(The following are excerpts from the eulogy delivered at the funeral Mass for Imelda O. Cojuangco by her grandson, JJ Yulo, last Friday morning, May 13, 2016, at the Santuario de San Antonio, Makati.)
Mi nombre es JJ y soy sin ninguna duda el más bello de los nietos de Tata… Baila en la playa. Comer y bebar. Soy capitan. Soy capitan.
(Sorry. My lola took Spanish lessons recently. Just thought I would pay homage.)
To my non-Spanish-speaking friends, I shall translate: Hello! My name is JJ and I am undoubtedly the most beautiful of Tata’s grandchildren. Dance at the beach, eat and drink. Captain Soy. Captain Soy.
I am standing in front of you today —rather nervously, I might add—to pay my respects to Imelda O. Cojuangco. To many of you, she is known as Meldy Cojuangco or Doña Mel, but to me and my family, she is known affectionately as Tata. Today I will paint you a picture of this lady we all love, and maybe even unlock a secret or two or three.
There were many words used to describe her. Philanthropist was one, as she has been a rock for numerous causes. She also became known as an icon of style, dressing up like only she can. My friends in the fashion industry have all told me of their admiration for her unique Imelda-ness.
From golden chopsticks impaled in her seemingly gravity-defying coiffure, to ruffles the size of platters around her swan-like neck of alabaster, to dainty jeans, bedazzled with studs and sequins, down to her bangketa-purchased floral red silk house slippers, and even her memorizing the passages she was supposed to read for the Mass because she didn’t like wearing fuddy-duddy-looking reading glasses—she certainly defied fashion rules and had her own way of fixing herself…
But those closest to her knew beyond the glamorous life the media portrayed her to have, she really was a simple probinsiyana lass. She had simple joys—fresh flowers; a good book to read; a chick flick (teleseryes in later years); lingering lunches with her amigas; green mangoes—the more maasim the better, on which she’d pour vinegar; See’s chocolate nuts and chews; floral stationery; and stickers! Oh, how she loved her Sanrio!…
$1.50 Costco hotdog
During summers in the United States, one of her favorite things to do was to drive to Costco with the Robin to her Batman, Tita Marietta Santos. Together they would indulge in one of her favorite gastronomic delights: the $1.50 Costco hotdog and a can of Coke—caffeine-free Diet Coke to be more specific, thank you. One of the secrets to her girlish figure. That, and removing the insides of crusty bread, because she believed the insides would expand in your belly. Even pizza was not spared, as she ate only the crust.
She definitely had obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Once she liked a certain food, for instance, she would eat the same thing for months, or even years on end. From my early childhood to late teenage years, it was sotanghon soup, heavy on the veggies; burnt cheese on toast; gulaman with a ton of canned pineapple; and suha. Adobo just to change things up.
Our common dentist, Tita Lucy Bernardo, loved her a lot because she brushed her teeth two hours a day. That’s 14 hours of tooth-brush action in a week—which may explain how she passed away with a perfect set of pearly whites intact…
If you watch all of us cousins and her children closely, we’ve all perfected the signature Tata nose-to-nose kiss—something she preferred because our noses are often cleaner than our lips… although my son might refute that claim. San Antonio parish regulars knew she was coming to mass when her advanced party would come in and wipe her seat down before she arrived.
Mickey Mouse was not spared this, as she wiped her boat down before “It’s a Small World.” The phones in her home all had a Kleenex box beside it, so you wouldn’t sweat into it. Speaking of Kleenex, my girl cousins were given lessons on how to properly fold a sheet when blowing one’s nose.
Minor hoarding was also one of her idiosyncrasies. She loved keeping stuff: shopping bags and wrapping paper, ribbons, pens and what have you. And guess what: It was infectious. Just enter the gold mine that is my mom’s room, or the uncharted waters of my room, or simply view my Ninang’s immortal collection of Spam. Yes, that has Tata written all over it.
Finally, and arguably the biggest quirk of them all, was her firm stand on her age. To most of the planet, it was a mystery of epic proportions, like the existence of the Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster. The signage outside her wake had no birth year. The doctors who administered her annual checkups in the United States were left scratching their heads: Every time they read her charts, her age was always listed as 40—even younger than I am right now! Mind you, this went on for more than a decade.
When I turned 30, she told me I was 27. That stuck with me. Nowadays when people ask how old I am, I just say that mentally and emotionally, I remained stuck at 27. Thank you then, Tata, for teaching me that age is really about attitude, and is just a number. For the record, I will reveal my first secret: Tata’s real age. Tata is timeless.
The beating heart of my Tata, though, is her family. I’ve been watching her all my life, and have seen her face light up most in the presence of her crazy, chaotic family. All my life I have sat with her for Saturday lunch, with and without my Lolo Monching. I have known no other way to spend Saturdays, and I have seen the little stories of my family unfold here.
The dramatic sagas, the broken love stories, more grandkids and great-grandkids, the triumphs, the fears, aspirations and dreams—all shared while chomping on Nana Domeng’s not-so-gourmet cooking, Peping’s fried chicken with white gravy, Cipriano and Mr. Malakas’ grand spreads, to today’s rotation of caterers. I am hoping that this tradition doesn’t end even if Tata isn’t with us anymore, because it was at my grandparents’ table that I learned to cherish the gift of family.
Tata was always open—in more ways than one. When I was a child, my Lolo Monching would sometimes ask me to sleep over on weekends. On some occasions the three of us would sit together and watch movies on their newfangled high-tech gadget, the Sony Betamax. One movie I will never forget was this classic coming-of-age flick called “The Blue Lagoon.” I don’t remember the story, except that this dude and this chick (Brooke Shields) were marooned on an island as little kids. Of course at some point they grow up, and ahem, discover each other.
You can imagine what comes next: That evening I caught my first glimpse of cinematic boobies while sitting beside my lola and lolo. They didn’t even cover my eyes. In effect, Tata showed me my first tatas.
She wasn’t very self-conscious about the human form and perceived it to be natural—often as I walked into her room to kiss her on Saturdays, she would address me and my mom in her birthday suit. I grew accustomed to this; it never bothered me for a minute. So to our friends, that’s Secret No. 2—if you think we’re exhibitionists, well, it’s part of our DNA.
Some of our fondest memories were made in our happy place: the San Francisco Bay Area. Some time after Lolo died, Tata got a modest house for us all to spend quality time in. An extension of her house in Manila, it was, naturally, spotless. Her kids took turns going there with her, with us apo in tow. I’m guessing at some point she felt sad that we had to take turns, so she built another wing. And then another one after that.
It became Tata’s Home For Hungry Children, with dormitory beds. The cable guy would be baffled—“You want me to connect cable on how many TVs?” With all of us there, we had a steady supply of her favorite adobo with castañas, roast duck from the Chinese supermarket, and pinakbet. Once in a while,
the family concierge—that would be moi—would have to make reservations in restaurants like the spectacularly mediocre McArthur Park, one of her all-time favorites. “Yes I’d like to make a reservation for Sunday brunch, please. Noon. For 29.” Always there was a pregnant pause. “I’m sorry? How many?”
She got around in signature Tata-mobiles. They weren’t fancy automobiles at all, contrary to what you may think, but they were always in her favorite color—a deep, dark red. At first it was a station wagon, then it progressed to mini-vans, all lovingly dubbed “The Red Chariot.” Again, as you can imagine, the insides were positively spotless, with a squad of saints, Sto. Niños and crucifixes hanging from the mirror and dashboard (more than the average Manila taxi— she even had that little dog that moves its head), her spritzes of Jo Malone permeating the worn leather, even today, long after her last visit there.
No one wanted to ride with her in her car, by the way, most especially during trips from her house to San Francisco, because that meant only one thing: You had to pray the rosary with her. Loud and clear. No mumbling allowed, lest she snap at you, “Do not pray so fast.” Even the driver was not spared. I know, because I once said, “I have to concentrate on the road.” “Pray!” “Yes, Tata.” How we got away with it, I’ll never know, because to this day, there isn’t a single Cojuangco on my side of the family who knows all the mysteries by heart.
It was in that house, too, that I again learned a lot about family from just watching her. Family time was everything then. We didn’t even do anything in particular. We’d watch the NBA, eat pizza, play with our toys, do some shopping. (Yes, Imelda Cojuangco also loved Target and Marshall’s, but of course she would spend an extraordinary amount of time sitting in Neiman Marcus, too, scattering us grandkids to fend for ourselves at more modest options like Old Navy.)
Because of her, a lot of us cousins were up-to-date with the spring romcom offerings, all viewed together in our neighborhood Century 21 cinemaplex. She sometimes oddly enjoyed movies very far removed from our image of her—like, say, “RoboCop.”
These weren’t very “special” activities. Funny, but we never went to see any sights with her, hardly even went beyond Northern California—but we always did things together.
My cousins and I had a WhatsApp group to feed me info for this eulogy, and across the board a lot of it were memories of time spent together, in the United States or here. The mundane stuff—the genuine stuff—that’s what stuck with us the most.
She genuinely cared for all of us. You’ll probably hear that from anyone who knows her. She cared for all aspects of our lives, because she wanted us not just to be good people, but to be proper, as well. She’d be the first to tell any of us, “Stop shaking your leg!” “Elbows off the table!” “Stand up straight!” or my personal favorite “You better lose some weight!”
So says the 100-pound lady who eats like a sweaty karpintero. When my cousin Anton had horrendous constipation, it was Tata who insisted he down some prune juice daily. She would pinch Ivee’s stomach to see if she was gaining weight, needle Patty all the time to move it so she could lose it and give Gabbie lectures on how to “smize” to maximize her photographic potential. I’m sure my cousins will miss that, too.
If family was her heart, her soul was all about her relationship with God. I have never seen anyone pray as fervently as my Tata. If anyone can claim that their faith was their anchor, it would be her. She prayed a lot, and because of the many, many people she helped, she had an army of prayer warriors who prayed with and for her, too.
When my lolo passed away 35 years ago, it was like the life had been sucked from her. Anyone could see it, and feel it. To rise above her intense sadness, she turned to church work, and that was the beginning of her life as a philanthropist. From what I gather, she was legend in San Antonio, as well, serving as parish council president and chairing events, and just being a presence.
I think it was this strong faith that was also at the root of her giving heart. She helped countless people—deserving scholars, artists, doctors—who were recipients of her generosity.
She was 80 pounds when she passed away, but her shoulders lifted them all, willingly. Because that’s how generous her God was, too.
“Nothing but the best for God” was her credo. When I first became active in San Antonio, the parish prayer room was a simple one, with banig on the floor and a few pillows to sit on. It appealed to my Jesuit sensibilities. One day there were pews, cushioned at that, and throw pillows and lamps and all. I found out soon after that day that Tata was behind that. She wanted to give everyone a better place to worship the Lord, whom she loved so fervently.
She tried her best, of course, to inspire her family with her God-loving ways. Before hopping on a plane for a quick side trip in the States, my brother Ton went to say bye to Tata. Before he stepped out, Tata called to him, “Angel of God.” To which he replied, “Uhm … pray for us?”
You failed, man. Suffice to say he almost missed his flight—Tata wouldn’t let him leave until he learned the prayer. Mariele learned the Memorare (shocking!), and Patty may be the sole cousin who will pass the mysteries of the rosary quiz as she learned to appreciate it as time went on.
I could go on and on about this woman. But I promise to end soon. Let me tell you about a turning point in the life story of Tata.
Tata was diagnosed with an aneurysm that could go off at any minute. The term used was that she was “a ticking time bomb.” Holy crap, right? We were all saying our goodbyes, weeping and all. Well, this was 11 years ago. My cousin Andres had no underarm odor yet, and look at him now! Tall, and with underarm odor.
More than a decade
Yes, Tata stayed on with us for more than a decade. Typical of her and her God’s generosity. And the funny thing is, I’d like to think that this family has gotten even tighter, if that’s even possible.
There are several people who the family would like to thank for making the last 11 years ones we will cherish forever. Just like Tata gave so much of herself, so did these beautiful souls give back to her—often above and beyond the call of duty…
A special mention to my mom (Marvie Cojuangco Yulo)—not because she’s my mom or anything like that, plus Tata loved all her kids—but I’d like to tip my hat to her because all these years, she couldn’t bear to leave Tata by her lonesome. She would see her every day, and hear Mass with her. My mom hardly left for longer than maybe two days for 11 years, refusing outright my trying to entice her with even a short hop to Hong Kong or somewhere she could cool off. “Who will make bantay Tata?” was the usual answer I would get.
One day, she told me, “JJ, if anything ever happens to me, ha!” To which I replied “Mommy naman, ako pa!” “Ikaw nga! You better be here or else!” Well, Mom, I think you deserve that vacay, and then some.
I’m sure some of you are nodding your head as I say all this. “Yeah, Marvie is such a dutiful daughter.” This is when I expose my third and final secret that I found out only yesterday: Lolo Monching made mom promise, on his death bed at that, to spoil his beloved wife rotten and treat her like the queen she deserved to be treated like.
Which may explain many things: why Tata never learned how to turn on the TV or DVD/CD player, or use a cell phone. Mom took care of all that. Mom even filled up her embarkation cards at the airport. My Lolo loved her that much, which now also explains her sadness. Shortly after my mom promised that, he passed away.
How do I end this magnum opus of a eulogy? At the very least, I hope I’ve painted a clear picture for you of my lola—as colorful and as vibrant as any painting hanging on her walls.
Thank you to my Tata for every single bit you’ve done for me, my family and the countless others you’ve helped.
Thank you for inspiring me to try and be selfless and generous to those around me in need. I will probably never come close to you in that aspect, but I will try.
Thank you for teaching me to be gracious and thankful to everyone for everything, even the little things.
Thank you for showing all of us the importance of family, in the simplest and most meaningful ways.
Thank you for fervently praying for us—not just your loved ones, but literally for everyone—every single day. Thank you for showing us the value of Mass and being our dial-a-friend to the Man Upstairs.
As I take two steps back to look at your life, from any angle you view it, it was certainly a life well-lived, a life we can all learn a thing or two from. I promise we will try to honor it by watching over each other here for as long as we’re still breathing. We love you so much, and know that we will miss you and keep you in our prayers.
Tata wanted me to name my eldest child Melody, because it sounded like Meldy. Well, I just couldn’t do it, but ever since then I felt an affinity between the two. During Clara’s graduation from preschool, they sang something which I would like to quote because it seems perfect for this very moment: “When you don’t want to say goodbye, you can say hasta luego. So long! See you later!”
I have no doubt the celestial kumbanchero band is serenading you and Lolo Monching with “Bato Sa Buhangin” at the Au Bon Vivant in the sky—with dinner cooked by Nora Daza herself—and you resplendent in your red floral pantsuit, chopsticks dangling from your hair.