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Luli wore her lola's gown on wedding day

In a recent article she wrote for Lifestyle Asia, presidential daughter Luli Macapagal-Arroyo (now Bernas) said she admired her mother President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for being true to the teachings of their alma mater, the Assumption Convent. In particular, Luli was referring to two distinct values taught by the school to their girls, and which are in fact enshrined in the school song: fidelity to duty and love of simplicity.

“Her experience inspired me to live by the same values...” Luli wrote.

Well, Luli is one lady who walks her talk.

When she married Luigi Bernas last Nov. 5, Luli did so without fanfare. Luli, who lines up behind immigration counters at the airport just like any ordinary passenger whenever she travels (Luli once told me in an interview: “I am always aware that whatever I do would reflect not only on myself but on my whole family.”), opted for a very private wedding. She and Luigi were married in a church in Tagaytay City, with only 26 people to witness the once-in-a lifetime event. It was a coup similar to that pulled off by the late John F. Kennedy Jr. when he wed Carolyn Bessette in a former slaves’ chapel on Cumberland Island in Georgia. The press was caught unaware.

For her wedding, Luli didn’t even have a wedding gown made. Instead, she chose to wear one of her late Lola Eva Macapagal’s gowns. She brought the gown of the late former first lady, who would have been 92 years old today if she lived, to designer JC Buendia for some alterations. She did not even tell JC what she was going to use the gown for.

Brides are usually advised to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” for their wedding. But few brides opt to use a wedding gown from the family baul, preferring to borrow an old piece of jewelry instead. I think that Luli’s decision to wear something that belonged to her grandmother was symbolic: It spoke volumes of her simplicity and her fidelity, not just to a grandmother that she misses, but also to the values that her grandmother had as a wife and a mother. It was a symbolic thread between grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.

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* * *

This almost unprecedented simplicity from a presidential daughter (Jenna Bush had something more elaborate, albeit not in the White house but in the family ranch in Crawford, Texas) made me look up an article I wrote about Doña Eva, then Senator Gloria Arroyo and Luli, in 1997. The interview was arranged by former Press Undersecretary Mila Alora, and it took place at Mrs. Arroyo’s Senate office.

On one wall of the receiving room of Sen. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s office at the Senate hangs three framed portraits: one of a smiling Gloria in all her finery; one of her drawn through cross stitches (a labor of love from a fan) and one of her with her father, former President Diosdado Macapagal, on the last year of his life.

The latter’s profound influence on her life is obvious: she recited his motto like a mantra (“Do what is right. Do your best and God will take care of the rest.”)

But the influence of her mother, the still sprightly Doña Eva Macaraeg-Macapagal, is also very evident in the woman who may be president. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is also very much her mother’s daughter.

In build, Gloria is a mirror image of her mother, a doctor of medicine. They are both slim, petite and fine-boned. They both look much younger than their actual years (Eva is 81, Gloria, 50), something they attribute to the fact that they both wear hardly any make-up. Both are not usually vain, and as the elder Macapagal claims: “I didn’t wear nail polish at all in the four years I was first lady.”

Gloria’s only daughter Evangelina Lourdes (“Luli”) is like her grandmother and mother in that respect. She looks like a college sophomore, although she is actually 26 years old, with a masters degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, alma mater of her mother and US President Bill Clinton.

All three women are articulate, sharp and yes, have backbones of steel.

* * *

When she learned her daughter was aspiring for presidency, Eva’s first instinct was not to protect her only daughter from the obstacle course reserved for “presidentiables” but to encourage her to hurdle it.

“I’ve always believed in live and let live,” says Doña Eva in a voice that has the same timber as her daughter’s. “She has many points like her father. And so I thought, if this girl can also serve like her father, why not?” This octogenarian also pledged her own support for her daughter’s campaign. “I could help with the Ilocanos. I come from the Ilocos region and I can campaign with her there.”

We ask her if she will move with her daughter to Malacañang if the latter is elected.

“Many people have asked me that,” she answers, “If at all, I’d follow the example of my mother. She never lived at Malacañang. She was just on call. And her reason was, ‘Hija, if I lived there, I would just add to your problems. Some of my friends will just bother me and say: Oy, you ask your daughter to do this and that’.”

Doña Eva says she was never the type to stick her finger into the business of others — even if “others” meant her husband or daughter.

“When I was first lady, I was only behind the scenes. I took care of the president’s health, not his schedule,” she stresses.

* * *

Unlike her mother, Gloria did not give up her career in order to devote herself full-time to the home.

“I belong to a different generation. Although when I first got married, I thought I would be a housewife. I became a teenager during the decade the feminist movement was born. By the time I got married, when I was not so sure of what my role would be, it soon became clear that I had to have my own career. To begin with, I lived with my in-laws. There was no house for me to run. For my self-fulfillment, I had to develop my own career.”

Gloria’s career path took her from the halls of the academe to the halls of the Senate.

Like her mother she thinks she is ready for the lion’s den and the snake pit.

“I’ve been there. For the last five years I’ve had it as rough as anybody can,” Gloria says. “By the time the drug issue came, I was already a veteran of black propaganda.”

Her mother had raised her to be strong.

“When Gloria and her brother were at the Palace, I always told them, you have to be brave for anything. You have to be ready to leave the next day. And remember, where we are, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Eva remembers that whenever her daughter was undergoing a personal or professional crisis, she usually fought her battles alone. She doesn’t remember Gloria ever crying on her shoulder.

* * *

Luli, for her part, thinks it was her lolo who prepared her well for the life of a politician’s daughter. She knows many of her moves will be magnified beyond proportion. She knows that if ever she gets to live at Malacañang, she will have many “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” experiences.

“But I’ve always had the sense of responsibility,” she points out. “I am always aware that whatever I do would reflect not only on myself but on my whole family.”

Eva, Gloria and Luli. Let not their fragile looks fool you. They are steel sampaguitas, whether under harsh sunlight or driving rain.

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com)

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