This is one of the eulogies during the state necrological service for National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo last Sept. 7 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Susan Lara is this year’s holder of the Henry Irwin Chair in Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University. Her book, “Letting Go and Other Stories,” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1998.
I have been asked to give honor to Dr. Edith L. Tiempo, but the honor is really mine, to be giving tribute to her, our National Artist for Literature, the great woman whom I have the privilege of calling Mom. It is a privilege that is not mine alone but one I happily share with many literary siblings.
Much has been written about Edith Tiempo as a writer—her attention to craft, the elegance of her prose, the clarity of her vision, how she builds the bridge between that vision and its articulation in each piece of poetry, fiction and critical essay that she wrote.
Many have spoken about Edith Tiempo the teacher and mentor—of how she didn’t really give you the answers, but led you to them, through what Anthony Tan calls deft questionings, until you see the light, and arrive at the answers yourself.
You all know about the Silliman National Writers Workshop, which she co-founded and co-directed with Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo, through which they nurtured generations of writers. This is where we learned that the writer must take care of everything; to let the concept be the main concern, even in an imagist poem; that a story needs room in which to echo, to reverberate, to achieve resonance, a multiplying of meaning. That fine craftsmanship and thin substance is actually much ado about nothing. And that the conscientious writer’s great task is to preserve for the human being his finest and best self.
We have all heard about her Robert Frost moment, her Robert Lowell moment, her Robert Penn Warren moment—they’re all Roberts, by some coincidence that Dad Ed would have considered “too much.”
But relatively little has been said about Edith Tiempo as a person, as mother, as friend. Part of her extraordinariness was her insistence on being treated as an ordinary person. Whenever she introduced herself on the first day of the workshop, it was always “Mom, call me Mom.”
When she wanted to relax, she played solitaire. She loved reading detective novels. She enjoyed watching “Tom and Jerry.” She couldn’t get enough of the halo-halo of Chow King, and anything sweet. Whenever we paid her a visit in her hilltop home in Montemar, Sibulan, she would serve us the deadly combination of ice cream, brazo de mercedes and Coke-regular. She sang racy songs and told bawdy tales and jokes, but only after Dad Ed had passed away.
She admitted that sometimes she surprised herself with her own remarks. She once referred to an unwholesome fictional character as “that sunnamagan.” During one session, as she turned her back to write something on the whiteboard, she heard a camera clicking away. She turned to the writing fellow who was taking her picture, wagged a finger and warned her, “careful with my butt.”
One summer, she began the workshop’s first session by introducing the panelists to the Fellows: “To my left is Krip Yuson, my ‘almost son,’ and to my right is Jimmy Abad, the guy I could fall in love with after Dad Ed died.” That made Krip look up and shout: “Did you hear that, Ed?” And when, during a photo session, a young woman in the back row hurried forward and sat on the lap of a male panelist known for his sedateness, Mom laughed wickedly and asked for an extra copy to show to his wife.
Like every mother, she was there for us without fail, ready with whatever we needed, be it a hug, a word of advice, prayer, shelter, food, sometimes all of them, at once. She was a mother even to those who had not yet learned to call her Mom.
A young poet, Januar Yap, learned this on the day he arrived in Dumaguete for the 1995 workshop. His first problem then was where and how to get lunch. He came up to Mom Edith to ask who was distributing the fellows’ stipends, and Mom said the secretary would come with the money that afternoon yet. Then Mom gently laid her hand on his head and asked, “You absolutely don’t have any money?” Januar said, “I almost broke down, ready to give up the whole madness of pursuing what brought me there in the first place.” Mom reached into her purse, gave him some money and said, “Go, get some lunch.” Januar has not forgotten that gesture, of Mom “passing me, the penniless dreamer years ago, the hundred bucks that assured me a good lunch. Misunderstood at home, I found a parent that one lonely summer.”
Is it any wonder we keep going back? Noel Pingoy said it all when he said, “Dumaguete is not just about writing well. It is also about treating people well and becoming better persons.” We learned that from Mom Edith, too.
Her ultimate wish was again to be treated as an ordinary person—to break away from tradition and not to be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani, as befits a National Artist. Like any ordinary Dumagueteña, she wanted to be laid to rest at Dumaguete Memorial Park, beside her beloved, our beloved, Dad Ed.
So Mom, you got your wish. You’re now with Dad. We shall stop worrying about you now, and start worrying about ourselves, and how, in the name of all that makes sense, we can ever go through life, without you. Bye for now, Mom. Rest in the Lord.