C.S. Lewis’ entreaty, “Courage, dear heart,” seems addressed to this first month of 2018 when Death’s scythe is cutting a wide sweep. In a span of five days, we received news of the passing of cultural workers and stalwarts: Canada-based writer Petronila Cleto followed by tenor Otoniel Gonzaga in Vienna, then stage and film actor Spanky Manikan.
Before one could tell the old ticker to take a breather from mourning came news that fashion designer Pitoy Moreno had also crossed over to eternity. All within 120 hours! One woke up praying for reprieve from any further loss.
But it is Pet Galicia Cleto’s leaving that stings the most for we had a personal connection. I hesitate to call it “friendship” because in the years before her illness and death, I had fallen off her radar and she from mine.
In 2011 when she came home for a visit, we met up at Conspiracy Bar-Restaurant. There she shared plans of putting up and running an organic farm in Nueva Ecija, and I half-listened, bemused at the vision of my still-crazy-after-all-these-years pal about to get her legs, arms and hands muddy to prove a point.
A few nights later, she called me while I was in deep slumber, sounding irked that I had stood her up. “Why,” I asked, groggy with sleep, “are we supposed to meet?”
She said she was standing somewhere at Crossing (Shaw Boulevard and Edsa) and was waiting for me to turn up with a painting or drawing. We were supposed to do an art swap. I corrected her, pointing out that we hadn’t agreed on a particular date, time and meet-up place.
It was my turn to get cross and to think, “How typical of Pet!”
I remembered bitterly the time she took so long to return books lent out in my name by the Population Center Foundation Library for her to review. The librarian and the magazine editor were breathing down my neck. Pet kept promising to turn in something until I had no recourse but to go to her house to retrieve the books. She left a note inside one of the books to say why they weren’t her type. I thought, “She could’ve said so earlier!”
Similar incidents marked our relationship, but all that is water under the bridge.
I fondly remember that spur of the moment (not much planning) in 1979 when we traveled to Baguio with our common friend Ogot Sumulong who worked for the University of the Philippines Film Center in its early days.
Bus reservations were uncommon then. We boarded the Pantranco bus that was about to leave and sat in the last row. Pet’s daughter Cynthia stayed on her lap all throughout the trip. When we ran out of small talk, we sang all the Broadway songs whose lyrics we could remember and ignored the other passengers’ dagger looks.
Ogot was then preparing to migrate to the United States. As we strolled through Camp John Hay, we pretended that he was there already. At the then Hyatt Terraces, we sat by a roaring fireplace and warmed ourselves after a long walk. I can still see the light cast on Pet’s olive skin.
It was Pet as mother who grew in my esteem. Had she the means, she wouldn’t rely on a yaya to mind her child. She never balked at the responsibilities of a single mother even if it meant taking then toddler Cynthia, whom we jokingly called Sintuya, everywhere with her, including interviews, plays, movies, or art exhibit openings.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Cynthia grew into a savant, for Pet taught her to articulate herself clearly. The kid spoke like a wise old soul, not a child.
Through Coni Ledesma, Makibaka, a revolutionary women’s organization and allied member of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, recently gave a “Red Salute” to Pet, recognizing her as “a revolutionary woman, defender of human rights, journalist, writer, editor and organizer.”
She was “Tita Pet” to countless Filipino-Canadians for whom she was cook, drinking bud, even shoulder to cry on. She was, to me, simply Pet, that Maxine Hong Kingston lookalike who affectionately maddened me until the very end.
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Elizabeth Lolarga (babethlolarga@gmail .com) is a freelance writer.
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