When I was little, I would plague my grandma with questions about her life before she was my grandma. Within the few years that I had lived on this earth, it seemed impossible to me that she could have lived so many years and still be there in front of me. I was six at the time when my grandma told me about the Japanese invading her village in the provinces. It was 60 years past at the time, 10 times the amount of time I had been alive. Impossible.
It was even more difficult to imagine my grandma as a young girl. Difficult to imagine the wrinkled skin, which she massaged with Oil of Olay every morning, smoothed over into the face of someone’s anak. Difficult even to imagine a little girl with her name. Delia. It seemed fitting only for my grandma, who embroidered red roses and red “D’s” on white pillowcases, who loved to walk to the flea market until the year her legs turned on her, who stayed overnights because my parents worked graveyard shifts, who slept in between my older brother and me on the shared king bed so we wouldn’t kick each other, who scratched my back until I fell asleep, who walked me to school every morning and packed me lunch and knew my friends’ names and packed extra food when I told her some of them had nothing to eat during breaks. I would close my eyes as she told her stories, trying to imagine her at my age, shrunken through backwards time and smoothed out into a little girl.
The little girl was adopted by her uncle and his wife because her biological parents could not afford another daughter. She was brought to a rice farm and raised with her cousins in the green fields of Quezon’s provinces.
“I was like her,” My grandma said, pointing at the screen when we watched Cinderella. The tall, thin blonde girl was crying on the floor in a torn dress. I imagined my grandma riding in a pumpkin carriage and singing to birds in the morning. How could a pumpkin carriage navigate the deep, mulched rice fields of that yesterday so long ago?
When her mother passed away, her father married another woman who was not kind. My grandma’s stepmother didn’t allow her to go to school with her siblings, and I imagined the little girl who was named Delia and had smooth skin staring out the window at the other little girls who were hurrying by with their books and pencils. My grandma said she practiced spelling with bigas: hard, uncooked rice. And I wondered if she sculpted each single grain into lines and curves that formed letters, or if she flattened a pile of bigas into a canvas and dragged her finger across and made trenches into words.
The Japanese came and the little girl who was Delia ran with her parents who were not her real parents and her siblings who were not her real siblings into the trees. She said they dug holes and hid in them while their village and rice fields were raided. I imagined the people in her village digging and building an elaborate civilization underground, vast torchlit caverns with stores of food and water, where they could hide out the war.
On the backs of discarded wrapping paper I drew mazes of tunnels where the little girl who was Delia would run and play, hidden deep underground in the palace of lupa. Perhaps a small chapel for them to sit and pray and wait for the war to pass the islands by. Perhaps it was a kingdom, she Princess Delia. “Hindi ganun,” She told me later. Not like that.
As I grew older and watched videos of that war in the distant past (growing more distant with each passing day) it became harder and harder to imagine what it was like for that little girl who was Delia who would become my lovely wrinkled grandma who smelled of Oil of Olay and Estee Lauder and who has been gone now for more than 10 years. I’m 24 and have 50 years left until I’m the age she was when she died, and it seems impossible to live so many lives in that short amount of time. Only five decades between who I am now and who Delia was when she left me; and I wonder if there will be a child in my place asking me who I was before I appeared in their lives, wrinkled and worn and lovely, and I wonder what I will tell them.