Eulogy for Elena Ledesma Silva
ELENA’S LISTS, LETTERS AND LOVE, Eulogy read by her daughter, Angela Silva
Thank you everyone for coming here today to remember Elena as we all knew her best.
In going through the four boxes of Mom’s papers that she left behind, I stumbled on lists of things to do, including those for Wednesday, December 23rd when she had her stroke, and things to do for Thursday, Christmas Eve, which she was expecting to spend with our brother, Mike. The lists included what time to wake up and shower, errands to run, overdue books to return, food to bring, clothes to pack and letters to write.
I also found five lists of the Christmas cards she sent, as early as November 2nd with her sister, Christine Bagtas, as one of the early recipients. The lists were divided into those in the United States and those abroad. One list contained names of dear friends who lived in far-reaching places whose addresses she was trying to track down. Far reaching places as Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Jamaica, and Havana, Cuba. Yes, she was even planning to send a Christmas card to Dolores Rivera, her father’s, our Lolo Juan’s, mistress. You can ask my brother John about that story.
Mom also kept calendars of all sorts: pocket-sized datebooks or wall-hanging calendars, at least four alone for 1998 – days when she worked were marked with a “w,” and each day was crossed off until they stop – at Tuesday, December 22, her last conscious day. On every single calendar, including those on the wall – Mom marked off birthdays and anniversaries, including death anniversaries of those she loved well, and that’s the secret of how she got her cards to you on time. I mean, to those who are living, of course.
Mom’s lists helped us find you, her dear friends.
The night before her stroke, she actually had dinner with a friend at Casa Vallejo, Pat Brown, Room 607, at the resident home where they both lived, rushing along to make it to her evening class on time. It was a class on Asian history. And among Mom’s papers I found her class notes. All written by hand in that elegant Palmer writing that we all recognize so well. We had given her an electric typewriter so she wouldn’t have to write by hand, but she called our gift a “lemon” because it didn’t work too well and for this she later apologized. But still the typewriter sat unused, the fresh ribbon cartridges piled on the floor while she continued to write her letters by longhand. And she kept those letters coming.
When she used to live in the Philippines, she would type her letters to us, her kids in the States, on this old manual Underwood typewriter, single-spaced on onion skin sheets at least four pages, sometimes six pages long or else on blue aerogrammes that came almost weekly. They were invariably lists of the people she visited to collect interest from or pay debts to, of foods she ate, the fares she paid jeepneys or taxis, the movies and theater plays she saw. Each letter was a lengthy report, a daily calendar of events, a to-do list checked off to each child. Reading those letters, I would hungrily search for that one small nugget of advice for my problem, gossip of my friends, or an emotional, heartfelt sentiment on her part – but this would be too rare or far between. You see, Mom chronicled the facts while she hid the sentiments.
Mom kept lists but she also kept a lot to herself.
It was only in the last two years that we began encouraging Mom to start her autobiography. She knew it, and we knew it, maybe even all of you knew it – that she was one heckuva storyteller and maybe it was time to get them down on paper. So she began a whole new set of lists. I found them, too, in her piles, starting with a list of her B.F.’s since 1942. B.F. stands for “boyfriends” and it’s a short list, only eight names long. Let’s just keep them a secret for now – to protect the privacy of the innocent. Or should I say, the ignorant?
Mom also made a list of the horses her father owned with names like “Billy Simon” and “Precious Billy” that my Tita Christine remembers having thrown her off, a list of automobiles her parents owned: a Mercedes Benz and Renault for Lola Nena, a Cadillac, Chevrolet and Packard for Lolo Juan, and yet another list of the farms and haciendas she once worked on – their names exotic and charming like Hacienda San Vicente, Sarangani Saltbeds, Cudangdang, and Malolooyon among others. If only she had continued expounding on these lists – we might have had a few chapters full. But no, her lists are only tantalizing hints of the life she led. We’re going to have to hunt each and every one of them down so we can explore the hidden treasures she left.
We look to you, her friends and family, to help us find the precious clues in the stories she told you, in the life she had spent writing you.
In Mom’s papers, I also found a school paper she wrote. Her assignment was to write about any topic, at least 6 pages long, and so Mom decided to write on the trips she took in the Philippines on the Dona Montserrat cruise ship. Among its itinerary were stops to Iloilo City, Bacolod, and Corregidor Island. In Corregidor, she recounts the land tour that explored Malinta Tunnel. She then describes a special part of that trip. I’d like to read a few lines from this manuscript – if only to treasure a rare moment of introspection on her part:
“A very beautiful incident happened to me which will never be duplicated while I am alive. As I stood on the top deck, on the front part of the ship with the swimming pool behind me, I looked to the left and saw the most gorgeous sunset I had ever seen in my life and I have seen many beautiful sunsets. After a minute or so of being mesmerized by it, I looked to my right and saw the full moon slowly rising. As the sun was setting on my left and the moon was rising on my right, I did not know where I wanted to look the longest. I settled on the beautiful glorious sunset. After the sun left, I looked to the right, sat down on a deck chair facing the full moon and watched it rise. Until I die, I will never forget the beautiful experience and feelings I had that night when I saw the sun set and the full moon rise almost at the same time. I wish I had eyes on the sides of my head so I could watch both simultaneously.”
That was the final report that she submitted. But I found a missing part in an accompanying first draft that she had typed. Where she wrote, “After the sun left, I looked to the right, sat down on a deck chair and enjoyed the full moon as it came up and up,” Mom had added, but then later deleted: “A bar steward passed by, so I asked for a shot of Remy Martin Cognac Brandy and nursed that drink while watching the full moon.” I wonder why she omitted a small part which I thought was just so perfectly “Elena.”
In the two days I spent sifting through the boxes while the papers and slips and lists piled up around me, I noticed the growing mound of letters from my siblings and the grandchildren who wrote Mom. On the envelopes she noted the dates she replied to them. In sharp contrast was the lack of correspondence from me. I found only two cards that I had sent her through a span of four, almost five years, and only one very recent newsy letter. I was heartbroken. Mom never complained.
You see, I’m one of Elena’s five children who became estranged from her while she fought the demons of her alcoholism. It threatened to tear us apart and it almost did. But my mother was willful to the end – she conquered my anger with the fierceness of her love. She taught me by her examples to forgive her her mistakes. I don’t think she ever even blamed me for mine. She had never given up on me, continuing to send me letters and her love from afar while I had stayed away. I am so very glad and grateful that I had reconciled with her just this year. Along with my sister, Marie, I was with Mom, holding her hand when she breathed her last.
There won’t be any more letters from Mom that I’ll get in the mail. They’ve all been written, I think, and are in my heart for safekeeping. But there is one more list, one last letter I must write.
My dearest Mom:
I am so sorry. I see the days and nights on your calendar when hearts must have been dark and cold, the Christmas and the New Year you marked: “Spent Alone.”
I am so grateful. I see the friends who wrote you and visited you, keeping you company when the closest people to you, your children and grandchildren, stayed away.
I am so proud. I see you were working, taking classes, teaching English. Always giving of your time, of which you had plenty, or your money, of which you had so little. Even if only a dollar to the grand-niece or grand-nephew back home, in notes you signed “with love from Lola Guess Who?”
I am so angry. I see how much of our precious time together I missed by not trying harder. By not forgiving you sooner. By holding myself back longer.
I am so humbled. I see my brother and sisters’ letters, postcards and pictures they sent you so regularly. Especially Shelly and Mike who visited you frequently and sent the news of my family’s accomplishments that made you so happy.
I am so lost. I see how children can too easily become critical of their parents, and how parents never do give up on their kids. So who’s the parent here or the child?
I am so missing you. And I see that I’ll be spending the rest of my life deciphering the lists and lessons of the heart you leave behind in all of us.
I love you, Mom. Rest with the angels. No more letters.
I’ll just talk to you anytime I want to.
With all my love,