Starweek Magazine

92 turning 29

- Virginia Benitez Licuanan -
When nineteen-year-old Jessie Coa met a young lawyer from the Philippines at a dinner given by a mutual friend in New York City sometime in the early 1930’s, she never dreamed that she would end up living the rest of her life as a well-known and very well-liked Manila matron.

What started as a casual social meeting began a series of dates during which the bright young lawyer proved convincing and interesting enough to make it imperative for Jessie to come to Manila to see if she would like it.

"That was 70 years ago–I made sure I had a round trip ticket," says Jessie with her characteristic bubbling laughter.

A few weeks later, on December 29, 1933, she and Marcial Lichauco, a very much sought after bachelor, were the first couple to be married in the then newly constructed Sto. Tomas Chapel. As she later would advice some of her daughters when they married foreigners, "You don’t marry just the man–you marry the country!"

And certainly the beautiful "extranjera" soon became a complete Lichauco and a favorite with the entire clan. Because she was born in Isla de los Pinos, a small island off the coast of Cuba where her American father had settled after the Spanish-American war, she spoke Spanish, which immediately endeared her to the numerous Lichauco aunts and uncles.

Her natural warmth and friendliness quickly attracted many friends and she became almost instantly a permanent part of the Manila social scene.

Now a lovely 92 with six children and 18 grandchildren, she is one of the matriarchs of a huge clan. For her 92nd birthday, her daughter, Nellie Fung, whose courtship by Kenneth Fung, the son of the Hongkong taipan is another romantic story, invited "only relatives and a few friends".

There were over a hundred people–many did not have the Lichauco surname but all had some Lichauco mother or grandmother or great-grandmother and all of them were descendants of the original Chinese Li-chau-co ancestor who arrived in the Philippines some two hundred years ago!

After a long and happy 92 years, Jessie says, "Every day is a bonus– I regard each new day as a gift from Heaven." Living alone except for her household staff, Jessie sees many advantages in living by herself.

"You can do exactly as you please," she chuckles. "Often I stay in bed reading until three or four in the morning and then I sleep til ten or eleven. I can eat breakfast at lunch time, lunch at merienda time and merienda at supper time without bothering anybody."

She still lives in the old family house in Santa Ana with the Pasig River flowing past an ancient rubber tree that has always been there. All over the gracious old house are pictures of the family, including an old picture of the old Chinese great-great-grandfather in full Mandarin costume. "I love these old pictures," Jessie says, " but I do not dwell in the past." That could very well be another secret of a happy old age.

Another would be keeping active and interested in present day doings. Jessie still is active in her favorite charity institution, the Settlement House, and her personal project, a home for abused children. Because her husband was once the Philippine Ambassador to the Court of St. James, she is a member of the association of ambassadors’ ladies and attends its meetings. Her stint in London as an ambassador’s lady is just one of the many interesting events in a long and privileged life.

It has been said that the secret of a happy old age is "a good digestion and a bad memory". And it is obvious that in a family of gourmets, Jessie has the first, but her memory remains fantastic. Nostalgia, however, does not bother her: "When it’s over, it’s over," she says cheerfully.

But actually, Jessie attributes her longevity and health to the right genes and the good Lord.

Invite me to your 95th birthday party, Jessie–if I can make it!

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