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Sunday Lifestyle

My friend, Gilda

HEART AND MIND - Paulynn Sicam - The Philippine Star
My friend, Gilda
Gilda as featured in Goodman Magazine, 1975. Photo by John Chua

I was in my early 20s, just two years out of college when I was hired as a copyreader and writer at the Chronicle Magazine. The magazine shared a space with Woman and the Home magazine, edited by Eggie Apostol. While I labored over my assigned articles and edited CM contributors, some of whom were glittering names in politics and letters, I longed to be on the other side of the room where the most interesting personalities would come to submit their articles and chat with Eggie and her assistant, Doris Nuyda. One of Eggie’s contributors was the fabulous Gilda Cordero-Fernando, whom I only knew from her short stories and her byline in W&H.

She was in her late 30s and she was pert, smart and pretty.

One day, I received a note from Gilda telling me how much she enjoyed reading something I had written but added a few comments on how I could have improved my piece. It was my first time ever to be praised, and critiqued, by an expert. It felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

The next thing I knew, she was taking me out to lunch. And there began one of the most interesting friendships in my life. I no longer remember the details of her literary guidance, but what has remained with me all these years, was her interest in me and my professional and personal life. It was like I had a fairy godmother who would pop out when I needed her. She would sweep me into her world, and let me into her ever-curious and inquiring mind. But more than that, she wanted to know what was going on in my life, and she shared with me what was going on in hers. She was Gilda, 16 years my senior, but we were sharing confidences like equals, with no judgment, although there was the occasional word of advice from her.

With Gilda, June 2018

When I got married, Gilda gave me a pair of small wooden slippers on which she scrawled: “Pangpukpok pag mag-away.” I still have the bakya although the ink has faded. She would come to the house unannounced and coyly ask permission from my husband to take me out for the day. He was always gracious. It was Gilda, after all. We would have lunch, visit stores and galleries, hang out in her magical antique shop called Junque, all the while sharing our stories and fantasizing about a future when we could publish our own stories without raising Manila society’s eyebrows.

She came to the house once on the day after Christmas. My daughters’ newly assembled cardboard playhouse stood at the center of the living room and their presents were strewn everywhere. Gilda took one look and said I should fix my house to look like there are adults living there.

In 1975, I was co-editing with Lorna Kalaw Tirol, a bi-monthly magazine published by General Motors that we called Goodman. It was the third year of martial law and the media had become truly boring. With Goodman, we sought to fill the gap with well-written articles about the arts and culture, entertainment, sports, personalities — trends that the equally bored martial law media did not have the will or imagination to cover. Of course we featured Gilda, the writer and entrepreneur.

In my article, plainly tilted “Gilda,” I wrote like a fan-girl: “Gilda Cordero-Fernando, businesswoman, is puzzled. Why must it create such a stir when she puts up a folk arts shop in an art gallery? Or when she lends glamour to gaudy papier-maché art from Laguna by setting up a real honest-to-goodness exhibit of it? Or when she puts up an antique shop that is loftily called Junque? Or when she decides to start a collection of what have long been considered lowly empty bottles? Or when she begins to hunt around for unique bird cages? Why indeed must this businesswoman arouse such curiosity and a host of imitators?

“Because she is Gilda Cordero-Fernando, writer, that’s why. And besides her far-out business sense, and a nose for trends before they come that has injected life and humor in the art of collecting antiques, she has left an indelible mark on that fascinating aspect of local literature — creative storytelling.”

Gilda was very interested in Goodman, giving us ideas for stories. But what really attracted her to our magazine was our awesomely creative graphic artist, Nik Ricio, whom she was dying to work with on the coffee table books about Filipino culture that were percolating in her mind.

She and Nik were quite a pair. They fought and wrangled as creatives do and went on to publish gorgeous volumes on things Filipino that became collectors’ items, like the delightful Culinary Culture of the Philippines, the lushly illustrated Turn of the Century, the classic Ancestral Houses. In one of their earlier books, Streets of Manila by Luning Ira and Isagani Medina, Gilda wrote on my copy, “To Meiling, Ka-vibes in thought, word and deed.” It is one of my most precious mementos of our friendship.

Nik and Gilda and I became forever friends. Years later, when Nik became gravely ill, it was Gilda his family called, and who brought him to the hospital where he passed away.

After martial law ended, I went back to journalism and the task of restoring our democracy. Gilda took on a political stance that didn’t jibe with mine, and I felt her grow distant. But she went on to astound the culturati with her unshackled creativity. She published more books, created gothic characters, mounted ground-breaking theater productions, including a fashion show of her own iconoclastic take on the saya. She championed the environment, expressed herself freely in dance and fashion, wrote daring columns that finally broke the rules, and bowled us over with her paintings that she started doing at age 70. She conceived strange and wonderful things that only the imagination of a Gilda Cordero-Fernando could conjure, including holding her own wake 12 years ago.

Gilda was the trendsetter, the rock star of culture and the arts in the post-martial law era. Ever inventive and original, her following spanned generations, from baby boomers to Generations X, Y and Z. I could barely catch up with her as she unleashed her creativity. I observed her from afar, but we kept in touch when it mattered.

Once, out of the blue, she called to invite me to a dance meditation at her house with her friends. It was a strange invitation, but I could never say no to Gilda. As I followed the others bending and stretching and whirling and twirling to the music, I found myself weeping, releasing long-held hurts and anger. Gilda came rushing to cradle me and soothe my aching heart.

On my 50th birthday, Gilda sent me a lovely mustard yellow and black party dress that, she said, she had retrieved from her late mother’s closet. In the style of the ’50s, it had a tight waist and a full skirt, and it fit me perfectly. It was so like Gilda to give something pre-loved and precious. She never gave me anything that was store-bought or brand-new.

Two years ago, I attended a birthday lunch for Gilda hosted by a group of women who write. We were told that she had not been well, and she might not recognize us. When she entered the dining room in her wheelchair, her hair all silver and cropped, her skin still smooth and glowing, her hoop earrings dangling merrily, she pointed to my own silver hair, smiling in recognition, and said, “Pareho na tayo.”

I remembered what she wrote to me way back: “Ka-vibes...”

Gilda has gone and left us. There are many of us who mourn, having lost a friend and mentor. But she made sure she would not be forgotten. Her legacy is large, unquantifiable, enduring, and happy. Our world may be less fascinating without her sparkle. But as my sister Lory said, heaven has just become a bit more interesting.

GILDA

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