By: Nikki Calonge
Her name is Priscila Bernabe Salazar. She was born in Bataan, Philippines, on May 19, 1933.
When she would visit me in Virginia, she’d call me her sidekick, but her accent is so thick that it sounded like “psychic”. That seemed more appropriate and something I would have rather been as a seven-year-old. Lola Presey, as she is known to me, is fun as hell, and I’ve always loved her like crazy.
When I visited last year, she had stopped dying her hair. Her head is a shock of white and contrasts with the purplish black of her eyebrows, which are tattooed on her face. As stunning as she is at 83, she was ugly at 12. Her teeth were knocked out, her hair was shorn, and she was made to wear ill- fitting boy’s clothes in order to prevent assault. This was in Manila during the Japanese occupation.
Presey was born a love child. I was always under the impression that neither parent wanted her. Growing up in her mother’s household she was in charge of providing food. That meant crawling under train coaches, stabbing a hole in the car floor, and gathering the grains that fell through. Presey moved to her father’s home after a relative attempted to molest her.
There have been varying accounts of how she met my grandfather. My aunt says she may have been his secretary; my mother says they may have worked in the Department of Health together; and around the dinner table, I heard that she met him eating balut (fertilized duck egg) on a porch. Everyone agrees that Lola Presey decided that Lolo Pete would be her husband. Her best friend at the time was a dentist, so she got her teeth fixed. She says she prayed for that to happen. Lola prays a lot. Lola and Lolo were married eight months before my mother was born.
Even though Lolo Pete had a government job, Lola Presey’s income provided for the family. She became a biyahera and would buy goods in Japan to sell in the city. (Biyahera is derived from the Spanish feminine for traveller, but I secretly think it’s Tagalog for hustler.) When recounting those days, Lola would tell me, “I’d enter the ship in economy and come out first class.” Both my mother and aunt have childhood memories of watching over merchandise outside office buildings while Lola Presey would sell the goods inside. “Yeah. She’s always hustled. She suffered, she struggled,” mom says.
These days, Lola Presey walks around Quezon City with a recklessness that makes me jump and laugh – partly out of fear. She crosses the street while there’s oncoming traffic, yells at strangers that she’ll spank them, and uses her house dress to wipe sweat off her forehead in a way that shows her breasts. When I visit, we never talk about herstory. We eat ice cream. We laugh heedlessly. It’s me who helps her cross the street.
Nikki Calonge is an actor and yoga teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s performed work at New Frontiers at the Sundance Institute, BAM Cinematek, Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, and countless theaters downtown. She studies and teaches at Sky Ting and Jaya Yoga Center, is an Ayurvedic Holistic Health Counselor, and Reiki attuned. Nikki is excited to start the Dance/Movement Therapy program at the Pratt Institute next spring.