Friday, May 20, 2011

Two Amazing Women

I recently spent quality time with two women who have influenced me greatly. They're not exactly the mothers I would have wanted to have; they're not even surrogate moms to me. They are women who have taught me about life and living it well, and love and giving it unconditionally. These women are not saints. They are people with feet of clay, but their hearts are big and golden, and their tents are as large as their hearts. I know that there is always room for me there.

Both are elderly and recently widowed. I hesitated to be in touch so soon after the deaths of their husbands, feeling that they might want some solitude, and knowing they have both not been really well. But when I finally went to see them, I asked myself why I stayed away so long.

I met Gilda when I was a young editorial assistant at the Chronicle. She came often to deliver her articles to the desk across the room where Eggie Apostol and Doris Nuyda ruled over the women's section. She was beautiful and funny in a loud way. I observed her from behind my desk, fascinated by this older woman who had so much life in her, she seemed young enough to be my contemporary. I thought she could be a friend, but naaah, she was too high up there. Gilda Cordero Fernando was a famous short story writer, and I was just a recent graduate, an English major, but a nothing sill in journalism.

When my editor started giving me writing assignments, Gilda began to notice me, sending word through Eggie that she thought my last article was good, or writing little notes of encouragement urging me to keep up the good work. Soon, she was inviting me to lunch. What an adventure she was! She had this antique shop in Malate she called Junque where we hung out between long meals peppered with girl talk. She was a persistent interviewer -- she wanted to know me inside out. But she was also a generous sharer. She told me about aspects of her life that I didn't realize existed in the generation before mine. She sought my advise and dispensed hers copiously.

She told me that I must continue to write because, she said, I was good at it.

Gilda would come early in the day to my apartment in Teachers' Village and with a guilty smile and her irresistible charm, seek "permission" from my husband to kidnap me for a day. And the girl talk between two women 17 years apart in age would commence, unending until she brought me home at dinner time. Ed was ecstatic about Gilda's interest in me. He told me that when we got old, he wanted me to be like her. I smiled. If he only knew what women really talked about! But I understood what he meant. He didn't want me to grow old.

Because Gilda is Peter Pan, a woman who refuses to grow old. She has re-invented herself several times, her mind racing ahead of everybody's, creating books, literature, fashion, and lately, art, starting trends that have astounded her audience at every turn. Recently, at 81, she mounted an art exhibit that looked like the work of a woman half her age.

At her husband's wake, she told me that someone I introduced her to decades ago had come the day before and re-introduced himself to her as my friend. She wondered what made a ghost from the very distant past, practically a stranger, had come to see her after all these years. But I understood. Gilda is irresistible. He just had to have another fix.

Mafe is my ninang. She was my mother's half-sister who was 12 years old when I was born. It is said that she claimed me from birth, insisted that she should be made my ninang. When I was around six or seven, she and her widowed mother, my grandfather's second wife, came to live with us. Mom had just bought four matching rattan beds for her four daughters -- a luxury in our family of ten where the smaller kids, including myself, slept mostly on mats on the floor, cuddled up to Inay or Nuna, who smelled faintly of sweet tobacco leaves, or shared the stinky blue bed in our parents' room reserved for when we were sick and needed overnight attention.

When Mafe came, I felt I as in the presence of a goddess. Se was ravishingly beautiful, sophisticated and stylish. She dressed in figure-hugging clothes, wore high heels and red lipstick. I thought she was a movie star -- she looked like Marilyn Monroe -- and my brother Gabby and I looked for her picture in the TEX cards we bought daily at the nearby sari-sari store. We could not understand why our beautiful aunt was not included in the constellation of actors featured in those cards.

She had a slew of admirers who came to visit, or fetched her on dates. Some were invited to join the family for lunch. Mafe had a life and wanted to grow up and be her. But I had a problem with her. She got my bed. When she moved into the girls' room, I had to move out -- back to the mat on the floor, or the stinky blue bed. I remember resenting this, but I don't remember what she keeps laughing about to this day -- that I griped about this a lot and when they got married, Tito Chito told me, 'Now, yo can have your bed back.'

Mafe is everyone's favorite aunt. All her nephews and nieces feel that we are her favorite. That's because her loving arms extend as far as they are needed. Her generosity is legend and I, like many others, have been blessed by this. But my relationship with Mafe goes beyond my material needs or hers. We are truly steadfast, trusting friends. Cuddled in her over-sized bed in Foster City, driving around Eden in her golf cart, or sharing a sumptuous meal in a restaurant, we have shared our life stories, talking, weeping, laughing out loud, teasing, being silly, or seriously giving and seeking advice. We have bonded as women who love, trust and respect each other -- which is for me, a rare gift from another generation.

Mafe is all love. She may be cantankerous and bratty at times, for she is undeniably a spoiled girl, but I don't know anyone else who has her capacity to love.

Seeing them both shortly after they were widowed, I found them to be less self-absorbed than I expected recent widows to be. Gilda, still ravishing at 81, didn't skip a beat, picking up from our last merienda together, she teased, scolded, advised, flattered, charmed, like she has always done. And Mafe jumped right back into our old intimacy, sharing feelings, shedding tears and dissolving into laughter, like we also have.

I have been blessed with the gift of Gilda and Mafe. I have so wanted to be like them but when God created them, she threw away the mold. They are each one-of-a-kind -- amazing, fascinating, wonderful women. I bask in their reflected glory, grateful for the friendship and affection that have enriched my existence.

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