Old Lady Senator — one of the very richest ladies in Manila — finally passed away after many years of seclusion. We were informed by her sisters-in-law — first cousins of my father — through a text message that she lay in state at her late younger sister’s residence in North Forbes Park.
Wishing to avoid the expected ubersocial crush in the evening since the funeral would be the next day, I chose to pay my respects in the mid-afternoon. It was a pleasant and breezy sunny afternoon, the gates of the house were open, and there were a few cars parked outside.
Apparently, other people also chose to pay their respects in the quiet mid-afternoon… I followed in the heels of Madame Imelda Romualdez-Marcos.
# 77 Cambridge Circle, North Forbes Park was a palatial residence [ by Filipino standards, at least ], and there was simply no other way to describe it. It was designed by Architect Gabriel “Gabby” Formoso and was finished in 1978; the interior design and decoration — a prime example of classical, aristocratic Filipino taste — was by Fernando “Pandot” Ocampo Jr.. It was a house of embassy proportions; a place where one could truly entertain in high style. I had been there a few times, yet I was still charmed with every visit. It was, for me, traditional Filipino living at its most elegant and most cosmopolitan, for it was supported by an immense fortune that spanned the globe. One ascended a short flight of marble steps into a foyer / courtyard with columns and a fountain. On the left side were the double doors to the living room / drawing room. It was an elegant, rectangular room with a 12 foot high ceiling and covered in jade green fabric: it was crowned by a chandelier of Baccarat crystal [ with individual shades in the Edwardian manner ] and furnished with gilded French furniture and Persian rugs, punctuated with antique French, English, German, and Chinese porcelains. A portrait of the glamorous chatelaine in her youth by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo and paintings by old masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo hung at the farthest wall. Although the room had been photographed several times, its remarkable tone of hushed luxury and high formality, albeit a tad sepulchral, had never been captured on film.
A uniformed valet / steward ushered me inside the house. The foyer / courtyard was lined with funeral wreaths sent by the most prominent Filipinos, ordered from the city’s most expensive and most elegant florists; I instantly recognized two from Margarita Fores’ “Fiori di M.” I turned to the left and entered the living room, where people were speaking in murmurs. I greeted one of the nieces and paused to see if there was anybody else I knew in the room. At the far end of the room, below the deceased chatelaine’s glamorous Fernando Amorsolo portrait, the elegant, dark casket of the elder sister was closed, draped with a flag; it was flanked, somewhat oddly, by two uniformed lady guards, perhaps sent from the Senate. Rows of European-style gilded salon chairs were arranged in front of the casket. Seated in the front row, to the right, were the only daughter of the deceased, a lawyer by profession, and her banker husband. So I made my way to the front, passing the right side of the room.
“Our prayers… It happened quickly, didn’t it?”
“Well… yes. She had pneumonia. But she had already been ill the past six months. Even when her sister passed…”
The living room doors opened to an airconditioned, black grills and glass-enclosed, tennis court-size “lanai” with “machuca” tile flooring.
The expert staff of “Le Souffle,” arguably Manila’s best and most expensive restaurant, was busy setting up round tables for an expected crowd of 200 visitors on that last evening of the wake. The buffet stations, still in preparation, already looked promising.
The large “lanai” faced an undulating, immaculate lawn with impeccably maintained plant borders. The beautiful garden looked like the work of a premiere landscape artist like I.P. Santos, Shirley Brinas-Sanders, Ponce Veridiano, et. al.. That strip of lawn and its borders gave the impression that there was more to the garden than was immediately visible from the “lanai,” and it really was…
It truly was the clan’s preeminent residence, the place where they were “more Madrigal,” more themselves than anywhere else. Sadly, its original chatelaine — the fire-breathing dragon lady who gave life and style to the whole establishment — had already passed months ago.
And as I took one last look at that family’s ineffable splendor, I reflected: “Quo vadis? Where to? For all the wealth, for all the style, for all the lives so grandly lived, all shared the same ending as for those with no wealth, no style, and lives so desperately and meaninglessly lived…” Or so I thought, in an existentialist manner. I hoped I was mistaken.
Can’t take it with you. No matter what.
[ It was only proper to pay my respects for four reasons: 1 ] She was very nice to my late Lola Charing: her thoughtful gifts through the years were valued by my grandmother; 2 ] She was married to the [ then ] most accomplished paternal first cousin of my father after she was widowed; he was very close to my widowed Lola Charing and successfully waged crucial legal battles on her behalf in the early 1950s; 3 ] her only daughter is a paternal second cousin and a “madrina” of my sister at her wedding; 4 ] her only son by her first husband is a fun friend in antique collecting circles and is definitely one of the coolest guys around. ]