Memories of Doreen
- Alfred A. Yuson () - July 1, 2002 - 12:00am
When I start handling a course on critical writing for the Communications department of Ateneo this Thursday, it’ll be with the pang of loss and a ripple of trepidation.

Of course we’ll begin by observing a minute of silence for the memory of the revered professor I’ll be pinchhitting for. Tough shoes to fill, indeed, for the class was supposed to have been guided by no less than the former Comm Department Chair, a full-fledged legend as an educator, among other hats she wore.

Doreen Gamboa Fernandez passed away at a hospital in New York City last Monday. She had been visiting with her sister Della Besa when she was stricken with pneumonia a couple of weeks ago.

Immediately a prayer brigade was formed through a broadcast of text messages around Manila. Such was the strength of love, admiration and support that Doreen commanded, from among the Ateneo community and well beyond.

Bert Florentino, the dramatist and septuagenarian retiree in the Big Apple, started filling us in by e-mail on Doreen’s condition. He and wife Eva visited her at the hospital, but weren’t able to speak to her.

Poet, essayist and journalist Luis Francia also visited with his wife Midori. He too filed his report by e-mail, updating us daily on Doreen’s progress. She lay asleep, suffering from complications other than pneumonia.

As all her friends knew, and as often stressed by the young poet and writer Ruey de Vera, one of the many precocious Ateneans she had mentored, Doreen had a kidney transplant way back in 1986, and thus held the record for survival among local recipients. Then too, she was a diabetic.

Two Fridays back, her successor as Comm Chair, Ms. Violet Valdez, rang up to ask if I could sub for Doreen for the course offering where a dozen students had signed up. It was scheduled as a weekly three-hour class.

I begged off, saying sorry, but pleading time (read: other bread-and-butter) constraints. It would mean having to go to campus twice a week, since I was already handling a poetry class on Mondays.

Violet understood, and we fell to talking about Doreen instead. It had been reported that the hospital doctors had already licked the pneumonia problem, and we felt assured that Doreen would recover soon.

The following Monday, something urged me to return Violet’s call. I’ve changed my mind, I said. Okay, I can take over the class. I felt I owed it to Doreen. It was then that I heard how Doreen’s condition had taken a turn for the worse over the weekend.

Early Tuesday morning, as the Net came abuzz with queries on her health, the inevitable text message came. This was confirmed by grieving colleagues at the Ateneo. And later in the day, word came through the e-mailbox.

Luis Francia reported: "Doreen Gamboa Fernandez passed away peacefully the night of June 24, yesterday, at 8:20 p.m. This was relayed to me by her sister Della this morning. She and other kin were amazed at how fast the news had spread, inevitably with inaccuracies – inevitable I believe due to the nature of the Net. The day before, a Sunday, my wife and I visited her, but she was heavily sedated so all we could do was stay awhile with her sister and niece and some friends. Doreen looked quite peaceful, and I like to think she traveled on, still dreaming of the delights of literature, cuisines, and friendship. She was a lovely spirit and a source of inspiration and comfort to those who knew her."

Indeed she was. And we will treasure the memories we have of her.

The last time we spoke on the phone was about a month ago, before she left for the States. I had a modest check for her, representing her fee for her contributor’s essay to a forthcoming book on the Araneta Center.

Early this year, I had asked her to write about the food places that had defined the commercial core of Cubao for the last 40-odd years. I cannot refuse you, she wrote back by e-mail. She went out of her way to revisit Araneta Center, and even sat with and interviewed Gaita Fores at Cafe Bola. Doreen confided quickly how Gaita said she still remembered her son Amadeo’s classmate, our daughter Mirava.

Doreen came across with her essay in no time. She titled it "Barbecue to Bola: The Cubao Food Country."

Waxing nostalgic, she drew the stretch of food-related memories enjoyed over nearly half a century of Cubao’s development in the metropolitan consciousness. She cited numerous friends and detailed their choices.

"For the late designer Wili Fernandez," she wrote, despite such places as Eugene’s and Scorpio’s, there was only the Aristocrat – two stories, rising above the Cubao plain, built in the ’60s. On the second floor was the food which has been identified with the restaurant chain: chicken honey, pancit Canton, lumpia Shanghai, fresh lumpia, chicken and pork barbecue. On the ground floor was the elite restaurant for fine dining (steaks and such), wedding receptions, reunions of provincial clans, important dates and encounters. It was, remembers Nancy Reyes Lumen, the first place where ballroom dancing was offered."

The essay winds up with the current swarm of eateries. It ends thus: "The Cubao food landscape, in sum, is a kaleidoscope of tastes, places, social levels, and flavors, now drawn from the periphery inward. A veritable documentary on Philippine public eating, it is a major part of gastronomic and social history. There is nothing like it anywhere else, and it grew in place because of the protective, nurturing shadow of the Big Dome."

Dining with Doreen was of course ever a memorable experience, for the conversation and humor if not for the food. For the members of the Manila Critics Circle, it became a moveable feast over the past several years whenever we had to discuss local titles as potential National Book Award winners.

If it weren’t UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies Director Ophelia Dimalanta hosting a munificent lunch, it was Doreen suggesting we try out this place or that. And I recall how one of the most splendid meals we had, courtesy of her recommendation, was at The Good Earth fine Chinese-dining resto, which we reached by a building lift above Annapolis St. in Greenhills. The owner, a friend of Doreen, pulled out all the stops, and we came away brimming with burps and good cheer over our lovely fate as book reviewers, critics and judges.

During earlier days, Dr. Isagani Cruz, Virgilio Almario, Danton Remoto and I became familiar with a little ritual that had us looking at one another like incredulous tyros the first time out. Without missing a beat in the symphonic repast laid out before us, Doreen would say excuse me with a smile, pull out something from her bag, and stab her tummy with a needle for her required dose of insulin. Soon it lost its pluck as a conversation stopper. It became part of having lunch with Doreen.

Last October 28, on her birthday, a special dinner program was conducted at the Ateneo on the occasion of Doreen’s retirement from her department post. That evening also saw the establishment of the Doreen G. Fernandez Chair for journalism. Upon departure, Doreen always left something behind.

It was a wonderful, celebratory homage, with a Power Point presentation detailing photo and video snippets from a life that spanned good graces and good literature, a love of culture and country, a reverence for history and the generational turnover of equally sensitive individuals, artists, activists and stewards. All of this rested on a generosity of spirit that showered insights and shared materials with a legion of friends, confidantes, proteges, soulmates.

Songs were sung by former students, encomiums expressed by appreciative Jesuits, beams of communal benevolence shone every which way by a host of proud, admiring, loving friends. And Doreen had many.

A festschrift of a life it was, too, disseminated as largesse of heart and intellect: an open book of mutual, collegial appreciation. In between its covers, Doreen Gamboa Fernandez constantly repaid the good earth and the good life.

All through to the end, Doreen’s warm and benevolent relationship with everything around her stood formidably as a long buffet table offering angelic doses of gentle irony. Together with Della and a niece, she was scheduled to come home on the day she passed away.

Poet Danny Reyes, one of the young Ateneo teachers honored to receive significant parts of Doreen’s remarkable library, remarked that she had truly gone home, to that final resto-library in the loving sky of our memories.

These are legion: Doreen at various book launches, with Ed Alegre for Writer and His Milieu and Lasa. At her Palayok launch last year at Via Mare on the top floor of the Twin Towers in Ortigas, signing away indefatigably even as she was just recovering from an illness. Doreen with good friend Lory Tan, out-raconteuring one another with tales of culinary delights from all over our islands. Doreen with Butch Dalisay working on the epic, multi-volume Kasaysayan series for Readers’ Digest. Doreen at the National Book Awards night at the Philippine Book Fair, gamely reading citations along with the rest of us. Doreen gifting us with poetry books, breaking us in as a part-time lecturer at the Comm department. Doreen in energetic conversation with Fr. Miguel Bernad at a small private room at Sulo Hotel where the Manila Critics Circle held deliberations some years back. In very early days, Doreen with Wili at their Acacia Lane bungalow, showing us an eyepopping video collection. Doreen with Nic Tiongson in the late ’70s, meeting with us at Teachers’ Village. National Artist for Literature Franz Arcellana constantly asking about her health in recent years. Doreen regaling us with anecdotes on her and Ed Alegre’s literary conversations with Edilberto and Edith Tiempo in Dumaguete. Doreen the generous, donating the original illustrations for Nick Joaquin’s Pop Stories for Groovy Kids to the PBBY (Philippine Board on Books for Young People) on National Children’s Book Day.

As her confidantes, colleagues and children, greatly shall we cherish and miss her.

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