By Arzie Umali
My family came to America when I was a little girl. Although it wasn’t the plan, we ended up staying and making a life here. As I was growing up, most of my family was in the Philippines, including my grandparents, so I never got to know them very well. The person who I came to know as my “grandmother,” was the woman my father met when he first arrived in Kansas City. She was a widow and didn’t have any children of her own, so she “adopted” our family. She became our Lola.
She was not like my friends’ grandmothers. She didn’t bake, she didn’t sew, she didn’t garden, she didn’t decorate her house with lace or flowers. My Lola liked to drink beer. She drove a Mustang. She went hunting. She loved to travel. Her house was a mid-century modern ranch that was decorated with a bear-skin rug (from a bear she shot herself) and exotic carpets, furniture, and art that she picked up on her travels.
My Lola taught me how to be strong and independent. She owned her own company. She was what my parents called a “workaholic.” She left for her office in the morning and came home late at night. I often stayed up to wait for her and when she got home, we would drink tomato juice and eat peanut butter on crackers.
My Lola was always the boss, and she taught me that there was nothing wrong with being bossy. She would bring my brothers and me to work with her and we could tell right away that she was in charge. We would go to meetings with her and play under the big conference table while she talked about grown-up stuff with the other people in the room — mostly men. She was smart and confident, but also kind and generous — one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. She always made sure everyone was taken care of and treated fairly.
My Lola died when I was 13. I haven’t really had a grandmother-figure in my life for the 40 years since. But what she left with me was my sense of independence and empowerment. So, when I was in middle school (shortly after she passed away) and a teacher told me that by being disagreeable I wasn’t acting “lady-like” — even though I stood there stiff and in shock at those words I had never heard before — I remembered my Lola and told myself, yes I was.
This story is part of Her Life as Art: Coming Together Through Grandmother Stories, a unique, multi-dimensional, week-long series of events celebrating the wisdom and legacy of the grandmother figures in our lives, taking place Nov. 6 – 12, 2021 at the Kansas City United Church of Christ, 205 W. 65th St. KCMO, 64113. We invite you to view the art exhibit and attend other related events. For details, please visit www.kcucc.org.