The Incredible Story of Lola Ko Sa Pilipinas
(My Grandmother in the Philippines)
by Julie Ellen Fryman (Philippines 2015-17)
This story was originally written down on July 30, 2015, the night that it was told to me, so that I wouldn’t forget how my host grandmother looked when she told me these things or how it was that she came to share it with me. It pains me to think that if just a few decisions had been different – if the family hadn’t volunteered to host a Peace Corps trainee at the last minute or if I had been placed in the next barangay (community) over, I would not have had the privilege to sit with my host mother and grandmother that night and listen to how the family I fell in love with was all made possible through the extreme courage and resiliency of the tiny woman with whom I would watch The Voice: Kids on TV with every night.
Lola (grandmother) Domingo can still see it. As she spoke I watched as her dark, sparkling eyes became blurry and red because at 91 years old, Emilia Acosta Domingo can still vividly see what happened to her family and her country when the Japanese invaded the Philippines during World War II.
April 9, 1942
The Bataan Death March – the forcible transfer of 60,000-80,000 Filipino and American prisoners-of- war
I had asked my host family before about the Bataan Death March and was given a generalized description of the events, but ultimately I was walking blind without any societal context – so tonight I pursued the issue further. We had just finished our meal of the ever-prevalent white fish and rice, and only my host mother, host grandmother, and I remained at the table to discuss our many cultural differences, as we so often did after meals. I decided to ask again, “Tita Nida (Aunt Nida – my remarkable host mother), what actually happened during the Bataan Death March?”
She began to recite the same story she had told the previous night, which was not an unusual practice for the family due to my horrible Tagalog comprehension. She started, as if by habit, “The Japanese soldiers occupied Bataan and there was nothing left for the Filipino people. Even with nothing, people still gave whatever food, shelter, and medicine they could to both the Filipino and American soldiers that were fighting to defend the country.”
Understanding the disconnect, I changed my approach, “Tita, what was the Bataan Death March? Who were marched where and how?”
She began to understand my honest ignorance to the event itself and as such went on to explain how the province of Bataan on the island of Luzon, was the last province in the Philippines to surrender to the Japanese occupation during WWII. For this reason, the Japanese soldiers forced all of the military prisoners in Bataan and anyone else they so chose, both American and Filipino, to walk . . . and walk . . . and walk for hundreds of miles with no sleep or food. If they refused, they were shot. If they stopped or fell, they were shot. Whole barangays were burned to the ground. Babies were thrown in the air and impaled by Japanese bayonets. No one was safe and no mercy was shown.
I had no idea.
I pressed further to find out about what happened to Lola Domingo’s family during this time. Tita told me that Lola, her 4 brothers and sisters, and their parents fled into the rainforest and left everything they had behind. They hid among the trees for two years and their father went back and forth under the cover of night to retrieve supplies and food from neighboring towns. He would walk for miles just to bring back something for his family to simply survive on.
My Lola, who has no teeth and speaks very little English, moved closer to me and with tears in her eyes told me that she doesn’t like to talk about that time because it was so hard on them. When they returned to their home they found it burned to the ground along with the rest of the city. But still, they returned.
As the war progressed and the Allies pressed forward, the Japanese decided to make the Philippines their final line of defense in stopping the American advances into Japan. The battles to re-take the Philippines are considered by many to be the bloodiest of the Pacific War; it took the efforts of the US Army and US Marines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, Philippine Commonwealth troops, and Filipino guerrilla forces to return the Republic of the Philippines back to the people.
Lola remembers when it was over how they stood in the streets praising the brave soldiers for coming to save them.
General MacArthur and the US Army invade Leyte (a province on the far eastern side of the Visayan Islands)
American-Filipino forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula
Before the war Lola Domingo was 18 and engaged. After years of hiding, running, and then returning to a home in ashes, she was happily reunited and married to her betrothed. Much like the rest of the country, her family rebuilt and resiliently pushed forward together. She and her husband raised 6 wonderful children, and more than 40 grandchildren in the house they built together.
Lola’s husband died of lung cancer years ago, but I can still hear her voice crack a little when she speaks of him, as if she needed an extra breath of air.
She and her house are blessed with many visits from her very large family everyday. Not only were Lola’s 6 children raised in the two-story wooden home, many of her children’s children have grown up living or staying there every night their whole lives. What percentage came by while I lived there I may never know; all the first, second, and third cousins were treated just like an ate (sister) or a kuya (brother) when they stopped by, so there was no telling who was whose child, cousin, son, or sister. But that’s the way they like it and after all the struggles and hardships Lola and her husband had to face, that is the way it should be.
Lola’s eyes and home are still full of life, although there are different cooks in the kitchen now. She has a bustling family who loves and respects her, an incredibly well-educated daughter, Tita Nida, who traveled the world and then came home to take care of everyone else in the family, beautiful grandchildren blessed with gifted voices and minds, and me, a brand-new Peace Corps “granddaughter” whom she took in and loved like her own.
My American family
It must have been destiny for me to end up in that house because what no one could have known was how our family’s pasts had been entwined before. When I was a child staying with my own grandparents in the tiny farming town of Cynthiana, Kentucky, I would wake up especially early (I found it much easier then) and stealthily make my way into my grandparents room down the hall, hoist myself onto their lofted bed and lie in wait for the war stories to come from my grandfather, Howard William Fryman, Sr., whom we call Papaw. My Papaw was born in 1919, making him 97 this January. He proudly served in the US Marine Corps during World War II, and while most American eyes were turned towards Hitler and the atrocities in Germany, my Papaw was deployed to the other side of the world as part of the reconnaissance efforts in the Philippines. His post was down in Mindanao (the southern-most region in the Philippines), so it would be a far stretch to say he and Lola ever met back then, but I was still so proud to share with my new family that he was part of the efforts to reclaim and rebuild the Philippines for its people.
Lola was overjoyed to have such a connection with my family and throughout my home-stay she and my grandparents sent messages of blessings and good will back and forth through their now mutual granddaughter. Imagine how special it was for them to be able to communicate their admiration for each other across the world after all those years. I’ve been gone from my host family for a few months now, but each still asks about the other when we talk.
The Peace Corps provides a rare opportunity for exchange between Volunteers and their host families and allows for them to better represent their cultures to each other. But none of that mattered to us the night Lola told me this story. That night was not about the formal representation of our cultural variations or the perceptions and undertones that weigh on such exchanges for fear they will get lost in translation. That night was about a very brave woman telling me a story that was incredibly hard for her to tell and in doing so letting me into her family, even when she knew nothing of mine. Such a small woman, in such a small barangay, in such an old house deserves to know that her story is so big that it has always been meant to be shared across the world.
Maraming salamat po (Thank you very much) for allowing me to do just that.