Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Babeth L on the Fire that Hit The House of NVM and Narita Gonzalez

Narita's coolness in the face of fire

By Elizabeth Lolarga

The text from Princess Nemenzo forwarded to her by violinist John Lesaca described the fire that engulfed the house of NVM and Narita Gonzalez on Mabini Street, Area 1, University of the Philippines campus, Diliman, Quezon City.
As more information trickled in, I learned that only a television set, two cars and Narita's musical jewelry box were saved. The rest—the priceless manuscripts of NVM, the writer and National Artist for Literature who gave us immortal stories such as "Bread of Salt" and novels like Children of the Ash-covered Loam, the first edition copies of Hemingway books and other bibliophile's delights--were gone along with his violin, guitar and the piano that a few weeks before another literary giant, Gregorio Brillantes, played on continuously at Narita's request. She told him she hadn't heard live music in sometime, and thereby a command performance followed. That piano is toast.
Right away I forwarded the text message to common friends like sculptor Jerry Araos, writers Menchu Sarmiento (who is also executive director of the Philippine Airlines Foundation) and Gilda Cordero Fernando. Gilda gave an update that all household members were safe. Later, I learned Narita and her grandson Huggy were brought to the UP Infirmary because of smoke inhalation but were released afterwards.
The Saturday evening after the fire, I joined Dr. Melen Araos, her daughters Liwa and Mira and son Julian in bringing donated items to the fire victims.
At the neighboring Lesaca household, where the Gonzalez family members are temporarily staying, the tables were groaning with foodstuff and the corners with bags of clothes and other essentials.
When Narita came out to meet us from her room, she acted like a gracious hostess. Trying to place my name, I told her I am a friend of Gilda and Delfin Tolentino Jr. of UP Baguio. At the mention of Delfin's name, she almost broke down, remembering the books she had set aside for donation to the university library. She had also selected books for sending to various Ateneo units in the provinces as a goodwill gesture on the occasion of NVM's 90th birthday.
She whispered to me, "I was going to buy 90 books since he's 90 this year. But I couldn't afford to buy that much so I just settled for 50."
As the conversation flowed, she stood up to get a bottle of pate, a jar of pesto and one big queso de bola. She asked her son Nim to scrounge around for some bread or crackers, but we declined the hospitality since it seemed strange during an occasion of grief.
Narita also said that Gilda brought her "fashionable clothes," including an expensive shawl, and made her promise to wear them.
I relayed Menchu's concern and what Narita wanted the young writer, the first NVM Gonzalez short story competition award winner, to bring. Narita leaned over, "Not panties because my room is raining with new panties from benefactors." How about unscented Dove soap, her preferred soap? Narita giggled, "My room is flooded with them." Then what practical thing can Menchu bring you, I asked. "Half slip," Narita declared.
The others around the table voiced their belief that half slips were a thing of the past. Liwa said, "No, they're back. Nursing students need them. The best place to find them is SM Department Store. Go for the Sogo brand."
Narita brought out her jewelry box and wound it so we could hear it play the theme from the movie Love Story. All the while she thought it was Lara's theme from Doctor Zhivago.
She was in fine spirit as we bade adieu and took a lingering look at the remaining posts and roof of what used to be a second home of writers. When I texted Gilda to tell her of Narita's calmness and poise, she answered " Pero humahagulgul in between." Well, perhaps she can open up more to someone she has known for decades.
I texted Princess to tell her I made it to Narita's temporary shelter. Princess replied: "Am glad, Was amazed at how Narita and (daughter) Selma have kept their equanimity in the face of the tragedy. I still feel devastated at the loss of NVM's manuscripts and mementos."


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