A eulogy for Mom
Lila Shahani, currently Secretary General of the Philippine National Commission to UNESCO, delivered this eulogy at the necrological rites for her mother, former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, at the Department of Foreign Affairs on March 24, 2017.
It was never easy being the only daughter of Letty Shahani. Widowed at a young age, she was a single mom who struggled to raise 3 precocious children. She became a public figure at a time when women were expected to stay at home. A feminist in a universe that remained deeply patriarchal, my Mom served during the administration of her cousin, Ferdinand Marcos, after which she openly broke from him, becoming a senator in the post-EDSA era.
Throughout her life, Mom dealt with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations: from communist strongmen to UN secretaries general, from presidents to activists, from the richest to the poorest of the poor. I cannot ever remember a time when my mom was not working: going to embassies, attending conferences, holding forth on TV or radio, formulating policies, campaigning for herself or for my brother Ranjit, and my Uncle Eddie (her beloved brother, the brilliant FVR), passing laws, lecturing, writing columns, and more.
Since work always took center stage, it’s not surprising that I rarely saw her while I was growing up. We rarely did things that mothers and daughters normally do: go to the movies, play in the park, swim at the beach, or just linger over dinner inasmuch as our dining room often became an extension of her office, as staff members would scurry in and out with sheaves of paper and endless notebooks.
When I began school, my mother decided that I should go to Immaculate Conception Academy in San Juan so I could learn Mandarin and prepare for a world that she was certain would be dominated by the Chinese. How prescient indeed! This, you understand, was in the 1970s – well before China became a superpower. Even our schooling was a matter of geo-political importance. When I did not study hard enough and fell behind in my Chinese lessons, often distracted by the fact that I was this strange-looking Indian girl in an ocean of Chinese girls, she would bluntly inform me that she simply expected me to shape up and apply myself.
Assigned to Bucharest as the first Filipino ambassador to a Communist country, my mom put Chanda and me in the same school as the famous Olympic gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, where I quickly learned Romanian, while Ranjit was sent off to Rome to study. We moved around quite a bit: to Hungary, East Germany and later to Canberra, which, during the late 70s, was quite racist. Those were the years the Vietnamese boat people were coming to Australia in droves. Eventually, we went to Vienna for high school, where I spent some of the more harrowing years of my life. Austria was not friendly to foreigners during the 80s, although I understand it has significantly changed since. But each summer I was sent to Paris – that glorious mecca where both of my parents finished their PhDs – to learn French and explore the city – a beautiful respite during those difficult years. In Nairobi, Kenya, where she served as Secretary General of the UN Conference on the Decade for Women – a decade before the now-famous Beijing conference – I saw first-hand how it was possible to be brilliant and female at the same time – a true eye-opener for me after masculinist Vienna.
Later, I went off to college and grad school in the US, where I also worked. Eventually, I went to do my doctorate in England.
All the while, my Mom had little time to spend with us. Her work kept her busy and distant. Often, I felt disconnected and abandoned. There were rare moments when we sang songs together while traveling through Eastern Europe, such as the time I taught her to sing “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plain.” We went to Thessaloniki in Greece one glorious summer and reveled in the snow in Brasov, Romania. In Austria, she and I learned to snow ski, and I taught her not to long down to the end of the hill, to take each turn as it came, without worrying about the long-term outcome. To the very end, she thanked me for this lesson.
Still, those moments were few and far between. You might say I even resented the Philippines and my Mom’s international advocacies because they took so much of her time away from me.
So it wasn’t until I returned to the Philippines to work at the Cultural Center of the Philippines; taught in UP, AIM and the Ateneo; worked for the UN in New York, and then still later became an Assistant Secretary in the PNoy administration, that I finally realized just what my mom had had to go through her entire life: the endless hours of work, the constant struggles with male colleagues who thought less of you or suspected your abilities, regardless of how much or how well you did, the complicated process of designing and carrying out policy proposals, much less legislative initiatives. My Mom thrived in this atmosphere where she accomplished so much but also had to go through so many frustrating moments.
But everything, throughout, was ultimately underscored by a deep love for the country of her birth.
In a word, I slowly began to understand Mom in a deep, experiential way.
When she was diagnosed with cancer about three years ago, I decided to move back home and live with her again. Retired from public service but not from working for the public good, she had plunged whole-heartedly into her new task: farming. Returning to her own version of Walden Pond in Pangasinan, she built a modernist, Mañosa-designed bahay kubo in Tulong. In cooperation with the Philippine Carabao Association, she purchased several Indian Murra buffaloes to supply her with her gatas kalabaw and kesong puti, which she sold to various outlets. She also set up a solar-powered organic farm that grew rice and all sorts of exquisite tropical flowers. In between chemo treatments and vegetable juicing, she would insist on going to her farm to check on the delivery of a new batch of earthworms, pull out weeds, and supervise the construction of her last venture, a Pasalubong Center that would showcase goods from Pangasinan. At the farm, she was happier than she had ever been. Sundays were spent at her stall in Legazpi Market in Makati, selling her milk products and flowers with our faithful kasambahays Manang Glo and Manang Janet, and exchanging news and tips with other organic farmers.
Even in retirement, Mom was forever working. She took her work in the Philippine Navy – where she was a member of the board – very seriously. Still, she had significantly slowed down and we had more time together both in Bel-Air and in Tulong. She was, in a nutshell, delighted that I was working in government and, later, thrilled that I had decided to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs – her second home. For the first time, we went to movies, plays and concerts – and such a joy they were! Dinners were now a more leisurely affair and we spent hours talking about all sorts of things, especially her childhood. It was during those dinners that Vince (my fiancé) and I encouraged her to write her memoirs.
She had lived an extraordinary life, after all – certainly one that was worth remembering. But perhaps just as significant, she had lived a life whose quotidian tempo and material texture were long gone and difficult to retrieve. The sights and smells and tastes of her days growing up in Lingayen, the pre-war delights of living in Malate before it was destroyed by the war, the youthful days spent in Washington, and later teaching in UP’s brand new and still sparsely filled-in campus in Diliman: all of these memories were in danger of disappearing unless she put pen to paper.
And so, in between attending to her farm, writing on foreign policy such as EDCA and the West Philippine Sea, and regularly traveling to Taiwan as part of the MECO delegation, she began writing her memoirs.
Hearing and reading about her childhood, we bonded in a way that I didn’t even think was possible. It was as if we were making up for lost time. Stories poured forth that I, and very few others, had ever heard about. She was fond, for example, of telling the tale of having crawled under the kulambo to join her grandparents as they smoked opium. She retraced the beatific looks on their faces and the delicate care with which they prepared their pipes.
She recalled, too, the times she spent on the shores of Lingayen, collecting with her siblings sacksful of small crabs, laboriously collecting their fat and eat them with kalamansi over freshly-cooked rice made by her mother. The sea, indeed, was a focal point in many of Mom’s memories. The salt water provided a kind of all-purpose curative for cuts, bruises and all sorts of other ailments. Small wonder, then, that she had such a strong attachment to the West Philippine Sea, since it was an integral part of the world in which she grew up. Whenever the question of Philippine sovereignty over the islands was brought up, she would tell a story about Bajo de Masinloc. Growing up, it was common for the men to talk about going there to work, but also, with a knowing look, to visit the prostitutes.
When her father became a journalist, and later a politician, the whole family moved to Manila. During the days of the Commonwealth, they lived in an apartment building on the corner of Taft and Padre Faura. Shaded by large acacia trees, the neighborhood was made up of many professors from UP, and piano music from students taking lessons would often waft in through their windows. My Mom herself was an avid pianist, even taking with her a piece of plywood with the piano keys precisely drawn in to practice her Hanon and Czerny silently as they escaped from the city during the Battle of Manila.
Indeed, Mom was always deeply resourceful: when in grad school at the University of Edinburgh to study Middle English, she attached a motor on her bicycle so she could ride around Scotland more freely.
My mother was sent off to study at Wellesley, which years later Hillary Clinton would also attend. At college, Mom was teased, tested, and eventually accepted by her white classmates, teaching her lessons about how to deal with foreign ways. She met my father, Ranjee, an Indian academic who had written several books and who was much older, while she was in India with her parents. What followed was a very long courtship – he had yet to disentangle himself from an earlier marriage to a French woman – that took place over 3 continents, from Europe to Asia to the US and which lasted all of 15 years. And such a deeply epistolary relationship it was! They wrote volumes to each other during those years – volumes I will one day resuscitate and share with the world. Their marriage was cut short when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage when I was only a year and ten months old, forcing her to return to the Philippines to live with her parents with her 3 children in tow.
I won’t tell you about her professional life – there are enough accounts of that already.
Listening to Mom’s stories, I came to see a side of her that was kept from me while I was growing up. The image of my mother as a child at play, marveling at the natural world – stones and insects and all sorts of miraculous things – keeping close to her own mother, my Lola Ilang, who had herself taken great care of me – fills me with great tenderness. As the cancer ravaged her body, her mind remained sharp and her spirit, ot the very end, unfailing. She would call me “Pen,” short for “Penny,” her term of endearment for me, because she would always say that she and Dad had once thrown a penny in a fountain in Paris and wished for a baby girl, and that child happened to be… me.
One day at the hospital, as she lay in restraints and breathing with great difficulty, tears pouring from her eyes, I came by her side and caressed her forehead. I felt her relax. Never much for public displays of affection, my Mom sat back, accepting my touch. It seemed like such a minor gesture, the most ordinary of affections. But it was also intimate in the most extraordinary way. Years passed in that touch, mutual forgiveness came forth, and so, too, an infinite love, a sudden joy amidst so much pain. I would caress her the way she had never caressed me, and that thought gave me lasting peace.
I wanted to birth her into the afterlife the way she had birthed me into this life. My only sentiment, throughout it all, was the deepest gratitude. Thinking about my Mom and the last few years we spent living together, I’m reminded of these lines from the American poet Lucille Clifton:
what is known?
that we carry our baggage
in our cupped hands
when we burst through
the waters of our mother.
that some are born
and some are brought
to the glory of this world.
that it is more difficult
to serve only one calling
in one life.
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that.
Good by, el-Mommy-io. Good bye, dear heart.