Exemplary Filipinas have always broken the mold by forging ahead despite the norms set in the era they are living in. My beloved godmother Helena Zoila Benitez is one of them and at 102 years old, she has been able to see the fruits of her worthwhile endeavors because of her numerous accomplishments.
The recent settlement of the STI group and the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) has freed the Benitezes to go forward with the education of our youth in their PWU and JASMS campuses in Manila, Quezon City and Davao. JASMS in Quezon City will be relocating to a new site in 2017.
Two months before her birthday, Helen was hospitalized at St. Luke’s Global City for a suspected lung problem. Visiting her one afternoon, the fashionable centenarian was literally “pretty in pink” wrapped in a fuchsia pashmina shawl paired with her bright pink lipstick as she lay on a bubble-gum pink pillow. She quickly opened her eyes and after the usual greetings, she smiled broadly and pointed out, “You are looking very good. But your daughter (Natalia) is prettier than you.” We all laughed at her keen eyesight and forthrightness.
She truly enjoys having people around and is genuinely interested in them. One of her favorite questions upon meeting a new or old acquaintance is, “What keeps you busy these days?”
After a week, she was antsy to go back to the ancestral art-filled home, Miranila. Built in 1929, it was inspired by a European house that Helen’s parents Conrado and Francisca (Tirona) Benitez fell in love with during their trip. Upon coming back to Manila, they had architect Paredes design a structure that has withstood the devastation of war, several earthquakes and remains as stately as it was first envisioned 87 years ago.
It was in this beautiful garden estate that Helen reminisced about her growing up days. “I grew up in an environmentally-sensitive household. Both my parents were practicing environmentalists before the term itself came to connote its present meaning. Seeds of fruits we ate were never thrown away. They were sown and germinated and planted. We children took it for granted that such is the normal and usual way to dispose of seeds — turn them into new plants.”
Upon checking out of St. Luke’s, Dr. Enrique Posas readily gave his patient a goodbye kiss and when the nurses teased her on why they didn’t get any kisses from the good-looking doctor, she naughtily replied, “Kasi maganda ako (Because I am pretty).”
While making plans for her 102nd birthday, we were told that she personally chose a European fusion menu since she always had a discerning palate. Even if her hospital meals were blended and taken in minute sips, they had to be flavorful.
Helen always kept a trim figure, exercising until she turned 100 years old in a gym or using a stationary bike in her home. When she would see someone on the heavy side or with a protruding belly, she would quietly say,
“Everything you do should be in moderation. Do not let your body go. Eat less meat, eat more vegetables and fruits.”
During the June 27 birthday celebration, Miranila was filled with Benitez family members and a few close friends. Two of her favorite priests — Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and her godson Fr. Paul Marquez — celebrated Mass in the spacious sala. Though visibly weakened and no longer quite responsive, it was evident that she was still very well groomed by her caring assistant Delia Pineda and the coterie of dedicated nurses. When soprano Sharon Hernandez sang a stirring Our Father, we noticed that her head turned towards the altar, remaining attentive until the end of the religious song. Tears welled in our eyes, knowing that this musical piece brought her some awareness and gave her comfort.
As her niece Lyca Benitez Brown enthuses, “Tita Helen has defied expectations all her life. Born in a time before women had the right to vote and pursue careers separate from their roles as wife/mother, she worked to achieve both and more. As an educator, legislator, UN official and diplomat, she broke new ground for women not only here but also globally.”
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