“Lolo Ding” at 80

I didn’t think he could do it or would survive it.  But the pledge he made to each of his eight grandchildren – that he would take every one of them out on a date to a restaurant or hotel of their choice as a high school graduation gift – turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and wisest projects he has ever embarked upon.  The bigger surprise, however, was on his guests, his grandchildren, whose expectations about their “Lolo Ding” had been shaped by the aura of distant formality and reserve that had always seemed to shroud their illustrious grandfather.

Those introductory dates dissolved all their fears.  They actually found him to be a most engaging date, an easy conversationalist, and a sensitive confidante whom they could trust with their most intimate secrets.  They discovered that they could irreverently banter and have fun with him.  The older ones who were the first to go out with him were later filled with shame for their own silly apprehensions.  How could they have thought of this charming and accessible man as a fearsome autocrat?  Check him out, they told their younger siblings.

The youngest and the last to graduate did check him out.  When asked which restaurant or hotel she fancied, she said “Shangri-La”, then mischievously added “Mactan”, expecting her “Lolo” to blink and to bargain for Makati.  But he just smiled and said “I’ll book our flights.” So he did, totally unmindful that in this age of malice, traveling with a teenage granddaughter for a weekend in a resort hotel could easily be misconstrued.

Those first dates led to further outings.  One grandson took a liking for beer, and so his “Lolo Ding” offered to take him to bars where they could sample the finest imported beers.  They talked about beers and wines, history and politics, the world, the nation, and the family.  But he would not talk about these things unless you brought them up; he allowed his grandchildren to enjoy themselves and not be constrained by his reputation for serious conversation.

In cold weather, he would often be bothered by a bad back, which punished him and forced him to use a cane when he had to walk long stretches.  But I remember that in spite of this, he took his grandchildren to “Enchanted Kingdom” one Christmas eve, treating them to all the rides, games, and shows they could take until they dropped from exhaustion.  Then he brought them to a fine restaurant to cap the day.  No one heard him complain or show any impatience.

The bond that he forged with his grandchildren on these occasions later gave him sufficient reason to embark on a bigger project: to travel with them to distant places.  He wanted them to see the world, to acquire an international perspective, to encounter other cultures before they would settle down on their own.  So with “Dada Ming”, his wife and their grandmother, who had always taken on the heroic role of mediatrix of the family, he went on an annual tour with one pair of grandchildren each time, until all of them have had their turn.  They saw the world and, in the process, discovered one another.  It was an experiment that I wish I would have the chance to try with my own grandchildren.

For reasons that exercised the imagination of Freud, it has always seemed much easier to make friends with one’s grandchildren than with one’s own children.  I have traveled with my son and one of my daughters on separate occasions.  I had fun just being with them, or simply watching them enjoy themselves.  But I now realize that with your own children, there is always that barrier of authority that interferes with friendship.  On such one-on-one occasions, even my best efforts at making innocent conversation end up awkwardly as intrusive inquisitions about studies, plans, and friends.  Parents try too hard.  And children develop a defensiveness that prods them to screen their feelings and their thoughts whenever they are in the presence of their parents.

Such barriers are part of the contingencies of parenthood, but they need not be permanent.  Of course, in some cases, they may harden into battle zones, in which the ugly spectacle of children suing parents over property and vice-versa may be played out.  But in our benign culture, parents usually become their children’s friends in the end. The residues of awkward and strained relationships from the past finally evaporate in the effortless affection that our parents shower upon our own children.   In a way, our children re-introduce our parents to us.

The other week, my daughter came home with a beautiful tennis racket, the last of her “Lolo Ding’s” prized possessions.  He must have given her already 3 or 4 such rackets.  He would also give her tips on how to hold a particular racket and how to take care of it.  I have heard my daughter talk to him as if he were just her “Kuya”.  He was very pleased that one of his grandchildren could find some use for his toys now that he no longer plays because of the encumbrance of daily dialysis.

March 10 was a special day for “Lolo Ding”.  He turned 80, more than half a century older than the oldest of his grandchildren.  But the gap in age does not deter him from inquiring into the passions of his grandchildren or from listening to their most personal problems. His conversations with them are among his moments of “private bliss” – that state, says Richard Rorty, when “all doubts are stilled, and there is no wish to argue.”

Those who know him only by his books and by his newspaper columns would probably find all this unthinkable.  But in no other light do his grandchildren see Renato Constantino.


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