Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Sunday at Santol Mansion

Dona Esperanza sat spellbound in her bamboo chaise lounge in the verandah. At this hour of the morning she was alone. Soon the frisson of an Easter dawn would overwhelm her and she would give thanks for another Holy Week passed in reflection, meditation and harmony.

“Everything took place without incident (no blood shed by terrorist guerillas) my family has its tensions and frustrations but not one of them is a drunk, an addict, a cruel parent and employer, and a mean-hearted individual. They all work hard to fulfill their duties. The children enjoy school and are all top-notch students. I thank you for my blessings, O Jesus,” she humbly prayed.

“Are we disturbing you Mama?” asked Matt.

“Would you prefer to be alone with your thoughts?”

“This is a welcome surprise,” she thought. “Oh no, hijos, I am happy that all of us had the same thoughts. Dahlia and Allegra had also joined her eldest son and daughter.

“It was a truly sacred Holy Week. A Joyous Easter Mama.”

“I am sorry I was irritated at the beginning of Lent at the thought of spending these holy days in the unbearable heat of Manila.”

“It came to us that perhaps we are all overly spoiled. Some reminders of crude realities have surely made us better human beings.”

“Our children will grow up to be more enlightened and spiritual beings.”

“They, like you and to a lesser degree us, because of you, will be open and understanding towards all religious beliefs, no matter how weird and outlandish they might appear.”

“So long as they are not Satanic and do not involve possession of one’s body and ultimately one’s soul, infestation of one’s house and a Faustian bargain," stated Dona Esperanza.

“I think I speak for all of us, that these last three days of the Passion and Agony of Christ have cleansed us. We feel enriched. We feel kind towards our fellow beings, especially those we do not like,“ Matt told his mother and sisters.

“A Joyous Easter Mama,” they reiterated bending down to hug and kiss her. She clasped each one to her bosom. Dona Esperanza had cried in anguish and in pain over the tragedies that had befallen her clan,

“So far, I have not had to live through the indescribable agony of losing one of my children. I am thankful to God for that. Almost all of the people I know; friends, acquaintances and relatives have all experienced the deaths of one or more children.”

A chorus of “Happy Easter”, from her three sons-in law; handsome and serious Edmund, Camilla’s husband and father of Lucrezia, greeted Dona Esperanza. Armand, debonair, devil-may care and an inveterate gambler married to Allegra her youngest daughter. They had produced Freckie, Zita and Henry, still a toddler. Esperanza’s favorite son–in-law was Rudolf (Rudy) Dahlia’s spouse and father of six-year-old Lola. Rudy was a source of strength, the kind Jesus and the Buddha would have chosen as a disciple. The Japanese had beaten him senseless. They tortured him. His spirit had never been crushed. Rudy remained his good-natured, patient and self-effacing self.

“A queridos, where are you all off to at this hour of the morning? It’s quarter past five in the morning, “ she exclaimed laughing in between their kisses on her cheeks. It was a ritual between them. She always knew where they were headed. They enjoyed telling her.

“By the time I shower, dress and breakfast with Dahlia, it will be nearly six o’clock. It takes thirty minutes to get there. I shall be just in time for the golf game which starts at seven. I am going to do a few rounds with my Roxas-Acuna cousins at Wack Wack Country Club," replied Rudy.

“I have an unfinished poker game with Harry and Joe Levine,” said Armand.

Esperanza smiled and said nothing. Joe ran the International Casino for the Mafia or so went the rumors. Joe was one of her most trusted friends since the thirties.

“He won’t let Armand lose his head today of all days. If I know Joe, he’ll see that Armand shows up for the Easter Egg Hunt at 9:00 o’clock this morning.”

“My Beloved Mother died on Easter Sunday of 1944. That’s her anniversary. I shall visit her grave as long as I can. Tong the gardener has made a huge bouquet of waling-waling “(the spectacular Vanda Sanderiana Orchids native only to the Philippines.)

“Queridos, Hasta pronto. Be on the lookout for drunk drivers or for those with hangovers. Easter for some is a time of alcohol, sex and drugs,” she told them, mindful that friends and acquaintances had been injured, maimed and killed because they had been involved in smash-ups with those under the influence or they themselves had been more than a little stoned at the time of their crack-ups.

“In a few hours, we are going to be invaded by 25 children between the ages of 7 and 12, at the very least. Who knows just how many tortured and moody teen-agers will come? Muttered Matthias.

“Mon Dieu, the exclusive schools these children attend including ours, won’t accept more than 15 to a class. That gives you an idea of our bravery,” quipped Allegra.

“Thank God, Easter, comes but once a year. I can barely survive Lent as it is now, replied Camilla the eldest of his sisters and mother to Lucrezia.

“I am always terrified by what choice jewels may issue forth from Fray Paco’s mouth if one of these tweety children provokes him,” said Dahlia, the middle sister and mother of Lola, who was in the province of Laguna spending Holy Week with her paternal grand-mother, Dona Pilar.

“Isn’t Lola coming back this morning for the Easter egg hunt and our song fest?’ asked Allegra, the youngest sister, Her children were Ziti, Freckie and Henry.

“We have just seen Edmund leave for his Easter salute to Dona Zorayda. He has made it clear he prefers to be alone. He says it’s like a break for him,” said Camilla, her voice tinged with sadness.

“His mother Zorayda died a tragic death of tuberculosis on Easter Sunday of 1944. What a beautiful and unusual woman she was. All that unimaginable and incalculable wealth she and her older sister Keramen had in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. She was so natural and accepting of her great beauty. It reminds me of Lucrezia's what-of-it attitude. Beauty can sometimes be terrifying,” declared Dona Esperanza.

“ I remember her at a ball in the Manila Hotel just a few days before Pearl Harbor was bombed on the 7th of December. She wore a black lace gown under scarlet silk. Few knew that the many buttons on the back of her gown encased in mother –of pearl were all three carat rubies from Burma,” Camilla recalled.

“The Japanese beheaded two of her sons, Edmund’s brothers, Mikel and Willie and then they sent her the photographs. How considerate,” uttered Matthias with sarcasm.

“Fernando, her fifth son, was shot dead in Baguio. It was a gold mine he was protecting for the Buch-von Remo family and for their American partners, the Guggenheims I think. What futile romanticism. I would not die to protect any of my family’s assets,” declared Matt.

His statement startledd his sisters. “Oh don’t be alarmed. I never said I would not die protecting my family, I used the word assets,” he pointed out.

Chocolate eggs from Switzerland had been ordered from the Swiss Trading Company – Marsman and Sons. They only sold Lindt, the best milk chocolates on the market. The eggs varied in size from three inches to 12 inches in length. They contained lovely mementos. Gold pendants in the shape of all the letters of the alphabet for the girls. The boys received carved signet rings with their family’s coat of arms.

“We researched the coats of arms thoroughly. We are all related by blood, marriage, money, business and financial alliances, and of course, adultery,” pointed out Allegra keeping a straight face.

Mother, son and daughters cracked up with laughter.

“There might be some incest it that boiling cauldron you have just so flippantly referred to Allegra.

Her son and daughters looked on in horror. She hastened to clarify.

“It is not a father committing unspeakable acts with his daughter. I think it deals more with some of our men and women indulging in sex with their husbands’ brothers or for that matter with their sisters’ husbands. It is the order of the day in our oligarchy for first cousins to marry. The elders in the family discourage such matches. The Church grants dispensations for matrimony between first cousins after a through investigation of the case. The point is are the young people besotted with each other really first cousins? We have no tests as yet to determine if instead they may be half brother and half sister.”

“How did you get to know so much Mama? “

“Life, my darlings. Just living Life. Let’s move on to a more scrumptious subject – chocolates anybody.”

“For those who preferred the so called ‘Fondente,' chocolate composed of a minimum of 75% Cacao, the plantations in the Bicol Peninsula owned by the Buch von Remos sent kilos of pure cacao to enable the Chef at Santol Mansion to bake them in the shape of cockatoos, Batman and Superman.

Amir, the young son of Ranjit Singh, one of their Chiefs of Security had been thoughtful enough to draw a map. The tropics could be deadly. In no time, insects and pesky ants would get to the chocolates and ruin everything for the children.

Ronnie Laing, an extravagant decorator, florist and artist had engaged his artists in decorating white porcelain eggs from China. They had Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist motifs. Some eggs also had Chinese symbols of good luck, good fortune and Long life. The Ortigas women had ordered gorgeous porcelain eggs hand painted and signed in Naples, which featured the Passion of Christ.

“Those are not to
be placed on the ground. They are not free. Anyone who wants these masterpieces, 12 in all can go the Hospice of Saint Joseph and pay $120 dollars for them,” Esperanza had suggested.

“Filipinos, like the Spanish and the Italians are not punctual. We should have said first come first served just as Monsignor Alberti did at the Mass of Holy Saturday. They would have inundated Santol Mansion by now, instead of arriving in trickles,” observed Camilla.

The seven cousins appeared in all their finery, ready to assist and charm their guests. Lola had just joined them.

“You have no idea what you missed by going to Laguna,” declared Dolly.

“I saw the Crucifixion re-enacted. On the Plaza (town square) it scared me and I cried. Did you see one?” retorted Lola nonplussed.

"No we did not. But we went through the Agony and the Passion of Jesus as if we had been there with him,” replied Lucrezia.

“Welcome back to Santol Lola, we all missed you,” said Jaime. They closed ranks and hugged her. “Where is Fray Paco?"

“The dwarves won’t bring him out until the party is well on its way and the Egg hunt is about to begin,” said Heinzie.

“You are the most beautiful one here Lucrezia. Everyone else is pretty and nice looking. No one has the “It” but you and the Dona,” whispered Ah Wei into her ear.

“Thank you Amah, but please don’t remind me all the time because I might become conceited and make even more girls envious and hostile towards me,” she implored AhWei. Also, I feel that my essence is violated every time physical beauty is mentioned, she mused.

“Child is right. She is lovely to look at like a swan and she is not yet eleven. She is naturally elegant and does not have any of the awkwardness of girls her age. I had no idea Lucrezia knew about the anger her beauty and her smarts aroused in other girls. In Shanghai bordello before I ran away to the Temple of the White Mandarins (the Jesuit Cathedral of Saint Ignatius Loyola) we all hated the most beautiful girl even if she was kind to all of us,” remembered Ah Wei with a shiver.

Lucrezia’s dress was a peach colored silk organza, with tiny hand-embroidered rosebuds in cyclamen. That is magical color for Chinese. "May it protect her from harm today. I have bad feeling about this egg hunt, I don’t know why,” said the Amah quietly.

In the torrid heat of the driest part of the summer, it was not elegant to show one’s feet unless one was at the beach or at the country club. All seven cousins between the ages of seven to twelve wore hand woven linen socks, which matched their ensemble. Lucrezia loved her cyclamen colored ballerinas handcrafted by a cobbler in Barcelona. The boys had Italian moccasins made by Zingone in Rome.

It seemed that all their cousins, friends and acquaintances arrived within minutes of each other. Their grandmother and their parents had barely enough time to exchange pleasantries before the children headed their way.

“Well, look at you. You are a tall adolescent but you still have your Amah hovering over you like a shadow,” said Kiya de la Rama artlessly.

In 1907, after a struggle, which took seven years, Don Cesar, Lucrezia's great-great uncle had at last taken over every piece of property, company, enterprise, and precious object that had once belonged to the De la Rama family. He had destroyed them.

Kiya was a direct descendant of that family. She was a great- granddaughter of Don Jesus Maria de la Rama, Don Cesar’s most implacable foe. Her father was a dashing Castilian, one of Manila society’s pedigreed poor. Her mother Mari-Cruz, who was as plain and dowdy as she was rich could set her sights on the comely de la Rama. Her father, Charles Darnay owned 670 and counting pawnshops throughout the archipelago.

“You are just being catty because you are nearly fourteen and I am already an inch taller than you. I want Amah close to me. She’s clever. And oh! I almost forgot Happy Easter and all that stuff,” she answered leading Kiya to her cousin Raff (Rafael,) who was stunning, and closer to her own age.

Kiya was beauteous; wavy ebony hair, fair skin and jet black eyes. She was endowed with an acid tongue and coltish demeanor. Boys fled her company as soon as they could. Raff had promised Lucrezia he would spend at least 15 minutes chatting her up. He had a secret crush on Lucrezia and did not know how to refuse any of her requests.

What neither of them knew was that Kiya liked Raff and was determined to stick to him like glue. Raff sensed it. Boys and Girls are fey about the effect of their pheromones on members of the opposite sex.

Then Fray Paco made his grand entrance. He flew sharply and low and yelled "The Eastah egg hunt will now begin!”

“Phew, saved by Fray Paco,” thought Raff.

His attendants Eneas and Achilles kept a sharp eye out for hawks, his natural enemies. The youngsters scampered, their parents strode, and their elders walked while chatting amongst themselves.

Lucrezia found herself surrounded by Raff and Harry, “They’re cute but way too old for me.”

Heinzie, Jaime, Charlie, Dolly and Lola followed closely behind them. Freckie had joined Kiya and was talking up a storm.

“Ooh, here’s an egg shaped box,” squealed Lola.

“I found one too," repeated Dolly.

“Here’s another box.”

“And another,”

“And yet another.”

Hurrah! I found one, right behind the trunk of the avocado tree,” cried out Lucrezia.

Raff and Harry located their boxes. They opened them, slowly peeled off the silver paper covering the chocolate eggs. "Hey everybody, there’s a gift inside. Pay attention as to how you open them. All right? They espied the signet rings.” Wow! It’s a gas,” they exclaimed in delight.

“If you find a gold pendant inside a chocolate egg and you are a boy, please exchange it with the girl who has the signet ring instead. No one will be left without a gift. We have more of them for any eventuality,” Uncle Matt reminded them.

“Where arrr me gifts? roared Fray Paco.

“You get one of each mi amor,” Dona Esperanza informed him.

“Si, Si, Hai Hai, Ja, Ja, Yes, Yes,” he cried out in childish enthusiasm.

“Oh shut up, you silly old bird. Why does he merit two? He isn’t even a human being,” yelled Freckie.

“Yeah, he’s right,” agreed his friends Eddie and Jackie.

Fray Paco, a raptor was sharpening his talons. “I earned me gifts churl.”

The high-ranking members of the Ortigas Nieto clan froze. Since 1907, during the Night of the Long Winds) the typhoon) no one had ever dared disrespect their wise, savvy and smart-ass cockatoo. Who was this snotty nosed kid, a hooligan in the making, to challenge their tradition to one so deserving of their love.

It was Dona Esperanza who took the thirteen-year-old challenger by the horns.
‘Freckie this is neither the time nor the place to act like the spoiled, thoughtless kid you really are. Fray Paco merits those gifts and more. End of discussion.”

Allegro and Armand approached Freckie. “Find a rock and crawl underneath it son,” suggested his father with disappointment. Try not to commit any more gaffes like this one or you might just be grounded for the polo matches.”

Freckie was due to play his first polo match later that afternoon at the Polo Club. That did it for Freckie. He would eat crow for a few minutes of glory on the field playing with his cousins.

He ran over to Dona Esperanza, took her hand and cried, ”I don’t know what came over me. I love Fray Paco very much. I apologize for my behavior.”

She gazed long and hard into her grandson’s stricken face. “Your apology is accepted dear.

“Fray Paco could not have said it any better with his “I earned me gifts, churl,” she reflected.

The Japanese occupiers had used the ground floor of Santol Mansion as an area where their samurais could practice their plays and thrusts with the Katana. Dona Esperanza had removed every single tile, knocked down its wooden floors and had turned it into a skating rink. Her architects had designed it in such away that narra floor boards could be placed over it, converting it into a dance floor. A center stage was set back against the wall, where a twenty piece orchestra played. Sound engineers from their radio and television station had set up a state of the art PA system. Young and old loved to dance; it’s in their genes,

“The Polynesians gave us not only some of the words of their language, they gave us grace, timing and rhythm,” affirmed Dona Esperanza.

“We are all like flowers, Gran,” stated Lucrezia.

“The dance and song fest is about to begin,” announced Matt over the PA system, which had been placed in strategic places in the vast gardens.

Li Mei and Chung li, granddaughters and grandson respectively of the man Dona Esperanza and her clan affectionately and respectfully addressed as Uncle Wak Nam, begun the short program. They sang a duet "Mek Wei – Mek Wei” in Hakka. Everyone was familiar with the rousing music. Pop singers Frankie Laine and Tony Bennett had just recorded it in English. The song was known as” Rose, Rose I love you.” It had skyrocketed to the top of the charts on radio and in music stores in Asia, Australia, The Commonwealth, Canada and the United States.

“Rose, Rose I love you,
With an aching heart.
Glory is your future,
Now we have to part. Standing on a rickshaw as my steamer pulls away.
Flower of Malaya I cannot stay.

All my life I shall remember,
Loads of scented roses and you in my arms,
Bright powdery beaches and swaying palms
Perfumed peonies in your tresses.
Your beautiful form in your cheongsam dress.

Rose, Rose I love you.
My tears are flowing still.
East is east and West is west.
Our worlds can never be.

Flower of Malaya, I cannot stay.

The Wak Nam children did something unprecedented for that time and place. They invited the seven Ortigas children - Lucrezia, Dolly, Lola, Heinzie, Jaime, Zita and Freckie to join them on stage with their respective Hakka Amahs. Li Mei and Chung Li also had Hakka Amahs.

The Amahs knew and loved one another. It was as if they shared a big secret that only they were privy to. Dona Esperanza and Don Wak Nam knew about their tragic fate in China, since they had been the prime movers of their rescue.

Thus, Chinese and Filipino-European children and their Hakka Amahs sang Mek Wei O Mek Wei in Chinese and then in English.

“I am going to feature you all on our family’s radio station. You should learn more songs in Chinese and English,” said Matt excitedly through the applause.

All seventeen participants took countless bows.

Ayesha and Chandra Singh danced a stylized Bharata Natyam. The girls were sisters and sat behind Lucrezia in her classroom at the College of the Holy Spirit. Bharata Natyam is a form of Hindu mystical dance portraying the Lord Shiva dancing around the planets created by Brahma. The Mudras (hand movements) took years to master.

Jaime, one of the cousins sang “Francisco Alegre Ole” a cappella. The song was about a tragic torero, Francisco Alegre, who is stabbed by a rival just before he is to enter the Plaza de Toros in Seville. He must face the fiercest toro( bull ) of them all. He emerges the victor abd collapses just as he kneels before the statue of La Virgen de la Macarena- The Virgin of Macarena who is a black virgin. Jaime had a crystalline voice and was a marvelous actor. He garnered much applause.

Michi, one of the members of the clan appeared in a costly kimono to sing Sakura, a sad, sublime Japanese song full of hope. Michi was a stately 14, year old, her face and demeanor showed the near perfection of east meeting west in coitus

No one in the clan discussed it openly, but Michi’s mother Cornelia, nicknamed Corni since childhood had had a passionate love affair with one of the most attractive Japanese officers serving in the Kempeitai (the Secret Service).

Given Cornelia’s loveliness; long, flowing light brown hair, caramel skinned and emerald eyed, the Officer asked her parents for permission to “court” her. It was a form of refined sexual coercion. It was nothing but rape.

Michi’s father had a family in Japan with whom he was reunited at the end of hostilities. He continued however to look after her every need. Anything that was in the form of money was politely sent back by her parents. So, he sent her the finest baroque pearls as well as Mikimoto pearls. He sent exquisite porcelain, obis and sets of jade and lacquered combs.

Twice a year, Corni and Mitchi for Mitchiko traveled to Tokyo as guests of the former Colonel, now a nobleman in the entourage of Lady Chichibu, sister in-law of the Emperor Hirohito. Lord Chichibu was his brother and was the brain behind the Japanese war machine.

Ivan was a prodigy on the violin. At ten, he offered them Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque. He was the natural son of Armand, Allegra’s husband. He had conducted an affair with a White Russian hostess who worked in one of Manila’s most famous nightclubs, They had all understood that Armand, though loving Allegra deeply had a sexual attraction to and for women that exceeded prudence and good sense.

In truth Esperanza had opposed the marriage because she knew from personal experience that sex and gambling, when given free rein turned into obsessions like drugs from which one could not tear himself away. She was not present at her daughter’s lavish wedding to Armand at the Cathedral of Manila. That was the only way she could show her fears and perplexities. She attended the wedding reception, which she hosted at the Casino Espanol and not at Santol Mansion.

“I paid for all the expenses without an aye or bye. I cannot control her destiny. She must live her life. I know it will be a sorrowful one. I am tempted not to show up at the Reception but I must go through with it. I am going to hurt Allegra more than I already have. I want her to know that I love her even if I don’t like what she has done and that she can always count on me.

Dona Esperanza and Dona Apollonia were providing for Ivan’s schooling.

“I could not agree with you more Queridita, the boy is blameless. He is gifted. We must both help out. It is our duty,” opined Apollonia.

“Don’t take offense mia cara. Life will be feast or famine with Armand. I understand from my informers that he rarely sees the boy; He is no longer interested in the mother. She was just a toy to enjoy for a while. We are going to help her out financially as well. We cannot and must not give Ivan an expensive education while he lives a hand to mouth existence with his mother, “ declared Esperanza.

This Easter celebration was the occasion for Ivan to become acquainted with his half-brothers and sister as well as the rest of his cousins in a natural; setting. Esperanza hoped that the power of music and his gift for the violin which was an instrument that touched you in your deepest being would slowly sweep away any resentment.

The finale was the Tinkling, an intricate Filipino dance originating from central Luzon, where rice paddies stunned you with their green colors and the yellow morning mists over the rice paddies caused you to draw in your breath and abandon yourself to becoming enraptured.

Two long and thick pairs of bamboo poles were inserted firmly into stone or cement stands. One person on each side of the bamboo, three people in all slid and struck the poles in syncopated rhythm of One, Two, Three. It was constant and the beat increased in tempo until one could no longer see the feet fly.

It went “One” - bamboo poles struck together. Two and three - hit apart. This enabled the dancers to place their right and left feet inside the open poles dancing in imitation of the long legged thin bird in the rice paddies – the Tinkling. They then ended up with both their feet on the other side. Now the left foot was closest to the pole so that would be the first one inside the open poles at the stroke of two, then the right foot at three. As the poles were brought together at the count of one, both feet would not be on the other side of the poles. It was a dance of dexterity and it was performed in one’s bare feet.

“Lose one beat, and an ankle would be crushed like a leaf.” Most Filipino children easily mastered it, so did the many nationalities such as Chinese, Spanish, Japanese. Etc. The important ingredient in one’s myriads of genes was Filipino blood. That gave one the syncopation and the fascinating rhythm George Gershwin wrote about.

All the children were dancing the Tinkling with the greatest of ease, without incident. The Rondalla played the song Tinkling as Dona Esperanza, her children and the rest of the clan sang the song in Tagalog or Filipino with energy and gusto. Mir, son of their Sikh Chief of Security had changed the words as befitting Easter Sunday.

“Evviva! Bravissimi! Monsignor Albert had shown up unexpectedly.

“I thought you could not make it,” shouted Esperanza amid the din.

“I did not want to raise false hopes, I instructed my driver to drive as fast as he could which is way over the speed limit. Eccomi qua. Here I am. All the Ortigas-Nieto bambini and ragazzi dancing the Tinkling as if they had been doing it all their lives. Look at them. Sono favolosi. They are fabulous. I want them for a film the Vatican is doing on the Philippines. His Holiness is going to love this dance.”

“Someday, when I become a Minister of the Roman Curia, I am aiming for Treasury or Finance, if God and the fates allow, I shall do everything in my power to sponsor poor boys and girls to come to Italy to study. They can tour during the summer months and sing and dance as only they can,” he mused.

“Buona Pasqua a tutti. A good Easter to all,” exclaimed the Apostolic Nuncio as the merriment and gaiety continued.

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