By E.P. Tuazon
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?”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
The laughter and applause were farther now. “You do the survey too? What was on it?”
“Not much.” He started to move down the hall. From behind, he was identical to his father, except my Uncle Bong had more hair. All my Kuya Bing had up there was a ratty ponytail above his collar. “Is she good?”
I followed him to the living room. It was empty now except for my Auntie Milagreen asleep on one of the couches. The laughter and everyone else were in the backyard.
“Your mom told us to get the dinuguan and adobo from the kitchen and bring it to the dining room.”
My Kuya Bing changed directions and started moving toward the kitchen instead of outside. “My sister and Dumbo here yet?”
Dumbo was what my Kuya Bing called our nephew on account of his big ears. “I didn’t see them. Probably in the back. I just got here.”
We both picked up a pot and headed to where the food was set up in the dining room. In the center of the food table was a giant lechon with an apple in its mouth. Patches of its crispy skin were already missing, having been picked off by my Uncle Weng and my Uncle Arthur, as usual. Beside my Auntie Joko’s pancit, my Auntie Shela’s lumpia shanghai, and the rice, there were two wicker placemats adorning the spaces meant for the last of today’s ulam.
After we dropped the pots in their place, my Kuya Bing and I each picked out a lumpia and ate it. The succulent pork and shrimp coupled with the crisp and savory crunch of the eggroll wrapper was gone too soon.
“You get dressed up for Lola?” I mumbled through bites.
My Kuya Bing had already finished his and was picking up another. “Too much?”
“Not really. You look good in it. It suits you, kuya.”
“Shut up.” He said and ate another lumpia.
I finished the rest of mine and wiped my hands. “Isn’t it weird? I mean, it’s not really Lola out there.”
My Kuya Bing munched on his third lumpia. “Just enjoy it. You keep thinking that, and it’ll be a waste. Is she good?”
“I guess,” I said, leaning above my Lola Ester’s Kutsinta and my Uncle J’s leche flan. “Maybe too good.”
“Good. I’ll go say hello then.” He said and resumed his trek to the backyard.
I followed him outside, and everyone had gathered under the gazebo where the professional lola was seated. It wasn’t uncommon to find Lola Basilia surrounded by people at a party. Even when the conversation didn’t revolve around her, everyone always wanted her just to listen. She had saved so many of the olds from Payatas and the young ones from America with just her ears alone.
In the professional lola’s lap was the birthday boy, Dumbo, with his mom, Kuya Bing’s ading (or sister), my Ate Sunshine, at their side. She was only a couple years older than me but was already a single mother and a fashion designer. Lola Basilia always called her a Pantasiya Fashionista. She supported her and my Ate Sunshine’s dream, even when she got pregnant, and my Auntie Felly and Uncle Bong kicked her out of the house and stopped talking to her for several years. My Ate Sunshine was gorgeous and no doubt the prettiest one of the entire family.
The professional lola was playing an old game with our nephew Lola Basilia once played with all of us when we were little. She held her two fists before us and asked us to pick between them. One of them had money in it, the other, nothing. “Cat or dog?” or “Dog or cat?” she would say, although we never knew which fist was the cat and which one was the dog, like which one had something, and which one didn’t. Regardless, she always let us pick until we all had something. It didn’t matter how many times we tried.
“Cat or dog?” She said with her fists under Dumbo’s chin. Dumbo picked one, but there was nothing, so the professional lola shuffled them again behind her head, just like Lola Basilia. For a moment, I wondered who had told her how to do this, but I suspected it was Ate Sunshine based on the way she watched Lola Basilia without breathing or blinking, how her leg shook in anticipation like when she was the one choosing as a child.
“Dog or cat?” She said with her fists under Dumbo’s chin again. Dumbo picked the same hand, and there was a folded twenty-dollar bill inside. Dumbo hungrily unraveled it and showed it to his mom before hugging the professional lola. The family cheered and applauded. I turned to my Kuya Bing and asked if he remembered the game, but he was sweating and clapping too hard to notice me.
“Wonderful, Lola!” He cheered and made his way through the family to get to where she was.
Dumbo jumped off the professional lola’s lap and hugged Kuya Bing’s knees. “Uncle Bing-Bing!” He exclaimed, dropping the twenty-dollar bill on the ground. My Kuya Bing ruffled Dumbo’s hair but was still focused on Lola Basilia.
“Ha-how are you, Lo-Lola?” My Kuya Bing stuttered. He kept his hand on Dumbo’s head. My Ate Sunshine got up and picked up the bill from the ground.
The professional lola got up and smiled. Lola Basilia shook her way to him as Kuya Bing lightly pushed Dumbo to his mother and out of the way. “Ay nako. Pogi si, Bing-Bing!” She told him and my Kuya Bing, although twice her size, crumpled into a ball in her arms.
“Lola!” He cried just like his father, and everyone cheered.
The rest of the night went along with more of the same. Lola Basilia did the dinner prayer with my Auntie Felly, piled rice on Dumbo’s plate, sang “Ebony and Ivory” with my Uncle Rodney, and won at Mahjong and Pusoy against my Uncle Roland, my Uncle Bong, my Auntie Lucy, my Lola Milagreen and my Lolo Jack. Everyone had their turn with her. Everyone had Lola back for a few minutes. Before we knew it, my Ate Sunshine and Dumbo were already saying goodbye.
I walked them to her car as she carried my sleeping nephew in her arms. The birthday party was still going, and there was still an hour left to the professional lola’s contract, but Dumbo could never stand being with many people for too long, and when he was tired, that meant it was time for them to go home.
“It sucks you gotta go,” I said as my Ate Sunshine fastened Dumbo into his car seat.
“It’s ok. We’ll hang some other time. Maybe during your summer vacation.” She whispered and softly closed the door before Dumbo. “You still have to tell me about the boys.”
“What boys?” I said, but there had been one on my mind I hadn’t thought about since Lola Basilia came back in my life.
“Sus. Lola would always ask me, ‘May boyfriend ka ba?’ I sound just like her now. Your mom know yet?”
“Know what?” I said, trying to play dumb whenever someone asked, even though everyone knew I was bakla except, somehow, my mom.
“Ayesusmariosep!” My Ate Sunshine said, staring at the stars.
We leaned on the hood of her car, looking at her parent’s house, the sounds of our family reaching out to us in the dark. “You think that lola in there is just like her?”
My Ate Sunshine looked at me. “Probably the closest thing to the real thing, maybe.”
“Yeah, she’s too good. Did you do the survey?”
“Mom did, but I didn’t. She didn’t tell me she was getting one until after she did it.”
Are you mad?”
I thought of her without her sunglasses. The look she made that disappointed me. It was the only other time I felt that way about Lola Basilia besides her dying. “I just wanted a say, you know?”
“Filipino parents, right? Sus!”
My Ate Sunshine reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. After a minute, she held it in front of me. On her screen was a woman I had never seen before. “I found her on IMDB. She’s been an actress here in the States for a long time. She played a Chinese princess, an Indian bride, a Latina gang member in a poodle skirt. I don’t think she’s ever played a Filipino until now.”
I looked at her many roles, but in all of them, I couldn’t recognize Lola Basilia nor the face she had under her sunglasses. “Are you sure this is her?”
“Wow,” I said, genuinely impressed.
“I know. She could’ve been something, right?”
When it was time for Lola Basilia to leave, the entire family poured out the door after her. My Kuya Bing and my Uncle Bong sobbed at each of her arms as they lead her procession from the door to the van. My mom had already said her goodbyes and was already waiting in the driver’s seat with the engine running. My Auntie Felly and the other olds stood in a line and waved quietly as she was lifted into her seat.
It all happened so fast, there was no time for me to join my mom in the front, so I took a seat between the crowd and Lola Basilia. While the sliding door slowly closed, everyone cried her name and said goodbye, the door chimes echoing with them as if they were bells accompanying a choir. As we drove off, some even pursued us on the street, including my Kuya Bing with his sunglasses and Bluetooth headset shedding off him as if they were feathers of a flustered flightless bird in chase, but my mom didn’t slow down. Neither her nor Lola Basilia looked back. The time was up, and nothing else could be done.
During the drive, Lola Basilia and I sat in the back while my mother drove silently into the night. As the landscape quickly changed outside the window, I fought the urge to take in her smells and softness one last time. This had been the closest we had been to each other all day, the closest we had been together since her funeral. Shoulder to shoulder with her now, I didn’t know whether I wanted to rip off her disguise or rest on her lap. As I wrestled with myself in the dark, I heard the sharp hush of her breath get my attention, except I didn’t have time to decide whether it was more like the hiss of a sprinkler or a snake. Behind her glasses, I thought she was done for the night, but she was still very much alive.
“Balong.” She whispered, “May boyfriend ka ba?”
Worried that she might have heard, my eyes immediately went to the back of my mom’s head before I realized what her question and her knowing meant.
Maybe I worried too much. Maybe, in the matter of myself and this lola and that lola and my mom, who and what we loved didn’t matter as much as who and what we believed in.
We believed in who she was. We believed in her love.
“Not yet,” I said before closing my eyes, holding her one last time, and letting her go.
When we arrived at the church, I no longer had to help Lola Basilia off. The door opened, and a stranger departed from our van. As the door chime rang, she bowed to my mom and me and said, “Goodnight, it was a pleasure to be your Lola,” before the door closed, and we each went our own ways.
E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. He has published his works in several publications, most recently Peatsmoke Journal, Third Point Press, 3Element Review, Allegory Ridge, Adelaide Magazine, and a forthcoming piece in The Rumpus. He has two books, The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. He is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club at the Open Book, Canyon Country. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipinx markets to gossip with the crabs.
Art by Peter Frederiksen