A year and a half ago, Virgie Moreno walked into the room and sat down to tell interesting stories I have yet to write. She looked pretty much as I had always remembered her, a woman of years styled by time. Virgie once told me that she felt people judged her clothes because she was the sister of fashion czar Jose “Pitoy” Moreno. But she was a fashion independent and dressed as she felt.
I knew of her first from stories overheard from my mother and her sorority sisters in the University of the Philippines (UP) Sigma Delta Phi. Pitoy and Virgie both went to UP and Pitoy was a member of Upsilon, the brother fraternity of the Sigma Deltans.
Although she was years ahead of Mom, Virgie was not a person one easily forgot. It seemed she was a colorful character who had little regard for what people thought and conducted herself in whatever fanciful way she felt. In one such anecdote, after returning from living several months in Paris, she peppered her sentences with French. Another unverified tale had her pulling around a toy poodle tied to a string as she crossed the UP Arts and Sciences lobby. It wouldn’t have been so unusual save that it was not a living pet but an actual toy on wheels. I asked her about these decades later and she merely shrugged.
She was an artist who wrote plays and poetry even before I was even born. She published a collection of verses that won the Palanca Memorial Award for Literature. I was already drawn to the literary arts and had read her poem Batik Maker. I was moved by words I didn’t quite grasp, but which awed me nonetheless. When her play The Straw Patriot was staged in the open air Raja Sulayman Theater at Fort Santiago, I was in the audience. It had been translated into Tagalog and presented by PETA as Bayaning Huwad. Another play she penned was La Loba Negra, also known as Itim Asu.
I don’t recall the circumstances when we first met but being my mother’s daughter, I was drawn naturally to her. When Virgie invited me to her residence, I was nervous and thrilled. Her home in Malate evoked another era that was gracious and genteel, unpretentious and real. She talked about former times and current happenings, her works, her thoughts shared with a touch of humor and je ne sais quoi. I was a captivated audience, both awed and apprehensive that I might say something stupid to offend her intelligence. She wasn’t talking down or being high-falutin’. It was just me in the presence of the poetry that she was.
Bashfulness was not one of her qualities. When she had something to say, she spoke forthrightly….
Over time, I became more comfortable around her. While we didn’t meet often, conversation picked up easily from the last time. After I got married, there were more occasions to see one another in cultural and art events. She appreciated being invited to the exhibition of the Metrobank Art Competition, and was forthcoming in letting my husband know that she liked to attend the event, he being the organizer and host. Bashfulness was not one of her qualities. When she had something to say, she spoke forthrightly, without being offensive or brazen. I liked the honesty with which she conducted herself.
I saw her less and less as is the tragedy of busy lives, but when Ballet Philippines was going to present her play Itim Asu in classical dance, we had a chance to reconnect. It was an intimate gathering and she was in her element. The attention pleased her. She had an audience. Virgie settled comfortably in a chair and led the conversation, her timber unquivering at age 95. She brought along the yellowed pages of Itim Asu and I took a photograph of it as the playwright began to talk about the historical reference that inspired the writing.
She sat with legs crossed, the skirt of her dress falling from her waist down to her knees. Her limbs were visible through the lace insertion on a printed fabric with black-and-white patterns, embellished with white appliqués. On her feet were beaded velvet slippers. When she wasn’t holding up photos or a copy of The Straw Patriot, her hands were crossed on her lap, her wrists wrapped in strings of pearls. From another angle, light from the window caught streaks of brown and gray on her ash-colored hair, twisted in a bun and held up by two jeweled hairpieces. A pair of princess-cut diamond earrings dangled from her ears. When the tasseled shawl she wore slipped from her shoulders, the dulled luster of uneven pearls completed the image of a woman who dressed as she pleased.
It was the unapologetically red lipstick that delivered the coup de grâce, a violation of the maddening rule to wear lighter shades for mature lips. She spoke and smiled through blazing red lips. I was again in awe. The years had not diminished her. She was comfortable with the withered lines on her hands, her face, her extremities, and wore them with grace. Her poetry had become more eloquent, expressed in the vibrancy of life and love that she wrote and lived and wore that morning a year and a half ago.
Today I wore red lipstick in her honor and reread lines from Batik Maker, relishing the lushness of her haunting verse.
“Shades of the light and shapes
Of the rain on his palanquin
Stain what phantom panther
Sleeps in the cage of
His skin and immobile
And I cannot bury him.”