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A good thing: tribute to Letizia Constantino

12:08 AM July 12, 2016

I wrote this back in college after an unforgettable evening at the Constantino home arranged by our instructor, Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan, since deceased, for our journalism class at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Letizia Constantino’s recent passing reminded me that we should value people who share so much of their life with us (even so briefly) and, in doing so, inspire us to live our own life to the fullest.

NIETZSCHE’S theory of eternal recurrence says you must live your life in such a way that if you had to live it over and over again until infinity, it would be a good thing. Who would have thought getting to meet Letizia Constantino, widow of nationalist historian Renato Constantino (“The Miseducation of the Filipino,” “A Past Revisited”) would keep me up long after I got home? I was too wound up to sleep, but at the same time, I felt strangely calm. And that, even more than sleep, was important.

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It was such a privilege to meet someone from an older generation. Being welcomed into Letizia Constantino’s home, listening to her stories, and laughing at her sense of humor made me wonder what I would be like if I ever reached her age. You would think that having seen and gone through so much, she would be content to just sit back and relax. On the contrary, she still had the energy to entertain a group of curious journalism students on a Thursday night. Not only did she answer our questions, feed us (our compliments to the chef), and put on a little piano concert, she also told stories about her life, mostly about her husband. At one point she laughed and apologized: “I’m sorry if I keep going on and on about him. It’s just that I miss my husband all the time.” There was no need to apologize because we really didn’t mind. When you see someone smile like that when they talk of a loved one, you find yourself smiling with them.

She had us laughing (and listening eagerly because we knew the ending was going to be a happy one) when she told us about how they got together. She didn’t like him because she thought he was too serious, too stuck up. He thought she was too flighty. They probably wouldn’t have become a couple if it weren’t for a friend who insisted that each really wanted to get to know the other (but neither ever said anything of the sort). A rather sneaky kind of divine intervention, she called it.

The friend brought Renato over to a gathering at Letizia’s house and he, normally taciturn, was quite charming for some reason. Her friends, who initially didn’t like him, were surprised and told him they didn’t know he could be amiable given his serious personality. At that moment, she came in to greet her guests and he turned to her with the question, “What about you, Miss Roxas? What do you think of me?” Quick as a flash, she answered, “I think you’re conceited.” Score one for the future Mrs. Constantino!

“He thought I had no brains,” she confided to us when we were all eating (very happily, if the looks on my companions’ faces were anything to go on). I just had to smile at that. It isn’t often that a guy (admit it, boys) would go out with someone smarter than they. I’m not saying it’s wrong. All I’m saying is there’s a better way to go about it. I rather liked the way Renato Constantino handled the situation. He would lend her books and ask her to put a mark on the pages that interested her. Then they would discuss the points the next time they were together. Quite underhanded, some would say. But if you think about it, it was actually kind of sweet. What better way to get a conversation going?

She laughed when she told us how Renato Constantino couldn’t dance to save his life. She, on the other hand, loved to dance. Still danced a couple of times a week, actually. “I danced with him just once,” she told us. “And I told him, ‘Let’s sit down. You don’t want to dance. You just want to hold me.’” We were all laughing but quite a few of us were smiling knowingly, too. It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out why.

Then she went on to tell us about how tough things were from time to time. Every 10 years, there would be a major upheaval in their life—the war, the writing (everything he writes goes through her scrutiny and vice versa). What we see in print is actually a joint effort. She said that whenever he would stop writing, she wouldn’t play the piano.

“The piano was the love of my life. Now that he’s gone, it’s the love of my life again,” she said with a catch in her voice. But she looks back on it all with no bitterness, she added. I guess that’s how it is when you know that there’s a reason for anything and everything that happens to you. Her experiences made her into the person she is today: a woman content with the way she spent her life and who she spent it with. And she traced it back to the day a friend of theirs told her that if she chose Renato Constantino, life with him will have a lot of ups and downs but will never be boring. And he was right.

And it was impossible not to appreciate her performance. Letizia Constantino is an exceptional pianist! Very accomplished, very skilled, and very moving. She had a little story for every piece, like the time her parents didn’t approve of her and Renato and he would stand on the street opposite her house just to hear her play the piano. I just had to smile at each story. Now I wish I didn’t stop taking piano lessons when I was a kid. I just sat there and listened, wrapped up in her music and memories. I remember sighing a couple of times and clapping enthusiastically at the end of each piece. Encore! Encore! If I were to relive this evening over and over again, it would definitely be a good thing.

Letizia Constantino is now one of my favorite people in the world. She said she wanted to have us over again sometime soon, and that next time, we’ll be the ones sharing our stories. We’ll see. I can only hope my story will be just as fascinating as hers.

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Jaimee Marie T. Bruce, 29, is a freelance writer and education consultant based in Japan.

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