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On Gina, Charo, and post-Christmas thoughts

By MONCHET DIOKNO OLIVES, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 06, 2021 5:00 am

Let me begin by thanking you for all of the messages of kindness and encouragement. The challenge of every writer remains in drawing inspiration. This holiday it was also a season of affirmation. Our friends have become less and distant, so your notes made me feel much better. The late Gina Lopez always said that I was a little boy, looking to be appreciated. She was right. Another dear “sister,” Charo Santos Concio, said I was just a little misunderstood man-boy. So there you have me, warts and all, sharing a journey. Wait before I continue; let me pour my vodka.

Over the last few weeks, things have changed inordinately. It is like we let loose a madness that kept us in our homes for nine months, disgorged to the streets of Manila, posting parties (“COVID tested” being the hashtag of choice for the glitterati), and amidst all this, a travesty of justice occurs, garnering an iota of interest, and a chance for a cure dropped like an errant ball. But nonetheless, we live life and continue, to enjoy the strains of a Christmas that was all but merry. Yet hopefully we made the most of it.

If there is anything I learned these past 10 months, it’s just being true to yourself. Keeping the circle tight, and right, and always being thankful that we have gone through a week of ups and downs, because nothing is ever perfect.

One of my favorite songs is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It was also my mother’s ditty nonpareil. After a few tipples (“few” is an understatement for a Diokno, from which I got my gift of being a total souse), she would attempt to sing it in her raspy voice, and said it was her favorite singer’s holiday rendition — that being the inimitable Judy Garland — that put her in the mood. Sing the song with me as we draw stories from our own Yuletide past, and our gleaming hopes for a future. If you care to look, her best version was performed on her Judy Garland Christmas Special in 1963, available on YouTube, performed for her children.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

From now on

Our troubles will be out of sight…

The song begins with where we are now. A socially dysfunctional microcosm; a  Zoom-laden season that was once filled with merriment and parties. I personally like it, and as I have said many a time, despite my seeming demeanor, I eschew a gathering of epicurean proportions only to remedy it with an Excedrin, Gaviscon and perhaps a Nexium. The spirit is willing, but the rest of the organs need replacement. When this song was written for Judy Garland, for the 1944 MGM classic Meet Me in St. Louis, the 15-year-old refused to sing the lyrics, saying they were dark and “lugubrious.” You tell me:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

It may be your last.

Next year we may all be living in the past.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…

And if you think about it, the words would have been markedly appropriate in these times. But, as we read this, it was not our last. It was simply a guidepost toward what the future brings. The intimacy of family and true friends, and hopes of a good time. At this point, Mom will ask her yaya Rufina for another drink, more gin, and to light her More 120s… and a new ashstray.

Here we are as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us once more…

We all have our own holiday traditions. We would hie off to Pasay to my Tita Charing’s mid-century home, with a spread of turkey and my Lola Nong’s recipes with her cook Binay at the helm. The home was tastefully decorated and tables were set with Wedgewood holiday plates, Thai-style flatware and heavy colored cut-glass goblets and a bar with drinks aplenty. (Why do I keep on getting back to that?) The Diokno siblings would gather and we would hear stories of what Christmas was like before the war. Tita Charing was Rosario Diokno Jose, dean of De La Salle University, and a glaring contrast to my hipster mom who would come to the holiday parties wearing Azabache (yes, Helena Guerrero) and Larry Leviste with purple hair done at Eula Viana’s Realistic Salon. Okay, the ostentation has its roots. Go figure. But by 3 p.m., she was happily in her state of inebriation, and readying everyone for the Christmas picture. She embodied a joie de vivre, in technicolor.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Make the Yuletide gay

From now on

Our troubles will be miles away…

As the sisters passed on, the next generation took over; my Tito Tony (Antonio Wright Diokno, the Philippines’ first actuary), and Tita Baby (Irene Diokno Velez, a senior professor and onetime dean of EENT at FEU) were the last few. We held them at my brother’s house at Valle Verde. Margie and I were newly married, and they always asked when the children would come. To our biggest regret we opted not to have children; our jobs, we rationalized, prevented us from being around to raise them properly. (Haven’t you heard of nannies, Monchet?)

So, tired of this, we opted to spend the holidays away in Madrid where it was just us. For many years, wanderlust beckoned, and we found solace in our trips for the winter in new places away from the maddening Manila social whirl. Mom had passed on years earlier. So, Monchet, with cigar in hand, and vodka on the rocks in the other, we made our Yuletide gay, and our troubles (if being harassed by relatives for offspring and ABS-CBN chismis could be considered that) were miles away. As to my mid-life crisis of soul searching, it was my time to struggle with my own demons, and Margie helped me through it. Like what Mom told her before she went to her bar and mahjong table in the sky: “Chetty will love you forever, accept him for what he is, and he will take care of you.” That was her gift to me. And my troubles went miles away.

Through the years we all will be together

If the fates allow,

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

And for 25 years, with a short commercial interruption, I remained with my best friend. The cigars are now few and far between, and the vodka has come to a pause as the mornings after are never fun. Yes, it changed to an occasional negroni, or a glass of bubbly. Yes, marriage or partnership, in its truth, will weather any season. My parents had their tiffs, and come on, so do yours. Margie and I have moved from arguments to discussions. The holiday’s best gift is the ability to adapt. We are living through COVID, right?

As the generation before us has said their farewells, I see my nieces and nephews now with their own children, making Margie and I grandparents of sorts. What would our parents have said? I think they did a hell of a job. So if there is anything I learned these past 10 months, it’s just being true to yourself. Keeping the circle tight, and right, and always being thankful that we have gone through a week of ups and downs, because nothing is ever perfect. And, when able, keep in touch with your parents.

Here we are as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore, ah

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us, once more, ooh…

Times will never be the same. It was by design. The situation over the last year taught us what we are capable of. As for me, I have learned that you only need a faithful friend. In my case, Mom was right: Margie would be there for the golden days much ahead, and to all of you, keep your loved ones close and tight. And with that, that half a bottle of Grey Goose and a gifted bottle of Crystal puts this column to bed.