Let me tell you about my grandfather, Isidoro.
During WWII the Philippines is an American colony, and my grandfather is conscripted into the American army. He is among the thousands soldiers who are captured as prisoners of war when the Americans retreat and abandoned the islands to the Japanese. Many of them die. He never talks about what happens during the war, except to tell us that in the jungle they were so desperate for coffee, they burned rice over the fire, added water, and drank that black nasty brew. But his favorite story: how he befriends a Japanese officer who can speak English, and how that officer helps him escape with the laundry. We don’t know what happens to that officer and if he survived the war. We’ll never know. Some stories carry on without us.
But my favorite part of this story: he doesn’t go home, but straight to his girlfriend’s house. They get married in secret. Prisoners had their hair shaved off so escapees could be easily identified and shot. He can’t risk being seen until his hair grows back. He stays in hiding with her family. This is a love story that lasts more than another 60 years. They have 10 kids.
Flash forward to the 1960’s. A different story, but still part of the same. My grandfather is a respected business man and my dad is a senior in high school. He goes on an exchange to a high school in North Carolina. The black and white photos are pure suburban American nostalgia. The only difference: there’s this skinny Filipino guy with black rimmed glasses in all of them. My dad to this day, calls the family he stayed with his step-siblings and step-parents, and only has fond memories. My grandfather goes to visit the family while my dad is there. There’s an amazing photo of him leaning against a gleaming white Cadillac of the era, all cool and proud. “I’m the Filipino Clint Eastwood” he says often. When I see those pictures, I believe it.
It’s the 1970’s and now its martial law in the Philippines. My grandfather leaves a job where he’s well respected, to take a shit one at an airline. He is bullied, demeaned, asked to take out the trash. Let me tell you, he’s a proud man, and he is so ready to quit, but his eldest son stops him and says “If you quit, we’re never getting everyone out.” While he’s with the airline he can get tickets to fly his family anywhere. I hear snatches about a jealous secretary secretly in love with him. My aunts and uncles never tell us that story.
Being a war vet, the Americans grant him a visa. The he heads to California, but due to racism, he heads north to Portland. Many years later, after a long career teaching in the American military, a story that spans the globe, his eldest daughter chooses to settle in California.
Portland. Everyone is piled into a one room apartment. They take care to always leave the place no more than two at a time, figuring that no one can tell them apart. They don’t want anyone to find out how many of them there are, and complain to the landlord.
Meanwhile, my grandfather, still working for the airlines, takes his eldest son’s fiance in the Philippines on a business trip through Europe (the safest way), and tells everyone she was his secretary, in order to reunite her with his eldest son in Canada. They marry, have a son, and two years later, he dies of pneumonia. This story ends too soon.
My dad is doing his MBA at Portland University, on a student visa, but it runs out before he can finish. (To this day, not finishing it is one of his biggest regrets). My dad packs his black cat into a car, and drives north to the border to join his brother who is already settled in Canada. Dad explains that he imagined a giant wall of ice at the border was disappointed that the land across it looked just the same as the States. Luckily, the cat was smart and stayed hidden under the seat, so they let my dad in, cat and all. He applies to stay, when arrives in Vancouver. He and his brother helped the rest of the family to come north, including my grandparents.
One brother stays in Portland. One day, while working as a door to door salesman, he meets an American girl and they fall in love, have two kids. My uncle is an engineer by day, and moonlights as a ballroom dance instructor, is married twice more, but that’s his story.
In Canada, my grandparents buy a house, but it’s so far from the city, that my dad commutes 3 hours a day by bus. Everyone starts over again. My dad goes back to school, even though he already had a university degree. He tries engineering but switches to accounting. Many years later, my dad is disappointed I’m not interested in doing a MBA, but that’s part of my story.
It’s the late 70’s in Vancouver, and my grandparents are celebrating a big wedding anniversary with a party. My mom’s coworker at the bank wants to hook her up with her boyfriend’s brother. He’s tall, she says, and the tall part is what sells my mom. She agrees to a blind date at the party. There’s dancing, there’s food. There are no tall men. Tall was an exaggeration, but my mom agrees to another date with my dad anyway. Two and a half months later, he proposes. That’s it. Love. He wears white platform disco boots to the wedding so he’s not shorter than my mom. Years later, my mom jokes that she didn’t know my dad had false teeth until after they were married. Without this story, I wouldn’t be here. Maybe if she’d known about the teeth, I wouldn’t be here!
Flash forward 21 grandchildren and years later. I exist now. My grandmother’s mind has been slipping for years, and the dementia is now so bad that she has to stay in a care home. Every morning, my grandfather stubbornly drives to the care home despite his failing eyes, and spends all day there, talking with her, singing with her, praying with her, reading the newspaper. He befriends all the staff, treats them with food. Every day for one year? Two? I’m not sure now. Whenever she is with him, she is always happy and smiling, even though she doesn’t recognize us anymore. When my grandmother passes away, it’s peacefully and surrounded by all her children. She doesn’t go, until every last one of the 9 children who are still alive, are there with her, even though she cannot communicate anymore. It feels like she was waiting.
My husband E is there with me too, freshly arrived from Greece, still jet lagged. His visa took a year to be processed, and was almost lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, but he makes it with 6 days to spare. This is an ending to one story but a beginning to another. My grandfather welcomes him and tells the story of his trip to Greece, so many years ago.
My grandfather is in his 90’s. He remains stubborn and has 11 great grandchildren. He finally finishes writing his biography. He’s one of my daughter’s favorite people. “Grand Momo” she calls him, happy to have him hold her, when she’s picky about most people. Not everyone gets to meet their great grandfather, so I think she’s lucky. He loves photos and keeps photos of his family everywhere. He’s always surrounded by pictures, carefully annotated with dates and locations. He still tells his favorite war story every time we have a family party. Everyone groans, because we’ve heard it so often, but secretly we’re all impressed.
And this is a story I hear, not from the man himself, but my aunt whom he lived with. In Canada, you can sponsor a foreign caregiver to help you if you’re elderly or sick, and anyone can apply for residency after two years of work. My grandfather, now nearly 100 years old, sponsors a cousin of a cousin to come to Canada to join the rest of his family. Just over two years pass and my grandfather asks him, “Can you finally bring your Mom to Canada now?” He says yes, and my grandfather is satisfied. A few days later, my grandfather passes away.
There are so many stories that exist because of my grandfather that I can’t fit into here. There are so many people who he brought together, and fought to keep together. I wouldn’t be here if not for him. Rest in peace, Lolo.