter of a hardworking, educated woman. It was by her example that I can write these words today, and in the way I can.
I learned so much from Lola, but the most significant thing she taught me was how to show people I loved them through the simple act of preparing a good meal. She made food with so much love that her dishes not only fed the eyes–they filled the stomach, warmed the heart and brought people together. It was by sitting quietly at the kitchen table and watching her as she worked that I learned not just how to cook, but how to cook lovingly.
I remember thinking once, as I watched her wrap some candy she had just made from fresh pineapple and sugar, how much my hands look like hers. I used to look at Mama’s hands, too, and noticed how we all have the same hands. When I’m daunted by anything in life these days, from something as simple as a new recipe or something deeper and bigger than I am, I look at my hands and remember that I inherited them from a woman who could whip egg whites into dreamy, magical meringues purely by will, and THEN I know I can do ANYTHING.
It isn’t lost to me that we enjoyed Lola for as long as we did because of Tita Mitz, Tita Amy, Tita Else and Tita Hot who took care of her in her last years in the house in Eroreco. Without their attention, patience and care, I wouldn’t have had the chance to crack jokes with Lola the last time I saw her about two years ago. Thank you to everyone who helped make Lola comfortable. You gave us the gift of being able to come home to her when we could.
A couple of days ago, my cousin Honey e-mailed Lola’s death certificate to me. One section lists her occupation. It reads: “Housewife.” And boy, was she ever. As a housewife who set the bar high for all others, she lived a full, delicious life and nourished all of us with it.
One of my biggest joys is when people tell me, “That was yummy,” after eating something I’ve made. But my proudest moments, however, are after a particularly challenging cooking experiment, when I’ve spent hours of labor rolling out delicate cookies, working with tricky batter or successfully turning out a cake, from start to finish. My heart swells when I step back and show Mama my work, and she smiles and says, “Baw, daw si Lola mo gid ikaw…..you’re JUST like your grandmother.”