The female roots of my family tree

This morning, I woke up at my mom’s house. She and I spent an evening out together yesterday — dinner, coffee, a short lecture about the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and then the BNC’s ballet performance of Don Quixote at Place-des-Arts. It was our way of celebrating Mother’s Day (which is actually today here in Canada). With the memories of the previous evening’s performance running through my head, the first thing I experienced this morning as I reflected was a sense of pride.

We’re not Cuban or any other kind of Latin American by any means, but we share the same Iberian passion, heart, and exuberance that the dancers of the BNC displayed last night, and that honestly all Hispanic people display on a daily basis. But seeing it on stage in all the sumptuous finery of classical ballet was a pivotal moment for me, I think. From the music featuring tambourines and castanets and the distinct rhythms of Spanish dances right up to the sheer joy and love of life expressed in the movements of the dancers, Don Quixote put me in touch with a side of my heritage that I’ve never really felt connected to before.

My Spanish heritage is something I don’t often consider — I have always been first and foremost a Canadian, even before I became a citizen, and of course Filipino culture reigned supreme at home — but lately it’s been creeping to the foreground of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot more about my identity, which is probably why I’ve finally started poking into the Spanish and Spanish-influenced chapters of my family history. And, as it turns out, much of what links me to these roots comes from the women of my family.

Although the hot Iberian blood runs on both sides, I know more about my mother’s side of the family than my father’s. The primary factor playing into this imbalance of knowledge is that my mother’s family were all in Canada when I was growing up, including my maternal grandmother who was full to bursting of family history. By marriage she was a Gomez but by birth she was a Garcia, a direct descendant of the Mercado-Alonso union that would become known as the Rizal family, and so the family history is extremely well documented and archived. They were blessed with an abundance of daughters but only two sons, though they’re more well-known of course for the legacy of José Rizal than they are for anything their daughters did.

But that doesn’t mean any of them, or any of the ladies to follow, led boring and insignificant lives. Thanks to my maternal grandmother, whom we referred to as “Lola” in our family, my earliest recollections include stories of the great-grand-women of the family: women whose most formative and defining moments were in harrowing experiences such as world wars and civil uproar; women who, for their time, experienced the privileges of education, personal wealth, and careers — things that we today believe are normal components of the everyday life of a modern woman, but back then were considered to be firmly in the domain of menfolk; women who, in short, have created for my sisters and me an unbroken legacy of strength, grit, and resilience tempered by love, kindness, and faith.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to that kind of family history. Here I am at twenty-six and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life; at any rate, I’m more comfortable with myself and more loving and accepting of who I am now than I ever have been. But although I’ve been down the foundations of my adult life for the last few years when I compare myself to the women of my family tree when they were my age, I always feel like I’m found left for wanting in their presence. But then I remember that you can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty — and the fact of the matter is, my world is very different from the worlds of these ladies, so of course it makes sense that my story is being written at a markedly different pace.

I often wonder (and honestly, worry) if I’ll ever be able to be as strong, poised, gracious, confident, and beautiful as the women of my family before me. Even when I compare myself to my sisters I find myself in a brief panic over the thought that I’ll never be anything remotely like them.

There’s a quote that I’ve seen everywhere on social media today and I’ve been pondering on it while I’ve been preparing to write this, and by putting those thoughts alongside my insecurities in the face of my feminine legacy, I’ve realized something important: it doesn’t matter if my experiences at age twenty-six aren’t quite as earth-shattering and life-changing as those of the women before me, or that I’m nowhere near as well-established in my life and my career as they were at this age.

What truly matters is that the iron-clad strength of their souls that allowed them stand upright in their convictions and the passion that burned in their hearts to fuel their lives was passed on to me, along with many examples of what one may accomplish if one looks life straight in the the eye and never backs down. It doesn’t matter how I do it myself, just that I harness that strength and passion in my own bones and heart, and live life to the fullest as they did…in the best way I know how. That is how I might live up this legacy and embrace this heritage of mine.

And so:

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” 

A place, under the sun, where hearts of olden glory grow young

This past weekend here in Canada was the Victoria Long Weekend.  Unlike most people I know, who skip town in favor of lakeside cottages or beach houses, I stayed in the city.  With my upcoming move to a new apartment fast approaching, most of my spare time is spent sorting through my worldly possessions and packing those of most use and significance into boxes.

However, yesterday I took a break from all of that to go visit my father’s grave with my mother and oldest sister.  His final earthly resting place is in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery (which, as it so happens, is just across the street from the apartment I’ll be living in come the end of June), which is located on the northwest side of Mount Royal.

An old and beautiful cemetery, its sweeping expanse of manicured slopes is populated by countless gravesites.  The cemetery is so old and so huge that there are countless graves that have been left untended for years – decades, even, in some cases.  There are also various sections of the cemetery dedicated to specific cultures, nationalities, and religions, and there are even numerous famous historical figures laid to rest within these grounds.  To get to my father’s, we drive up the winding asphalt from the main gates and make turns at landmark graves – marked by towering marble sculptures too ornate and monumental to be referred to simply as “tombstones” – before driving by the potter’s field adjacent to the section where we laid my father to rest.

When we visit my father’s grave, we clear away encroaching weeds and crabgrass, and always try to leave some kind of bouquet when we depart.  Most of the time, I end up wandering in between the rows of marble markers, gathering daisies and clovers and other field flowers to bring to him – just as I did when I was a little girl.

Yesterday, I noticed for the first time in three years that, two sections over, there stands a long hedge of lilacs.  We had a light purple lilac in the backyard of the house in which I grew up, and the sight of any lilac, regardless of its colour, reminds me of my childhood.  Upon wandering over to the lilac hedge with my sister to pick a few stems to leave on my father’s stone, we discovered a new section of the cemetery:  a field for military veterans.

A monument stands at the top of the field, rising up over rows of granite plaques bearing names, ranks, and regiments.  Yet for all the glory that might lie at rest in this part of the cemetery, it is a lonely and forgotten place. The lilacs in the hedge and the carpeting of deep purple groundcover flowers are the only blooms to be found in this section of the cemetery.  Walking in between the rows of engraved stone markers, we soon saw that one row on the left side of the monument was almost entirely overgrown.

But the turf was surprisingly easy to pull up off the brass markers, and all it took was a sweep of a hand to brush away any remaining dead foliage and dirt.  When we were done bringing these stones back into the sunshine we laid a small spray of lilac on each one before returning to our father’s tombstone to say a decade of the Rosary with our mother.

You can argue that we had no reason to tend to that row of granite markers, because we have no idea who these men and women were.  We are not related to anyone lying in that small section of the cemetery and we probably don’t know anyone who is, either.  In a cemetery full of hundreds, if not thousands, of untended graves, what difference would it make to clear ten small granite plaques?

The thing is that every life leaves in its wake some kind of legacy.  Some legacies touch only a few people and that is by all means significant.  But the legacy of a soldier touches more than just a few lives, and goes beyond immediate family and close friends.  It’s a legacy that impacts entire nations and their future generations…a legacy of freedom and virtue and the goodness of mankind, a legacy of a good life sacrificed for countless others.

As I walked back to my father’s grave I felt a peace and stillness in my heart that I could not explain.  I still don’t know what it means for me, but it was still there when I woke up this morning.  Maybe it’s because I was able to touch a part of Canada’s history in such unlikely circumstances, or maybe it’s because in a beautifully strange and inexplicable way I am still, deep down, a little girl wandering in sunshine as she gathers flowers for her dad and learns how to love and honour all life as he did.

Whatever the case may be, it is indisputable that in lonely corner of a vast cemetery, picking flowers to lay on my father’s grave, I was surprised by joy…and I cannot wait to see what such joy might illuminate in my future.