This past Sunday, an amazing woman's life in this world came to an end. And I don't know if you are a person of faith, but I believe that not twenty seconds after her spirit left this world, she was already settling down in her place in Paradise- with that pink gelatin dessert that was always on her table at family parties.
I always referred to her as Lola Mila. She was the mother of ten children, one of which became my mother's best friend over thirty years ago. Let me explain. My mother is the daughter of a native Hawaiian mother and a Spaniard father (who was coincidentally raised in the Philippines). About 35 years ago, she married my Filipino father, who was relatively new to the United States.
My mother became best friends with Tita Es, who was (and is) the best friend that provided my mother with the background to Filipino culture, cuisine and some of the language. Tita Es, of course, brought my mother to her home, and she introduced her to her mother, Lola Mila. And Lola Mila became a surrogate mom to my mother, and they spent many a good time together.
Most of Lola Mila's children eventually ended up in the Bushwick/Ridgewood area of Brooklyn, and the extended family all became friends with my mother. Tita Es's younger sisters used to babysit my sister and me. When the younger titas had children of their own, my sister would babysit them. And when my sister became a mom herself, she employed the "babies" she used to "sit", as babysitters to her own daughters.
What I admire most about Lola Mila and her children is their strong sense of pamilya. Lola Mila kept her children and grandchildren together, despite the challanges they may have faced in both the Philippines and the United States. And this family extended that spirit to my family and others. Even at this age, I am told to eat (and eat plenty) at family gatherings. On a few occasions, I have even found myself in a "cousin's picture", which basically asserts that for this select group of people, family doesn't necessarily rely solely on genetics.
The community of my childhood could have became the next Filipino enclave, due to its large population of Filipino immigrants. However, people didn't open up Fil-Am businesses and restaurants like other New York neighborhoods like Woodside or Jackson Heights in Queens. instead, these hardworking people followed many different career paths. (Basically there is a medical center in the neighborhood, so I'm sure you can understand). Despite this, the sense of community was always strong.
And it still is.
I saw many people from many years ago come and visit this week. They were paying their respects to a woman who, despite all the odds against her, successfully raised her children, had a significant hand in caring for her grandchildren, enjoyed the laughter of her great-grandchildren, and stood as a matriarch for our small little Filipino community, in one of the biggest boroughs of New York City.
Lola Mila was an amazing, determined woman. She defied the stereotypes of Asian-American women (and even Filipina women) by speaking her mind freely and honestly. She worked hard and bought a home that has seen five generations of her family walk through the doors. She built lifelong relationships and friendships with many Filipino families within the community. She instilled a uniquely charming, friendly, hardworking and down-to-earth perspective in all of her children and grandchildren.
And it's because of her and her family that I learned so much about what my heritage as a Filipino American is, and can be.
For that, maraming salamat po, Lola Mila.