At the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference this year, I worked with Judith Barrington in her Memoir Group. Something she said resonated deeply with me:
Let your reader see your journey of discovery. You can move into scenes about what your journals revealed.
Part of my journey of storytelling always includes recognition that my ancestors' wisdom and guidance stay with me at all times. "Agtawid" was one of the pieces I workshopped last week.
Please let me know how you enjoy it. And welcome to my journey of discovery. (hi, Margit!)
Lessons from paternal grandparents-the Ilocano side
In the summer of 1976, my junior year in college, I moved into my paternal
grandparents’ house. I had been awarded a scholarship to attend Osaka City University in Japan for two months. But the program would not begin until July. In a student’s world, the barely $1,500 remaining in my bank account felt like an inheritance. Upon my return from Japan, it would be just enough to cover the first month’s rent and a cleaning deposit for the apartment- that-did-not-yet- exist. At that time being able to stay with my grandparents was a life saver, financially. By the end of that summer, I would discover that my short stay with them was more significantly, a life shaper.
I came to and from work, flashing my Student Fast Pass on the 5 McAllister, transferring at 25th Avenue to the #28 to the university and back. In the evenings, together with Grandpa, Grandma, and the Uncles, the five of us ate Filipino meals of pinacbet and steak; milkfish and cauliflower; higado; salmon heads and spinach, with lots of hot rice. They gifted me with comfort in my belly and fed culture to my spirit. From our mealtimes together, I inherited a sense of belonging.
On Sunday mornings, Grandma and I walked the four blocks uphill to St. Thomas the Apostle church for 9:00 a.m. mass. We took a zigzag route, traversing her section of the Richmond district, heading up 35th Avenue from her bright orange Victorian with chocolate brown trim.
“Is my house pretty?”
She asked me this each time walked down the stairs. Each time, arm-in-arm, we would turn and look up at the house. “What do you think of the color, Lisa-Tita?”
“Maybe go with a little lighter color next time, Grandma- how about a warm butter yellow, with burnt orange trim?”
She would squeeze my arm and say, “My house is pretty, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Grandma, it’s really a beautiful house.”
“Yes, really, Grandma,” putting my hand over hers.
From her, I learned about hard earned privilege to own a home. She and Grandpa had paid cash for it. I learned about the discipline of saving up money from their restaurant which my grandfather had claimed its name was Malacañang Palace after the Presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, but photos of the storefront revealed otherwise. In reality, their restaurant was simply named 1550 Geary. I realized their perseverance, working and saving money during an era when it wasn’t easy for first generation Filipinos to earn enough money to buy a home. But in 1953, they had saved enough money to pay cash for the house. During this one conversation with Grandma as we stood looking at the house, I was allowed to see that her house, bright orange with chocolate brown trim, was indeed beautiful beyond dispute.
“O-kay, let’s go to church now,” she’d smile, satisfied.
Turning left on Cabrillo, we walked two blocks to 37th, turned right, walking past Mrs. Demando’s house. “I think she’s home. We’ll go there after church and look at her garden,” Grandma said each Sunday. But while we strolled the garden, what my grandmother really wanted to do was to show off her granddaughter-in-college. Though I cannot speak Ilocano dialect, I could always feel the pride in her words that I could understand, “Maestra ni Lisa idiay university.” (“Lisa is a teacher at the university”).
Grandma liked to sit near the back of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church - on the left side, next to the heater. The constant hissing from the pipes reminded me how hot it was in the pews on this side. By the middle of the sermon, I’d be fanning myself with whatever misalette booklet I could find, to keep from fainting. I felt even hotter looking sideways at my grandma, who always wore a wool coat, scarf around her neck, and a bandana around her head. When the baskets made their way down the aisle, she would carefully fold four dollar bills – one from each of the uncles, and one from her and Grandpa, slide them into a colored collection envelope, neatly lick it shut, and then hand it to me.
“Drop it there in the basket when it comes down the row,” she’d whisper, pointing toward it with her lips.
After church, Grandma and I took the 38 Geary to Cala Foods to buy groceries. When we returned home, she would write her long division calculation directly on the receipt, dividing the cost four ways. My grandparents and two unmarried great-uncles lived as housemates. When it came to day-to-day expenses, each contributed equally to the household. Sliding the receipt showing her long division calculations across the beige Formica table, she’d say to the uncles,
“Here’s the bill for the groceries. $15.74 divided by 4. Your share is $3.93.”
Uncle Anong would take the red Folger’s coffee can from on top of the refrigerator and bring it to the table. Grandma would drop in her and Grandpa’s share, $7.86 exactly. Grandma carried a wallet but that wasn’t where she kept all her money. A recycled postal envelope placed in a secret pocket inside her purse hid the paper money. Each of the uncles would add their money to the can, taking out the exact change as needed. The balancing of the household expenses and responsibilities was a ritual. Witnessing their daily ritual with money, I eventually inherited mindfulness about the value of hard-earned rewards of work.
The time came for me to leave for Japan. With my last paycheck, I converted $500 into Traveler’s checks, took $100 in cash for transportation to the airport, packed it deep into my backpack with my passport, the round trip plane ticket from my scholarship sponsor, and my study itinerary. The next morning, as I brought the suitcase down from my room, and threw the backpack over my shoulder, Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Anong, and Uncle Pepe walked me to the door. Grandpa put one hand on my arm, and held out a letter-sized envelope with the other.
“Here, Lisa. Something from all of us- your grandma, me, Uncle Pepe, and Uncle Anong. During your studies in Japan, make it nice! We are proud of you!” He tapped the side of my head, nodding his approval. Make It Nice. He always said that to us grandkids whenever he wanted to encourage us to be our very best.
Looking at their faces at the door, I suddenly felt apprehensive about leaving them for two months, and blurted out something silly like “Wait for me to come back and we’ll go grocery shopping together, okay?”
Grandpa’s answer provided reassurance. “Yes, it’s okay. Go ahead now!”
He slid the envelope into my jacket pocket.
The airport shuttle bus was crowded. I closed my eyes as we headed out on Fulton Street and through the Golden Gate Park to get to 19th Avenue. When we got onto the freeway, I opened the envelope. Inside was a stack of money. Holding it within the folds of my jacket, I fingered through the bills, adding them up. At first I was puzzled by the combination of bills and the random amount.
All at once I pictured the red Folger’s coffee can atop the refrigerator. I imagined the four of them-Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Pepe, and Uncle Anong- emptying out all the money and coins from the coffee can onto the table. Money they had collected from putting in their share of the groceries; calculating what was still needed for household expenses; skimming some from what remained of the money; adding in their pocket change; converting the coins nicely into paper money; finally placing the resulting amount into an envelope. For me.
How deeply their gift symbolized their hard work, their high regard for Education-something that had not been so easy to complete for themselves. How profoundly their gift honored me, for their daily ritual with money and its value to their disciplined life, carried an Energy which has continued to sustain my principles. A simple white envelope, with dollars from my grandparents and great-uncles, each sheet of money stacked up creating the floor on which I could plant my own feet so firmly. $37.00. Agtawid. An Inheritance.