In one of the sweetest love songs by Tony Bennett, he describes what being loved felt like, without using a single adjective. He merely transports us to a specific time and place of love, and, somehow, it is enough: We all get it!
When Joanna loved me Every town was Paris Every day was Sunday Every month was May
Indeed, I have special feelings for the most beautiful and most romantic city of Paris, for family Sundays, and for the merry month of May.
If I had a choice, I’d have wanted to be born in May; for one thing its birthstone, the precious emerald, is certainly classier than February’s amethyst.
But I was conceived in May, the next best thing, I suppose. My parents’ wedding anniversary is May 15, and I was born nine months later. As it happens, my birth month is crowded with family birthdays—mom’s, Vergel’s and that of my first son Rob—which only means not a few of us were conceived in May.
May is best known as the month of Mother Mary and the daily recitation of the rosary, as she requested of the world in several apparitions in Fatima to the children Lucia and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco. The feast of our Lady of Fatima is on the 13th. The novenas have in fact begun. A long time ago, I was in Fatima with mom, and I remember how it struck me that the shrine was not as popular, the pilgrims nothing comparable with the number in Lourdes, but just as well: It felt more solemn and prayerful.
Memories full of mom
It seems all my memories of family lunches on Sundays, my first trip to Paris, and the month of May are full of my mom. In my late teens I traveled with her extensively through Europe. We joined a few pilgrimages to Rome, Lourdes and Fatima. From each trip I took home with me all sorts of memories—among these, my first Balenciaga fashion show, where my generous mom got me one of the dresses modeled on the ramp, and my first full-length opera in Vienna, “La Sonnambula.”
After my studies in Spain, on my last year in college at St. Theresa’s, I spent a memorable Holy Week, again with mom, in Sevilla. There I watched in awe the processions and other religious rituals of the region—and also my first bullfight.
I remember most the float of la Virgen de los gitanos; it took my breath away. She was covered from head to toe in fresh flowers as was her carriage. It was she who received the most piropos, sung in gypsy Andaluz style from balconies along the street. Her carriage stopped several times as the gypsy chanting began, and did a forward and backward movement as a sign of appreciation at the end of each chanting before moving on.
Around the late ’50s, there were comparable Flores de Mayo processions in our Lady’s honor, simpler, with every girl participant given equal billing, not like the Santacruzan, which had a main attraction, the Sta. Elena.
Hermanas mayores from provincial towns like Pasig, Biñan, Parañaque, etc., would invite young girls from Manila to participate in the grand but solemn processions. We girls paraded unranked and without escorts. We each carried a fresh bouquet and walked under an arc, borne, lit up and decorated with more flowers, through major streets and around the Cathedral before entering it. As the saying goes, no matter how long processions are, they all end inside the church.
The stellar moment for each of us came when, one by one, we walked forward and knelt to lay our bouquets at the foot of the Virgin’s image at the main altar. I never felt prettier wearing mom’s terno. That was, of course, before some people took over the tradition and made it a fashion extravaganza.
If I loved being a mom, I love as much being mamita to my five grandchildren. With no mom now, I guess that puts me in the front lines, too, something I need to get used to yet.
As it happens, Mother’s Day is aptly celebrated in May, too. The last time I visited mom and dad’s nicho was on my 80th birthday, three months ago. By now she needs a change of flowers, and, with the lockdown, I don’t know when I can go again. This pandemic has stripped life and death of all its rituals and sentimentality, and has denied us the comforting presence of family and friends when we need it most.
Death is never more lonely than in this pandemic. But it’s in this time of strange endings and uncertain beginnings that I hold on to my faith in life everlasting and find consolation in not being able to visit mom, as hopefully so for all those who have lost loved ones now or at any time, in Elizabeth Frye’s poem:
Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am in a thousand winds that blow, I am the softly falling snow I am the gentle showers of rain I am in the fields of ripening grain. I am in the morning hush I am in the graceful rush Of beautiful birds in circling flight. I am the star shine of the night. I am in the flowers that bloom, I am in a quiet room. I am the birds that sing. I am in each lovely thing. Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I do not die.