The Centenarian

She was old and gray, washed out like a rag doll that had been abandoned by its owner a long time ago. Her hair was snowy white, skin looking every bit as brittle and pale as paper. Just a year before, she was given PhP 100,000 as mandated by Philippine law for having reached the ripe old age of 100.

That’s only USD 1,935 but in the Philippines, it can go a long way. It could buy new walls and a new roof for an old house that leaked in places, visited by mosquitoes at night and flies by day.

Her name was Digna. Once upon a time she belonged to one of the richest families in the south, with powerful connections both economically and politically. She was a beautiful socialite back in her day, mingling with today’s Philippine version of the Kardashians and the Trumps. Her old pictures still hung on the wall, now as old and battered as she was.

At New Year’s early this year, my cousin Agnes finally came home for the first time after years of living abroad. The first family she visited was ours, having always been close to my parents. Her mother, who had died when my cousin was 8, was my mother’s older sister and they looked like twins. Ever since then, Agnes considered my mother as her own and had thus become closer to my family. After college, she took a job overseas but kept in touch with us through the years.

She had another aunt, however, on her father’s side whom we never met but with whom she had spent one summer after college. At that time, her Aunt Digna owned large businesses in the city and Agnes was an intern for her aunt. This was right before Agnes left for Europe.

In my cousin’s own words, her other aunt was filthy rich. She told stories of parties that Aunt Digna hosted regularly that the province’s congressmen and local politicians attended. Even the founder of the city was a close friend.

But years later, at the age of 100, Aunt Digna was almost penniless if not for the government’s payout.

My cousin had heard that Aunt Digna was still alive because the news of her turning 100 was reported online. She got me and my brother to go with her and find the aunt who had been so kind to her two decades ago.

Neither my older brother nor I had ever seen nor come face to face with a hundred-year old so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to get us to drive her around.

We drove about 30 minutes to the old neighborhood where her aunt had lived. It was a huge home, the kind that had been fashionable in the seventies and eighties. The grounds were still extensive but rundown, the gate imposing and must have once been colored blue where bits and pieces of the original paint still clung but mostly, was now covered with rust.

As large as the place was, it looked deserted. There was no doorbell in sight so we called out. Took several minutes, but finally the door opened a little bit. It opened a little wider and a woman in her fifties stepped out and asked – almost yelling – what our business was.

In an instant, Agnes recognized the woman. At the same time, the other recognized her as well. She flung the door wide open and ran down the driveway to the gate, and within moments, the old gates were clanging and whining on its hinges. Before we knew it, the two hugged each other, recognition and disbelief alternating on their faces.

The lady, when she could breathe, shouted in the direction of the big house, and two other women came out. In seconds, Agnes ran to them and hugged them, too.

My brother and I hung back a little bit, trying not to intrude in the emotional reunion, but finally Agnes introduced us. All three women were Aunt Digna’s daughters.

After which Agnes asked where their mother was. That’s when I noticed their strange reluctance. All three didn’t immediately answer, instead choosing to ask more about Agnes and her life for the past twenty years.

After a while, Agnes asked again. And again, all three deflected the question. On her third try, my cousin decided not to be swayed. That’s when the eldest daughter finally answered that their mother was living with a niece at another house a few blocks away.

I thought that was strange. As far as my cousin told me when we arrived, the house we were at was Aunt Digna’s. What was she doing living at another location?

Agnes asked the same question. At first no one would answer, but my cousin was not to be swayed. Finally, the truth came out. There had been friction in the family for years, and the gap was between the children and their aged mother.

I couldn’t imagine how the children could kick their own mother out of the house. My interest was piqued. The situation was begging for an explanation. There must be a juicy story somewhere.

Agnes asked for directions to the other house, and about ten minutes later, we located the place.

The house was small, a far cry from the house we’d just come from. What had happened to bring the old socialite here?

We rang the bell and out came a large woman in her forties, about the same age as Agnes. The moment they saw each other, they ran into each other’s arms. It was a noisier and far more joyful reunion than the one we’d just come from. After the initial surprise and the laughter, our cousin introduced us to Dita, the daughter of Digna’s eldest child who was now deceased. Dita, in turn, introduced us to her husband, her grown son and his wife and their children.

When Agnes mentioned that we had just come from the big house, Dita unleashed a string of choice words. Without Agnes even asking, Dita told the story of how the three ungrateful children had seized control of the businesses and then promptly ran it down to bankruptcy. Even the big house was no longer theirs. An old neighbor had bought the place. Out of charity, he allowed them to stay for a small price. The only remnants left of Aunt Digna’s wealth were lands that couldn’t be liquidated as both factions filed case after case in court through the years.

Dita had put it upon herself to care for the old woman and to take up her cause. She had Aunt Digna’s Power of Attorney, and everything she did had the old woman’s blessing.

Where was Aunt Digna, asked Agnes.

Resting, answered Dita.

Dita invited us in, and offered coffee while we waited for Aunt Digna to get ready.

We were in the living room when she finally came out in her wheelchair.

And by golly, even in her old age and reduced circumstances, there was still an aristocratic air about her. Or maybe it was her mestiza looks that never faded. The Philippines had once been a colony of Spain for 333 years, and most members of the elite in those days were of fair skin who had aquiline noses and light colored eyes.

Even at 100, and in a wheelchair at that, she had an air of command about her, a superciliousness even. It wasn’t hard to imagine her as a socialite hobnobbing with the rich and famous of her day.

I was the first person she saw, her eyes boring into mine. I wanted to cower and bow in her presence without even knowing why.

Then her eyes moved and rested on Agnes. There was a brief moment of confusion, and then suddenly, recognition softened the expression on her face.

Agnes ran to the old woman and hugged her. There was a brief silence, replaced by sobs from Agnes as well as apologies for not having gotten in touch through the years.

Aunt Digna understood.

It was a conversation that dragged as the night wore on. Mostly, it was Dita who related the full story to Agnes and my brother. Aunt Digna wasn’t exactly a saint when she was wealthy. In fact, she had been ruthless. Kindness and love were reserved only for a few people that didn’t include her three daughters for the simple reason that they weren’t her blood. Her late husband had adopted them against her wishes when they could only bear one biological child. All of their lives, Aunt Digna had done her best to ostracize them. They grew up to become adults who only had revenge in mind. It was a fascinating story, one that would put even the most melodramatic Philippine soap operas to shame.

As intriguing as it all was, later that evening, I set to work on my own agenda.

See, I majored in history back in college. All things historical fascinated me, and I also grew up envying my classmates for having had grandparents who still lived and could remember the Second World War. I never had that privilege. I decided that should I ever meet centenarians, I wasn’t going to waste any time asking about their recollections of the past.

With Aunt Digna, that is exactly what I did. To my surprise, she indulged me. I sat beside her and promptly lost myself in her stories. She not only talked of the war but also of the years before and after, the glory days of her youth. Before long, she was laughing and smiling.

Her stories would make up several blog posts, and maybe someday I will write about it. But in short, it was a life so full, one can only marvel at it. Few are so blessed to live to a hundred. Then again, not everyone gets to experience the full cycle of life – from fortune to misfortune, happiness and sorrow, wealth and poverty. But I also bet no one would want to experience all of that in a lifetime. Preferably not the bad parts, I am sure.

The lesson is clear, though. As fickle as Life and Fate may be, ultimately, it is our actions that determine the course of our lives.

I can only hope that as much as Aunt Digna may have deserved the scorn of her adopted daughters, she deserves forgiveness. As do all of us, perhaps.

My cousin Agnes, my brother, and I all went home in the early hours of the morning with a promise to come back. It’s been months now since the day I met that feisty centenarian. I haven’t had any news either on the progress of her court cases, but at least we know she is relatively comfortable and living on the money of the government award. How long it will last, we can only guess.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.

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