My Mother's Mandarin CoatWednesday, December 27, 2006
For years I have seen but not looked into an envelope my mother always had with her. The neat handwriting on the envelope reads: Sita. Filomena de Iruretagoyena. It is dated 19 de abril de 1936.
Since I can remember my mother confessed to me that she had really only loved one man. He was a Filipino doctor called Ramón Andía. The tragedy of all sons (or at least this one) is that we are told almost everything when we are not curious. So we forget. And when we become curious those that can tell us are dead. That was the case with my mother.
I recently received a letter from a gentleman, Paul Kwon, who met her in North Carolina. She had been in Greensboro around 1970 to visit her brother Tony. Paul Kwon and my Uncle Tony flew model airplanes together. Mr Kwong wrote:
I remember all the stories he used to tell me about his life. He used to brag about his sister who hated the piano but through sheer determination became an accomplished pianist. He told me the story over and over again to make a point. I met your mother a long time ago when she visited Tony. I remembered Tony telling me that she lived in Mexico city. She had dark hair that was tied back. She was striking.
I always knew my mother played the piano very well and that she loved playing it. But this revelation makes me realize how little I knew about her. I never asked.
But she did tell me many times how her heart had been broken in Manila in the mid 30s and how she had gone to Manila Bay and removed a huge opal ring and threw it into the water. From that time she never ever wore opals telling me they were bad luck.
On really elegant parties my mother always wore a blue silk Chinese coat that Dr. Ramón had given her. She called it, my Mandarin coat." It came with a matching pair of blue silk slippers. Around 1962 I photographed her in it. My mother had severe bouts of Meniere's Disease. She had a constant ringing in her ears and suffered from terrible dizzy spells. For the photograph she could barely raise her head from her pillow.
By the end (she died in our house in Mexico in 1972) she suffered the frustration of playing her Beethoven Sonatas without being able to hear them. It was during those Mexico City days when my mother was a constant companion to our eldest daughter Alexandra (Ale).
Rosemary and I taught all day so my mother took care of her (until Ale was 4). There seemed to be a battle of wills. One day when we arrived my mother said, "Ale threw all the books I was reading to her out the window in a tantrum." While Ale has only hazy memories of my mother she has some special affinity for her. She was thrilled when in 1992 I asked her to pose with my mother's Chinese coat.
Last year at a Filipino weddding in North Van I was introduced to a Mr. Daniel Andía. The man was Ramón Andía's nephew. "I cannot believe it," he told me, "You say your mother loved my uncle but did not marry him? He never married". He told us he would never love again."
Until she died my mother wrote painful and depressing poems about her lost love and how he was in her thoughts at all times. Her compiled poems begin with this letter:
Most of these poems are written inspired by you. They're not much but they are an expression of repressed feelings. You'll recognize yourself, though perhaps disguised under "blue eyes" or other characteristics.
You always wished to be loved by someone and all these years, thirty in all, maybe a little less, you've been loved dearly and cherishingly with no hope of return. I realized I loved you too late. I couldn't turn back. My course was set to a fallen star.
I hope these get to you when I am gone. I'd like to have the satisfaction, even in the beyond, that you've found me out.
You always had my respect, admiration and love.
I have invited Ale to come for a visit. I want her to read out loud the 12-page letter from Dr. Ramón Andía that begins (my translation from Spanish) :
I am going to tell you a story, a long and sad story which I would never be able to tell in its entierety, personally. It is a confession of weaknesses that destroy my apparent strength of character. You thought you knew me but you will find out that you barely got to my second floor. But you must also know that if anybody would ever get that far it could only be you.
I believe that the contents of the letter will reveal why it is my mother cast her ring into Manila Bay. A few years later she moved with her mother, brother and sister to Buenos Aires. In 1941 she married her "fallen star", my father.