Hermie is an 82-year old Filipina woman. She was a former client who grew quite fond of me that even after her case was over, she continued to keep in touch with me. She calls me randomly to invite me to lunch. We meet at the train station near her house, she greets me with an endearing smile and we walk to her favorite restaurants near the station. “Huwag kang mag-alala. Akong mang libre sayo.” Don’t worry, my treat, she says. Like any typical Filipina grandmother, she won’t stop feeding you. You cannot have just one big meal, you must also have Leche Flan after that, or Maja Blanca or Turon. If you want, you can have them all. In the summer, Halo-halo is obligatory. Even if you politely decline the dessert, she will buy them for you anyway. To go, for your merienda later, she’d say. She reminds me of Cebu. She reminds me of my mother and aunts and grandmothers and that food is home and home is kitchen and long family tables and three generations of extended family all gathered together in one house. Home is lechon and adobo and Tupperware filled with food to take home. Home is karaoke and silliness and nosy relatives and your heart swelling with joy. Home is your grandmother’s papery hands touching your cheek as you bid her goodbye.
Photo by Joe Kingston
Her husband passed away last year. Their relatives from Northern California and the East Coast flew to Los Angeles to pay their respects. They respected him a lot, she said, beaming with pride. She lives alone now and I cannot help but wonder about the silence of her house. I wonder about how she must miss their conversations, even their annoyances, the sound of footsteps and tinkering about, the particulars of their everyday life as a married couple for fifty years. She said that for thirty years, she worked as a nurse assistant “wiping people’s asses.” She worked hard, did a lot of overtime, and was able to build a house in Bicol, her husband’s hometown. She saved money to be able to live decently in her retirement. She tells me stories about her life from the time when she was a little girl living in a province in the Luzon area. I let her carry on with her stories because her eyes light up. I let her carry on because the stories are about perseverance and hope and leaving home and arriving at one wherever that is. They are about patience and loving people and fighting for what you believe is righteous and fair. Whenever we part ways, my heart breaks a little at her fragility and I fear that some incident might befall her and there is no one around to help. When I sit on the train on my way home from our lunch together, I often feel a renewed hope for the world, and how wonderful it is that an 82-year old woman bestows me with such optimism. I get ashamed at my sometimes sullen disposition, my unresolved grudges and trifling annoyances, because Hermie, who wiped people’s asses for thirty years, still loves the world, still lives her life to the fullest at the age of eighty-two. I am eager to go home and eat my Leche Flan and think of ways that I might conquer the world.
The last time I saw her was late January of this forsaken year. I went to her apartment and ran an errand for her. She knew I love her homemade pansit so she cooked some for lunch, and of course, she wrapped all the leftovers for me to take home. She opened her fridge and looked at what else she could put in my “to-go” bag. I told her the pansit was more than enough, that she should not trouble herself anymore, but she would not listen to me. So my to-go bag also contained cheese, butter, chicken nuggets, and bread. Butter!! Out of respect and gratitude, I accepted all that she gave me and put them inside my bag. I was quite relieved that she did not empty her fridge otherwise she would have also given me all her frozen food.
I am writing about her because lately I have been thinking about kindness, and that is one of her wonderful attributes. Kindness is the one thing that lifts our spirits regardless of who gives or receives it. Sometimes it takes so little to be kind. Sometimes you don’t know the difference you’ve made in a person’s life because of one small kind gesture or word.
Tonight, Hermie, I honor you and I thank you for your papery hands always reaching out to mine and for the warmth in your voice whenever you call and say, “I haven’t seen you in a month! When are we gonna see each other? And what do you want to eat this time?”
Gardening has taken up my life. My small stretch of greenery is the patio outside my bedroom on the second floor of a quaint apartment building. I have tomatoes, herbs, succulents, flowers, orchids. I have recently discovered that I planted a flower that blooms during the day and closes at night. This flower catches you at your lowest point and whispers, Sit awhile, calm your mind, delight in the miracle of the seed that you planted a year ago. This flower will not allow you to brood or be restless. This flower mends your heart and wants you to truly live. I once wrote these words in my notebook: I want to leave the dark, I want to see what you find beautiful. Whatever took me into the spectacle of light has led me to what is indeed beautiful.
I sit on a bamboo bench on the patio. Shafts of light fall on one corner, then on to the next, as the day progresses from morning to afternoon, and then the magic continues in the evening under a brilliant sky when the moonbeams fall on the rooftops. Here, not only have I planted seeds, but I also sat in quiet waiting for them to grow, waiting patiently and then impatiently. On this patio I learn a thing or two about stillness and hope and nature’s stubborn desire to live. I learn about mindfulness and patience and not giving up.