Yesterday my grandmother, Gilda Cordero-Fernando (dad’s mom), opened her exhibit Same Difference: Ganon pa din ang Diperensya, at Silverlens Galleries in Makati.
She had her first art exhibit when she was 75. She said it would be her first and last, being a late-blooming artist and all. Numerous other exhibits followed, each with paintings jumping at you with some undeniable creative life force. My grandmother turned 85 last month, and she’s still at it.
A late bloomer is the last thing I would use to describe Lola Mad because, to me, she is ageless. She looks younger now than she did 20 years ago. People who know her can attest that this is not an exaggeration. She dresses way cooler than people my age. Her attitude towards life is impressive. She has seen and experienced a lot, yet she never fails to see beauty and potential in people and things like she is setting eyes on them for the first time.
She always greeted anyone who walked through the doors of her home, even if unannounced, with so much enthusiasm, as if you were just the person she had been waiting for all day. I realized later on that, more than enthusiasm, she greeted visitors with love. She would make you get comfortable in her sitting area decked with velvet and zebra-print pillows. Then she would watch and listen, genuinely listen, to everything you had to say before she offered you a cup of hot chocolate with fresh pinipig. When it was time to say goodbye, she would give you a big grandma kiss and a hug so tight as if to say, “thank you for coming to see me. Come back soon.”
Elizabeth Lolarga, in her Inquirer article “The ‘enabler’ paints again” explained Lola Mad’s gift perfectly:
“One of her best gifts (rare to find in other persons, no matter how especially endowed by God with gifts of creativity) is her ability to focus her being on you, beam at you as though you were the most important person seated across or beside her. That feeling she gives you enables you to feel that you are special and that the work you do is sincerely appreciated. Simply put, you emerge from her presence assured that what you are, what you say, what you do are all important.”
I looked at photos on Facebook from Lola Mad’s exhibit opening. I’ve been asked many times what I miss most being away from home. I miss everything those photos represent—Lola Mad, her art, my family, and the craziness and absurdity that comes with them.
In her invitation, she told guests, “If you plan to be present on opening night, please dress in something you wouldn’t dare wear elsewhere. Masaya! Fair warning: All exhibits only serve bird food. Just go to McDo later.”
The thing is, I don’t think there is anything Lola Mad could have worn to her exhibit opening that she wouldn’t dare wear elsewhere. And I’m sure anyone who walked in the doors of Silverlens that evening, whether in costume or not, was greeted by Lola Mad with love, so much love like they were exactly who she was waiting for all night.
I must admit, it was confusing growing up with GCF as a grandma. I looked at everyone else’s grandmothers and they all seemed, well, grandmother-ish. The sit-in-a-rocking-chair-and-knit type. My classmates would go to school on Mondays with stories about how they went to church with their grandparents and ate some elaborate lunch prepared by their grandmothers over the weekend. No one else admitted to having their grandma teach them how to draw or meditate, make them drink green juice, or take them secondhand clothes and furniture shopping. No one else’s grandma dressed them up in refurbished sayas or wrote stories about aswangs and other mythical creatures. Most confusing of all, no one else’s grandmother claimed to be ET (yes, extraterrestrial, like an alien)—a being not of this planet but having a momentary human experience on earth.
As a young child, you’re like, yeah that’s cool. As a teenager, you’re like, whut?
As I got older, I realized Lola Mad was special not because she wasn’t like any other grandma. Dressing in fisherman’s pants and red leather boots and having a Palanca Award for literature did not make her better than other lolas. Besides, what is the measure of better anyway? She is special because she is so fearlessly herself, and her presence inspires you to also express yourself in the best, most fearless way you can.
Lola Mad was diagnosed with breast cancer a month ago. She chose to do away with any surgery or treatment. It’s tough being so far away from loved ones. I spent a good part of last night going through Facebook photos of the exhibit posted by relatives and friends. I haven’t seen Lola Mad since January, but based on yesterday’s photos and recent articles she has written, she is showing no signs of slowing down.
Last night, I dreamt I was in Lola Mad’s home in Quezon City. The walls of the house, which are decked with paintings and artwork, were bare. Even her room was stripped of everything one thought to be “so GCF.” The colored glass bottles and even her urn was gone. I stood in the corridor, peeked into the dining and living room area, and saw an amazing display of colored lights. It looked like light dancing behind stained glass. I didn’t see Lola Mad in my dream, but I knew she was somewhere behind the dancing lights.
The dream didn’t make me feel sad. On the contrary, I woke up feeling comforted. The dream was a reminder that we aren’t the work we produce, the objects we collect, or the clothes we wear. When we are stripped of material possessions, achievements, labels, there’s still something that remains. And it’s precisely that thing, that unchanging portion of ourselves which we must strive to fearlessly express.