Every year, when I return for two weeks to Manila, the overwhelming, overcrowded city where my parents grew up and where I went to high school, the most important meal of the day, the one I plan my whole day around, is lunch.
This is saying a lot. Filipinos eat many meals a day. We have a word, merienda, for the meals in between meals.
But the reason I love lunch isn't because of the food, though the food — a beef stew called nilaga, maybe, and rice, always rice — is good. It's because of my lunch companion: my 95-year-old grandfather, Ramon E. Reyes. I call him Lolo.
Lolo first worked for his father, who ran a small but thriving chain of hardware stores, but after learning — the hard way — that he didn't have a knack for business, he became a professor of chemical and mechanical engineering. He has a twinkle in his eye that doesn't translate in photographs. And he loves to eat.
Every day before noon, I ride north from Makati, where I stay with my aunt, to Mandaluyong, where Lolo lives with my uncle and whichever of his nine children are visiting at the moment. It's a 15-minute drive without traffic, but there's always traffic — this is Manila. Timing is important here. I don't want to miss the moment when he sits down for lunch, when his caregivers help him out of bed and into his chair at the dining table. Lolo has his own schedule, and it does not revolve around me.
I started having lunch with Lolo four years ago, when I first returned to the Philippines after a seven-year break. It was a decision driven largely by my grandparents. They were old. I wanted to see them, ask about their lives. I realized I didn't know anything. Not their parents' names or where they grew up, not what they thought about their children raising families in countries so far away. I wanted to make up for all those years I never thought to try to connect with them.
On that first trip, I realized it wasn't going to be easy. That year — the year before they died — neither of my grandmothers could answer my questions: one was bedridden and barely said a word; the other, Lolo's wife, was deep in the throes of a dementia that had softened her rough edges but made it impossible for her to have a conversation.
Lolo, though. Lolo could talk to me, but it would have to be over lunch.
Lunch is when he's alert and wearing his hearing aids, and, crucially, focused on another task because, out of deference and respect, I would never ask him to get out of bed just to see me.
Though it was still difficult to interview Lolo — it often seemed my English made it doubly hard for him to hear me — we did it. I made recordings and took notes. I hung on his every word, each one painstaking and slow, each one a victory. It was over lunch that I learned Lolo never played any sports — he says he was afraid of balls — and that his grandmother Catalina Lim gave him the nickname "Moyek," after her father, Lim Mao Yek, whom she thought he resembled as a baby. Catalina lived until she was 100, he told me. I think that bodes well for Lolo. So does he.
But there were also things I learned over lunch that I never would have known to ask.
Like how Lolo used to cut up siling labuyo — a small and fiery Filipino chili pepper that I adore and ask for at every meal in the Philippines — and add it to his coffee. That he loves chico, a cloyingly sweet Filipino fruit, chicharron — and apple pie from McDonald's. That he likes his bites just so: equal amounts of rice, meat, vegetables. I smile when he asks his caregiver for more tempura or less rice on his spoon, because I am a believer in the perfect bite, too.
The thing is, they feed Lolo through a tube before his meals, so, technically, he doesn't need to eat. For him, eating is purely for pleasure, for ceremony. And it's not so different from me — I've usually had a heavy Filipino breakfast with my aunt and uncle right before I go to see him.
Nowadays, when I visit for lunch, Lolo and I don't need to talk as much. It's not like those early days when I was on a mission to learn his life story, always ready with my next question. Our relationship has grown into something quieter, more comfortable.
It's what he can't express in words that I treasure most.