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A Paean to the Most Influential Woman in My Life

Remy Cabacungan
Remy Cabacungan fielding questions during her 100th birthday.
Photo by Paul Tanedo

She was known to children and teenagers in a Quezon City neighborhood as Lola Madonna. A fashion plate, she was—hair cut modernly short, matching ensemble from head to foot.

"Lola" because how else would one show respect for a visitor "from America" who, rumor had it, was in her eighties. Absurd! How the woman could swing! And when she spoke ... all ears picked up her cadence. Conversations with her never touched on topics of grandchildren or culinary expertise. You could engage her if you mentioned her favorite topics: interior decorating, buy n' sell, and election politics in the U.S.

Her tenets in life would be the cultivation of taste and the pursuit of high end living, no matter the circumstance. "High end" meant "best foot forward" in etiquette and social grace, modulation in speech, make-up to look young, dressing to dismiss ennui, and allowing no room for resentment, second guessing or regrets. These naturally spilled over to cover interior décor, color and texture, music and performing arts, courtship, love affairs and winning friends and influencing people.

Remy Cabacungan
Photo by R. Grefalda

She was a designer-milliner in her young spirited days, much sought-after in a cosmopolitan city patronized by a clientele who wanted a customized look. Namely, the Katherine Hepburn look: veiled hats to match a Chanel ensemble. Gloves—black in winter, white in summer. In the early fifties, the vogue was more a focal point rather than who you knew or who knew you. Men and women vied for a fashion statement to stand out in a crowd.

In the summer of 1948, Remy Grefalda (later Cabacungan) was a recent widow in Hong Kong with two young children. Yet neither the loss nor the uncertainty of her family's future would rein in her ambition to top the fashion trade. She was among the first to feature the much-vaunted designer dresses from America—New York, to be exact. "Made in the USA." But her ambitions were thwarted by the threat of the Korean War.

* * *

Remy Cabacungan
Brown Strokes Exhibit curator, Linda Pirrone, congratulating Mima at 98
on her Button Vision Art (2006). Photo by R. Grefalda

She was born Remedios Guerrero Gruta at the turn of the century on January 27, 1908 and was raised in the household of wealthy grandparents, a privilege extended to the firstborn. It was in this setting that she was exposed to a benign aristocracy in manners, language and social grace. She was raised to speak conversationally in Spanish, surrounded by lace and burnished Victorian decor. The sight of American soldiers as occupational forces after the Spanish left the islands in defeat had long ago been an ordinary sight by the time she was 4.

She remembers being taught by an American, one among the many Thomasites or their replacements, since by 1916, education was a successful device for American pacification of the islands trumping the use of guns. When she was barely 16 she found herself assigned a small classroom with 10 or 12 youngsters to oversee, and who were made to repeat their English lessons. She had become a teacher.

* * *

Remy Cabacungan
Library of Congress Asian Division Chief, Dr. Hwa Wei Lee
thanking Remy Cabacungan for her fundraising efforts (2006).
Photo by Frank Celada

Today she is a full-fledged centenarian.

Seven whole years I watched her metamorphose, transformed into a Grande Dame still prizing her autonomy but easing gently into being tended to, surrendering her everyday life to someone else's decisions and caring. What grace to hand over her volatile persona to someone else's nurturing; to do this willingly, and be completely trusting!

She has outlived 2 husbands and 2 boyfriends. One day I asked her why she married my father, Joe Grefalda. The story was priceless. What exactly about Joe drew her to him? Joe's Best Friend ended her wondering. Joe believed, he said, that of all the young women he cavorted with at the university, none compared to "Meding" whom he always came away with the impression that "even her bones were smiling . . ."

He swept you off your feet with those words? She merely smiled.

Remy Cabacungan
Opening of the Carlos Bulosan Archive at the Library of Congress, April 29, 2006
Photo by Paul Tanedo

I can see from this vantage point that the phrase was quite succinct and not as superfluous as it sounds, played back. All I can recall is that whatever she fixed her mind on, from the most life shattering issue to the most trivial whim, all of her (and yes, including her bones!) moved heaven and earth to meet her heart's desire.

She would take on the world with aplomb and sheer grace. She was aggressive with sweet persuasion. She never took No for an answer. She was the master of the "follow up" technique before it became a sound byte. She was a businesswoman, a beauty pageant director, a community organizer, a political savant, an actress, an artist, a cultural showbiz, a producer, a talent scout and a parent—the last being the least of her strong points. By sheer instinct and benign neglect, she raised us. What she seemed to impart without spelling it out was a sense of trust, a belief that no harm would come our way. As adventurous as she was, so too were we free to be, because the universe is a nurturing place and we could be trusted to follow our hearts.

Her creative spirit remains undiminished. She has lived through two world wars, revolutions, global events and is at home in YouTube and the 21 st century. The only country she has not visited is Australia. As a young adult, she made her home in the star colony of the British Empire, after having grown under the colonizing influence of Hollywood. She went into hiding as a fugitive during the Japanese Occupation in Manila. In the late 1950s, she steeled herself but graciously dealt with Japanese businessmen in their own country as the Technical Assistant to the Philippine President for Cottage Industry.

She accepted America as home when she married Patricio Cabacungan, a debonair American Ilocano. They owned a thriving gift shop and she lived during the unruly years of the Beat Generation as a proprietor of hippie paraphernalia: peace posters, psychedelic lights, Jimi Hendrix, and no, she didn't do pot. Her many residences include one that was just a stone's throw from Hollywood. For a time, she enjoyed Florida but found life there a little too slow. Washington, D.C. matched her lifestyle to a T! She believes she will live to see the first woman president of the United States.

Having reached One Hundred, Mima (as she is called by friends and family) can truly claim a unique and personal achievement. Nothing to crow about, but by God's grace, everything in this life to savor!

Remé-Antonia Grefalda
13 February 2008

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