Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The first time I met Cory

It was the summer of 1981. I called up Ninoy Aquino and said I would be going to Boston from New York. I travelled from my place in Virginia to the Big Apple to attend a friend’s wedding, and from there, I thought of visiting him in Boston. He gave me his address at Newton, and told me that his house was just in front of Boston College.

On June 9, 1981, at about 9:30 in the morning, I was in their two-storey brick residence. It was Ninoy who opened the door. He was still in house clothes, and after introducing me to Cory, excused himself to dress up. He told me he would bring me to his office in Harvard, and then we would have lunch in the campus.

I joined Cory in the kitchen and we sat in the breakfast table where she served me coffee. Very graciously she asked if I had breakfast already, and when I replied in the affirmative, she wondered if I was just being shy. “I can prepare something quickly”, she assured, but I said “Okay na po ako”.

It was my first time to see Cory, just as it was the second time I met Ninoy. The first meeting with him was in Washington D.C. Before that we corresponded, and when he had an engagement in the American capital that spring, we met. That began a special friendship that was strengthened all the way to my return to Manila in 1982, and up to the tragedy at the tarmac on August 21, 1983.

I was surprised at the utter simplicity of Cory Aquino. Despite being to the manor born, she was very warm. We struck a common chord when we talked about Faneuil Hall in Old Boston near the dockyards. It was then undergoing massive urban renewal similar to Harbor Place in Baltimore, and much earlier, the kind of development done in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. She was surprised at how many Americans were trying Japanese and Thai, Korean and Vietnamese food in the area, and wondered if there was some market for Philippine food. As I also had a passion for food, we had a very good conversation. “Maganda kasi ang presentation, while ours, walang gaanong visual appeal”, she observed.

At one point she was rather wistful, a bit melancholy, when she said, “Alam mo, masaya na kami dito. After everything the family went through while Ninoy was incarcerated, we’re very happy here. You probably know that our youngest, Kris, was born a year before martial law was imposed. It’s only now that she’s warming up to her own dad”. Then, with light laughter, she said, “magtayo na lang kaya tayo ng restaurant sa Faneuil Hall”. And I said, “Opo, pwede po bang maki-sosyo?”.

It was at this point that Ninoy got back from their room, and off we went to Harvard. Waiting for him at the office was Japanese journalist Kiyoshi Wakamiya. Later that afternoon, we got back to Newton, and with Cory and Ballsy, their eldest daughter, we would be off to New York. The following day, Ninoy was to be guest speaker of an Independence Day celebration of a Fil-Am association.

Ninoy would drive, and I was to be the guide. Ballsy would later remember me, after the family had returned in the aftermath of Ninoy’s assassination, as “the guy with the map”.

We had a late dinner at the Queens residence of their family friend. That was such a memorable meal of Filipino food, with big steamed crabs and kare-kare. Later, Ninoy would drop me by the Greyhound station, where I would take the midnight trip back to the nation’s capital.

I recalled all those wonderful memories of Tita Cory after I had composed myself from uncontrollable tears last Saturday morning. One of the family members texted me at four in the morning, and I read it at 6:30 when I woke up. As I opened the television, I saw the hearse pull up to the front of the Heritage Memorial Chapel.

There is a small postscript to this personal experience, this first encounter with a simple housewife I never at that time thought would one day be president of our country.

Sometime in May of 1986, in Malacanang, I was with then Secretary Hernando B. Perez and my assistant postmaster-general, Atty. Baltazar Afable, and two other officials of the DOTC. We were there to present the first print of four commemorative stamps that the Bureau of Posts which I headed, was about to release to the public. After the ceremonies and the photographs with the President, she quietly asked me --- “Kumusta naman ang trabaho, Lito?”

“Medyo mahirap po. Ibang-iba pala sa private sector ang government, pero okay lang po”, I answered.

“You know, I often miss those days when life was so simple in Boston, but this is what God decided for us all”, she said, then added, “we just have to try our best”.

I said in jest --- “Mas madali pa po siguro kung nag-restaurant na lang tayo sa Faneuil Hall”, and she laughed, saying, “Oo nga, ano?”

* * *

Now she is gone. But her memory, like her husband Ninoy before her, will always live in our hearts.

Leaders come and leaders pass. But few will be remembered by her people as fondly as this simple lady upon whose life was thrust the most difficult responsibility of running a nation after years of authoritarianism, and did so without compromising the ideals of the democracy her leadership restored.

How I wish I could say “requiescat in pace” so easily, while knowing deep in my heart that the same democratic institutions she restored now lie in shambles. The responsibility to rebuild those institutions, to nurture them back to life after almost a decade of abuse, now lies upon us all. How we all wish that even in the after-life, President Cory will be our North Star.

Hail and farewell, beloved leader.

* * *

Mea maxima culpa. I reported in this space last Friday, July 31, that Aleta Suarez, the wife of Rep. Danny Suarez of Quezon, had passed away. The information came from a reporter of another paper just as I was writing that article Thursday morning. Failing to double check, I committed such an egregious error.

Danny and Aleta’s daughter, Joanna, who helps her mom run their restaurant and catering business, corrected me Saturday, when she was informed about my article, which apparently came out also in some papers. Her mom Aleta is alive and well. Thank God. My profound apologies.