My 82-year-old maternal grandmother, who I call Lola Ning Ning, is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s. It has been a steady decline for five years now. Fate dealt a cruel hand; my grandmother’s gifted storytelling is globally renowned, literally. As the young business woman who brokered deals with village market merchants over tuba or palm wine, as the materfamilias to the infinite number of cousins scattered all over the Philippine archipelago, all the Tita Babys and Tito Boys, as the babysitter and wrangler to first generation Filipino-American children here in the States, as the great-grandmother to my own sons, the lady can deliver a story. Stories of her life, stories she’s seen and read, stories she’s heard from neighborhood gossip—stories stream from her brain to her lips effortlessly.
In the last few years, the stories fall from her lips with more difficulty and less frequency. It’s like going back to a cherished anthology with several pages ripped out and more gone each day.
My grandmother’s stories keep me rooted to my birthplace, to a past I’ve never known. But with each story she tells, the pictures in those histories sharpen into focus until I feel like I’m walking among people that have long since gone. I’ve always known that both sides of my family survived the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines (1942-1945), a time when half a million to a million Filipinos were slaughtered at the hands of soldiers. My Lola Ning Ning grew up in Southern Leyte of the Visayas or Central region of the Philippines, in a little town called Malitbog, where I used to spend halcyon summers swimming in the pellucid waters of the ocean a few yards from her house. I still cannot reconcile my memories of blood on the rocky shores from gutting freshly caught fish for dinner with the blood of butchered Filipinos, their carcasses littered on these same beaches.
This historic moment resurrected one Wednesday evening a few months ago, when my mother and I were playing with the boys and she casually mentioned my great-uncle, Lolo Bebong, who could not get employment because “of the time he was stabbed by the Japanese thirteen times.”
My eyes widened with horror and intrigue. Stabbing? The Japanese? How have I lived this long and not known this insane piece of family history?
“Wait, what?” I asked. “Who’s Lolo Bebong? Why was he stabbed? What in the holy hell happened?”
“Oh, I never told you?” she returned. “This is what happened…” She continued to tell the story, but I could sense that there were gaps in the narrative. Thirsty for this story and needing to know every detail, I asked Lola Ning Ning, who could not remember the chicken adobo and rice she had for dinner an hour earlier.
In a sublime reversal of expectation, she recounted the story in meticulous detail:
“My oldest brother, Eusebio, who we called Bebong, was captured by the Japanese when I was six years old. The Japanese had occupied Southern Leyte at the time and were rounding up the men in the villages. My brother was returning from doing business at the fishing market and was passing by the municipal building when he was taken. He was imprisoned, along with many other men, in the municipal building jail.”
“Just by being there?” I interrupted.
“Of course,” she replied. “The Japanese did not bother to feed the prisoners because they knew they were going to be murdered. What was the point? So my sister Ining brought him food every day and brought me along to make it look like she was married. The Japanese soldiers respected you if you were married and did not rape you if you were a wife, so I pretended to be her daughter. They loved me, by the way. The soldiers. They gave me lots of little treats, carried me on their shoulders, and hugged me every time.”
“Wait,” I interjected. “These monsters who killed people on a mass scale with impunity, acted like loving uncles? And because of your presence, you prevented Lola Ining’s rape? Lola, that is the craziest moral system I’ve ever heard.”
“I was six. What did I know? Besides, food was scarce and they had candy,” she explained.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I muttered.
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, especially in front of my two apos,” she lectured. “Where was I again?”
“Monster soldiers with candy.”
“Oh yes,” she continued. “Eventually, all the prisoners were taken in an army truck to the local cemetery to be mass murdered. The soldiers stabbed each prisoner then threw them into a pile of corpses to be burned later. Bebong was one of the last ones and he was stabbed thirteen times. They tossed him on the mass, believing him to be dead. He wasn’t.” My younger son, James, tries to sit on her lap. In one swift, expert move, she drew him over her bones where he settled happily, playing with his Transformer toy.
“The soldiers left in the army truck to gather wood for the burning,” she continued, as she stroked James’ curls. “They went from house to house, the same houses of these murdered Filipino men, and took the wooden shutters for the fire. While they were away, Bebong crawled over a wall and rested by the grave of a younger brother who died a few days after birth. He said that he wanted to die with family.”
“Wait, I had an uncle I never knew about?” my mother broke in, eyes aghast.
“Yes,” she answered. “We never told you? When we go home I’ll show you his grave.” She paused. “Where was I?”
“You said he wanted to die with family,” I reminded her.
“Who?” she asked.
“Oh, right. But he didn’t die. He realized he was still alive, that he might live. He crawls past the street, towards the river. In good fortune, the leader of the guerrilla rebels fighting the Japanese, Titing Escaño, who became the mayor after the war, was there, waiting for anyone who might have escaped from the mass murder. He spotted Bebong, and he and his comrades carried him to their secret headquarters in the forest. Remember him, Pol?”
“I do,” my mother said. “Everyone loved him.”
“That’s the truth,” Lola Ning Ning confirmed. “I saw him shortly after that, white as this sheet of paper here. My father told me to look away.”
“Why? He didn’t want you to be traumatized?” I speculated.
“No,” she said. “People believed that if a woman looks at a bleeding man, he bleeds worse.”
“What? That’s crazy.”
“Yes, well, I wasn’t allowed. But word got out that he escaped and the Japanese were looking for him. You have to know, there were spies everywhere. Easy way to avoid getting killed or getting someone back from capture. We moved to the hideout at first, but we had to keep moving further and further into the forest to avoid them. Once we passed the line of the rebels, we were okay. We managed to survive.” James decided to move on to my mother’s lap.
“I only had one regret,” my grandmother declared quietly.
“I had to leave my pregnant dog, Jasmine, behind. I was devastated.”
My mother and I looked at each other and fell into stitches, tears streaming out of our eyes. Lola Ning Ning grinned and grinned. My grandmother is notorious for her wry, and sometimes, wildly inappropriate sense of humor. Deliberate or not, I could never figure it out.
The way my grandmother tells this story represents both the Catarman/Tamayo/Alves women’s strength and worldview. When shit gets so bad, thirteen stab wounds bad, in hindsight, you can still find something to laugh about. And who cares if she forgot what she had for dinner or where she put her dentures or whether she took a shower that day. Even with this debilitating disease, even as her memory fades and she becomes less of herself every single day, some stories-- about family, about history, about pain—persevere.