AVERNES, France—It must have been a day in July 1976. My three-year-old sister Jenni was in the kitchen in our home in Santa Ana, Manila, having a fit. I was nine. Our brother, Kuya Nonoy, was 12.
We were with our mother in the living room, waiting for Jenni’s temper tantrum to pass. She was on the floor, kicking and screaming. And then there was silence, so sudden that we all decided to investigate. We found Jenni looking startled and colorless. Lolo Pulong, we were made to understand, was there earlier, standing in front of her, inviting her to go with him. Our mother almost immediately started crying, and ordered Jenni to never, ever accept his invitation should he appear again.
Lolo Pulong, our mother’s uncle, had died two months ago, in May.
Jenni swears by her claim to this day. She says Lolo Pulong was wearing a white T-shirt and his usual pajama pants. And yes, he was asking her to go with him.
That was how I remember him mostly, too—daintily neat in pajamas even during the day. I’d never known him when he wasn’t an old man. But I saw the young Lolo Pulong in a gallery of blown-up photos in his room then. He was suffused with effortless elegance in female ensembles—dresses, native costumes, tapis.
Crispulo Trinidad Luna always described himself as having a pusong babae (woman’s heart). I don’t have scholarly, theoretical confidence on how to properly call my grandfather’s identity. I’ve always seen him according to his self-understanding as a woman-hearted being.
My memories of Lolo Pulong could be distinctive and blurry both. I was only nine years old when he died—a lifetime ago. I’m glad Mother and I told what we remembered of him to J. Neil Garcia, who wrote a brilliant paper about him in 1998. Garcia’s “tribute” provides a historical and sociological context and theories to understand and appreciate this “seemingly small and insignificant life.” He is on the cover of Garcia’s book, “Performing the Self: Occasional Prose,” which was published in 2003. Two years ago, his photo once again appeared in another book, “More Tomboy, More Bakla Than We Admit: Insights into Sexual and Gender Diversity in Philippine Culture, History, and Politics,” edited by Mark Blasius and Richard T. Chu.
Why do I need to dredge up stories again, to remember Lolo Pulong aloud? It’s not just because it’s Pride Month. Mother used to say that we find out more about ourselves from stories, and we grew up listening to her stories about her parents, Lola Miguela (Lolo Pulong’s sister) and Lolo Sergio. Jenni’s facility with languages comes from Lola Gelay, she’d tell us. Lolo Sergio was a healer who read a lot on esoteric subjects. They became powerful presences in our lives despite their absence.
But Lolo Pulong (grandmother and grandfather both!) was the closest to the idea of an ancestor that I could get to. After all, it was Lolo Pulong who lived with us, who loved us, who knew us. I’m still learning from him, from them, who’ve gone but not left.
I remember his gnarled hands. Their movements were always tasteful, feminine, and assiduous even if he was just preparing his favorite palitaw. Every year on his birthday in June, he’d prepare it, inviting us to help. We rolled portions of the glutinous rice flour dough in the palm of our hands into balls, then flattened them into tongue-like forms. He forgave us the imperfect shapes as long as our hands were thoroughly clean.
We weren’t anymore depending on his homemaking skills at that point—he was the ultimate homemaker, according to my mother—but I remember him insisting on helping with the cooking (especially rice, before the rice cooker), tidying, ironing. I was already playing teacher as early as five years old and wasn’t actively encouraged to help around the house growing up. Mother left me to my reading, to my solitude. But I felt her and Lolo Pulong’s delight in making a home for all of us. I realize belatedly that it was a seed that grew inside me, this joy in fashioning a home, my own dwelling.
We didn’t have any family discussion about Lolo’s sexual identity, whether with him or behind his back. We didn’t have any conversation among us children and cousins with hints of disrespect or contempt for him. But we certainly weren’t precious about it, too. We didn’t question something we grew up experiencing as normal and natural. He wasn’t crucified by his gayness in the family and among friends.
Did he have to come out to his parents, siblings and friends when he was young? I don’t know. Outside, in the bigger community, was he discriminated against? Again, I don’t know. I don’t remember ever seeing him with stooped back or lowered head in front of anyone.
He was unflinching about showing us young children who he was. Consider those extraordinary photos which had always been on display on the walls of his room so that it never occurred to any of us to ask why he was wearing some of those costumes, for example. He didn’t dye his silvering hair but he’d put on his brows with a pencil in front of us. It was the most graceful thing possible in my child’s eye.
There were days when Lolo Pulong would sit just outside our living room door, always in his pajamas, surrounded by a gaggle of much younger, gossipy gay friends. Even as a very young child, I felt exceedingly uplifted to be in the presence of this bunch who ate, told stories, and laughed “like there was no tomorrow,” as my Lolo would say. They were surely being naughty: I remember how he would ask them to keep it down.
Now, as an older woman ruminating on my Lolo Pulong’s life with my own abiding and special friendships with gay men (Lolo would love them, for sure!), perhaps I was just too young to read between the lines of their undisclosed pain and sorrow?
My Lolo didn’t seem to be broken, not in any major way. He didn’t become querulous in his old age. What did he do when he was feeling old and ordinary and unsure of himself? I didn’t notice it as a child but, looking back, I recall him very often solitary. Lonely, maybe? He was only in his 70s but everyone around him was much younger. His siblings were all dead by then. He went to see his niece in Quezon City every so often and sometimes had friends visiting, but that was the extent of his social life.
What was he thinking after subsiding in solitude, with his constant companion, a La Yebana cigar? Did he still think about Juan, his one true love? How did he learn how to live again after Juan’s death?
For all I know, he was really happy, and, I hope, proud for living his truth fearlessly and gracefully. My dear Lolo Pulong, thank you. My childhood would have been overwhelmingly prosaic if I didn’t have you. I’m still telling stories about you and still learning about myself. Salamat.