Who hands you flowers
When I heard that Tia Naty finally succumbed to her nemesis, a congenital rheumatic heart condition, all I could think of was a Southeast Asian saying: “A little bit of fragrance always clings to one who hands you flowers.” I mentioned this to my cousin, her son, who later used the line as the centerpiece of his eulogy. Although I was surprised that he used it without so much as a nod to me, I let it pass because if there was an apt description of Tia Naty, this was it.
To begin with, Tia Naty always smelled good. She loved perfumes and we her nieces and nephews benefited from such a peculiar foible. In the province where I grew up in the early 1950s, we did not beso-beso; we were trained to “mano po,” to kiss our elders’ hands, so kissing Tia Naty’s hand was always a boon for our probinsiyano noses. For a few hours afterwards, we walked around enjoying the scent until the fragrance dissipated. Perfume-wearing in post-war Bicol was enough to impress us probinsiyanos, but there was more to her than just that. To us, her distinct style also spelled “Big City.” She always sported the latest fashion in dress or shoes, and with her make-up, she always looked classy. Even before Hollywood established Angie’s full lips as the standard, Tia Naty already knew how to accentuate her full lips to enhance her look. At that time in the province when the country was recovering from the deprivations of World War II, only a few women could afford to wear lipstick without raising eyebrows. Her family’s solid credentials, especially her church-going mother, shielded her from any unkind insinuations from the local morality police (aka the parish priest) about why she wore lipstick and how she could afford it.
True, she was easy on the eyes but she was even more attractive as a person. We were drawn to her like present-day fans are to their favorite movie star. Come to think of it, maybe she was our idol because at that time, our town did not yet have a movie house. We were unfamiliar with movies and yet as teenagers we were probably looking for someone to idolize. It was years before a local entrepreneur hatched the idea of showing films in town after local boy Ramon de Salva made it as the quintessential movie villain Ramon D’Salva. Perhaps Ramon D’Salva’s leap to fame as a movie actor in 1949 inspired the idea of the local movie house.
Tia Naty always welcomed us with her ready smile and gentle voice. The Bicolanos describe a soft-spoken person as someone who “cannot break a boiled camote.” The description fitted her. It seemed that even when she was angry, her vocal chords could not reach anywhere near Sen. Miriam Santiago’s strident decibel. She laughed easily but even her hearty laughter was not boisterous. Yet she could also get angry. I remember that she berated one of our friends for gossiping about one of her nieces. On the occasions when she scolded you, you felt such shame for displeasing her that you wanted to bury yourself. Thus we were all careful not to incur her ire because we did not want to lose her esteem. To be banished from her company meant that you could not enjoy the aura of kindness that issued from her. I observed that she was always cordial with everyone—the farmers who tilled her father’s farm or the ordinary women whom she recruited to sing the Pasion in her home during Lent. She welcomed them and put them at ease as warmly as if they were family. Her presence emitted such positive vibes that you felt compelled to be at your best behavior when she’s around. Saying something unkind about someone would be out of place.
She was always ready to share her largesse with friends and family. Her table was always amply laden with goodies, be it merienda of ibos and thick tsokolate (her mother’s original recipe) or her vintage fish with tausi at lunch. Somehow, I felt that even the simplest meal at her table seemed to taste more savory than ours at home. It must have been her gracious attention, as when she would sit down at the table to peel shrimps for you that added dash and spice to her food.
She carried off these qualities with unassuming panache and without the least hint of self-consciousness. I had often wondered how she came to such endearing qualities; the easy answer must be her family background. She was the youngest daughter of the town’s most prosperous Chinoy, and I am sure that he doted on her as generously as a king lavishes attention on a favorite princess. Her good taste must have been honed with the gifts of beautiful clothes and exquisite jewelry he showered on her. Of course, he provided the basics—a comfortable elegant home with lots of love and care from a mother who modeled for her the traditional Filipino values of fear of God, generosity and humility. Unbeknownst to her, she became a role model for many of her nieces. She probably would have flashed an enigmatic incredulous smile if she heard us say so.
Violy Hughes-Davis is a 73-year-old balikbayan who retired in 2001 from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
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