I never really knew my grandmother.
But that all changed when I discovered she had begun writing her own memoir.
It turned out that nine notebooks that made up my grandmother’s memoir had been sent to my mom in Canada from the Philippines several years ago. They were handwritten in English and Tagalog, collecting dust in the garage because my mom was too nervous to unveil their potential secrets.
It was as if my grandmother was announcing that her life, with its triumphs and trials, mattered enough to bear witness to—even if she was not a celebrity or well-known figure. The memoir was her way of saying: I was here.
After getting permission to read the memoir, I couldn’t wait to dig in and finally start piecing together hidden stories that would add context to my life, uncovering why I was raised the way I was, why my parents were raised they way they were, and why their parents were raised the way they were.
As I flipped through the memoir’s pages, I found the classic hallmarks of human existence: tragedy, suffering, love, and inspiration.
Note: My grandmother refers to herself in third-person in her memoir.
There was so much I didn’t know about my grandmother. Like the fact that her dad would nail scraps of old rubber tires to the soles of her shoes, because they couldn’t afford to buy new ones. Or how her family survived World War II by providing haircuts to the Japanese soldiers and fleeing from air strikes.
Neither did I know that her father had been physically abusive, causing her years of suffering until she met and married her husband, who was everything her father wasn’t: wise, soft-spoken, and never laying a finger on any of his children. I teared up when I read how much she missed the only man she had ever loved after becoming a widow.
But despite the chaos and misfortune that would become of her life afterwards, I saw how much her daughter (my mom) brought her hope, pride, and an ounce of stability—a child who was proof that her life had not been wasted.
After reading the memoir, I couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of gratitude.
It was obvious that I was reaping the benefits of the seeds sown by generations before me.
If my grandmother had not rebelled against her father’s insistence that she become a seamstress—because getting an education was apparently “not fit for a woman” in his opinion—she would never have gone on to fulfill her dream of becoming a university professor, raising her children with more financial stability than she grew up with.
My own mom might have never been encouraged to go to university either, where she would eventually meet my dad and together migrate to North America, becoming the first generation in their families to leave the Philippines in possibly decades.
Note: “Tatay” means “dad” in Tagalog.
Now I’m here living in Canada, a blend of the traditional Filipino values instilled in me by my parents and the Western culture that surrounds me. Who would I be if not for the incremental choices made by those before me? I’d be an entirely different person. In fact, I wouldn’t even exist.
It reminded me of a movie called “Life Itself” (2018), about how every single one of us is a continuation of our ancestors’ story—like a domino effect, with one generation passing on the baton to the next.
Sometimes we pass on cherished family traditions and good values; other times we transfer intergenerational trauma and dysfunctional family patterns. No one gets it perfect. But we all try our best to correct mistaken beliefs, heal past hurts, and pave the way for a better future.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that our choices really do matter. Just as being born into a wealthy family does not guarantee financial abundance forever, neither does suffering from childhood trauma mean we are doomed forever. We cannot choose our families, which inevitably shape us—but we can choose what we do moving forward.
The ramifications of our actions go far beyond the present, impacting lives other than our own. My grandmother’s decision to overcome the limitations of her circumstances so she could “live her best life” created the foundations on which I would have a shot at living my “best life”—two generations later.
That’s a huge responsibility, but it also means that our lives are inherently meaningful. You and I can be the turning points in our ancestral story, changing the trajectory for generations to come.
So what will you do with the time you’ve been given?
The baton’s in your hands.