My grandmother got pulled out of school because of her looks. Here’s what she did with her life.
By Dulce Zamora
During Women’s History Month in March, I vowed to feature influential females in my life. The project has involved a lot of reflection, which is why posting stories has taken a lot longer than expected. Never mind. I plan to continue this series, however long it takes, hoping to stir up conversations and appreciation for the often-unexplored female energy around us.
My grandmothers on both sides of the family did not finish school, because they were too beautiful. That’s what relatives said. For years, I did not think about this beyond the emphasis on our female ancestors’ allure. Their beauty was a source of familial pride. Of course, it was nice to know our grannies once turned heads. However, lately, I’ve been wondering: How did their winsome looks shape their lives and those that came after them?
I can’t ask them questions because they’ve passed away. All I can do is rely on memories and reflect on the effect of their existence on mine. I could ask other people, but no one really knows what was inside my grandmothers’ heads. Fortunately, I had quality one-on-one time with each of them. When I was small, I used to visit my paternal grandma on a regular basis at her home in the Philippines. My maternal grandma, on the other hand, was a constant presence in my life until I was nearly 30 years old. After we moved to America, she visited us annually for months-long stays.
My grandmamas were both strong matriarchs at the helm of large families. For women who grew up in a generation that automatically placed men as heads of household, they had enormous influence over their brood. So, I’ve been scratching my head trying to reconcile their strong legacies with their limited lots in life. Let’s unpack this, starting with my paternal grandmother. We’ll talk about my maternal side in another post.
Beauty, Babies, and Bodies
My father’s mother was Apung Tisia (Grandma Tisia), a.k.a. Apu. When Apu was young, she had a lot of admirers, even in elementary school. By the 2nd grade, her parents were so alarmed by the male attention she received that they kept her at home instead of sending her to school. They feared that the boys would take advantage of her. They didn’t want her to marry at an early age. At that time (and, to some extent, even now) females, were considered compromised if caught alone with an unrelated male.
Apu decided to rebel against her parents and eloped at 16 years old with a man she loved. They brought 4 children into the world. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly while their kids were still small. She became a 20-something widow and single mother with scant options to earn a living. Her deceased husband’s relatives recruited a 19-year-old man within the family to marry her so she wouldn’t have to raise the kids alone. That man, her second husband, was my Inkong (grandfather). Apu and Inkong had 8 offspring of their own, one of which was my father.
When I discovered this information, I was shocked. My grandparents’ relationship was the stuff of family lore. When they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, the song “Endless Love” played on loop during the reception video. With such legendary devotion to one other, how could their origin story be so… pragmatic? I had to remind myself that Apu and Inkong lived in a different era. Things were done differently then. I also had to remember that other love stories exist outside of the typical Hollywood narrative. Plus, just because a relationship starts out transactional, it doesn’t mean it can’t end up amorous.
Inkong was a barber whose customers were mostly poor farmers who paid for their haircuts with a portion of their rice harvest. So, cooked rice with a bit of soy sauce was standard fare for the family during mealtimes. Everyone, even the kids, had to hustle for the occasional piece of meat or fish. They grew fruits and vegetables in a small patch of land next to their shack and sold them at the market. They saved some of the produce for their own plates.
Under these conditions, Apu did what she could to care for her offspring, including breastfeeding them for as long as she could. That would perhaps explain the condition of her bosom. When I came over her house as a young child, I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of her breasts when she got dressed. They were long and saggy. I thought that was normal for women. Now, I wonder how she felt about them. Did she lament their mishappened shape? As for me, I miss my youthful chest even though I do not regret breastfeeding my two daughters. I can’t imagine, though, doing it for 12 babies.
I do not bring this up to be salacious. People might think I’m disrespectful for discussing my grandmother’s chest. However, it’s not about her chest.
Anatomy of Family Lore, Dissected
Sometimes we get so caught up in the discomfort of talking about women’s bodies that we miss more important things, like what her body was telling us. Here was a woman who, by all accounts, was a stunner in her youth. How did she feel about being pulled out of school because of her appearance? What did she think about her marriages and the wear and tear of motherhood on her body? Did she regret some of her choices? Did she wish for more options, like the chance to go to school or to make her own money?
Some people may regard these questions as dishonorable to the memory of my grandmother. Others may ask why I am preoccupied with the state of her mind and body. I mean no disrespect. I love my Apu. She was the matriarch of our family, the glue that kept our tight-knit tribe together. She always emphasized the importance of family. Whenever there were arguments within the clan, she always encouraged us to work it out. “We’re family,” she’d say, as if those words explained everything. Indeed, no clarification was needed in our group. We said those words repeatedly to each other over the years to either resolve conflicts or to affirm bonds. Nothing else mattered but family. It did not occur to me until now that, for Apu, family was EVERYTHING, because she did not have much else.
To this day, my family and I speak of Apung Tisia with utmost reverence. She’s regarded as the epitome of dedication, strength, and love. Yet, I keep wondering whether there was a part of her that was ambivalent about her mother incarnate role. Did anyone ever ask her if she was okay? Did they listen? And if she did have feelings outside of complete happiness and contentment, would that make her less of a remarkable person? I don’t think so.
Here’s another thing I remember: Apu regularly chewed betel nut, a mind-altering substance that is fourth in global consumption, after nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. Chewing betel nut has a stimulating effect not unlike drinking 5 to 6 cups of coffee. She must have had quite a buzz! To be fair, betel nut chewing was common practice in Apung Tisia’s day. It is still prevalent today as the World Health Organization estimates that 10-20% of the globe still use it as part of cultural, social, and religious customs. Just like other psychoactive chemicals, betel nuts can be addictive and harmful to health.
I don’t know the extent of Apung Tisia’s relationship to betel nut or why she consumed it, but I do know my relationship to caffeine. I never drank it with any sort of regularity until I became a mother. Now, I find myself often needing the extra pick-me-up to make it through my busy days. Of course this is not a big deal because coffee drinking is a common thing to do. However, would it raise more eyebrows if I drank 5 to 6 cups a day? Perhaps the amount does not matter as much as the factors compelling people to need caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or betel nut in their lives.
Apu passed away many years ago. So, any discussion of health effects are moot. Yet, her legacy looms large in our family. Some of us strive to be as selfless and tolerant as she was, and we pass on this culture of endurance to our children, whether we’re conscious of it or not. I’ve only recently become aware of my inherited traits.
I don’t have any answers. Instead, I have more questions: What legacy will I leave my daughters? Do I want them to become ideal, self-sacrificing women? Do I want them to be a little selfish? On airplane flights, aren’t we instructed to put on our oxygen masks first so we can better tend to others? Imagine how much more we could give others if we were operating at full capacity. If I did have a chance to speak with Apung Tisia, what would she say? Would she want her descendants to follow her lead or would she want us to go beyond what she could do?
Apu was a beautiful young woman. Her attractiveness was an asset and a liability. She received positive attention for her looks. However, because of the fears and values of the times, her pleasing appearance became a barrier to formal education, which could have given her more options in life. When she married and had children, she used what she did have — her strong mind and body — to run the household. She held it all together selflessly and was a pillar of strength for her family, despite poverty and despite other crises of the times we won’t get into here. Yet, it all likely took a toll on her physical and mental wellbeing. She did not complain. Instead, she prayed to God to get her through the tough times. Her faith was her refuge.
Apu is both an inspiration and a tough act to follow. She did the best she could to survive and to lift her family to a higher plain. One of her sons (my father) always said, “If my kids do better than me, then I know there’s progress.” He received that point of view from his mother. Now, I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors with children of my own, wondering where do we go from here? I’m going to spend the rest of my life answering that question.
© April 2023 Windswept Wildflower