My earliest memories consist of playing with my cousins in my grandmother’s garden – a tropical oasis of orchids and mango trees. Most Filipino grandmother’s are called Lola, but we affectionately referred to ours as “Mommy” because that’s what she was, a mother to us all, the ultimate matriarch, the connective tissue that kept our family together.
Aurora Hipolito Fernando was born on November 28, 1925. Her childhood was sad and troubled, but she eventually came to know love when she met my grandfather at the age of 19. They fell in love quickly, eloped and went on to raise four daughters and three sons – Sonny, Telly, Joy, Julie, Victor, Doris, and Reggie. They would all go on to have children of their own, their families spanning New York, Canada, California, and the Philippines.
Mommy was a diva and a disciplinarian. A fashionista, a firecracker. She loved her sequins and sparkle and she ran her house hold with an iron fist. Even in her old age, within that feeble 95 lb. frame of hers, she managed to boss everyone around. She was sharp, strong, and stubborn.
I lived in Mommy’s house til I was about 4 1/2 years old and then moved to New York. I would see her and my grandfather almost every summer until they got too old to make the 24+ hour trip from the Philippines. I looked forward to those summers, which are a cluster of simple, happy memories I’ll always treasure. Braids before bedtime. Walks to church hand in hand. Hundreds of lumpia, siopao, and ensaymada in the kitchen. All these years and my mouth still waters thinking of her cooking. I can hear her booming voice calling us into the kitchen to eat. “Mangan ta na!”
After being hospitalized for the fourth time this year, we found out around Thanksgiving that she had Stage IV lung cancer. We knew it was only a matter of time before we’d lose her.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen her name everywhere. Driving from the Denver airport, I passed signs pointing to Aurora, Colorado. My room attendant at my hotel was named Aurora. Our company Christmas gift was an Aurora System of LED lights. I’d open travel magazines to advertisements for Iceland featuring photo spreads of Aurora Borealis.
I had a moment of sheer panic one night in San Francisco when I saw the Bay Bridge lights. I never knew they lit up and when I saw them shimmering in the distance, I took it as a sign that she was gone. There was something about the lights glistening on the water that reminded me of her – the jewelry she wore, the silk and sequins she loved, and the light she brought into all of our lives.
I was fortunate enough to see Mommy back in February when I went to the Philippines. We sat at the kitchen table with a full spread of all the foods I grew up eating. I feel so blessed that I was able to hug her while she was still healthy and smiling.
I took the photos below as a reminder of her and the house. The coolness of the marble floors. The rocking chair where she would watch her soap operas. The fan blowing on her always permed hair. The windows overlooking the once-upon-a-time garden oasis. The photos of her grandchildren proudly displayed for all visitors to see.
Although I’ve lived with this name for 30 years, it struck me this week that my mom chose Aurora as my middle name. What a gift to be named after such a wonderful woman. She made everyone in our family better – more forgiving when offended and more patient and kind when tested. We inherited her fierce resilience and that’s made all the difference.
Thank you Mommy for everything. We’ll love you forever.