• Dacal Pung Salamat - Thank You.

    Three weeks ago, I received the news that my grandmother, Juana A. Cuenco, was in the hospital. At that time we weren't sure of her prognosis and my parents and I agreed that it would be best that I come home.  It was a good trip, albeit under worrisome circumstances.  I was able to see her everyday and ultimately it was my farewell.  I returned to Bangkok and I received the news of her passing after about a week, I was overcome with sadness and an overwhelming feeling of joy for a life well-lived.  My family buries her today, but we continue to feel so fortunate that she was with us for 98 years.  She had the kind of toughness that one can only get from working hard and passing down your faith, work ethic, and love to your children and future generations of Cuencos. I wish to have at least 1/10th of that true grit as seen in the photo above. Below are my "thank you notes" to her that I asked my siblings to read at her vigil.

    Dearest Apu,

    I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there when you were reunited with Ingkong, but I am so grateful I was able to see you one last time so I could tell you that I love you.  I couldn’t think of a full story or essay to write this time, but I think this series of “thank you notes” captures what I want people to know what me, Mom, Dad, my aunties, my uncles, my sisters and brother, cousins, nieces, and nephews have seen from you and Ingkong, our whole lives.


    Dearest Apu,

    Thank you for being firm.

    I didn’t always understand why when I was younger,

    But now I know the importance of sticking to your convictions

    And not letting anybody take that away from you.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu --

    Thank you for insisting that McDonald’s wasn’t a real meal.

    For giving us that extra scoop of rice and savory main dish,

    even when we thought we were full.

    We grew up eating REAL food, now considered “posh and farm to table”.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching us an after-school system –

    homework, chores around your house,

    playing outside if the weather was okay – when it

    wasn’t Holy Week – and then dinner.

    Routines are important to help calm an otherwise unpredictable day.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu --

    Thank you for asking me if I’d already eaten while

    talking on Skype or on the phone;

    It didn’t matter what time it was,

     it was always a comfort to know

    that no matter where I would be in the world,

    there was someone looking out for me.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching me how to cook.

    Every recipe and technique is committed to memory.

    I now know the sound fried chicken makes when it’s done cooking;

    Just the right moment to add vinegar to the garlic when making adobo;

    To not rely on measurements, but the senses – taste, sound, smell, and sight;

    The satisfaction of sharing your food with others.

    Cooking is not just a necessity for survival, but a way to bring

    people together and to pass down your legacy.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching me to be proud of who I am.

    Eh ku pu kakalingwan reng tiru yu kekami.

    Adyang maragul naku – biyasa ku pa mag Kapampangan ampung

    Antidyan ku pa reng kasalesayan kwentu yu pu kanitang malati ku pa.


    I won’t ever forget what you taught us.

    Even if I am an adult now – I still know how to speak Kapampangan and

    I still understand the stories you told me when I was younger

    Your language carries with it deeper meanings, power, and emotion.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for taking care of ALL of us.

    You and Ingkong set an enduring example of how

    Hard work, sacrifice, and faith equals love

    From this,

    WE NOW KNOW how to take care of each other.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.

    Kaluguran da kayu.

    I love you.

  • Paalam, Lola Bills

    Paalam, Lola Bills

    The woman seated to my immediate left in her impeccable Yves Saint Laurent glasses is my maternal grandfather's second oldest sister, Isabel A. Santos aka Lola Bills aka Tita Bills. Our far left is Lola Bills' sister-in-law and Mom's aunt, my Lola Remy. Lola Bills' passing last night marks an important milestone for my mom, her siblings, and their cousins.  Lola Bills was the last living child of my great grandparents, Major General Paulino Santos and Elisa Angeles Santos. Now they are all gone. I have not yet had the opportunity to speak to Mom about this, but I am sure in the coming days they will all have the opportunity to reflect on what this all means.  

    To me, this reflection is a testament to Lola Bills legacy. She was not only a "tita" (auntie) to my mom and siblings. She was a symbol of all the things that made them proud to be Santoses.  In her lifetime, Lola Bills survived World War II, was a Fulbright Scholar, and lead costume designer/tour director for the Bayanihan National Dance Company.  Through Bayanihan, she traveled the world and is "Tita Bills" to several generations of dancers. Growing up during visits to the Philippines, we always made sure to stop at FilAm Homes in Quezon City to visit with family and see her at her studio. From elaborate costume sketches to sculpting, jewelry-making, and painting - she was ALWAYS creating and ALWAYS fashionable from her glasses to her clothes. My early childhood memories of her and Mom's stories of her are one of the many reasons I developed an interest in fine arts. 

    In 2013, she'd been in the hospital for quite sometime and we were not sure if she would make it. She bounced back and since I was visiting the Philippines from Uzbekistan I decided to buy her a handmade suzani.  When I came into her room I quickly asked her, "Kilala mo parin ba po ako?/Do you still know who I am?" Her eyes lit up and she said, "Panganay ni Soling/Soling's oldest." I presented her with the suzani and she touched the weaving delicately, impressed by the colors and the handiwork. Here are my Tita Marissa and Lola Remy posing with the suzani in Lola Bills' nursing home room.

    Not long after that visit, my aunts and uncles arranged for her to be transferred from Manila to Davao - not far from General Santos City, the city my great-grandfather, her father, founded.  The last time I saw her was Christmas Day 2014.  There was no pictures taken that day. Mostly because we were there for just a short while and I wanted to remember her differently.  The image in my head that I keep of her is one I believe she will be most proud of - the creative dynamo talking about her travels and latest creations in her Yves Saint Laurent glasses.