Lola was more than ninety years old. She was a girl during the war. She lived through countless protests, and lockdowns, and massacres, and all sorts of things her family had only seen in pictures and books. She loved baking cookies for her grandchildren and telling them stories as they munched busily and looked up at her. They all wanted to reach ninety years old.
Now, none of the children could go out. It was too dangerous for Lola. Only Papa was allowed to buy groceries. Mama stayed at the hospital for days on end, and although they could talk to her for a few minutes on Facebook Live, it just wasn’t the same.
Thankfully, Lola kept them busy with her stories. One night after dinner, she had all three children on a circle around her rocking chair. Her third story and almost all the cookies were finished.
The children were spellbound, as usual. Then the youngest, five-year-old Celine, spoke. “Lola,” she said. “How about a story when you were a little girl? Were you ever locked up, like we are right now?”
Lola paused. She looked out the window, and for a moment, it seemed that she would frown. But then she turned to the children and smiled. “Yes,” she replied.
“Tell us, tell us!” begged the children.
“It must’ve been hard!” exclaimed the eldest, Adele, who was ten. “You had no Netflix, no internet. Nothing to keep you entertained indoors. Did you sew all day? Did you bake?”
“Was it the same for the boys as well as girls?” added the only boy, nine-year-old Bowie.
“No, no, no. Definitely, it wasn’t the same for little girls and little boys. They both had it hard. But little girls knew suffering of a different kind.”
Lola’s eyes were far away again. Then she sighed, and she began.
When Lola was a little girl, decades and decades and decades ago, nobody called her “grandmother.” She was Donna to everyone, the eldest girl in a brood of six. She looked like her mother, who died when she was too small to remember her much. Though she had two big brothers, her father would make her do all the chores while the boys trampled about in the farm. It was because she was a girl and had to keep the little ones from hurting themselves.
It was that way for most of Donna’s childhood. She resented her father and envied her brothers. She grew tired of caring for her little siblings. One time, she decided to sneak out into the garden, where her dead mother’s roses still grew. She wanted peace.
Then came a tall man with small eyes and a gun over his dark green suit. Donna was taught from an early age that if she ever saw any of those men around, she had to bow as low as she could, and that was what she did.
What she did not expect was the strong grip in her arm and darkness covering her eyes. When she woke up, she found herself in a bed in a tiny room under what looked like a staircase.
“In your house?” Bowie interrupted. Lola’s stories could be strange, the fun kind of strange, but this seemed to be different.
Lola shook her head and went on.
A lot of scary things happened in the little room under the stairs. Bugs came out of nowhere–disgusting little creatures like centipedes and spiders and cockroaches and rats that bit her bare skin and caused rashes. She would scratch herself until she bled, but the itch wouldn’t go away. She had no way of getting out of the room at night. It was locked from the outside and she gave up easily. She had to sleep there, whether she liked it or not. Whether or not she could.
When she could, she dreamed, and it was always the same dream.
Little Donna was in a rose garden. Except that the roses weren’t trimmed and they were trapped in their own thorns in tall hedges. Massive walls of tangled greenery formed a dizzying maze that led to nowhere, or so it seemed. Donna quickly realized that if she could solve the puzzle in her dream, she would be able to get out of the strange room with bugs. At the end of the maze was freedom.
“Did you solve the maze?” the children asked at the same time.
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” Lola replied with a chuckle.
“I think that’s another story for tomorrow. It’s past your bedtime.”
“But Lola,” protested Adele, “we don’t have school tomorrow.”
“Please, just this once, Lola, PLEASE!” begged Bowie and Celine.
Their grandmother was firm. “But I am tired. It’s quite a long and difficult story and I’d rather tell it all tomorrow. Off to bed you go.”
They all kissed each other. Holding little Celine’s hand, Adele went up the stairs and tried to imagine a little room under her feet.
Bowie followed closely behind his sisters. As he trudged upstairs, he noticed what he had always ignored and taken for granted: pictures on the walls.
His Lola Donna as a model and singer in her twenties and early thirties. As a wife and young mother in her mid-thirties to forties. As a grandmother in her fifties, during the EDSA revolution. Then another picture of her at Adele’s baptism ten years ago.
And Bowie wondered what he would tell his own children, and perhaps grandchildren or great grandchildren, if he lived to be ninety years old. Perhaps by then, cars would fly and people could enter computers.
One thing was for sure, he would be a passer of stories.
The thought of it excited him. He would also tell them about his grandmother–about her stories of engkantos and diwatas, about being on television when it was still black-and-white (he would then have to explain what a television was), and about the little room with bugs where strange dreams happened.
And then, he smiled happily as he skipped up to his room. Like her, he would keep them hanging. He was excited to pass on whatever his Lola Donna would pass on to them the next morning.