Jessie Lichauco: The heart of Santa Ana
I could spend the whole day with her, sitting at her feet until the dying rays of the sun streamed through the veranda window. Her voice, husky and hoarse but firm and wise, carries across the dim-lighted room filled with books, antique wines and pictures of smiling loved ones who have come and go in her life, and that’s why at the grand old age of 104,Lola Jessie carries the burden of remembering a hundred years of memories time itself had forgotten.
She is the grand matriarch of the Lichauco Family, one of Santa Ana’s oldest families. She’s American-born. Before the war struck, an 18-year-old Jessie traveled from the opposite side of the world to the Philippines and married a promising lawyer, the first Filipino to have graduated from Harvard University, Marcial Lichauco. She’s been here all her life, but it was only in 2012 that she received, as she amusingly claims, the second-most important paper she signed next to her marriage contract – a paper noting she is now a Filipino citizen.
Her house at Santa Ana, Manila doesn’t bear any slightest indication of being regal and grand from the outside. It was flanked by a sturdy concrete wall along the streets of Pedro Gil and a plaque by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines is the only indication that this house is as old as Santa Ana itself. It was built back in the time that the Pasig River as at the peak of its glory, ferrying visitors in and outside Manila, and so the house is designed to face the majestic river to welcome its most-esteemed guests.
Walking inside the house is a queer experience of visiting memories encased in glasses, methodically preserved and well-kept by the family. There are Marcial’s stuffed hunts back in the days that hunting in wild Africa is considered a worthy indication of social status and prestige. On the conventional backdoor, you will find yourself staring at a hundred-year old balete tree, its vines lazily fluttering against the hot afternoon wind. The tree has been Lola Jessie’s silent companion, a mute witness to the eventual decay of the Pasig River and of what has was known to be the Queen City of the Pacific, the City of Manila.
Lola Jessie spends most of her time at the second floor of the house, in the veranda overlooking the two things she loves the most- her balete tree and the river. For her, those are the only things that remained unchanging. The tree continues to stand like a proud sentinel, the river continues to flow on its own course, though barely moving because of the mud and trashes down its innards. There isn’t any space at the walls of her house that isn’t occupied – every inch is covered by pictures, paintings and mementos of letters, certificates and family trees detailed in handsome script.
Even when she’s talking, Lola Jessie’s words are painted with interesting stories of different layers; a wistful retelling of what happened during the Great War and the price Filipinos have to pay when the city fell on the hands of the enemy. She would always recall how the remaining ones carted off the dead ones on the street after the Bombing as it they are sacks of rice piled up to be sold to the market. When the City of Manila was flattened beyond recognition, Lola Jessie witnessed the biblical exodus of the survivors from Intramuros and Quiapo to the relatively spared districts of Santa Ana to seek refuge. The Lichauco House became a makeshift hospital for the weak and the orphaned, and it was Lola Jessie herself who presided over the stench of loss and death.
She will struck you as someone who haven’t experienced the darkest moments of our history. Her eyes are bright and shrewd and her movements are sharp and definite despite her frail health. Her sense of humor is just as timeless. She is a voracious reader and her books are free to be opened by everybody. When she asked who among us likes to read, I slowly raised my hand and she turns to me with a mischievous grin, “You can come here anytime.” I smiled and promised I will.
She is as interested with people as she is with books. She asks smart questions and responds with witty answers. When she asked one guy about the course he is studying, he said that he has already graduated. With grand flourish worthy of her age, she responded “I’m asking you what did you study. It doesn’t make a difference if you already graduated.”
I like to think of Lola Jessie as the remaining link of what connects Santa Ana from its rich beginnings. The district, once known to be the Forbes Park during the Spanish rule, home to elegant boutiques and shoppes, is but a far-cry of its old exalted self. Its residents unaware of its lofty history as the seat of a pre-colonial empire, a federation of barangays whose form of government rivals the might of that of Germanic tribes and Scottish clans. Lola Jessie, with all her stories and anecdotes, wise counsels and sentiments about the past, would be a big part of Santa Ana’s journey to stand up and rise to reclaim its dignity.
At one point, she struck up a conversation with one of her visitors. The girl, having been surprised to be singled out, shyly hides behind her male companion. Lola Jessie affectionately pats her arm in a gentle reprimand, then said, “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be hiding there. Don’t you ever hide behind a man!”
She is that precious.
Posted on October 1, 2014, in My country, reflections, story and tagged Heritage, Jessie Coe Lichauco, Lichauco, Manila, Philippine history, Philippines, Santa Ana Manila. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.