The Smiling Photograph

My dad’s mom, Conching, passed away during childbirth over 55 years ago. At the time, my dad was about 5 years old. Tatay was left to care for 7 children, ages ranging from about 14 to 2. Like their ages, what each sibling remembers of Nanay Conching ranges as well. Some remember the day she passed away vividly, some remember bits and pieces of isolated moments, and some remember nothing at all. Because my dad and aunt were the 2 youngest siblings, they heavily relied on the memories of their older siblings to get an idea of what kind of person their mom was.

From what I have gathered throughout the years, my grandma was a very kind and religious woman. She was the eldest of her siblings, and had a very nurturing personality. Every new piece of information lit up my family’s faces. Each story, memory, and photograph was like striking gold. My cousins and I wanted to know more about the woman that left such an impact on everyone that knew her. We have all wondered what our family would be like had Nanay Conching and my Auntie Merlinda survived. We’d probably have more aunts and uncles, more cousins, and a way bigger family – which is hard to believe, given that our family is already pretty large.

Since Nanay Conching passed away so long ago, and at such a young age, there are only a handful of photos of her that we’ve seen. I personally have only seen a total of 4 photos of Nanay Conching: a solo photo of her in a traditional Filipino dress, the picture of her and Tatay on their wedding day, a photo of my great grandparents (her parents) and all of her siblings holding a painting of her after she passed, and her and my aunt’s tomb stones in the Philippines. These are the only photos that the family has to remember her by. I’m sure that there might be more photos in the Philippines in the albums of very distant family members, but these are the few gems the family’s aware of.

My family is known to have a big family “story time.” We all gather in the living room – you know it’s about to be story time just from the vibe. They turn off the TV, everyone grabs a seat nearby, and it becomes a family group discussion. This usually happens when family from out of state visits the Bay Area – it would routinely happen during Tatay’s birthdays. I don’t know when these family story times started becoming a thing, but they seem to be happening more often as us “kids” start to get older. We feel more comfortable to ask the adults more thought-provoking questions on how they were raised, what they remember, and what life was like immigrating to a new country right after their mother passed away.

Each story told, each point of view shared, each memory ingrained in my aunts, uncles, and dad’s pasts, helps us understand their upbringing and how it has personally effected them as parents, partners, and individuals. Because we know our loved ones’ pasts, it brings to light all the unspoken emotions that their generation couldn’t find the words to express properly. Understanding our family’s generational trauma has planted the seed of change in my cousins and I’s heads. For me, love is many things, one thing that love is is wanting to try to understand. Trying to understand means that you not only want to listen, but that you want them to feel heard. Attempting to understand other people’s pasts and lives brings healing for them, and can connect the pieces in your own mind about why they are the way they are.

I’ve heard many sides and point of views of the day my grandma passed away. Some details vary from sibling to sibling, as time sometimes clouds the memory. One thing that everyone could agree on – regardless of what they remembered and how old they were – was the fact that my grandma’s death put Tatay in a frenzy. He was left widowed with 7 children to care for. Tragedy brought my family closer together and made the stitching of their bond to each other that much tighter. Because they lost a parent so early on in their lives, they cherished Tatay that much more, regardless of how flawed and irritable he was.

Now that Tatay has passed on, a lot of change has happened in our family in the last year. A lot of family are moving out of the Bay Area – something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. For some reason, I’ve always believed that my extended family on both sides would stay in the Bay Area for life. Looking back now, I know that’s pretty unreasonable, but when I think of “home” I think of the Bay Area. As family starts to branch out outside of California, I think it’s important to try to maintain the closeness and bond that we are all so used to.

A few months ago, we took a trip to visit family that recently moved out of state. It was an amazing experience to explore a state we’d probably never think to visit otherwise. It was hands down one of the best family trips I have ever been on. When entering a home I’ve never been to before, I love to look at all the pictures that are up in the house. I feel like the pictures that are up in someone’s house says a lot about them and what’s important to them. I made my way around my uncle’s living room, dining room, bedroom, and anywhere with pictures up.

I analyzed all of the photos in my uncle’s home, each tucked away in a frame, some big, some small. As I admired the collage frame hanging next to the front door, I noticed some faces that looked very familiar at the top right. It was a photo of Tatay and Nanay Conching on their wedding day. But this wasn’t the wedding photo we were all familiar with, this was one I’ve never seen before. There in front of me was a picture of both my grandparents smiling ear to ear. It dawned on me that this was the first time I’ve ever seen a photo of my grandma smiling.

I immediately took pictures of the photo and sent it my dad and aunt who couldn’t make the trip. They also shared that they have never seen the photo before either. My aunt texted me, thanking me for sending it her way. Being the youngest sibling, my aunt was only 2 years old when her mom passed away. Her and my dad have no memories of their own of their mother. All that they have gathered about their mom has been stories passed down from their older siblings. She shared that this was the first picture she ever saw of her mom smiling, and it brought tears to her eyes. There is nothing that can fill the void of losing a parent so young, but a picture of both of her parents smiling was the next best thing for my aunt. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but this picture left us speechless.

It was a nice surprise to discover that photo that day. Especially with so much change happening, it’s nice to get those signs from the other side that they’re still around. Or at the very least, a reminder of the people that started it all. Sometimes discovering a photo that you never knew existed could really move you in ways that are unexplainable. For me, the smiling photograph filled my heart in many ways.

Somewhere Deep in Tatay’s Memory

This is story 6 of 9 of my Tatay’s Series. This is my way of honoring Tatay’s life and legacy. It wouldn’t be right if I DIDN’T give him his own series and avoided writing about his passing all together. But I’m also aware that this is something I need to do for myself – to put my grief, anger, and emotions all out on the table, instead of distracting myself with work and other things to avoid the reality that he’s gone.” -Marinelle, LoveYourzStory

This might be weird to some, but sometimes I think of what my life will be like when I’m an old grandma. What kind of life would I have lived? What things have changed? Who are the people closest to me? What accomplishments did I make in life? What lessons have I learned? Will I still be able to remember and recall my past? And as I witnessed Tatay’s mind start to drift further and further from the present day, I started to put myself in his shoes. I wondered what he was thinking, who he still remembered vividly, and what memories played in his mind. Visiting Tatay every Sunday was like a gamble. Was he going to be aware of who we were and what time frame it was, or was he going to ask for people who have already passed on a long time ago? It made me wonder…

Where do people’s minds go when they get older? What memories stick out to them the most and why?

I remember my Uncle Cris sharing that when Tatay first came to America, he hated it and wanted to go back to the Philippines. I wondered how hard it must’ve been to leave his home and family in the Philippines to reunite with his children and in-laws in America. Out of all his siblings, Tatay was the only one who resided in America. He must have felt so torn – feeling homesick being away from the place where he grew up, leaving behind his siblings and all of his extended family, but also feeling “at home” reuniting with all of his children after 7 long years apart. All I know is, I’m grateful that he decided to call the Bay Area his home and vacation to the Philippines every so often, instead of the other way around. Deep down he probably knew that this was a sacrifice he had to make for the future generations to come.

One of Tatay’s last wishes was to be back in the Philippines. But because of a volcano eruption and COVID following not too long after, we were unable to do that for him. Tatay was known for his flip floppiness when it came to where he wanted to permanently reside. There have been a couple of times where he swore up and down that he was going to stay in the Philippines, but with time he always came back. It seemed like wherever he was, Philippines or the US, he always wanted to go back to the other country eventually. His children would take his decisions with a grain of salt because they knew their father too well – he was always changing his mind. Give him a month or 2 in the Philippines and he’ll be ready to willingly come back to the US, complaining about the weather when it gets too hot. Give him a couple of months to settle back into the US and he’s already requesting his next trip back to the Philippines. That was Tatay, he called both places home.

Pre-pandemic and pre-volcano eruption, Tatay wouldn’t back down with voicing his desires to go back to the Philippines. I truly believe that he believed he would spend his remaining days on Earth in Batangas. He was so adamant. By this time, 2019-ish, it was well over a couple of years since Tatay’s last trip to the Philippines. With his old age, he just couldn’t handle the 15+ hours on a plane. But he was persistent. My aunts finally decided to give him what he wanted, a 1 way ticket to the Philippines – not because they believed he was going to stay there permanently, but because they knew that with time he would want to come back home to the US. They were just unsure of how much time it would actually take this time around for him to come back. So they bought him a 1 way ticket there and planned on a return flight with a date that was to be determined. I can only imagine what that might’ve felt like to finally get your wish to return back to Batangas, and then be told that you no longer could go. The volcano eruption delayed it, but they still planned on rescheduling. When the pandemic happened, there was just no way. At one point during the pandemic my cousin tried to get Tatay dual citizenship. It was the only way he could travel to the Philippines during these times – but he was denied.

Tatay couldn’t make sense of it all. Why couldn’t he go?! Tatay took every opportunity he could to bring up wanting to go back to the Philippines throughout the pandemic. And as his memory started to teeter-totter back and forth between present day and the past, the Philippines became a regular topic for him. Some days he would think that we were friends visiting from another part of the Philippines, other days he’d be asking my dad when he was going back to the Philippines, and other times he would ask on repeat why / when can he go back. My dad and Tita would avoid talking about the Philippines or anyone going to the Philippines in front of Tatay. The topic alone could set him off into a question frenzy. He wanted to go home so bad. His mind was constantly thinking about the Philippines, so it only made sense that he talked about it all the time and sometimes believed that he was there.

I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it felt like a blow to the heart when he could no longer recognize who we were. But Tita would share what Tatay would ask and say on a day to day basis. A lot of the time, he still believed that he was living with us. The time frame he was thinking of would have me and my sisters as little kids. He would ask Tita where my dad was, where my mom was, where my sisters and I were sleeping, and when he’s going back to his house, our house. Tita would have to remind him that he has his own house and we live separately. I wondered what about this time frame stuck out to him. Tatay lived with us for about 6 years, and that is a very short amount of time in his very long life. Regardless, it made me feel a little better to know that we were still somewhere in his memory, even if it was more than 20 years dated.

Tita would also tell us stories about Tatay asking for my dad’s mom. She died during childbirth over 50 years ago. He would call for my dad’s mom in the middle of the night. “Conching,” was the nickname he called my grandma. At times he would ask Tita where his wife was and why does she keep leaving. Tita would simply tell him that she was his wife. “You look different,” he would tell her. Tita would have to remind Tatay that my dad’s mother died over 50 years ago and she’s his wife. Tatay and Tita were married for over 20 years. But that didn’t stop him from talking about my Nanay Conching. So many decades have passed, but his memory of my grandma was still there. He never forgot her.

One Sunday Tita shared with us that Tatay woke up in the middle of the night and called her by my grandma’s name, Conching. He asked if she was awake and she told him she was, but she wasn’t who he thought she was – she wasn’t Conching. Tatay proceeded to tell Tita that he had a dream that there was a lot of people telling him to go with them and sit in a chair with them. Tita tried to make light of it and advised him not to go with the people in his dream because it’s a pandemic. Of course we all thought about the Filipino superstition – when you have dreams of people who have passed on and they’re telling you to come with them, you will pass away in your sleep if you choose to follow them. There would be other times where Tatay would ask for random people that he wouldn’t bring up regularly in the past. But it so happened to be that everyone he was randomly asking for had passed away for some time.

There was another dream he shared with Tita, who later told all of us. In his dream, he saw my Nanay Conching. They were at their old house in the Philippines and she had prepared a lot of food. A lot of people were at their house for some type of party. My aunt, who was 2 years old when my grandma died, desperately tried to get answers from Tatay. “How do you know it was my mom? Did she say it was her?” She asked in Tagalog. He said no, she didn’t introduce herself, but he knew it was her. My aunt continued, “If you see her again, ask her how is Merlinda. Ask if she’s big now.” Merlinda passed away with my grandma. She was a stillborn birth. Tatay seemed to be a little uncomfortable with what my aunt was saying and his expression looked a little sad.

As Tatay’s memory began to fade in and out, it brought me a great sense of comfort knowing that he still remembered my Nanay Conching. She has been gone for 55+ years, and he was still calling out for her in the middle of the night. I’d like to believe that those were not just dreams he was having of her, but signs from the other side to let him know that once he passed on, he would be welcomed in by familiar faces. Even though Tatay’s memory went back and forth between the present day and the past, he always spoke of people and places that meant the most to him. I wondered if his life was playing like a reel in his head – reflecting, remembering, reliving – like a movie.

I guess I’ll never really know how Tatay’s memory was working as he neared the end of his life. I just know that at times it made me sad to know that his memory was all over the place. But he brought up so many different people, places, and reminisced on different parts of his life. It just reminded me that he lived such a long life filled with so many memories that of course his inner RAM was getting all jumbled up. It had 98 years to account for!

The day after his birthday, we all visited him again. He was weak, but still managed to give me a smile when I walked into his room. “Hiiiiii Tataaayyyyy!!” I said in my usual tone. “That’s the first time I saw him smile like that!” My Auntie Salvie said. I secretly hoped that he smiled because somewhere in his memory, he remembered me.

The Picture Hoarder

As a kid, I was never into video games like my sisters were. They had their own Nintendo DS, but I never cared for one. I was more into TV shows, talking on the house phone with my friends, drawing fake Myspace’s for my Bratz dolls (yes, you read that right), and taking pictures. Back in the day it was a ritual to bring a disposable camera (holy shit, that makes me feel old. Haha) to school events. It was especially a must to bring a camera to the last day of school. I brought a disposable camera every last day of school since the third grade. The last day of school always gave me mixed emotions. I was happy to be out of school and on summer break, but at the same time I was sad that I wouldn’t be seeing my friends as often, because some even moved away. Also, the next school year didn’t guarantee that my friend group would be put in the same class. I was happy to have my camera to take pictures in the present moment of all the fun, friends, and memories.

I loved to document all of my last days of school, family parties, field trips, and special events. Getting my pictures developed at Costco was one of my highlights for the summer. Especially with the disposable cameras – you just never know how the pictures are going to turn out. Then in the 7th or 8th grade, I invested in a digital camera. I saved up all of my money for this purchase, and was so excited to take it to school and family events. I’ve always been a photo hoarder, but getting the camera really stepped up my game. It gave me the opportunity to not only have the pictures as hard copies, but digital copies as well. I was so hyped to buy SD cards for my camera to make sure that I always had them backed up online, and on a chip. Deleting photos was really hard for me, and on an 8th grader salary, buying SD cards got pricey. But I did it anyways because I refused to delete memories even if they were uploaded online.

Now as an adult, my obsession with saving pictures is basically the same – but grew as technology got better. My partner doesn’t get why I feel the need to keep pictures of basically the same thing from different angles. I’m that friend that wants more than 1 picture from different angles and heights, but will still keep them all regardless. I’ve gone to the extent of getting a 200 GB SD card for my phone, but also backing everything up on the computer and on my phone that I pay for yearly for storage. That’s basically thousands of photos and videos saved on 3 different platforms – and I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I have had my fair share of files being deleted, phone being stolen, and XYZ that has resulted in me losing my pictures. When it’s time to get a new phone, I always try to make sure that nothing will get deleted. That’s honestly one of my worst fears because my photos mean so much to me.

I love pictures – even if I’m not in them. I’m an extremely sentimental person, and even at a young age I’ve felt the need to preserve and remember memories and certain points in my life. Subconsciously, I am keeping all of my pictures because I know that there will be a time where I look back and some people won’t be with me anymore, or times have changed, or people have moved away. Pictures make me super happy to look back on, but can also give me an overwhelming feeling of sadness, knowing I can never go back to those moments and relive it with the people in the pictures. It’s like reliving parts of my life, or seeing my life from my point of view. When moments pass, all we have are memories and pictures.

I guess in a way, I fear that I will forget. That’s why I find it hard to delete pictures that ultimately have no importance. Like a picture of the sky, or a sign, or my food, all of these things that I can do without on my backup system that would clear a lot of room on my $29.99 a year for 200 GB. But I love getting little notifications letting me see what I did on that day 4 years ago, and so forth, even if it is random everyday mundane things. I’m so busy pushing forward, trying to get to the next goal, next stage in my life, that looking back on what was is comforting. It’s nice to live in the moment, but also have something to look back on, like a little souvenir from that occasion.

Especially with my 97 year old Tatay, pictures are important. Pre-COVID, my extended family would visit and have dinner at Tatay’s every other Sunday. But since COVID, we have yet to have another family gathering in his house, especially since he is high risk. Stopping these visits really took a toll on his memory and health. When my family and I stop by to say hi for less than 5 minutes, he doesn’t remember us with masks on. Recently, we’ve been showing him photos of him and us, or him and his other grandchildren, in hopes that it will trigger some memory. I’m happy to dig through my collection and hope to find something that will get him to remember us.

I’m notorious for saving close to every picture I take on my camera roll to my SD card and then backing them up to my cloud. I am fully aware and admit that I am a memory hoarder. It’s such a mix of emotions, knowing that you’re living in the moment and documenting what is happening right then and there. And then weeks, months, years down the road you forget about that memory until you come across those photos again. And you relive those moments, remembering the little things, down to your outfit, how those shoes were bothering you because you were just breaking them in, what food you were eating, how you got there because you took a picture in your Uber, and all these little details that would’ve been forgotten. And for a moment, you’re taken back to that time. I love getting those little reminders like, “8 years ago on this day you were doing this…” It gives me a second to pause, and appreciate the memories I made and documented with the people I was closest to at the time. I’m very sentimental in that way. And sometimes I picture myself as an old woman, when I’m about Tatay’s age, looking through all the pictures that I’ve backed up over the years, remembering all the good times, all the people that were a part of my life, reminiscing and trying to remember the life I lived.