On the Eighth Day of Xmas: A Death in the family

The weather could not have been more beautiful today in Berlin – pristine azure sky and a gorgeously warm sun that shone in my face while I sat at my desk. This is the kind of winter I absolutely love – and I thought was on the right path this morning as well, hoping to clear a lot of things off my table before next week. Then I received the news that my Aunt Solly passed away this morning.

I am not even sure where to begin describing Maria Soledad Geraldine A. Valbuena, Aunt Solly to all of her family members, and Gerry Valbuena to her colleagues over the decades that she served in social work. The fourth child in a set of eight children, Aunt Solly was, in a nutshell, quite the character, unapologetic for being who she was, the way she wanted, and for living life to the fullest. As children, she and Mommy never got along, but as they grew older and put aside their differences, they not only grew closer, but also respected one another professionally. My mother being a nurse, understood all too well why Aunt Solly chose social work as her career path. Both women were strongly influenced by their father, the judge, and had the inherent need to serve the people, save lives, and make the world a better place.

In her youth, Aunt Solly was quite the beauty, commanding attention by the simple blink of her lashes and gentle sway of her hips. Her beauty was never confined to the powders of make-up, but radiated from within and far beyond skin deep. The walking definition of a woman of substance, she had an enviable inner strength and a quirky sense of humour that immediately enchanted others. Quite the brutally frank conversationalist, she had a razor sharp mind that kept her abreast of politics, social trends, music, dance, and all things military. Phenomenal to work with and known for mobilising both civilian and military forces alike to rescue people and bring relief where it was needed, Aunt Solly knew how to get things done by hook or by crook, when to bully someone to get off their high horse and didn’t care whether she had to shout at a general, a member or parliament or the governor, and at the same time, had the gentlest of hearts and greatest compassion.

She fascinated me as a child and I suppose I remained quite the fan well beyond my teens. Her sense of fashion rubbed off on me, as she was the one who taught me the magic of accessorising. “Buy cheap basic items, basic colours, but jazz everything up with a scarf, good shoes, jewellery and my God Maritess never leave the house without eyeliner!” (she never called me Tess, but insisted on the full nickname Mommy used when I was in trouble). Also, this was the aunt who told all the women she knew “Always buy matching panties and bras, and make sure you wear your best set when you travel, so that if they have to identify your cadaver later on, at least you have the dignity of a matching pair of undies!” How can you possibly go wrong in life with advise like this?

We never knew when she was going to drop in, and sometimes she literally did just that. Often, a single phone call from her announced her arrival and that she was on her way to our house from some undisclosed location. The first thing Mommy always asked her was how did you arrive this time? And the answer was never the same. A couple of times she hitched rides on military planes or helicopters, and I lost count of the number of times she was driven to our home in an army jeep, with full escort. I’ll never forget that one time she recounted what she hat to do to get out of the field while on assignment for the Red Cross. All the roads were blocked due to the floods, and there were no more service vehicles available. When she called the army for a vehicle and additional assistance, the poor young soldier who had never encountered her before retorted that they too had no jeeps to lend her, all that was left at the base were armoured tanks. “Then send me the god damn tank, I need to get my team out of here!” Two tanks arrived within the hour when the commanding office found out who had called.

It was always important to Aunt Solly to drop in, have lunch, a quick chitchat, and hand over whatever goodies Granny had sent for us no matter how busy or tight her schedule was. Manila was never her homebase, and if she was in town it was only for a conference or to report to the Social Welfare Department headquarters. If she was able to stay with us instead of the hotel, she did because that way she could stock up on crosswords puzzles, cheesy romance books (at the time the Mills & Boon and Barbara Cartland ones were the rave) – her survival kit for the boring conferences and intellectually offending lectures she said. Shoes were her passion, so if she could find a way to escape from the conference for a “feasibility study” as she preferred to call these covert shopping sprees, she would, and rarely returned empty-handed.

In her youth, Aunt Solly and her brother were an unbeatable dance team. Their heyday was the Elvis era, so jitterbug and swing were their thing. There wasn’t a local competition they didn’t win, and they certainly kept their dance moves even after life took them down very different paths. It wasn’t her dancing skills that I envied (well, perhaps just a bit), but more than anything I admired her fierce loyalty to family and unconditional support of good friends. During my dark hours I often think of Aunt Solly, wondering what she would do to get out of the rut I got myself into. Her unwavering sense of independence and confidence in herself to do the job in the face of every possible adversity has always been an inspiration. She never backed down when it came to fighting for something she strongly believed in, espoused a love of country and commitment to community service that would put many world leaders to shame.

Aunty Solly was proof that the strength of a woman could move mountains, and still be fashionably elegant, that speaking your mind was important, but defending the truth the pursuit of justice even more. One time she leaned over and said, You know, jewellery and shoes are important, so are kajal and lipstick, but make sure you know how to box and shoot a gun as well. Know how to defend yourself and never let a penis dominate you.

In the end, Aunt Solly had very few regrets. She lived a full life, remained true to her ideals and values, and aged gracefully. Your suitcase should never be without a swim suit she said, even if you are assigned to the jungle, if there is a pool or a beach nearby, drop everything and swim! She is forever immortalised in life by way of my book Wings At Dawn as Amrita, a character inspired entirely by Aunt Solly.

NB: all the photographs used here are from Aunt Solly’s Facebook page. I took the liberty of retouching the BNW ones.

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