Saturday, January 14, 2017

Yasmin Almonte's bed of flowers

Painter and art teacher Yasmin “Jigs” Almonte isn’t called a survivor by friends for nothing. She has gone past the pain of cancer that claimed part of her jaw and prevailed over other physical and psychological challenges. If there’s a song to describe her, it may be ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” because she has the mind-set, determination and tenacity of a winner.

In her ongoing 20th solo show, “My Garden,” at Sining Kamalig, Almonte celebrates her 60th birthday by showing 60 paintings of flowers done in acrylic on 400gsm heavy acrylic paper. Like the cockeyed optimist that she is, she said, “After all is said and done, my life is still a bed of flowers.”

Her paintings were done alla prima (“of the moment”) or in one sitting. She explained, “I painted this way because I don’t have the luxury of time. I painted in acrylic so the works would dry fast. I don’t have the space for oil paintings to dry.” (She lives in one of the walk-up apartments at the University of the Philippines Diliman where she teaches at the College of Fine Arts.)

She chose flowers as her subjects because, she said, “The flower’s life, beauty and purpose is so ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow. It blossoms, then it dies. There is so much activity in the flower as it goes through its dying stages. I see it dance. I am a flower.”

Almonte turns 60 this month, adding, “I want to create my garden: sixty paintings, sixty years. I want to surround myself with blossoms. Flowers that live, bloom, die—each one is beautiful.”

To her flowers stand for the fleetingness of life, for youth, purpose, beauty. She considers them “symbols of love at weddings, for giving at Valentine’s Day, for celebration birthdays, for grief and death at wakes. They’re all beautiful, fragrant, pungent, dichotomous in being.”

Asked what her favorite flowers are, she answered, “The ones that are past their bloom, flowers that are nearing their end. They have served their purpose, but they are still there, clinging to life, bringing memories of the giver and what they are for. I am this flower.”

She continued, “There is beauty in decay. There is the hastening dance of death. The colors change. There is movement. Leaves are lifted, petals drop and fall. The meaning of beauty is redefined. The flower will soon rejoin the earth and will serve another purpose for another life. Hopefully, the memory of it remains.”

Due to the serious illnesses she has gone through, the painter looks at herself as “the dying flower.”

She said, “I still have so much to give. There is this frenzy. There is so much that I want to share, to leave behind. In these last chapters of my life, I feel more beautiful than ever, more vital because of the wisdom that I have accumulated and want to share, because of the patience that I’ve developed through the years. I feel compassion and understanding because the love I have is unconditional, because I have forgiven. I have forgiven me.”

Sining Kamalig is on the second floor of Ali Mall, Cubao, Quezon City. The exhibit runs until the first week of February. -- Elizabeth Lolarga

Photos by Yasmin Almonte

This article was originally published by on Jan. 14, 2017.

Friday, January 13, 2017

25 years gone but unforgotten

Yesterday was our Dad's 25th death anniversary. I stayed away from this space on that occasion, thinking that I might just get all weepy, senti and emo while recalling him. But at past 4 a.m. today while I write this, I am stone cold sober. Twenty and five years may have passed since he left for eternity, but I carry this man's image intact in my heart. These days whenever I find myself in a fix, the question I immediately ask myself is, "What would Dad (and now Mom who has joined him) do?" Lemme tell you, they combine forces to aid me in my struggle, no matter how minute or insignificant to the world. And when I'm sick, I call on Dad, too, and somehow I surmount the situation. So thanks, Dad. I know we will be together. In the meantime, I've still got a lotta livin' to do.

Monday, January 9, 2017

2016's Christmas card loot

The season's over, and I have to stash away my increasingly paltry collection of hard-copy Christmas cards. In my computer hard drive and Google Drive, I've saved the letters and cards sent by email.

I sent out over 20 cards and postcards by what's known as "happy mail," complete with stamps, as early as the first week of December. The addressees acknowledged my letters by email and text. I'm almost tempted to enclose a SASE, remember those? SASE stands for self-addressed stamped envelope.

Handwriting allows me to slow down. I guess it also brings down my blood pressure. It calms me. I'm able to reflect, rue, remember, regret, rejoice on paper. Not unlike keeping a journal only this time there is someone at the other end of the conversation. A friend asked me to send her a private message via her Facebook, which is faster, because she's "poor in snail mail." I assured her that sending mail by snail or donkey delights me so much so she needn't worry if my message is delayed by a week, 10 days or a month. She lives over in Western Australia and comes home twice a year at the most.

Here's the last year's mail, the last hand-delivered by the sister concerned.

Handmade's the best. This one's the handiwork of three-year-old Sophia, daughter of Liwa Araos and Archie Espanola. Made of dried leaves and shiny stickers. I like Liwa's penmanship--it indicates her lightness of being and overall cheerfulness.

Cousin Tess Lolarga Romero in Chicago is religious about her cards. They arrive as early as November. Perhaps she knows my husband is a stamp collector so she sticks assorted stamps on the envelop.

Beth Quirino Lahoz, president of the Technological Institute of the Philippines, unfailingly sends a yearly card. Sometimes, when I respond in kind, she emails quickly back upon receiving my card: "Despite the distance (not seeing each other), the connection thrives because you have also worked at it with your gracious letters."

Coming home from Baguio via Subic on New Year's Day, I found this on my desk--a card from my sister Gigi and inside were crisp 20-peso bills. She and our adopted sister Ruth Terania know my prepaid phone's limits and how I direly need the gadget for text blasts when supporting assorted causes. Thanks, baby sisters.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The first time I saw Monica Feria

These remembrances were read last night at the memorial for journalist Monica S. Feria at the rock garden of the Church of the Risen Lord, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. Monica died at age 62 on Dec 30 last year. Her ashes will be brought to Cabangan, Zambales, today where these will be buried.

The first time I met Monica formally was at our employer's office, Philippine Daily Express in Port Area, Manila, in 1976. I was a new reporter assigned to the Life and Leisure section. Newspaper people in those days were mainly made up of men, the unfriendly sort whose noses were close to the grindstone. Monica went out of her way to welcome me to the team.

What bound us, apart from the Express, was we were both working students at the UP Institute of Mass Communication. She enjoyed a celebrity status there because of this and because her byline appeared with some frequency on the front page.

But she wasn't a total stranger to me. She was friends first with my older cousin, Allyn Lolarga Valdellon, a broadcast communication major. Binilin ako ni Allyn kay Monica since Express was to become the first of my many journalism jobs.

In the newspaper then, we only enjoyed one day off. Mine fell on a Thursday so it would allow me to attend classes. Saturdays and Sundays were slow news days. Nonetheless, I reported for duty to close advance Leisure pages for the Monday and Tuesday issues.

One early Saturday afternoon when the slots of the all-male news desk were unoccupied, Monica sashayed by my cubicle wearing a pair of batik wraparound pants. Then her pants, held together by a fragile string and the tiniest of safety pins, fell, revealing to me her white-as-snow panty. I half hugged her from behind and helped put on her pants back with one eye cast on the rest of the newsroom.

Monica gasped, "Mabuti ikaw lang ang nakakita, Babeth!"

I suspect that the boys in the newsroom, from the copy boy to the editor in chief, were half in love in Monica. In love but not in the leery or lustful sense, more of what William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem "When You Are Old and Grey": "How many loved your moments of glad grace / And loved your beauty with love false or true / But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows of your changing face."

Monica and Gigi on the Bob Feleo bed at the launching of the book The First Eye

I'm grateful to Monica for agreeing to read aloud my poems at the launching of my first book, The First Eye, on Oct. 15, 1990, traditionally observed as World Poetry Day, when she was big with child. She shared, along with our actor friends Dodo Crisol, may he also rest in peace, and Gigi Dueñas, a big four-poster bed, handcrafted by Bob Feleo. Monica surprised everyone gathered at Hiraya Gallery with her passionate reading of some erotica despite a belly so huge she seemed ready to pop anytime.

Monica was also my editor when I contributed to the now defunct Mirror Magazine. I was encoding and composing at the same time my profile of then senatorial candidate Haydee Yorac in one of her office's computer terminals. Monica understood the "messiness" of the writing process. By 9 p.m., which was late, I still wasn't ready with my copy. She said she needed to go home to her daughter Jasmin and her family. Not once did she lean over my shoulders to check on the progress of my work. There was that trust between professionals that yes, I would be able to deliver.

Because she didn't apply full-blown pressure on me, I was more relaxed and reached my story's end, appending a hashtag after the last period.

One last memory of Monica: In February 1997, we attended a meeting of women cultural workers called by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. After about an hour or so of grim and determined brainstorming about arts-related projects that would benefit women (there was a budget that ran into millions), Monica raised her hand from where she was seated and said, "Bakit hindi na lang natin paghati-hatian yung pera? Happy pa tayo!"

Of course, that was said in jest and Monica meant to lighten the mood.

Ngayong gabi, paghati-hatian natin ang kalungkutan sa pagpanaw ng mahal nating Monica sa pamamamagitan ng pag-alaala natin at pagtanggap na bumalik na siya sa Dakilang Kaliwanagan sa langit. Maging happy tayo.

Monica believed in and worked for the liberation of Filipino women, of the Filipino people. Let up rejoice that she is now liberated from the world of pain and suffering, from the dailiness of deadlines.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iconic Via Mare

Michaela Fenix. Via Mare: 40 Years of Iconic Events Through Menus, Recipes, and Memories. Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing, Inc. 2016. 176 pp.

Via Mare and restaurateur Glenda Rosales Barretto are synonymous in having, in Felice Prudente Sta. Maria’s words in her foreword, moved “Philippine cuisine upwards onto a new and higher plane of creativity, innovation and artistry over decades.”

This book, with full-color photos by Pat Mateo, is part social history, even gossip, part legacy with the sumptuous recipes shared some of which had been served to heads of state, including Popes John Paul II and Francis.

Accounting for the restaurant’s success is, according to Barretto, its ability to “execute other kinds of cooking: Western, European and Asian. We learn from food festivals here and abroad. We exchange ideas with local and foreign chefs. We acquire knowledge from readings. And, of course, we endeavor to dine at the best restaurants to learn from them as well.”

But there is a true-life anecdote that also accounts for Via Mare’s emphasis on giving Filipino cuisine a lift. When then First Lady Imelda R. Marcos returned from the Cancun Summit in Mexico in 1981, she told Barretto what she had witnessed: how Mexican, not Western, food was served to the world’s leaders and guests. From then on, “Mrs. Marcos decided that state dinners would showcase Filipino food, but elegantly and with refined flavors,” the book stated.

Glenda Rosales Barretto, Via Mare’s moving force

To enter the catering business was not in Via Mare’s plans until it had to do the job for the silver wedding anniversary of Vicente Lim Jr. and his wife Nita Fernandez. Mrs. Marcos was present in that party. Right away she expressed her desire to have the restaurant cater a state dinner for then US President Gerald Ford. Barretto’s concern was not Via Mare’s capability but that her restaurant did not have enough silver, glassware and plates. Mrs. Marcos solved the problem, ordering her home stylist Ronnie Laing to buy what Via Mare needed.

The other international guests served through the years included Princesses Margaret and Anne of Great Britain, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji of China, President Kim Dae Jung of Korea, economic leaders of the ASEAN Summit, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC, among a lengthy list.

At one time, Via Mare was contracted by Hennessy, the cognac company, for an anniversary dinner to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2015. In the book’s narration, “the dinner menu was crafted in France, the recipes sent to the restaurant” for execution as modern haute cuisine. The menu included mussels cream soup infused with saffron, smoked salmon topped with cocoa, crab soufflé with zesty lemon, foie gras on jellied consommé, grilled wagyu with cognac and celeriac.”

The dessert was “a sorbet encased in a petal-like structure made of chocolate which opened up when hot chocolate was poured on it.” The recipe for this last masterpiece is included.

Restaurant habitués included Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo and wife Beth Day Romulo. Barretto kept his gracious thank-you letters that praised her for mastering “the art of Filipino cuisine because each item revealed your gentle touch and your keen knowledge.”

In another handwritten letter, Romulo expressed appreciation for her attention to detail, her “time and effort to help us make our parties the success that they were…It is personal interest that transcends the limits of complying with a duty to a customer.”

That attention to detail extended to “the fabled Czech amber crystals used at Via Mare’s very first catering.” The aesthete in Romulo got so impressed that “he requested that henceforth those crystals be used only for his functions.”

Barretto is convinced that more than the accolades and the national and world recognition, the backbone of Via Mare, a Latin phrase to mean “the way of the sea,” are the people. An eighth of the book is devoted to the employees. Some have been there since the restaurant’s founding in 1975. Notable is Marquez “Mother” Reyes for his “keen eye for design, observing and meticulously noting the preferences of clients and how hotels and other restaurants do their settings.”

Another is Dalia Zamora who made Via Mare’s pride—bibingka and puto bumbong. Manang Dal was said not to have used any equipment to measure the quantity of her ingredients but just relied on the lines of the palm of her hand. From there she could intuit the best variety of rice for her rice cakes.

Via Mare: 40 Years of Iconic Events Through Menus, Recipes, and Memoriesought to be in the libraries of colleges and universities that boast of hotel and restaurant management programs. But more than these, it should have pride of place in every Pinoy home.--Elizabeth Lolarga

Via Mare’s famous pairing of pancit luglug and puto bumbong

This article first appeared in the Jan. 5, 2017, issue of

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Consoling feedback after 'Yuletide without Mom'

My essay "Yuletide without Mom" came out in yesterday's Highblood section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I received feedback in my email and in text messages. Some friends who I haven't been in touch with in awhile were surprised to learn Mom had passed away. I also learned of recent deaths in their families.

First to respond was my kumpare (godfather to my youngest daughter Ida), the writer Amadis Ma. Guerrero. He texted early yesterday: "A moving tribute to Mommy Lolarga was we at Raya (our former office) called her. She was our Mommy, too!"

From painter-actor Ivi Avellana Cosio (daughter of National Artists Lamberto and Daisy Avellana) came a longer message that cried to be shared with those who are grieving: "My dearest Babeth, our deepest condolences on your Mom's passing. A special hug for you and your youngest sister with whom I truly empathize. My Mom passed way (also in May) of 2013 on Mother's Day, a few days before my birthday. In December, my older daughter insisted we celebrate the first Christmas without Mama in Beijing with her and her family. It was so different that it helped to get us through such a painful time. But back in Manila, same same. I still cry when I think of her, or my Papa who left us in 1991, or my favorite brother in 2011, or my grandparents who passed away when I was much much younger. Grief is really so personal and different for each one. And I truly believe no one has a right to tell you how, when, or how long to grieve. Also, no such thing as 'getting over it'. You don't, well-meaning friends notwithstanding. You just learn how to cope with it one day at a time. And there will be good days and bad days. That being said, I wish you and yours a better New Year in every way. Tama si Helen Mirren. Much love from us."

Smiling grandmother with grandchildren Ida and Kimi Fernandez and Carlo Trinidad (foreground) several Christmases ago

“Would you rather I clean the house or write a poem? A poem lasts.”—my Mom

“I want to write poems instead of notes, but each ending is a death,
and I cannot handle the finish of words.”
Renée E. D’Aoust in her essay “Gratitude is my Terrain: Maybe”

This time of the year last year, she had just been discharged after a prolonged hospital stay. There was no exact term for what was ailing her, but it was enough for my siblings and me to have her home for the holidays. She missed reunion parties with her amigas and favorite nephew. We thought she would rally and recover in the new year.

But as actor Helen Mirren put it succinctly in summarizing the year 2016, “I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a big pile of sh*t.” It was the year when Mom’s worst fears about the betrayal of her body came true. We, along with hired caregivers, took turns cleaning her up after a “lapse.” Never could I erase from memory the helpless, pained look on Mom’s face every time this happened. I could sense that to her it was the ultimate humbling, and her look carried an apology with it.

Even if I tried to humor her when I tidied her up, the smile that used to light up our house was gone. That smile was the most eulogized part of her on the last day of her wake. Writer Efren Yambot told of how he was welcomed to the small feasts Mom prepared for her Manila Bankers Life colleagues by her smile. It encouraged him to return to similar occasions she hosted even if it meant covering miles to get to the office. When my Singapore-based daughter Ida would come home, it was Mom’s smile that greeted her first.

This Christmas my husband ordered chicken galantina from two sources to replace the irreplaceable—Mom’s yearly supply of morcon. He once had a meal at a restaurant in San Fernando, Pampanga, that boasted of the best morcon. He even had a beef roulade wrapped to take home. But his verdict was it was close to the taste of dog food and couldn’t approximate Mom’s morcon.

His assistant then, a recipient of Mom’s largesse, used to say that even only the sauce of the morcon sufficed for a meal. That was how good it was: We would ladle leftover sauce on a steaming mound of white rice when the meat roll was gone. Nothing was wasted.

A sister and some cousins were able to observe Mom in the act of preparing morcon, but even if it is ever replicated, the matriarch-cook who ruled over the kitchen and the rest of our house isn’t there to pronounce judgment on another’s take on her dish.

Mom with her five daughters

It isn’t just her dishes that we miss. Nightly the youngest of my four sisters weeps from the pain of the loss. Recently, she suffered chest constrictions and had to take herself to the hospital emergency room because of the stress of prolonged grieving (Mom died last May). Despite our assurances to her that Mom is at peace, she still isn’t prepared to go to the next level of the stages of grief and loss according to Elizabeth Kubler Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Grief counseling has been advised, but it is up to her if she will take it.

To sort of pierce through the cloud of sorrow hovering over the house, I right away volunteered to host Christmas carolers from my Grade 11 class. The sound of young voices, the guitar strummed by a fellow teacher, makeshift maracas and drums brought the tidings of comfort and joy straight to our hearts.

Although my sisters and I didn’t prepare anything homemade from our kitchen (we cannot hold a candle to our mother, cooking-wise), the store-bought pancit, roast chicken and mini siopao were wiped out by bottomless adolescent appetites. I truly felt Mom’s spirit approving.

To those having a hard time coping with the holiday frenzy because of mourning that cannot be kept at bay, keep saying “This, too, shall pass” and leave some space for the occasional joy to surprise you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dying to Tell You

"Dying to Tell You," acrylic on canvas paper, 12" x 18", 2016.

Dear Me,

I just want to assure you that dry periods in painting or any kind of creative work are the old normal so you shouldn't fret too much when the Muse or the Holy Spirit seems to be absent in your life.

You're back to painting your signature still lifes after a brief foray in including the handiwork of your grandchild in your paintings--her doodles, her cutouts, her you-name-it, she's the fearless art-maker in the family. She'll have her moment to shine again. Right now, she's too focused on raising and disciplining a puppy named after a Christmas spice, nutmeg.

Kai with Nutmeg the moxie (a mix of the breeds Maltese and dachshund)Photo by Kimi Fernandez

Some of your acrylic paints in tubes have hardened. Teacher Norman Chow advised that these should be massaged when they're not being constantly used. Who knows? In the course of massaging the paint tubes, inspiration will come.

That's why you should always give yourself a second and third chance before feeling that you've thoroughly lost It already, It to include the compulsion to write and blog about life's seemingly little events. For you do lead an event-ful life. The uninspired moments are just telling you to take a break, to mourn for what was lost, then to get over the sniffling and take up the brush, computer keyboard or pen.

"Foursome," acrylic on canvas paper, 12" x 18", 2016.

Always with you,