BOOK REVIEW: Aparador Ni Lola—Past Lives, Precious Objects

by Rose Churma

For those who grew up in the Philippines, the term “aparador” is a familiar term and refers to an armoire, wardrobe or stand-alone closet. Before built-in closets became the norm, an aparador became a necessary furniture in each household.

In this anthology consisting of 18 stories, each of the writers talk about their grandmothers and their aparadors. In essence, the essays and poems are “a nostalgic promenade through time, to an era sometimes beyond our ken. It reminds us to take stock of our own relationship with the unappreciated elders in our family…” as described by Erlinda E. Panlilio (a Philippines National Book awardee for 2000 and 2002) in the book’s back cover.

The popular columnist Ambeth Ocampo notes that as a historian, he has gleaned the life and times of heroes by looking into their aparador. Although the grandmothers featured in this story are not heroic in the political sense such as winning a battle or forming a new government or dying by firing squad—their stories are nevertheless an integral part of each writers’ personal history and collectively, the history of our country of origin.

In “Anything but Thunder” written by Bill Formoso, he reminisces about his lola or grandmother, Vicenta Ortega vda de Panis, the second of 16 children of the landed and political Ortega clan of La Union. It was said that whenever she commanded her brothers to come, they did so promptly, earning her the nickname “Queen Elizabeth.”Lola Vicenta’s life “revolved around her aparador, a heavy reddish narra number with a full-length mirror in front and her initials “VOP” etched across the to” as Bill Formoso wrote in his essay. Her initials used are her married initials so the author surmises that it was done after she got married to Emiliano Panis who was with the Philippine Scouts and USAFFE during the WWII. A medical doctor and lawyer, he died in 1942 soon after the Death March, succumbing to the diseases that felled his comrades. Prior to the war, her husband was the director of the Old Bilibid Prisons, so it is likely that the aparador was built by prisoners.

The aparador contained among other things — her money, her husband’s photo, a real voodoo doll with the longest pins still sticking out of it, and American chocolate bars (procured by her youngest daughter at the former Clark Air Force Base in Pampanga) which she used as tenders for her mahjongg games.

Lola Vicenta was an avid mahjongera. In the midst of a super typhoon in the 1960s when power was cut-off and the surroundings flooded, she bought huge battery-powered flashlights and has low-stools made so the players could raise their feet above the water that flooded her house. But she was deathly scared of thunder and lightning that came with the monsoon rains—and the aparador came in handy as a place of refuge: whenever thunder and lightning came, she hid on the right-hand side of the aparador which held her hanging clothes.

The book’s foreword was written by the editor as a letter to her Lola Salia. In it, she describes how this book came about and the process in which she went about selecting the contributors. She also relates that when she finally had a list, her grandmother died. She felt herself withdrawing from the book project but her Lola Salia made sure she didn’t by “showing up everywhere,” including tailing her all the way to the other side of the Pacific to make sure she was pressured enough to finish. This is the first book I’ve reviewed where the spirit of the departed was part of the publishing process!

The 18 stories (15 essays and three poems) in this anthology are from various parts of the Philippines of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, from Ilocos through Iloilo to Cagayan de Oro. It is recommended reading for those embarking on a memoir or interested in collecting stories as a way to preserve the past, or for the younger generation who simply want to know more about their culture.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a retired architect who now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books, write about them and encourage others to write. Her online bookstore, Kalamansi Books and Things (, promotes Filipiniana books and publications by Filipino-Americans. Email her at

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