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Remember me well

By BARBARA GONZALEZ- VENTURA, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 27, 2022 11:38 am Updated Nov 27, 2022 11:50 am

When I graduated I felt free! I was sent to Lausanne, Switzerland, where I discovered what it meant to live more or less on your own. I felt free to taste wine and get tipsy, free to teach myself to smoke because it was forbidden in school, free to try and pose like a fashion model.

All that was part of a dream. One has many dreams when one is young.

Taken in Lausanne, Switzerland, when I was 17

A classmate got a car for her birthday. She invited me to drive through Europe. When I asked my mother for permission, she told me to come home. So I did...

First I turned 18. Then six months later I got married to a tall, good-looking playboy who was 10 years older than I. We had three little girls, one after the other. After the third child was born, fissures began to shake our relationship. I was 22 and felt eager to party, to go out and have fun. He was 32 and wanted to stay home. The fissures turned into huge cracks. In the end we split up. Much will be left unsaid about the real reason for the breakup. I save that for my autobiography, which I will write—and I hope you will read—before I die.

My favorite photo of Loy and me falling in love and knowing we will live happily ever after.

At 25 I went to work at an advertising agency, Avellana & Associates. There I learned that a woman’s good looks begin to get better and better as she crawls into her thirties. They would photograph me, either to test a new camera or to plan a layout. Now, when I find these old photographs, I realize I was not too bad-looking. 

By this time, I was being pursued by my second “husband.” He was married and I was separated. I bore him a son. He seemed to love me very much; he even asked Federico Aguilar Alcuaz (later Fred, to me) to do my portrait. This is the first portrait Fred did of me.

Fred Alcuaz doing his first portrait of me.

Where is it now? I don’t know. I lost it. But it began my deep friendship with Fred Alcuaz. 

When Fred had to do a portrait, he would call me to sit for him just to “practice.” He didn’t care much about getting the face right but he cared very much about the set-up, the landscape in the background. Would he sit her this way?

I helped him set up his portrait exhibit of men during martial law in 1973 or 1974, I think it was. It featured people like Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos. I scheduled Fred’s sittings and escorted the subjects into his suite at The Manila Hilton.

Portrait by Federico Aguilar-Alcuaz

This was when my relationship with Roman “Jun” Cruz, Jr. was marvelous. He commissioned so many portraits. I had three portraits by Fred. The first one you have seen, another full-size one, and finally this third one when I was 29, verging on 30. This one I liked most because it looked like me in those days. Almost virginal, strangely prim and proper.

Fred working on small tapestries at our home.

Fred would sometimes come to our home on Sundays and work there. He was experimenting with sculptures and he worked on one of Jun, me and our son Gino. I thought they were very good.

One day Abe Cruz or Emilio Aguilar Cruz, a writer and painter, the father of writer and restaurateur Larry Cruz, dragged me off to his studio to do a portrait of me. Jun also asked Isabel Diaz-Marcial to paint two portraits of me. This happened later when the relationship was tiptoeing from blissful to mysterious.

Portrait by Emilio Aguilar Cruz, columnist and painter, father of Larry Cruz, writer and restaurateur

I like very much “The Girl at the Window.” It speaks of my relationship with Jun then. He would send me flowers every time we had a fight but I would not see him. I felt myself to be that Girl at the Window, wondering whether she should throw or keep the flowers she received. What were they trying to say? Waiting... waiting... waiting... for the husband who was most likely already fooling around to come home early enough for dinner.

I felt something was wrong but I did not yet know for sure. So I continued to look sexy then. Isabel Diaz-Marcial did another one of me that made me look like a teenager even if I was already approaching 30.

This is me for Isabel Diaz-Marcial portraits.

Jun seemed to be getting more and more immersed in his work. I got lonelier and lonelier, alone at home. I decided to go back to work at Avellana & Associates full-time. Jun would disappear for days. Sometimes he claimed to be summoned to the Presidential Yacht or that he was holding training for his executives. He was appointed chairman of Philippine Airlines and the renovating Manila Hotel. These projects pulled us farther and farther away from each other. Finally, we deeply offended each other.

He gave me many expensive jewelry gifts. One day he suggested I keep them in a safety deposit box in San Francisco just in case we had to flee the country. We could sell them and that would see us through the crisis. We brought the jewelry together and put them in a safety deposit box in both our names. But things were not getting any better between us. I had no money to pick up the jewelry. When I finally did, the safety deposit box was empty. He even took the jewelry he had given me.

This was our family picture at the Manila Hotel inauguration. From left: In front Anina (Jun’s daughter), Gino (Jun and my son). At the back Panjee, Jun, Me, Risa and Sarri.

He gave me a very active role in the inauguration of The Manila Hotel, scheduled it to coincide with Mrs. Imelda Marcos being out of the country. I think now that he did this deliberately because he knew that Imelda disliked me since I was not his wife. Maybe he even felt that this would give him better terms at our final parting.

We put up a good front at the Manila Hotel inauguration. We had a family picture taken at the lobby with all our children, laughing with Dale Keller, the original interior decorator of the hotel. There are other pictures showing me putting a sampaguita garland on President Marcos. Not too long afterwards, shortly before Christmas 1977, we broke up.

We were living in a beautiful house in Forbes Park. He wanted me to quit my job and move to the United States with the children. In my bones I knew he wanted to get rid of me. I told him, “No, I will not quit my job. I will work as hard as I can and continue to earn money because, who knows? Maybe one day I will want to buy you. I will not bargain because no matter how high the price I still know for sure when I buy you, I will get 300 percent of you. Cheap!” I said.

That got him so mad he told me to get out of the house and bring only the things that were really mine and all my portraits. He never supported me. I had to continue working to support my children. Once he gave me a Mercedes-Benz as a reward for bearing him a son. He eventually took that back. I had to take taxis to work until finally I could afford to buy myself a Volkswagen Beetle.

But I managed. We moved into a small house in Gilmore. After I decorated it, the landlord decided to take it again because it looked nice. 

The world changes. Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. My daughters went to college in the United States and I went with them, working as a secretary there, when here, I walked away from a promotion to vice president of McCann-Erickson, handling Coca-Cola. We were in the US for four years and in 1988 I came back to the Philippines and had many job offers. This taught me one thing. In the US, I had a job. In the Philippines I had a career.

I accepted McCann-Erickson’s offer of vice president for Coca-Cola. Then I met Julie Lluch, whom I hired to do a bust of my mother. She insisted on doing a bust of me. “Do you want to be portrayed as a grandmother, a mother, a professional or a woman?” she asked. “As a woman, of course,” I said. And I popped out my right breast because Julie was a woman, too; I was not uncomfortable exposing myself at the sitting. 

When it was time to go home I panicked. I had a driver. I didn’t want him to see my breast—which, by the way, is not an exact replica of the real thing — but who cares? There were other unknown men who would see it. Cigarette vendors, for example. So I wrapped the statue up in a shawl and it stayed wrapped up in changing shawls sitting beside a window near my front door. Many messengers talked to it, “Ma’am, ito ba ang bahay ni Barbara Gonzalez?” they would ask and she would just look at them straight in the eye and say nothing.

This bust by Julie Lluch is my tribute to myself. I had it done when I turned 44. My birthday is Aug. 8, 1944, or 8/8/44. The year I turned 44, my birthday was 8/8/88. But that was 34 years ago.

In the end I lost many of the portraits. My daughter accidentally left them in our condominium and the manager of that condo took them home. He got fired and attempted to sell one back to me. By this time I had become vice president of McCann-Erickson for the Coca-Cola account. I didn’t need the life-size portrait and I couldn’t imagine paying for it. I heard a rumor that it was sold as the portrait of one of my daughters but I do not know if that was true or not. I had also learned another one of life’s hardest lessons: Let go of all your things. Either you do that or someone—maybe God—will take them forcibly from you. But that happens to teach you that the only solution when you hit bottom is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

Finally, Onib Olmedo was a very good friend of mine. He was one of the judges for the Guhit Bulilit contest of Coca-Cola Foundation Philippines, Inc., of which at some point in my career I was chairman and president. He painted this portrait of me looking crabby because of the hassles of running the contest. 

Now as I grow old, slowly wrinkling unevenly, I find myself willing to put memories of my youth on auction. For a few moments I will come alive in memory.

When I was 72 I remembered that once I wanted to be a torch singer, a singer of sad love songs. I decided to take voice lessons to give me something to do. This led me to the apartment of Loy Ventura, a semi-retired widower lawyer who loved to sing and who was surrounded by women who also loved to sing. He had a sophisticated karaoke system. I decided to buy a cheap karaoke system so I could practice singing by myself but I did not know how to buy one. So I asked him if he might help me.

He called when he was coming to pick me up and told me to wait for him downstairs. I lived in a condominium. I saw him driving his sports car with the top down, his white hair shining in the hot noonday sun, his shades making him look like a stunning movie actor. I wanted to slap myself. Was this a scene from a Grace Kelly/Cary Grant movie playing in my life? We were not young anymore. What was this all about?

After a circuitous non-courtship we ended up finally falling in love and getting married. He changed my life. He got me going back to being a fervent Catholic again, something my Jesuit uncle and Carmelite aunt had failed to do. He made me rediscover Sunday Mass, which led to lunches together. Then we had to find a priest to give us a blessing because he couldn’t imagine doing what married people do without a formal marriage. We had a blissful three years together.

Now we are both old but still together. It is time for me to further simplify my life. I want to clear it of all the pictures of the past. I think it is time to live in the present, in the now, to be aware that tomorrow may not come, to be profoundly grateful for the past no matter how difficult, to be grateful that I have survived.

I have come a long way from once being young and pretty. I believe this sculpture or this painting carves my various looks in stone. Now as I grow old, slowly wrinkling unevenly, I find myself willing to put memories of my youth on auction. What do I hope for? That one day when I am completely wrinkled and indecipherable, someone talking to his granddaughter will say, “Really, you read Barbara Gonzalez’s autobiography? You like it? Look at this painting. That’s the way she looked when she was young.” For a few moments I will come alive in her or his memory. Someone, somehow, somewhere will remember me for an instant.