A Christmas Love Story

- Baby K. Jimenez -
I am dreaming, I tell myself as I view the scene before me, alternating between ABS-CBN’s The Filipino Channel and GMA’s broadcast on my PC. I see FPJ and Es Ar (my fond and personal abbreviation of Susan Roces, since the ’80s) seated together at the Manila Hotel, amidst the chaos of jostling media people.

I hear the man speak, after a self-introduction that was hardly necessary, to begin with: "Ako po ay tumatakbo sa pagka-pangulo ng ating bansa."

A series of flashbacks pops in my mind. Parang kahapon lamang, Kuya Eddie. Or, to be very current, Dear Ate Charo… Tandang-tanda ko pa ang isang partikular na Disyembre, tatlumpu’t limang taon na ang nakakaraan…

Dec. 15, 1968, Sunday: I am at the Araneta Coliseum to watch a basketball charity event featuring the FPJ All-Stars.

Susan, my good friend and favorite interview subject, is around, and no one wonders why she is. She’s not only the muse of the FPJ All Stars, she has also just finished doing a movie, To Susan With Love, with Fernando Poe Jr., her acknowledged boyfriend.

Very few know she’s here merely to honor a professional commitment.

She has privately severed ties with FPJ, more intimately known as Ronnie, their break-up imminent on the set of the film they’d so recently wrapped up and finished with great difficulty, where Poe family members tried to patch them up, iron their differences, and bring them back together. But, no way. Even as they saw each other almost daily at work and were playing screen lovers, they themselves felt the gap between them could no longer be bridged.

Shortly before the games, I asked Susan if she was going. It was a rhetorical question; I knew her as a consummate professional capable of setting aside personal feelings, if needed. Sure enough, she said: "I have to go. I promised them this a long time ago."

So here she is now, escorted by her only brother Joey, on an afternoon of a leap year surprisingly sweltering a scant 10 days to go, before Christmas,

As expected, the jampacked Dome goes wild with applause and swooning as soon as the gorgeous couple are out on the hard court. I catch Ronnie whispering close to Susan’s ears, and I hear the fans chant and tease them with oohs and aaahs. The movie fan in me makes me feels like crying. I know the truth, I tell myself. They’re keeping up appearances because they don’t want to disappoint their followers.

FPJ joins the game. He hooks a basket. Susan cheers. The crowd roars with thunderous approval.

At break time, Elvis Presley tunes play on the PA system: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you… followed by Santa, bring my baby back to me… I hold my tears back. How little the fans know! The fairy tale is no more!

I can hear Susan confiding in me: "I really don’t know what lies ahead for Ronnie and me. We are still friends though – I don’t see us patching up easily, hard to tell," details of which were told to me in November on the set of her other movie, Bandana (with Bobby Vasquez for Lea Productions). She spoke of a wedding, "I will be a bridesmaid to Manang Bee (her eldest sister Bennett), maybe this December." (This was moved to January after Susan’s).

The game ends. Susan goes home to her Wilson digs, FPJ trails her closely behind in his blue Toyota van. I presume he’s simply being his usual gentleman self. I suspect nothing; I wave them goodbye.

But there in the house in Greenhills where she lived with the rest of the Sonoras, the household is intrigued by the haste with which Susan enters, and the fact that she locks her bedroom door. They also can’t understand why FPJ, he whose shadow hadn’t been there for sometime now, is outside the gate, seemingly waiting, and waiting for what?

The day falls close to almost midnight. Rosemarie, Susan’s younger sister, is preparing to leave for a late night taping of the Rose-Pepito Show at ABS. But her Manang Inday emerges from her bedroom with clothes and personal stuff, runs down the stairs in a huff, straight outside of the house, out of the gate, and into the parked vehicle, where waits her man.

A sudden reconciliation? The Sonora home hums and buzzes with conjecture. Before they figure out details, Susan and Ronnie are on their way to Valenzuela, Bulacan, to marry in civil rites officiated by Mayor Gerry Angeles. Nagtanan!

Dec. 16: The dawn of the season’s first simbang gabi. As across the length and breadth of the archipelago church bells ring to proclaim the Misa de Gallo and the faithful feast on puto bumbong and generic tsa-a, Jesusa Levy Sonora officially becomes Mrs. Ronald Allan Poe, the first time around.

From Bulacan, the newly-weds motor to FPJ’s Beverly Hills home, in Antipolo. A few hours later, I am roused from sleep by Mang Bert Tablan, FPJ’s PR man, who hand-carried a note from Susan, written on a half-torn lined pad paper, saying: My Dearest Babes, I am so happy right now and I want to share my happiness with you. Please see me as soon as possible, you have to help us with our church wedding plans!

Dec. 18: Susan is wearing white. It is the first time I see her as Mrs. Poe. We hug and shed happy tears.

We plunge into the church wedding preparations at once. We call several churches and none of them are available. It takes Father Guido (of Santuario de San Jose, Greenhills) to articulate what was brewing in our minds: Why not in his church, on Christmas Day, at 8 in the morning, with reception to follow at The Plaza? Why not, indeed?

We squeeze into Susan’s red Rambler Classic and get caught in a holiday traffic jam en route to Pitoy Moreno’s atelier for the wedding entourage’s outfits. I almost faint from excitement when the couple inform me I am to participate in the wedding, as a candle sponsor opposite Paquito Diaz (proxied by Romano Castellvi since Paquito came late), along with the other secondaries: her eldest sister Bennett and the real FPJ in real life, Andy, to do the cords, the veil to be done by her friend Tessie Valencia and Bob Soler (married to his eldest sister Beth). Flower Girls: all the daughters of Beth and Bob - Penny, Peggy, Cathy and Candy. Kit Levy and Joel Esteva as coin and ring bearers. Ronnie’s youngest brother Freddie is best man, youngest sister Evangeline is bridesmaid while Rosemarie is maid of honor. Principal sponsors: President and Mrs.Ferdinand Marcos, Senator and Mrs. Soc Rodrigo, Atty. Espiridion Laxa, Mrs. Azucena Vera-Perez, Mrs. Amelia Santos and Mayor Bernardo of Bulacan. Yes, Dr. Jesus Sonora will give away the bride.

Same day, later to MilaDay’s, at Forbes, for their wedding rings.

Dec. 21: Vina Concepcion, Susan’s good friend and also the wife of Luis Gonzales, hosts a bridal shower, in a suite at The Plaza. There’s sumptuous food, jokes and laughter galore. Susan’s sisters Bennett, Rosemarie and Tessie are present, and a coterie of close friends.

Dec. 25: It is 6:30 a.m., and I am watching hairdresser Freddie Reyes working to make sure the bride’s tiara sits elegantly on her hair. Susan’s hair is specially coiffed to accommodate the tiara which is part of her mom Purificacion Levy’s heirloom. Pitoy advises that the veil, made of imported lace, must not cover the crown. And here a week ago, I saw the bridal motif as cherry red; right there, it hit me: It was actually Christmas red.

Same day, 7:30 a.m., we are now within the church premises. A musical band plays Ang Daigdig Ko’y Ikaw, the theme song of their first film together, also of the same title, written by Tony Maiquez and separately recorded by Pilita Corrales and Ric Manrique, Jr.

I look around and see buses, jeeps and all other kinds of transportation mushrooming around the vicinity of the church, transporting passengers almost elbowing one another to witness the wedding of the century. Why not?

Moviedom’s King and Queen are solemnizing their vows, five years after they first met, in 1963, at the Champagne Room of the Manila Hotel. People who remember the meeting maintain the chemistry between them was immediately electrifying, palpable even.

It wasn’t until three years later when that chemistry got to be tested, in a film produced by FPJ himself, and directed by his good friend Pablo Santiago. Susan could only freelance after her (long) contract with her mother studio, Sampaguita Pictures, had expired.

That Ronnie waited for her no one took to mean as a sign they were altar-bound. Fernando Poe, Sr. and Bessie Kelley Poe’s eldest son was continuously linked to other actresses. Susan herself was courted by fellow actors and, likewise, by noteworthy suitors from business, medicine and music.

When asked about romance, Susan was always quick to quip: "When I fall in love, it will be forever." She was not necessarily echoing the Joni James hit, but simply voicing out the truth from her heart of hearts. And then, came The King.

Same day, 3 p.m.: Mr. and Mrs. Poe hie off to the airport soon after their wedding reception, for a two-week honeymoon in Japan. I see them off, finally realizing I will not see them again until the New Year, and then run to meet a rush deadline for a Ronnie-Susan Wedding Special magazine. The printing press staff is in the office, despite the holiday. They are instructed to wait for my story, for my bird’s-eye view, my chronicling of what was like to be up close and personal.

The mini-issue sells like hotcakes, and I am not surprised.

It is only when I start to receive sacks of fan mail in the different publishing houses I write for that I realize that I am no longer seen by most as a movie scribe, but as a friend to the King and Queen of Philippine movies.

Flashback ends. I blink, in time to see FPJ on my PC screen, smiling at his wife. I am thrust back to the present.

It’s been 35 Christmases since that fateful December. For better or for worse, FPJ and Es Ar have remained as one. I now live and work in the USA but we have kept the friendship and I am continuously, inexplicably, overwhelmed to have them in a two-way relationship based on loyalty and trust. Still and all, I wonder how the two have managed to keep their marriage going. What could be their secret?

Three years ago, they both requested a Christmas gift, two Christmas songs on CD. One was Santa, Make Her My Bride for Christmas performed by the Ray Conniff singers, where the lyrics spoke of a young man who hoped that as he held his lady’s hand, a sprinkle of reindeer dust and a sprig of mistletoe would work its magic on them.

The second was The Secret of Christmas an all-time favorite of Da King, a 1934 song both performed by Bing Crosby and the Nylons. He had a copy on vinyl but someone had borrowed the record and forgotten to return it. It took me a good while to get the songs, and finally record them on a CD. While recording it, I heard The Secret… for the first time. My eyes went misty, without warning. I suddenly knew what the secret was for there and then it hit me like an epiphany:

It’s not the glow you feel when snow appears
It’s not the Christmas cards you’ve sent for years
Not the joyful sound when sleigh bells ring
Or the merry song children sing
That little gift you send on Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend you’ve turned away
So may I suggest the secret of Christmas
Is not the things you do at Christmas time
But the Christmas things you do all year through

Isn’t this both FPJ and Es Ar through and through? Doesn’t it explain to us why they are still together? Doesn’t it give us hope for the forthcoming years?

A year-long Christmas frame of mind, of giving more than receiving and doing more than saying. This may just be what the country needs!


– Baby K.

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