"I once asked her why she made us call her Mahal. 'Because I am Love!' she exclaimed." Photograph courtesy of the author.
Culture Spotlight

"My fierce, fabulous and crazy Lola"

In this tribute to her grandmother Armida Siguion-Reyna, the jeweler Dara Villonco doesn't mince words when it comes to the legendary producer, singer, actress and activist. "My grandmother had the uncanny ability of tearing you to shreds with her painfully honest words. Most might see this as a negative trait—we see it as a rite of passage." 
Dara S. Villonco | Feb 12 2019

To be a grandchild of Armida is to be marked for life. Introductions will always be met with quizzical looks of delight, awe, curiosity and yes, even contempt. Her very name strikes fear and impending doom for anyone working in the film industry. But to us, she is just Mahal.

Growing up, my friends found it odd that I didn't have a lola. Lolas were stodgy withering husks of archaic ideas. Mahal was lively, sharp, exciting, and always full of surprises. I once asked her why she made us call her Mahal. "Because I am Love!" she exclaimed. My Lolo snorted and snickered, "She's Mahal because she's expensive! She keeps buying equipment!" A hail of playful verbal abuse, cajoling, and slapping soon followed. And that was a good day.

In many ways, she didn't really speak to us the way other grandmothers spoke to their grandchildren. No goo-goo gaga for her—when she asked you a question, you were expected to answer it in complete sentences. One of her biggest pet peeves was when we replied, "I don't know:' I made the mistake of saying that one day and she grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Never say 'I don't know. Make it your business to know and find out. Don't be lazy. Do your research and always have your facts. Huwag kang tanga [Don't be stupid]. You have a brain. Use it."

Mahal being a proud lola.

Whenever any of us got into trouble at school, the first question she would ask is why we did it. I remember one time I had gotten into trouble again in Catholic school for some seemingly innocuous question I had asked the teacher. I expected to be chastised by yet another grown-up but Mahal just sat there and listened. She then stood up and told my mom to go to the next room. When I pressed my ear to the closed door, I could hear her getting upset and telling my mom, "Anong klaseng eskwelahan iyan na hindi sinasagot ang tanong ng bata? Anong kabalbalan ng teacher na 'yan? That is a valid question! Bakit siya nandiyan?" [What kind of school doesn't answer the questions of a child? What kind of teacher is that? Why is she there?] I couldn't hear anymore because my Lolo caught me eavesdropping and started to pull me away from the door. When she came out of the room, she told me to apologize to the teacher for being disrespectful but she also adamantly told me to never stop asking questions. I think she secretly got a kick out of hearing our stories. To her, it was not a matter of being right—it was a matter of being heard and gathering information so we could make informed judgments for ourselves. she liked that we were inquisitive and could stand up for ourselves. Probably because she herself was naughty more than once.

 

Transfixed by the dropping bombs.

One of my favorite stories that Lola Puring told me of Mahal as a child occurred during a Japanese air raid. Lola Puring was frantically gathering her children to safety until she realized that Mahal wasn’t with the rest of the brood. Lola Puring yelled and screamed all over the house but could not find her. Finally, she sent the houseboy up the roof and that was where he found Mahal sitting in a corner utterly transfixed by the dropping bombs. At the time this story was told, Lola Puring chuckled at the memory and the mischievousness of Mahal but she also said, “it is funny now but it was not funny then. I punished your lola for doing that. but even as a child, she was very brave.”

Sunday was Tangile day. I loved going to Mahal’s house! Lunch was always replete with food. Not only did we look forward to the meal; Mahal always made sure that the bedroom pantry was stuffed full of chocolates, candy, chips and other things that our parents didn’t approve of. The mad rush to the mini fridge became a weekly contest for Rafa, Aya, Tonito, my sisters, and I. If it was ever running low, that was just another welcome excuse to take a trip to Cash and Carry.

Mahal with her granddaughter Cris who would become a theater star.

Even when it wasn’t a Sunday, it was a treat to go to Tangile. There was always a constant stream of colorful characters gathering for a meeting in the house. The only rule was that she demanded utter silence—if she heard so much as a peep, you were exiled to the room. But in terms of topics discussed, we were never prevented from listening in on politics, sex, religion, or items of a taboo nature. Those conversations and being around educated creatives exposed my cousins and I to the harsh reality of lives other people led. Mahal was our first teacher in tolerance, though we didn’t realize it. She didn’t care if you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. What she valued was your thought process. She had a great respect for other people’s opinion even if she did not necessarily agree with it. if you could state your case and defend it, she would consider it. Pero kung tanga ka, e sori ka na lang [but if you were stupid, then tough luck for you.] no amount of pedigree could save you. Forget the fear of God. In the Siguion- Reyna household, it was the fear of the lack of information.

 

Mahal had nine days before Christmas

She spoiled us in the way most grandmothers do. Christmas was the best time of the year! Not only could we look forward to presents on Christmas day: Mahal had nine days before Christmas. All of us would get a small toy on the days leading up to the 25th. Nothing big—it could be silly putty or slime but you could be sure it was unusual and always something that tickled our fancy. She seemed to have a sixth sense and a knack for picking out whatever it was we were into at any given time.

If we asked at the right time, she probably would have given us the moon. When Cris was a little girl, she went crazy watching Gone With the Wind. She watched it so often that I can still recite the entire dialogues of Side A, Disc One of that damn laser disc by heart. One day we came home and on Cris’s bed lay a replica of a dress that Scarlett O’Hara wore at the establishing shot of Tara (the fictional plantation in the movie. Mahal had gotten a bunch of old petticoats she had lying around the Aawitan Kita wardrobe cabinets and had the dressmaker construct the dress. My sister practically peed in her pants.

But if she could give us the moon one minute, she could just as easily turn into the intense, scorching heat of the sun the next. Her temper is legendary and we were not exempt from her fury if we happened to be in her path at the wrong time. Mahal had the uncanny ability of tearing you to shreds with her painfully honest words. Most might see this as a negative trait—we see it as a rite of passage. Surviving an Armida tongue-lashing builds the foundation for nerves of steel and quickens the pace of developing a thick skin. The advantage of being a grandchild is that you already have a built-in support system—we’ve all been there. We take no joy in being “Favorite of the Day” because that meant we were the next candidate for Troublesome Tomorrow. It is a familiar rotation where the only coping mechanism is laughter. Which is probably why we all have a morbid sense of humor—we’d rather see the absurdity of a situation rather than indulge in being a victim. Mahal and Lolo refused to coddle us in that realm. In pushing our buttons, she provoked our obstinacy and incited our determination to defend ourselves by using a combination of hard facts and wit. Winning a battle of words with my grandmother that ends in laughter and no bloodshed is a feat in itself. Respect is not given; it is earned. Lesson learned.

 

Nobody cleans like my Lola

When Mahal sets her mind to something, she does so with laser-like precision and nothing else is acceptable other than perfection. This meticulous behavior permeates whatever she does and has managed to seep into us, her grandchildren. We are all exceptionally blunt and have a very low tolerance for bullshit and stupidity. It drives us crazy when we speak to people who like long-winded blabber and who have no conviction or only have an opinion based on hearsay. A jeweler by trade, I cannot work unless my workspace is clean and organized. Every piece made and every stone set must be a perfect fit. If it is anything less than perfect, I will take it apart and start over. In the theater community, my sister Cris is known to throw an Armida-like fit if her leading actor does not come prepared to first rehearsal/reading. Cris has also been known to throw Tere (my youngest sister) and I contemptuous looks every time she hears us speak colloquial Tagalog. Cris is the only one in our family who can speak perfect, old-school Tagalog—none of this ghetto Taglish stuff you hear on TV. Her fluency and mastery of our national language can solely be credited to Mahal. If Cris so much as mispronounced a word during rehearsal for Aawitan Kita, they would do it over and over again until Mahal deemed it perfect. Cris would come home in tears, vowing to never work with Mahal again, but the next day, it was the same routine. If Mahal was known to be hard on people she worked with, she was hardest on members of her family. When it came to taking pride in your craft, work ethic was everything.

She was incredibly meticulous when it came to cleaning. Nobody cleans like my Lola. Nobody. When she makes the bed, you could bounce a quarter off of it. There was one time she got a brand new computer and she called my mom telling her that the keyboard was broken. “I don’t know what happened. I was just cleaning it and after I cleaned it, it stopped working,” she said. When asked how she cleaned it, she replied, “Just with alcohol and a damp cloth like you said. I took out the keys one by one so I could clean under the keys.” The keyboard was only a week old.

"Marry someone who loves you more than you love them," the author remembers her grandmotehr saying. Armida with the author's sister Tere.

I grew up hearing many criticisms of my grandparents’ marriage, from “What did he see in her?” to “How could he marry someone like that?” It is easy to peg her as a willful and selfish spoiled brat with an overindulgent husband. In the course of editing and verifying facts for this book, I had the privilege of reading Lola Puring’s diary. The image of an eight-year-old Armida reading about the sadness and pain in her mother’s words and reflected in those entries explained many questions about Mahal’s rationale that I could not understand as a child.

Lola Puring would tell me stories of the courtship between my Lolo and Mahal. There was once a local doctor who pursued Mahal at the same time that Lolo Sig was wooing her. Whenever this suitor came a-courting, Mahal would run out the backdoor and climb one of the trees. When the maids would come looking for her, they wouldn’t be able to find her, so they had to tell the doctor that she was out. One day, in her rush to climb the tree, she fell, breaking her arm in the process. Now she had to see that doctor everyday until her arm healed and it drove her nuts! I loved hearing this story as a child because it showed me how crazy Mahal was about my Lolo Sig—crazy enough to climb a tree! The visual alone was hilarious!

 

Mahal loves lolo

Whenever we asked Mahal what we should look for in a spouse, she always said they had to be kind, hard-working and to “marry someone who loves you more than you love them.” Looks and wealth were inconsequential. This is not surprising given that she saw Lolo Alfonso hurt Lola Puring time and again with his numerous trysts. Mahal did not want to see any of us suffer or get hurt the same way her mother did. This is not to say that my Lolo Sig was a pushover—far from it. The few times that he disagreed with Mahal and put his foot down, she would accept it. I think what she really meant to say was to find someone who was patient, valued your opinions, supported your decisions, and saw you as an intellectual equal. If there was anything my grandparents’ marriage taught me it is that they were a team. Mahal adored Lolo even though she never showed it. One couldn’t be without the other. Yes, she was fiery, passionate and tempestuous but that’s exactly why he loved her. His love was unconditional and he was steadfast in his commitment to her. He was her rock.

"Mahal did not want to see any of us suffer or get hurt the same way her mother did." With grandchild Tere.

Mahal will never admit it but when Lolo Sig died, a little part of her went with him. She is still the same feisty Lola we know but there are moments when I look at her and cannot help but feel her wistfulness and sadness at the realization that her other half is gone. It is a fleeting look that usually does not last very long but it lingers long enough to remind me that behind the amazon warrior, tough-as-nails fa├žade, our Mahal is all too human. Lolo Sig had always been her protector, but it was only after he had passed that I realized what he was protecting her from—her own vulnerability.

She is a bullish, obstinate mule born in an era where women had no say in their future—a woman clearly ahead of her time. She was fearless in letting her intelligence shine and stood her ground in an industry dominated by men. She had more than enough tenacity and balls to make sure she was not merely seen, but also heard—not in polite whispers, but with a voice strong enough to fill an auditorium with the feminine, lyrical sound of an aria that could escalate into a piercing scream when provoked. She is flawed—yet she is ferociously unapologetic of who she is, where she came from, and whom she loves. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.

Thank you, Mahal.

 

From the book “Armida” published by Monica S. Villonco, ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc. Published here with permission from the author. The title of this story comes from Dara's Instagram post on her grandmother's passing.