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Modern Living

Gemma’s choice

- Paulynn Sicam - The Philippine Star

At lunch in San Francisco last month, my friend Gemma told me that she had recently eloped with her partner of 10 years, Irwin Ver.  The marriage was not a surprise but I was floored by the fact that they eloped. After all, they have been together for 10 years, their children totally accept their union, and they are both in their mid-60s. So what was the big deal?

I should have known. Gemma is the last of the romantics. And she has found her match in Irwin. A secret wedding in Lake Tahoe — she, pretty in a short white dress and holding a bouquet of red roses, and he,  dapper in a dark suit — was just what this couple would go for. Afterwards, they returned to San Francisco and told their children that they had legalized their partnership.  Her two daughters and son and his two sons were delighted to finally be legal siblings.

It hasn’t all been roses for Gemma and Irwin. Gemma, a journalist who covered Ferdinand Marcos’ martial-law regime, comes from a family of anti-Marcos activists, some of whom were detained, and one of whom was shot at a rally during the past regime. Irwin, the son of the late General Fabian Ver, is a retired military officer who headed the Presidential Security Command that protected President Marcos. Theirs is, indeed, a strange relationship.

As Irwin tells it, they first met in 1984 when Gemma went with another journalist, Marites Vitug, to his office to interview him about the possibility of a coup. After the EDSA revolution in 1986, Irwin, his father and the rest of the family had to escape to the US with President Marcos. Gemma and her children emigrated a few years later after her marriage failed.

They met again in 2001 but Irwin hardly remembered that they had met before. Gemma attended an event in San Francisco where Irwin spoke. He noticed this woman looking at him, smiling, and thought she was flirting with him. She later approached and reminded him of their first meeting in his office in Malacañang during martial law. As it turned out, that was the only interview he ever gave as PSC head. And although he had always known of the danger of a coup against Marcos, the journalists’ probing questions made him consider that possibility more seriously.

According to Irwin, when he first visited Gemma, he was impressed at the number of books he saw in every nook and cranny of her home. The rest must have come naturally; Gemma is easy to love. 

When I visited Gemma in San Francisco in 2004 and she told me she was “seeing” Irwin Ver, I almost choked on my Thai food. But she was clearly smitten, and there I was, losing my appetite and my words,  but trying to be a supportive friend and not show my distress at what I then thought was such a wrong move on her part. I didn’t meet Irwin during that visit but she put him on the phone and made me say hello. I managed to chide him, awkwardly, by saying something mundane, like the grass in Gemma’s backyard needed mowing, and he should probably come over and cut it.

Other people went to visit and brought home the news of the controversial romance, which quickly spread in Manila. Many expressed disbelief.  Of all the people she had to break the news of her uncommon relationship to, Gemma was most afraid of the reaction of her older brother, the eminent scholar and activist Dodong Nemenzo. But Dodong gave her no problems and was accepting of his sister’s choice. It was we, her friends, who had a more difficult time wrapping our heads around it. But despite all odds, the relationship of Gemma and Irwin flourished. Their children supported it, and that was a plus. In fact, they managed to meld their families into a cohesive unit that works. 

In her quiet, gentle and unobtrusive way, Gemma defied the rules of politics and convention, and got away with it.  She brought Irwin to events and let him loose among her women writer friends, giving us time to get to know him without her prodding and supervision. He was quite formal — such a soldier, and his years in the US did not remove his clipped Ilocano accent, but, I must admit, he charmed me with his Old World demeanor. 

Soon, to me, Irwin became more than just a curiosity, and I accepted their relationship as more than rebellion on Gemma’s part, or a token act of political reconciliation.  This was true love and it would not be stopped by any political or social pressure. By sticking to her guns, Gemma taught me and our other friends to overcome our biases and prejudices and move on to new possibilities. From my initial attitude of “If you love him I will accept him,” I learned to embrace Gemma and Irwin’s brave new world of acceptance, compassion, and unconditional love. 

Last Monday, at an impromptu wedding reception in a garden in UP, under the glow of an almost full moon, Irwin narrated the story of their relationship, candidly including the memory and unresolved issues of martial law that, I imagine, they must have also had to overcome. 

On the night before they left for San Francisco, Gemma had some women writer friends over at the house of Helma, Irwin’s sister, where they were staying.  Not too long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine outspoken veteran martial law survivors enjoying the hospitality of the Ver household. But, as Gemma said happily, that war has been won. 

This column was written with permission from the happy bride.

AS IRWIN

BUT DODONG

DODONG NEMENZO

GEMMA

GEMMA AND IRWIN

IRWIN

IRWIN VER

PRESIDENT MARCOS

SAN FRANCISCO

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