It was the summer of Cariña's ninth birthday. Most of the kids in the neighborhood played out in the streets. Many of them stayed until suppertime. On certain evenings, some children would even resume their games after eating.
"Rina! Rina! Come inside the house, na!"
"Not again!" Rina whined.
This was the fourth time she was being called into the house. And for what? To answer a few silly questions that her grandmother would repeatedly ask. "What time is it?" "Where's your mommy?" "What are you doing outside?" Afterwards, Rina would just go out again to resume playing with her friends.
It was still afternoon and Rina didn't want to interrupt their game of patintero by having to go back into the house. And besides, her team was already losing. She didn't want the other team to think that they had chickened out. The boys were playing against the girls. It was more fun this way since they could get to touching or cornering the guy they had a crush on.
"Rina! Come inside the house, na!" the maid called out again.
"Ya!" Rina answered in her loudest but exasperated voice.
"Wait lang, ha?" she told her friends.
The family room was dimly lit by the late afternoon sun shining through the windows. The old woman was seated on her chair that was gently rocking back and forth.back and forth. A glass of warm milk, probably already cold, was on the side table. A few salt crackers were on a saucer beside the glass.
"Yes, Lola?" Rina managed to say after catching her breath. Warm perspiration trickled down her spine. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the edge of her shirt's sleeves.
"Cariña. Hija, vena qui."
"Yes, lola?" Rina answered but her mind was still on the group of noisy children playing in the street. She tried to hide the sulky tone in her voice. "What, lola?"
The old woman now opened her eyes. With her right hand, she motioned Rina to come closer. Rina knelt beside the rocking chair and put her hands on the old woman's lap. The chair stopped rocking.
"Is it night already, hija?"
"Not quite, lola. It's still sunset."
The subdued orange rays of the sun could still be seen through the window and Rina wondered why her grandmother had to ask the question.
"Are your mommy and daddy home yet?"
"No, lola. They will arrive within the hour."
Rina sensed that her grandmother wanted company so she sat on the floor and ran her stubby fingers up the left arm of the old woman. The arm remained motionless on her grandmother's lap but this did not bother Rina. Half-heartedly, however, she continued her ritual.
"Stay with me awhile, huh, hija?"
It was now smoky gray outside the window. Rina felt uneasy because the children outside had stopped shouting and squealing although she could still hear their voices. She wondered whether the game had ended. Perhaps they were already tired and decided to tell stories instead.
Massaging the old woman's arm tired her so. At certain intervals Rina would stop running her fingers up the arm. She then shifted to gently stretching the fingers of the limp hand and giving each finger a slight squeeze.
It was amazing how this hand of the old woman had become a useless part of her body. When that hand was still working, the old woman used to cook the tastiest family dinner. The fingers, too, were very nimble at sewing the girl's dresses.
Rina yawned lazily just sitting there, massaging her grandmother's arm. She looked about the room and fixed her eyes on the piano.
The piano was a family heirloom. Cariña's grandmother worked hard to buy that piano as a Christmas gift for her only daughter, who was Cariña's mother. The old woman used to knit baby dresses, embroider tablecloths, and sew blouses for export to earn the money for the piano. At that time, she was just in her early forties but was already a widow. With only her daughter to keep her company, she decided to liven up their Christmas with this surprise.
Cariña's mother learned how to play the piano and this talent was then passed on to Rina years later. On certain evenings, Rina and her mother would take turns playing the piano. Their avid audience was, of course, the old woman.
"Cariña, toca el piano para mi, hija," her grandmother would say.
The old woman would hum along or clap her hands whenever Rina played her best pieces. Lately though, she would just sit there with her eyes closed. Sometimes Rina wondered why she bothered to play the piano at all. Within seconds into a musical piece, her grandmother would fall asleep.
The change in her grandmother happened one dismal, rainy night, two years ago. Rina was just about to fall asleep when she heard a shuffle of footsteps outside her bedroom door. Conversations in a low tone were going on in the other room-her grandmother's room. Rina got out of her bed to see what was going on.
In the dim light of the night lamp she saw her mother seated on the side of her grandmother's bed. Her father stood next to the window and was staring outside. Her grandmother remained asleep in bed, but she let out a dry muffled sound everytime she breathed. Rina entered the room and sat on her mother's lap. Her mother hugged her tightly.
"Rina," she whispered, "Lola had a stroke."
Rina didn't really know what that meant but she could tell it was what made her grandmother look like a frail ragdoll on the bed. As she stared at the old woman, her thoughts wandered to the next morning when she would play with her friends again.
"Cariña," the voice of her grandmother interrupted her thoughts. "Are you tired already?"
Rina, without realizing it, had stopped massaging her grandmother's hand as she got lost in thought.
"Hija mia, you may go back outside and play."
The young girl remained silent. She wiped a tear, recalling the countless times when the old woman used to take care of her. Then, she got up from the floor and walked towards the piano.
"Never mind, lola," she said determinedly. "I'll stay with you."
The old woman just nodded her head and closed her eyes.
"Lola, what piece would you like to hear?" Rina smiled and turned to her grandmother.
But the old woman kept her eyes closed and remained silent. The chair continued to rock back and forth.back and forth. The maid came into the room to switch the lights on.
"Rina, your friends are waiting for you," the maid informed her. "They want to know if you will still go out to play hide-and-seek with them."
"Tell them tomorrow, na lang."
The maid shrugged her shoulders and was about to leave the room when Rina jumped up to stop her.
"Maring, ako na lang. I'll go tell them myself."
Rina opened the sliding doors to the terrace. Cool air swept into the stuffy room. It was already dark outside. A few stars were scattered about the deep blue sky. Beneath the white light of the lamp post was the group of children seated on the sidewalk in front of Rina's house. They were still waiting for her.
"O, Rina!" one of the girls called out. "Join us, na."
"I can't. Tomorrow na lang." Rina waved goodbye to the group then turned to enter the house.
She knitted her brows. "What was I about to do?...Ah!"
Rina wiggled her fingers which were already numb from massaging the old woman's arm. She sat on the piano stool, straightened her back, positioned her fingers on the keyboard and rested her foot on the pedal. Soon enough, the room was filled with the music of a waltz melody. Rina's fingers kept playing at the keys.
She was mesmerized by the way her fingers glided over the keys. The movement of her hands was smooth. With this exercise Rina experienced a tingling sensation which ran through her arms, to her back, and down to her feet. Her whole body felt the music. This was how she could tell that she was playing the piano, not just properly, but with feeling.
Rina developed this sensation through the years of taking piano lessons from her mother. But she was, in turn, inspired by her grandmother. Rina recalled how her grandmother would kiss her on the forehead before she began each lesson. This was supposed to be for good luck. She remembered how the old woman gently prodded her to master each lesson even if Rina was already teary-eyed from her mother's scolding. Rina reminisced about her first piano recital which was sponsored by her proud grandmother. It was in a nearby music hall. Friends and relatives were there to listen to the waltz pieces which she rendered skillfully. Rina could see their delight with each familiar piece she played. Some were even swaying their heads and tapping their feet to the rhythm. But Cariña's grandmother showed the most pleasant reaction of all. The sparkle in her eyes told of the nostalgic joy she felt within.
The waltz had always been a favorite of the old woman. It reminded her of the quiet days and romantic nights of her youth. "The Beautiful Blue Danube" and "Over the Waves" were reminiscent of the time when she used to live in a big house overlooking the waters of the Pasig River . "The Starlight Waltz" brought back memories of the first dance she had with a handsome marine officer who later became her husband. Yes.the waltz had always been a part of the old woman.
Now and then Rina would glance at her grandmother whose eyes remained closed. But this time Rina wasn't bothered by it. She continued to play all the best piano pieces she had mastered.
Meanwhile, the chair continued rocking back and forth.back and forth.
"I know," Rina smiled to herself, "Lola is listening."
The waltz piece came to a beautiful finale. A faint smile formed on the lips of the quiet old woman. But Rina did not see it because she went on to play another piece. So, the chair kept rocking back and forth.back and forth.