Simple joys

For almost a decade after the hanging of the Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion in Singapore, I stopped going there. I couldn’t forget the insensitivity and arrogance that marked the handling of her final moments. But time heals all wounds. And—irony of all ironies—my youngest daughter decided to study, work, and raise a family there.

These days, I need only the slightest excuse to come for a visit. I have many old friends in this prosperous and well-managed city-state.  More importantly, this is where my youngest grandchild, the lovely boy I called “X” (for Xavier) when he was born, lives with his parents. Tomorrow, the 24th of March, X turns two, and my wife and I flew in last Friday to spend a precious weekend with him.

I guess it’s what retired grandparents do when they are not busy patrolling the malls, or taking naps in movie houses, or fussing over the mosquitoes in their gardens. Anything to ward off that torpid feeling of being left behind by a world that is no longer yours.

I plead guilty to the mild reproach that the 14th-century Buddhist priest and poet Kenko (Essays in Idleness) addresses to a man past his prime: “In his sunset years he dotes on his grandchildren, and prays for long life so that he may see them prosper.” I do want to see my grandchildren succeed in life, but I do not necessarily equate that with material prosperity.  My simple hope is that they grow up to become fine specimens of humanity—sensitive to the beauty of things, useful to their society, generous, creative, and free.

The great thing about being a grandparent is not just that you can enjoy your grandchildren when they are in a good mood and promptly hand them back to their parents when they begin to be restless. The real joy, for me, lies in being able to watch them grow and not feel the urge to shape or direct that growth—because you are certain their parents are already doing that. Released from the obligation to intervene, you find yourself simply marveling at the way the human species has evolved, and how differently the children of every generation think.

I was only five when I entered Grade 1 in a public school, and people thought that was too early. I feel the same way about Xavier. I’m not entirely sure that he’s old enough to gain anything from attending a preschool whose daily program follows a structured curriculum. I saw the weekly report of his teacher in subjects like “fun with languages,” vocabulary, numeracy, “gourmet moments,” “inquiry moments,” basic courtesy, singing and reading, and creative art and craft—and for a moment I thought it was a graduate program.

The teacher said that, on his first week at school, Xavier would cup his ears with his hands during Mandarin lessons. His mother had to talk to him not to do that. I assured her that it was just the little boy’s way of protesting sensory overload. For, indeed, until a language begins to make sense to him, it is merely noise.

Yet, so pliant is the human brain that, in due time, it adjusts to almost any cognitive demand. And what I am seeing from casual observations of my three grandchildren is the cumulative wiring of a complex brain that is equipped for navigation in a globalized world.

I have previously written (with apologies to readers who may find such columns indulgent) about my granddaughter Jacinta, who, when she was two, hardly spoke a word. I had begun to worry that she might be suffering from a linguistic disability. But, lo and behold, once she discovered the power of words, she began to replace the lyrics of children’s songs with her own. At three, she could read and write whole sentences, and use these as captions for her elaborate drawings. At four, she began recording her own songs in her father’s smartphone.

But readers of my column would probably remember the many times I wrote about Julia, the oldest of our grandchildren. Now 13 and about to enter high school, she is articulate and artistic. Like most kids her age, she spends a lot of time on the computer. She watches animé and draws Manga-like characters that she casually shares with others in a website called “Deviant Art.” She adores Sherlock Holmes and loves to deploy her analytical skills in class debates. Her self-confidence is as impressive as her command of English (something I rue, because her Filipino is not half as good).

But there is a charming nonchalance about her that I didn’t quite expect in children of her age. She shows no interest in clothes, shoes, or material things. Yet she cried when her mother bought her an iPad. She hugged and kissed me when I came home from Tokyo recently laden with memorabilia from her favorite animé characters. She could not believe that I would go out of my way to look for this kind of stuff.  But, noting how fascinated she had become with the Japanese language itself, I took her “bilin” (wish list) seriously.

She came up to me the other day, and from out of the blue, she asked: “Lolo, what do parents expect from their children?” Her question startled me, and it took me a while to compose an answer. “Nothing for themselves, really,” I found myself saying. “I guess it is reward enough for parents to see that they are able to give their children every opportunity to develop their brains and talents. My parents did this for us; I expect my children to do this for their own children. I’d like to see you grow up into a fine person who is happy with herself, useful not just to her family but to other people as well, not just to her own country, but to all of humanity.”