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Goodbye to Gilda, beloved goddess

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 30, 2020 8:53 am Updated Oct 02, 2020 11:07 am

Inestimable joy went poof last Wednesday when Gilda Cordero-Fernando left us. Effervescence would be another casualty.

Everyone loved her, as she gifted everyone with love, joy, good humor, laughter, wackiness, tight hugs, and the warm open face and arms: genial, welcoming, endearing.

Now we treasure the great good vibes of five decades since we first became enamored of her, the goddess inimitable.

The seeds of fascination were sown in Malate, where she ran her Junque shop in Frankie Jose’s Solidaridad art gallery at the corner of Remedios and M.H. del Pilar. Initial conversations were animated, seated with her and the younger writer Sylvia L. Mayuga on a park bench across from the Remedios Church, awaiting another resplendent sunset.

She was our senior by a decade and a half, but neoteny was already one of her skills — the ability to “jam” with the next generation, to stay forever young and “groovy.”

We had already been familiar with her excellent short fiction. We kept apace with our admiration through her “mad” evolution as a coffee-table book conceptualizer and publisher, fashion stylist, show producer, initiator of breakthrough projects, and also as a satirical journalist during martial law, taking turns with another goddess, Odette Alcantara, with the Los Enemigos column.

When she went on to become a popular lifestyle columnist, it wasn’t with headshaking chagrin that we were surprised to read a particular acknowledgment — that it was Sylvia and I who had introduced her to pot. Too many years of friendship had already entitled her to what could have become recollections as embellished as those Manila Bay sunsets.

Gilda with writers Alma Miclat, Anna Leah de Leon, Menchu Aquino Sarmiento, Jenny Llaguno, Babeth Lolarga, Julie Lluch and Krip Yuson

Perhaps fittingly, the last time her presence graced our lives was last January, at the wake for Sylvia. With the usual collusion, she had joined her fellow women writers, to whom she was mentor, inspiration, leading light. Among them were Babeth Lolarga, Alma Miclat, Anna Leah de Leon, Jenny Llaguno, Julie Lluch, Menchu Aquino Sarmiento, Evelynne Horrilleno, Laida Lim and Padma Perez, representing several generations. It was the last time I would hug her seated on a wheelchair.

A few months earlier, it had been at Mario Miclat’s birthday celebration at Trellis. On both occasions, it was her daughter Wendy Fernando Regalado who brought her.

And before that, there is now a jumbled procession of retained images that circumscribed Gilda for us — at literary events, art exhibit openings, and private socials, most of which were at her behest.

There was the long lunch at her place with Erwin Castillo, Danny Dalena and Recah Trinidad, at her invitation, after she had attended a birthday bash courtesy of Erwin at his place.

There was the dinner she organized at Van Gogh Is Bipolar on Maginhawa St. in QC, after she discovered the artistic and culinary talents of the resto proprietor, Jetro Vin Rafael. It made me recall how she had asked the young brothers Small and Big Demetillo to paint wooden chests for her Junque shop in the ‘70s. Young artists and Gilda were an unending item — the way she had Dexter Fernandez paint a mural of sea creatures on her metal gates. Or collected large Elmer Borlongan canvases, and posed for a wondrous Julie Lluch bust of her early in the 1980s.

At Mookie and Sarge Lacuesta’s wedding reception at Whitespace 10 years ago, there she was dancing with RayVi Sunico, then Lourd de Veyra et al. She was ever the locus that satisfied equations involving like coordinates such as poets, photographers, playwrights, painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, models, heck, our entire creative community.

We’d be assured to break bread and jukebox ditties with her every February when Danny Dalena hosted for his birthday bash — in the company of Jimmy Abad, Jing Hidalgo, Willy Nepomuceno, Bibeth Orteza, Al Mendoza, Marra Lanot, Pete Lacaba, Recah, Keith Sicat, Nini Gaviola, and Danny’s daughters and grandkids — again of several generations. At Danny’s retrospective exhibit at the CCP’s Main Gallery, I took photos of her and Jaime de Guzman, side by side on wheelchairs, while urging them to race.

At a photo gallery opening, she came in her pink fluffy pants as she was wheeled in, drawing the selfie-groufie crowd’s attention from Kidlat Tahimik in G-string.

And only a few years back, again she hosted dinner when she found out that Caroline Kennedy was still around. She was still effervescent then, even showing us some of the remaining “art wheelchairs” in her collection — from a project she had proposed to Dr. Joven Cuanang of St. Luke’s and Pinto Art Museum. She insisted I take one, painted pink, since I had had a minor stroke and might need it anytime.

I never got to use it, so it stayed in the carport until Sylvia’s incapacitation last year. It was eventually passed on to our son Aya and his partner Tessa, both of whom occasionally take PWD privileges.

At the Palanca awards are Ambeth Ocampo, Gilda and Urro de la Cruz (front); Nick Pichay, RayVi Sunico, author Krip Yuson and Karina Bolasco (behind)

Sometime in 2014, the onset of an ailment had Gilda looking forward to advancing her own wake, so she could attend it. On texting mode with her, she intimated that she also wanted to be able to finish her speech as Gawad Dangal ng Lahi recipient at the Palanca Awards that year. Which she did, and delivered it, too, while in her wheelchair onstage.

I suppose I enjoyed an extra affinity with her, as her husband Tito Elo was the best friend of my dad-in-law Mac Macaraig. And I also got to know her and Tito Elo’s kids Bey (bless his soul), Mol, Arcus and Wendy. For some time, I envied the compliment she paid BenCab for being the best hugger among her artist-friends. Well, he was lean, lanky, and uninhibited. But she often made up for it by repeatedly telling me that I had raised my own kids well.

"Humans" artwork given to the author Krip Yuson by Gilda Cordero.

One time some months back, when Mol hosted our DGF food writing contest group for dinner and single malt whisky, we — Felice Sta. Maria, Karina Bolasco, Maya Besa — felt a pang that we couldn’t drop in on Gilda next door.

I took to dropping off specialties, when in the area, like ube pandesal with cheese from Eliz Patisserie of Nanka Japanese Steakhouse near the Fernandos’ Panay Avenue compound. It would be received by Gilda’s 45-year-long alalay Benni Udhay, who’d say that she was resting.

Legacy from dear Gilda: She “lent” the author this old wheelchair painted pink, for possible use after a mild stroke.

After hearing that her health had taken a downturn recently, I got to ask Mol by PM how she was. Still in ICU, he said, but that she seemed to be getting better. A day later, Wednesday morning, Mol sent a YouTube link for her Akdang Buhay interview courtesy of the UP Institute of Creative Writing. Sharing it, I got a quick response from Susan Lara: “Storyteller talaga siya. Riveting.”

An hour later, the sad word came from Mol. And the farewells and loving tributes haven’t stopped.

From Karina: “Her love for being and becoming Filipino was such an influence on an entire generation of writers, artists, and cultural workers so that now, if you ask around, the leading lights of arts and culture were all groupies of this rock star. Go with our love on your next journey.”

From Bibeth: “Gilda Cordero Fernando of the universe, maraming salamat!”

From Nick Pichay: “She was timeless, in the way that she is able to talk to artists from different generations working in various disciplines. She was timely in her interjections in literature and fashion; in theater and publishing. Sometimes, I thought she was Mother Time herself, appearing at the exact moment that you needed her.”

From Wig Tysmans: “You are truly a beautiful person and an inspiration. Thank you for bringing out the best of me.”

From Alma Anonas-Carpio: “Bathala has a keeper now, and I pray you cast your wonderful grin down at us from time to time.”

From Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas: “We're so saddened at her departure. An elegant, joyous presence is now gracing paradise.”

And from so many others, among them Silvana Diaz, Ding Roces, Myrza Sison, Gang Badoy Capati, and Felice Sta. Maria.

Perhaps the best tribute was instantly posted by Rio Alma, who wrote a poem, “Kay Gilda” — with the following final stanza: “Ngayong nawala na at nangungulila,/ Ano ang gagawin pag muling nagdusa?/ Ay! May tatamis pang dapat maalala?/ Wala nang tatamis, wala na nga, Gilda!”