‘Don’t cast her as heroine’
When your mother died, I wanted to capture images of her before they meshed with unreliable memory. To many, Letty was the treasured mentor, the revered editor. To me, she is an old friend. While she fully merits all accolades, she’d ban hagiography, freeing me to recall not only her stellar journalistic achievements and courage in the face of danger but also her younger self, barbed wit, love of writing, even her giggling.
Your Mom didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she was too kind to embarrass people in public unless they were indisputably criminal. To the garden variety moron, she generously gave a pass. When we found ourselves sitting side by side at an event at which the utterances reached new heights of stupidity, she’d spare the guilty dolt from public humiliation—but not me from sore shins. She’d kick me under the table (or I kicked her), igniting uncontrollable giggling between us. If someone asked why we were laughing maniacally, we’d resort to our prearranged script: Letty would turn primly to me and intone, “Stop it, Arlene! This is no way to behave.”
While I giggled on, your Mom would make a proper display of chastising me for ostensibly joking about the atrocious pontifications of Imelda Marcos—like her theory about the hole in the sky, the aperture through which blessings were to pour down upon the Filipino people. “I’m sorry,” Letty would say with a straight face, “Arlene made me giggle.” Naughty Letty. Kind Letty. Blame me, and the usual suspect Imelda, to spare the doofus spouting nonsense in front of us.
We crossed paths in the Inner Wheel Club of Manila in the early ’70s while helping our mothers with their food and education projects in Manila’s slums. I was stacking books in the reading corner, holding John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” when a deep voice asked: “Have you read that?” I nodded. The smiling woman looked to be in her early 30s. “English major?” she asked. “How’d you guess?” I said. Letty replied: “I love words, too.”
In 1980 we met again through Hans Menzi, the Bulletin Today’s publisher. Letty was editor of Panorama, the paper’s Sunday magazine; I wrote a column on its editorial page. Soon, Menzi, Letty and I were meeting more often than we liked. We were corralled into Menzi’s office to be scolded for writings that got Ferdinand Marcos mad. Those sessions left Letty livid. The three of us met so often that she risked blasphemy, declaring, “We’re like the Trinity but nothing holy about us. Menzi’s the father, you the son, I the holy ghost.”
“You’re the ghost portrayed as a cute pigeon in the stampitas and I end up crucified?” I muttered. Letty corrected: “Dove, not pigeon, you reprobate. I’m older, wiser; I get first pick.” I waved Letty into Menzi’s office: “Age before beauty.” Letty laughed: “Sige lang, disrespectful brat. I’ll have the last laugh!”
We laughed over stupid things, mostly my stupid things, deploring aspects of Filipino culture in particular and human nature in general. We longed to believe, as Martin Luther King did, that the arc of the moral universe, though long, would bend towards justice; we weren’t sure it would. We’re more cynical than Dr. King, Letty said sadly, and not as poetic. She appreciated a poetic turn in newspaper copy, lamenting flaccid writing, maudlin text, butchered grammar and colorless prose.
That era’s so-called battle for press freedom may sound dramatic in the telling but we were just journalists who shared a healthy skepticism, a predilection for democracy over authoritarianism and an inclination towards insubordination. We worked at a time when Philippine journalists searched for the courage to defy the Marcos dictatorship. Letty pushed boundaries, assigning investigative reporting on corrupt officials, military abuses, the legitimacy of Marcos’ presidency. I tried to do the same in my column. For doing our jobs, we became targets of the Marcos hallelujah chorus, guardians of The New Society. A Marcos hack dubbed us “The Terrible Twosome of the Bulletin Today,” snickering, “Menzi hides behind the skirts of his Bulletin girls.”
Menzi was pressured to fire Letty when Marcos threw a hissy fit over an article in which she mocked him with lyrics from Handel’s Messiah: “He shall reign forever, hallelujah!” Smarting at the derision, the strongman threatened to dismantle the Bulletin. Letty and I joined protests against press restrictions in the streets or at the National Press Club. My columns denounced her dismissal; most were censored. Still, it wasn’t all fire and brimstone. On the rare occasion (OK, not so rare), we got vaguely inebriated drinking wine past midnight while waiting for the early edition to see if my columns eluded the censors. When they did, Letty whooped gleefully.
We imagined what Philippine journalism could become: fact-based, balanced, free from casuistry, written with flair. Letty distrusted the muddleheaded romanticism or fuzzy idealism that ensorcelled some journalists and so-called rebels. She saw those who smugly claimed moral superiority as little better than those whose moral bankruptcy kept the Philippines from evolving into a nation of laws. She scrupulously tempered personal ego and wished that people wouldn’t immodestly cast themselves as “saviors of the nation.”
Matter-of-fact and possessing a great BS detector, she loathed the hypocrisy that disguised self-regard and self-promotion as professions of deep caring. She developed a politic style to play her role as editor and public figure without allowing others to take advantage of her innate kindness. Left unprotected by steelier thinking, that kindness could have rendered her vulnerable to manipulation or dragged her into the quagmire of serving other people’s needs and purposes. This psychological armor enabled her to fend off the ambitions of politicians and corporate bigwigs, as well as shepherd the fragile egos of writers, acolytes, fans. She jousted with them even if she felt alienated from them, disappointed, weary of tending to their feelings, bored or just plain disgusted.
There was a sharp-edged side to Letty that she showed only to kindred shrews. I teased her that the Mother Teresa-wanna-be in her stopped her from snarling at those who pestered her for newspaper coverage or sympathy; she calibrated her annoyance, aware that their shaky psyches might become unhinged by unvarnished truths, or if she happened to yawn while they blathered on. I have nothing of that Albanian nun in me; Letty and I differed on religion. She wasn’t sanctimonious, was in fact dismayed when others bannered their religiosity. For her, spirituality was best practiced in private, never with “Look how holy I am” posturing. She expressed philosophical curiosity about atheism, laughing out loud when I said I chucked organized religion after tiring of fumbling with robes of socially prescribed sanctity. I explained how I outgrew my interest in religious mythology (with the exception of shamelessly entertaining Greek gods) and no longer needed imaginary friends. Speaking of pedestals, Letty rejected the role of heroine. “I hate being cast as a symbol,” she said, believing that individuals are built on personal choice, honesty, hard work.
Letty weighed all sides of a story, organized facts and plot twists into a crisp piece of significant information. Occasionally we read each other’s work. Knowing her proclivity for long sentences, I suggested she reread Henry James, notorious for convoluted phrasing but impeccable in coherence and punctuation. She told me to quit reading the Bloomsbury writers, especially Virginia Woolf, lest I go mad too and drown myself in the Pasig River.
Your Mom was conflicted over her job; it demanded time away from you, your brothers, your dad. I couldn’t fully appreciate her pain at the time; this was before I had my own child and husband. This soul-searching she blamed on Socrates. She valued the dialectical method for good journalism but rued having read the damned Athenian: his exhortation to examine one’s life to make it worth living condemned her to scrutinize how she should live.
We first met beside dusty bookshelves and in the offices of a newspaper that loomed large in our lives. Our friendship was free of facile sentiment, rooted in respect for the written word, spiced by delight in each other’s eccentricities. We were so different in some ways: she was religious, I, a secular humanist; she enjoyed the bustle of the world, I’m a virtual hermit. Our friendship showed her ability to enjoy differences between people. She could disagree with you but she’d champion your right to your views, and to your personality tics: she scolded me for swearing in Spanish when I lost my cool. “Puñeta!” I’d curse and she’d shush me: “If you must swear, do it in English or Tagalog; colonially speaking, Spanish is so passe.” I scolded her for smoking and for not learning to drive. We were still young then and bickering crones already.
On Christmas Eve of 2015, your mother died. She promised to have the last laugh and, hallelujah, she did! Dying on my birthday. Hear her roar with laughter?
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.