Letty’s Day

When Bataan fell to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, a national holiday was born. My mother-in-law, Letizia Roxas Constantino, who was born on the same day 22 years earlier, dreaded the idea of thenceforth celebrating her birthday on such a sad day. Yet, this coincidence has only had a salutary effect. With hardly any memory of the war, her grandchildren never failed to be awed by the thought that their grandmother must be so important that the whole nation always pauses to mark her birthday.

We have long renamed “The Fall of Bataan” to “Araw ng Kagitingan” (Day of Valor) to remove the patina of shame from its commemoration. But in the Constantino household, April 9 has always been Letty’s Day. This year, she turns 95.

She and her husband, the writer and historian Renato Constantino, were not only married to one another. They were lifelong intellectual partners who checked each other’s work, and the best of friends. So tightly intertwined were their personal worlds that, when he died in 1999 at 81, their friends feared that she might quietly sink into depression and follow him soon after. In that sense, they did not know her enough. All they saw when she was with the intellectually formidable Renato was a traditional wife who probably had no interest in ideas. They never got to see the sharp intellect and the internal strength she always possessed.

I caught a glimpse of that side of Letty’s the day Renato died. As his lifeless body was about to be wheeled out of the hospital room, she lifted the white sheet covering it, and gently cupped her husband’s face with her hands. She then leaned forward and kissed his forehead. There were no tears, only a final gesture of abiding love and respect.

Far from retreating into her private world after his death, she rekindled old friendships and sought new friends, returned to her piano with the vigor of one rehearsing for a series of concertos, and transformed a sitting room in her house into a spacious hall for ballroom dancing. She took over her husband’s study, and converted her own writing den into a playroom for her great-grandchildren, filling it with children’s books and toys. She turned to her granddaughters and told them to join her every Saturday morning for ballroom practice. She asked us (her two children and their spouses) to oblige her for a game of mahjong every other week.

She celebrated our birthdays by preparing dinner and a short concerto for each one of us, where she was host and guest performer at the same time. She carefully chose the pieces she would play, describing these in printed program notes. She practiced for these performances for at least two hours a day, three times a week, in a remarkable display of discipline, will and virtuosity. Having thus accumulated an impressive repertoire, she quietly recorded these piano pieces, had them transferred into compact discs, and distributed these to us one New Year’s Day.

She decided to write her memoirs—not for publication, she says, but for reading by her great-great grandchildren whom she will never get to meet. I don’t know how far she has gone on this project. An illness slowed her down when she was in her mid-80s. We sensed she was not well when, one day, she asked if I would like to take home some of her bonsai plants, exquisite miniature trees that she herself set on shallow Japanese trays made of clay. “I would love to very much,” I said without hesitation, “but why are you giving them away?” She said they were beginning to look overgrown.

The bonsais sat in my garden for a long time looking like exiled nobility. They were shabby and overgrown but retained an aura of majesty. They didn’t quite fit into the wild anarchic landscape into which they were suddenly transplanted. The few times my mother-in-law visited our house on the UP campus, she threw a quick glance at my garden as if to scan the fate of the plants she had put in my care.

Then, three years ago, after retiring from full-time teaching, I had a chance to contemplate the presence of the potted royalty in my little jungle. They seemed to be telling me something: it’s time I paid attention to the garden.

I revived the old pond that one of my children had dug out for me as a present some years back when I turned 55. Around this pond, I arranged the smaller bonsais, creating the illusion of a miniature lake. The big ones I gathered around the base of a dominant vine that frames the front windows of our house and threatens to engulf the entire roof. This arrangement of pruned simplicity suddenly exploding into unrestrained growth is what greets the guest who ventures into our driveway. It was what immediately caught my mother-in-law’s attention more than a year ago when she dropped by to greet me on my birthday.

Assuring her that her bonsais are finally fully adjusted to their surroundings, I took her hand and proudly showed her the rest of the garden. I led her to where my wife and I sit on most evenings after supper, she in a roofed swing and I on an unpolished wooden bench, from where we have a good view of the bonsai-ringed pond. She asked if I had a regular gardener. I told her I have a “garden doctor,” someone who rescues gardens from exhaustion and neglect. She smiled, and she said her garden needs one.

It didn’t take long for her forlorn garden to come back to life. These days, she spends more time sauntering around her house, marveling at the perpetual display of bougainvillea blooms in her driveway. The haggard-looking kalachuchi that adorns the front of her house shed all its leaves after it was trimmed. We thought it was gone. But we were wrong: It came back sporting a crown of vibrant reddish pink blossoms in time for Letty’s Day. Happy birthday, Mommy!

* * *