Monday, November 20, 2006

My nom-de-plume

On the EWTN interview Doug Keck asked me the reason for using a pen name and I replied it was in honor of my grandmother. As a child I used to say to her, "Grandma, tell me about your life." Maria Magdalena Vidal was born on May 25, 1904 on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Her great- grandfather, Kiamko, was Chinese. She always told us that he was a merchant from Shanghai, but we found out many years later that actually he was a notorious pirate. After amassing a fortune through pillage, Kiamko eventually settled down on vast estates in the Philippines. He married a lady of Spanish-Malaysian blood, descended from one of Magellan's comrades who had settled in the islands in the sixteenth century. Kiamko's son, Alejandro Arnibal, inherited what had become an empire of fishing and sugar cane which he ruled like an oriental despot. His daughter, my grandmother's mother, was Mamerta Philomena Arnibal, an exotic beauty with dark skin and chiselled features.

Mamerta and her sisters would assist at Mass in their floor-length mantillas made of pineapple fiber. In the Philippines, the women sat on one side of the church and the men on the other. In spite of the segregation, Mamerta once caught the glance of a poor young Spaniard, Jaime Vidal. Jaime was from Barcelona in Catalonia, and was working as an accountant in his uncle's cigarette factory. He was a descendant of the Sephardic Jews of Aragon, the conversos. When his eyes met Mamerta's they both fell in love. Jaime came to her home and serenaded her under her window with his guitar. Alejandro disapproved of him as a suitor due to his lack of fortune, and he and his sons would pour buckets of water on Jaime's head.

Jaime and Mamerta eloped. She incurred her father's wrath; he crossed her out of the family Bible. It was as if she had never been born, although she and Jaime were united in holy wedlock and had nothing to be ashamed of. Years later, when she was a widow and in need of assistance, her family would not help her. They really treated her as if she had died.

Mamerta and Jaime had a son, Francisco. When she was pregnant a second time there were political problems in the islands and they decided to relocate to Spain. Jaime went first to Spain to prepare a home for them, but he was killed in a riding accident. Mamerta, abandoned by her family, was at a total loss. She gave birth to my grandmother in May 1904. Unprotected, she was kidnapped and forced to marry a Filipino gentleman whose name we do not know. He was cruel and beat Mamerta, and baby Magdalena as well. By the time Magdalena was three years old she was ill, and Mamerta feared for her life. She heard of an orphanage for mixed race children called the House of the Holy Child run by American missionaries. She took her little girl there and begged them to take care of her.

The House of the Holy Child was operated by the Anglican Church under the auspices of a former Boston socialite, Frances Crosby. She was a maiden-lady with no children of her own. She was enchanted by Magdalena and raised her as her own daughter, giving her the last name of "Crosby." Magdalena was baptized a Catholic but her "godmother," as she called Miss Frances, raised her as a high Anglican. Frances later married an Anglican clergyman, Father Barter. They were both devoted to my grandmother, raising her as a proper young lady.

Magdalena was a bright and precocious child and wanted to be a teacher. She began teaching as early as age fourteen, and by age twenty had her teaching certificate. It was then she met my grandfather, Herman, from Alabama. He had a fiancee back in the States but when he became enamored of my grandmother he broke his engagement. Her foster mother did not approve of Herman because he was a Baptist, so Herman and Magdalena eloped. They had four children and the youngest was my mother.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1942 my grandfather, being an American citizen, was sent to Santo Tomas concentration camp in Manila. My grandmother made ends meet by tutoring the daughters of the future president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon. My grandmother hid Filipino guerilla soldiers in her attic, risking death since the Japanese made frequent house searches. When the Americans came to liberate the Philippines, there were massacres in the streets of Manila. My grandmother knew they had to escape. She crawled through the mud with her children, trying to avoid land mines, to hide in a burnt out house in a district where the Japanese had already been. They almost starved to death, but were eventually reunited with my grandfather and returned to his family home in Alabama.

I will write more on this later. I promised my grandmother that someday I would write a novel of her life, and I plan to do so, God willing. Share


Anonymous said...

Well you just made me cry! What a lovely story, you really ought to write that story in a novel, it shows just what the human spirit must endure to survive sometimes and how lucky we all are today in comparison.
I did notice a common in your family's history didn't seem to matter. It seems that a few of them were punished for loving the wrong person because of social status, poor Jaime with the buckets of water on his head!! LOL
So there was a far greater importance on money than love, how sad and how true throughout the ages!! Hence the endless stories I never tire of about forbidden or tragic love stories!!!
I see an epic film in there somewhere but that's me, always looking at life through the lense of a camera!!
You must write that in a novel and I will buy it several times over!!
Just amazing!!


elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Bella! Yes, I am planning to write a novel of her life as soon as I finish the Irish novel and the one on Bonnie Prince Charlie! Yes, then there will have to be a movie! Maybe you can play Mamerta!!

Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter said...

Hello there! A friend of mine told me about your blog. I am half American (Daddy's family is from Georgia). I grew up in the Philippines and your lola looks like my relatives! My lola was best friends with Mrs. Quezon.

Many beautiful things in your story that resonate with me. Tell us more, please.


elena maria vidal said...

Hi, Kathleen! I am so delighted that you found my blog! We truly have similar backgrounds - Dixie and the Philippines! Our lolas must have known each other, since my aunt was friends with the Quezon daughters, and then her mother, my lola, taught them. They all belonged to the same country club -your lola must have been part of the same circle of friends. I will write more about it after Thanksgiving.

It was terrible what happened to Mrs Quezon and her daughters, so terrible....