It isn’t uncommon to have fond memories of your mother or grandmother. We associate them with nurturing qualities that form our core and enable us to go through challenges and hardships. They are our home.
Dr. Carmen Consing La’O, or Mama Nena, my maternal grandmother, passed away last Jan. 24. She was 102.
Mama Nena lived fully. She enjoyed life without restrictions—she drank beer and wine and ate lechon, though she advised us to eat in moderation. She didn’t believe in taking vitamins, but she took care of herself. Even in her twilight years, she would exercise by walking around the house. Her last heavy meal of the day was at 5 p.m.—the merienda during her mahjong. Her dinner would consist of a fruit or a salad. She would relax to the music of Julio Iglesias.
She went to the salon—the same one she went to for decades—once a week. She was vain about her clothes; she had clothes made often as she loved to dress up. She liked to accessorize with jewelry, real or fake. She loved to shop and travel. Her last trip, to Hong Kong, was when she was already 96; she traveled with two of her daughters.
However, Mama Nena was also thrifty. She was practical and lived simply. She was not interested in brands or designers. She invested her money; she was independent and self-sufficient.
Mama Nena was an amazing host. Her house was open to everyone—friends, relatives and balikbayan. She loved entertaining at home.
Perhaps it was her regular mahjong sessions that kept her mind sharp to the end. She read the newspaper every day and watched TV news. She also enjoyed Spanish shows. Up until her death, she would go to the American Women’s Bazaar every month.
Her love and devotion to God was something to emulate. Piety is a bit of an understatement, and perhaps common among women of her generation. But in her case, her love of God translated into service for others, and to see it was amazing for us.
The same devotion to God led her to live a code that meant devotion to her husband until the day he died. She would prepare all his meals and be by his side, to the day he died. Beyond death, she continued to pray for him and visit his grave every week.
My grandmother went to Mass every day and encouraged her family to be faithful to the Lord. For most of her life, she completed the Simbang Gabi every year—on her last Christmas, she was able to attend four Simbang Gabi Masses.
Her devotion to the rest of the family was just as near-sacred. While she had the energy, she fervently prepared and hosted family gatherings in her house in Paco every Sunday, holidays and every birthday of every family member (including in-laws). Any in-law knew that his or her attendance was a pre-condition to marrying into the family.
But her food, home and hospitality didn’t stop with family, far from it. For as long as I can remember, up to recent years, when she still had the energy to stand on her own, she would offer her home, food and her companionship to those in need.
But what I admired most about Mama Nena was her kindness. She never forgot to say thank you. She was compassionate and would send food to doctors, nuns and priests. She was generous to everyone.
Mama Nena was married to Julian La’O, a lawyer and the late patriarch to a lot of people. He was the eldest of 10 siblings—they produced 64 first cousins and over 150 second cousins in my generation.
Mama Nena and my lolo had six children: my mother, Carmen Manese, and her siblings, Ma. Luisa Sison, Corazon Otayza, Julian, Jaime and Margarita Gamboa. They produced 20 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren.
My grandmother was a doctor, although she didn’t get to practice medicine. She helped in the last war.
She was around at the birth of all my four children. And—my grandmother helped me decide whom to marry. Funny, my family didn’t even know about this. One morning, she had me called to ask why I was not seeing Alby (Xerez-Burgos, who would head Landco) anymore. I said we had broken up to give each other more time alone. I said Alby was busy working for his dad and hardly had time to visit me.
She told me, “Alby busy with work and focused—that is a good sign that he will be a good husband and provider. He is hardworking and knows his priorities.
“If your boyfriend is always in your house, not working and always drinking and partying with you, he will be the same even when you are married. You better think twice about it.”
She added, “Go and fix your issues with Alby and make things work out.”