Happy Birthday

Today, April 4th, would have been the 88th birthday of my grandmother Carmen Santillan Yap, the inspiration behind...well, like 95% of this entire project.


Any storytelling gene I may claim to have came from her first, then filtered its way through her children and to me. The woman could talk. Happy, sad, confused, on the warpath...you were going to hear her out. She knew everything about everyone, was the human version of our family archives, remembered everyone's birthdays and every other anniversary throughout life and death. Years after she retired from teaching she remembered her students and their idiosyncrasies.

Memory was something she used and exercised and brandished every day, no matter what she was doing or to whom she was talking. It was a tool, a record, an obligation, a matter of respect and duty, of education, a mark of a good and useful person. She kept meticulous photo albums with handwritten labels and captions and multiple laboriously handwritten notebooks of diary entries, recipes, lists, etc. Remembering things together was a reason for communication, for keeping something or someone alive, for making sure it was properly handled and processed. I make it sound clinical here, and she was actually more a scientist than an artist, but the way she used memory was as practical as it was sentimental.

There were times she and I fought like hellcats but it's because of how similar we were. She died in 2014 of stage four endometrial cancer. When I last embraced her frail, wheelchair-bound body and said goodbye to her, and that we'd see each other again (a lie) when she got better (another lie), I felt like I was tearing out part of myself and leaving it in that room, turning my back and flying almost 9000 miles away. I got the news a week later via text and had to tell my mother and aunts via phone call.

I hadn't seen that many photos of her young, and as I share them, each one prompts someone different to say, "Whoa, you look just like her?!" (I should find one of her glaring, then you'd really see the similarity.) All I can do now is be grateful I got to say goodbye in person, and that she left me and my family with the photographs, journals, mannerisms, and stories that she did.