Professional Lola by E.P. Tuazon

🏆 Pushcart Nominated

Art by Peter Frederiksen
Art by Peter Frederiksen

When my mom told me that we were hiring a professional lola for my nephew’s party, I pretended to misunderstand her even though I knew exactly what she meant.

“A clown named ‘Lola?’” I said, hoping she had made the more appropriate choice for a five-year-old’s birthday celebration.

She shushed me and massaged more salt and lemon into chicken thighs, a habit she didn’t drop since eating food foraged from the Payatas Dump as a child. Even when they came pumped with antibiotics, sterilized twice, prepackaged, and freezer-burned here in the States, manok didn’t taste safe to her until it was lemon-drenched and salted clean. “Sus. A lola! What is wrong with your tainga? We will pick her up at nine, Sabado. Mula sa simbahan!

A while back, this strange trend spread through the Filipino community. It started with an ad on TFC. For $100 an hour, a propesynal na artista would come to your house and act like your deceased lola. A woman put on makeup in the mirror and crowned herself with a gray wig while the website and number flashed on the bottom of the screen. They didn’t come as anyone else. No one could request a grandma, an abuela, a bubbe, a nonna, or even a nai nai. Just a lola.

I thought it was a joke at first, then friends and relatives started doing it. Pictures of them with “their lolas” staring blankly into the lens, TikToks of others’ “lolas” missing the high notes to “their” favorite Sharon Cuneta songs. They looked and sounded like the real deals. Lolas I’ve only seen in old picture frames, Instagram tributes, and refrigerator magnets were taking on new lives beyond the grave via professional impersonators.

Some say its success was thanks to Facebook. Others, word of mouth and maybe some connection with a casino scheme to get more Filipinos afraid of their own mortality and on the next morning bus to the closest penny slots. Me, I liked to attribute it to the Filipino obsession with resurrection. In San Pedro Cutud, just north of Manila, a man has crucified himself every Easter for the past thirty years. Why would pretending to be someone’s lola for a birthday party be any different from pretending to be Jesus to perform the Stations of the Cross? The acts were more divine than they were ridiculous.

However, despite its popularity, my mom was never the type to get into fads or fake miracles. We were traditional in the way where if it wasn’t broke, we didn’t fix it, and if someone died, they stayed dead. Whenever its commercial came on, my mother would click her tongue, shake her head, and do the sign of the cross, muttering half a Hail Mary and half a curse. I thought for sure she would never hire one, but there she was, having already paid her $400 contradiction.

“So, which one will it be?” I asked the question while also fishing for a reason.

“Lola Basilia.” My mom said, getting under the chicken’s skin.

Her mom, Lola Basilia, was everyone’s favorite lola. It was the obvious choice, but it didn’t answer my real question. “Not Lola Adella?”

Sobra! You know your tatay couldn’t even stand his own ina. What makes you think people would want to see her? Ay nako!”

“So. What does she do? Is she going to do magic tricks or make balloon animals?”

Ay nako! Hindi ko alam! It’s for the olds. Tama na, I’m cooking. Do your homework.” She said, waving me off with her frustration and chicken juices. I knew if she was doing it for “the olds”—my uncles, aunties, and anyone else older than them—it was out of her control.

At Lola Basilia’s funeral, I did a eulogy that killed. It made the whole family laugh, cry, and remember how great she was. I ended it with the first time she taught me how to eat with my hands. Seven-year-old me saw her eating her meryenda of salted shrimp, fermented egg, tomato, and rice and asked her for some. Our kind, wonderful Lola Basilia scooped a little bit of everything and held it out for me with her bare hands. I took it like someone accepting a love letter or $20 to go to the movies. What was dripping from our fingers was her heart.

Throughout her life, she freely handed her love out to me this way. I didn’t even have to ask. Even when I confessed to her what I couldn’t confess to my mom, even when I confessed that I was bakla for boys and not malibog for girls like the rest of her apos, she scooped up whatever was on her plate for me, her balong, her baby boy. How this professional lola was going to live up to that was beyond my understanding.

Then the day came. We were to pick up Lola Basilia, where we usually had: in front of the church by her apartment. I didn’t expect her to actually be there. What I expected was an old Filipino woman who never scrounged for food to feed her family, never kept her nephew’s secrets, and never smelled so much of baby oil everyone was afraid to light a match around her. What I expected was some shadow of what she was, a cheap imitation at best. But, by some miracle, there she was.

From the car window, I saw Lola Basilia slouching in front of the steps to St. Dominic’s. She had on her pink knitted cap, her giant sunglasses, her Sulu pearl earrings perched above her red knitted scarf, her faded brown coat draped over her shoulders she only kept because she thought it made her look like Jacqueline Kennedy, which she pronounced “Jake-lin Candy,” and her Reebok “Shaqnosis” hi-top sneakers my Kuya Bing bought her in the 90s she never took off. Had I not known already that it was an actress, I might have thought we were picking up a ghost.

I turned to my mom, and her mouth was agape, just as surprised as I was. Twice, our van passed her in disbelief. After the second time, we were already a mile away from the church and nearly kept driving when the van abruptly lurched over something in the road. In the jolt, I caught a glimpse of a mattress seemingly unscathed in the rearview mirror. After we jumped over it, my mom pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot to check a rattle it left in the back tires.

“Sus!” My mother said and banged on her steering wheel before stepping out to investigate. I rolled down the window and leaned out my side. Other than us, there were just two other cars. Beside a Redbox, a man in a beanie was drinking coffee with another one vaping, the green light of his e-cigarette flashing on and off between his in-audible talk and listless tokes.

“It was a mattress! How is it?”

After inspecting her side, she knelt in front of the back-wheel of mine. “Ay, thanks God. Hindi ito nasira. Just plastic.”

“Plastic? Nothing important?”

She got up and patted the dirt from her jeans. “Ay, tiwala sa nanay mo. Trust, trust, anak!”

As she came back around the front of our car, I noticed a man carrying the mattress across the street. It was twice his size, and he had trouble keeping it off the ground. On his shirtless back was a tattoo that either read “Free Lunch” or “Franz Liszt.”

When my mother returned, I rolled up my window as she started the van again. “What was that?”

“You said it was a mattress.”

“No, at the church.”

My mother exhaled as if releasing her spirit to speak for her. She pulled out and signaled to get back on the street before she replied. “Lola Basilia.”

“Yeah, but how? Where did she get that stuff?” I watched what was left of the man and the mattress disappear in the rearview mirror as we continued back. By then, he had already resigned himself to dragging it.

“The olds gave it to them. We did a surbay.”


Anak, na naman! Sir-bay! We answered a questionnaire and gave them some of her things. Ang kanyang damit at larawan at pabango.”

“You even gave Lola’s perfume? Isn’t that a little too much?”

Ay nako! Stop now, please. Umalis na tayo!”

“I hope they return her things after this.”

Ako rin.” My mother said, hugging the wheel like the man hugged the mattress.

When we returned to Lola Basilia, she was still there as if frozen in time. We pulled the van up in front of her, and she proceeded to wobble her way to the door. She even struggled with the latch like the real her. After a few seconds of watching her struggle, I came out to open it and was met with her frail embrace. I was surprised to smell a hint of her baby oil on her neck mingling with her Tommy Hilfiger perfume.

The professional lola breathed in my hair deeply and said, “Mm, mabango!” like Lola Basilia always did. She was good. A-hundred-dollars-an-hour good.

I pulled the latch, and the automatic door slid open as its chime started. She gripped my arms as I helped her climb in, then she let go and rubbed her legs as the door began to slowly close between us. My mom examined her quietly as the ringing died. “Ay, masakit ang paa.” We heard the professional lola moan in Lola Basilia’s voice.

When I got back in, we started off to the party.

Kamusta na, nanay? Long time no see.” My mom said, her eyes still evaluating her in the rearview mirror.

The professional lola took off her sunglasses and suddenly looked a lot less like Lola Basilia. In fact, she appeared much younger: closer to my mom’s age than my lola’s. To my surprise, this discovery left me feeling a little disappointed. Nevertheless, the act continued.

In Lola Basilia’s voice, the professional lola told my mom that she had a dream that Lolo was calling her to heaven. She often recounted the same story while she was alive. “Umuwi, mahal. Sinabi ko sa kanya, mamaya, mahal, mamaya.

“Lolo’s calling her home.” My mom translated.

“She says she’ll be back later, mamaya na.”

The professional lola nodded and put on her sunglasses. Lola Basilia leaned her head on the window like I had seen her do so many times. “Matutulog ako. Konti lang.” She whispered to herself and drifted off into familiar snores I couldn’t imagine anyone learning in acting school. Beside her, I saw seven-year-old me leaned against her warm body, her slow breaths rocking me to sleep. Between where we were and where we would be later, this was one of many things that needed to be done before we started feeling like we were going anywhere––before we started believing anyone could come back.

When we arrived at my Auntie Felly’s house, her husband, my Uncle Bong, was outside smoking his American Spirits. As usual, he was in shorts, flip-flops, and one of the many shirts he got on his travels around the world. My Auntie Felly and my Uncle Bong retired from doing thirty years of custodial work for the local high school. Unlike my mother, they used their retirement money to go on trips overseas instead of the casinos. They’ve been to Europe, Japan, Thailand, and Australia, but the one place they haven’t gone back to was the Philippines. My Auntie Felly, my Uncle Bong, and my parents grew up eating from the same dump. Lola Basilia worked hard to keep them alive, while the three of them worked hard to get all of them out. There was no way they dreamed of going back.

As we pulled up to the driveway, my Uncle Bong took one last drag from his cigarette before throwing it to the ground and stepping on it. When my mom parked, he waved the smoke away from him and pulled the latch on Lola Basilia’s door. As it opened, I read, “Some IDIOT went to London, and all I got was THIS!” on his shirt while the door chime rang. Somewhere there was a joke I didn’t understand.

My mom pulled her key and turned to Lola Basilia to wake her up. “Nanay, nandito kami.

The three of us watched the professional lola stir and wipe drool from her mouth. “Ay, Salamat.” Lola Basilia said groggily. She sniffed and suddenly brightened, curling her arms away from my uncle.

Nako! Bong. Smoking, Smoking!”

Suddenly, tears welled in my Uncle Bong’s eyes. “Nanay!” He wailed and hugged the professional lola tightly.

Lola Basilia weakly tried batting him away before surrendering to an embrace. “Sus! mabaho!” she said. She always disliked the smell of cigarettes.

As we got out of the car and the professional lola into the house, I remembered learning how important it was to only mano my elders, but here was Uncle Bong putting his forehead to the hand of someone almost ten years younger. I didn’t know whether to be moved or horrified, but before I could decide, my mother walked ahead of us and announced our arrival, way past the point of any decision-making.

Inside, we were greeted by the astonished and jubilant reactions of more than thirty of our relatives. The olds and the young ones alike manoed, kissed and greeted Lola Basilia. There was laughter, tears, and reverie. She remembered them all. It was an amazing feat for anyone, dead or alive.

In the kitchen, my mom and I found my Auntie Felly nursing a pot of dinuguan and chicken adobo. “She’s here, ngayon?” My Auntie Felly said, sipping the black stewed pig’s blood from the dinuguan with a sabow bowl. She dumped what was left back into the pot then dipped the bowl into the adobo.

Oo-oo.” My mom nodded. From the other room, the loud voice of my Uncle Bong, followed by his laughter, cut through the loud roar of the cooking vent fan.

My Auntie Felly sipped the adobo broth of soy sauce, vinegar, and paminta balls before putting it down. She turned off the stove and the fan and listened to the claps and cheers from the other room. “Get Bing from his room and carry these to the other foods. We will start after Lola does the prayer.”

I nodded while I went back through the hall. My mom and Auntie Felly followed after me before they stopped in the living room with the professional lola as I passed. Behind me, I heard my Auntie Felly greet Lola Basilia with a bad joke I didn’t understand. Lola Basilia always disliked Auntie Felly’s jokes, but she was always expecting them. I could hear our family laugh and the professional lola call her bastos. I couldn’t tell if she was crying like Uncle Bong had, but I knew, in her own way, she was just as sentimental.

I knocked on my Kuya Bing’s door and waited for him to come out. My Kuya Bing was my Auntie Felly and my Uncle Bong’s son and my cousin, but he was more than ten years older than me and already way into his thirties. He still lived with his parents, but he had a good-paying job working from home as a forensic accountant and saved a lot of money. Other than that, he was always working in his room and hardly came out except for the occasional family party or two. He was much more social online than in person, but who wasn’t now?

“Almost done.” I heard him say through the door. Inside, I could hear the soft rattle of his keyboard.

After more laughter and applause, my Kuya Bing came out with his usual Bluetooth headset in one ear and sunglasses, but, to my surprise, he had on a blue suit and tie, too. He closed the door behind himself and nearly bumped into me. “You’re here already?”

He gave me a hug, and I smelled Lola Basilia’s Tommy Hilfiger cologne on him. I knew he had been the one to give it to the professional lola. “Wow, kuya. Going to a wedding?”

“Shut up. Is she here too?”