(First of two parts)
Meeting Maria Aurora “Nene” Quezon Avanceña for the first time elicits more than a nod and the exchange of hellos, especially if you, the person she is being introduced to, happen to know your Philippine history.
Chances are you would ask her whether she is related to the Philippine President after whom the city and the province were named, along with a university, a medical institution and several main thoroughfares in the country.
If Nene says yes, admitting to this privileged and respected lineage, you, being patriotically knowledgeable, would then realize that on her mother’s side, she directly descends from the first President of the Philippine Commonwealth, Manuel Luis Quezon Sr.
You also come to realize that no less than Nene’s paternal grandfather, the Chief Justice Ramon Avanceña, swore Quezon into the presidential office.
More than a decade later, the president’s daughter, Zeneida or “Nini,” widowed by her first husband Philip Buencamino III, tied the knot with Alberto Avanceña, the lawyer son of the Chief Justice.
Courageous First Lady
From this marriage of the President’s daughter and the Chief Justice’s son would be born the person right in front of you or, in these new normal times, the smiling lady on your laptop screen, Aurora Quezon Avanceña.
Aurora’s is a name that conjures both pride and pathos. Pride because Doña Aurora was Manuel L. Quezon Sr.’s First Lady, she who had been quietly behind the leader but who, after her husband’s demise, would lend her unsullied name and compelling influence to various charitable and civic undertakings. Pathos because Doña Aurora, the affable, shy and virtuous First Lady, would be killed in an ambush.
History books tell of how their convoy, on its way to Baler, had been mercilessly attacked. And that, realizing what was going on, she had bravely come out of the car, faced the direction of the unseen criminals and with her hand raised, screamed, her voice barely audible as guns were shot. “Please stop, this is Doña Aurora,” she pleaded with them. Known for her unassuming mien, the First Lady turned out to be courageous more than any other Filipino could claim they were. To face one’s assailants and, by introducing herself, hope for the goodness in man’s heart to spare her, her loved ones and her company — that was heroic.
Maria Aurora aka Baby, on the other hand, was the name of the other daughter of the Quezons. Of the two daughters, Baby was the more sociable type who had represented her mother and even both parents in various functions where their presence was sought and honored. She, too, died in the same ambush, along with her sister Nini’s husband, Philip III. It was after her aunt, Maria Aurora, that Nene was named. As for her nickname, that was the late First Lady’s.
Nene, who has been in town for a few weeks, flew in with her husband William John “Bill” Waddell, an American-born and raised dentist whose father is of Scottish origin, to join the Avanceña family in celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Nini Quezon Avanceña last 9 April.
Gladly, Nene agreed to be interviewed via Viber, although she had had to squeeze it in between golf, a sport that the Avanceña family loves.
Most relaxed of mothers
For all the magnificence attached to her family’s image, born most likely of the people’s collective memory of the old world charm and demeanor of Manuel L. Quezon Sr., the other side of the familial story aptly having more to do with service, integrity and noblesse oblige, Nene gives off the impression of a relaxed, fun-to-be-with person.
Her apparent no-frills looks are even heightened by the way she dresses up smartly yet casually, possessing a stance bereft of the airs of some people who are to the so-called manner born. If one didn’t know of her family background, one would imagine she is typically the Filipina transplanted to America, who works industriously, and earns a proper living.
This is obviously not a case of someone who has had to leave home to be able to earn for the upkeep of a family she left behind.
It turns out that nothing less than the joviality and camaraderie of family may be expected of the Quezon-Avanceñas, specifically eight sons and a daughter.
The President’s lone surviving daughter, indeed, has raised a brood that is altogether almost different from people’s expectations, granted the family names Quezon and Avanceña bring to mind a sense of stiff decorum and the so-called serious affairs of the state.
No, Nini Quezon Avanceña, it turns out, is the most relaxed of mothers, one not to put a heavy burden on her children because of who they are. The wonder, one realizes from listening to her only daughter Nene, is that Nini could be so relaxed and be consistently devoted to her country and causes.
A world of its own
The setting of Nene’s childhood and what took place there as she was growing up add to the understanding of the person that is Nini and the family she raised. Nene recalls, “We had this place, which was the only house left standing after World War II. So when they (the First Lady, Doña Aurora, and her children) came back from the United States after the second world war, and the family houses in Pasay and Baguio had been destroyed, they stayed in the New Manila home.
“I think it was the second house in New Manila, and Lolo Quezon lived there because the environment was conducive to someone suffering from tuberculosis, which was at its early stage then.
Since Malacanang was in the middle of town they had this out-in-the country place that had been intended as a rest house and that wasn’t built to accommodate a big family.”
In this relatively cramped home did the Quezon family, at various times, live. “That’s where mom, Lola Nene and Tita Baby stayed after the War, and then Lola and Tita Baby lived in that house, and mom and her first husband lived in a house next door. And after the ambush, mom moved back to that house, and then she married dad and that’s where we all grew up.
“It was like a world of its own, although it was on the same street as Saint Paul’s College (now University). If one just went up from the 2nd, 3th and 4th streets all the way to 7th and 8th, there was one house that sat in that place, and that was our house. It was really between Aurora Boulevard and at the time España extension, but then they changed the name to E. Rodriguez.”
Nene and her brothers played with the children in the neighborhood, some of them coming from less privileged families as some might have settled there informally. In that part also lived some of their household staff and workers.
“So, their children became our playmates. Everyone was welcomed in Gilmore, including my brother’s classmates and gangmates, and our first home and its surroundings were pretty much where we played and grew up.”
Parents as tutors
Nini Quezon Avanceña was a hands-on mother in the sense of one who, according to Nene, “attended all our school functions, perhaps more than most parents. She was always there. She helped with homework, she tutored us.
“In fact, she and dad had a division of labor, playing to their strengths when it comes to tutoring. And mom is really good at Math, and she was an English major. So Filipino was dad’s domain.”
On the other hand, while Nini helped her children a lot with their homework, even tutoring them, “she didn’t jam it down our throats. If we asked for help, she would give us help.”
From their mom, they got their love for reading. “When we were little, she shared with us her love for books. She would take us in the library in Baguio,” Nene remembers. Another passion of Nini’s was math and she made sure her children would love it, too.
Second home in Baguio
Since she enjoyed outdoor activities, she planned a lot of family activities outdoors. The whole brood would go up to Baguio, more often when they finally owned a home in the City of Pines.
“When you have nine children, it’s easier to have a second home,” Nene explains. “At that time, everyone went up to Baguio because it was the summer capital. In fact, my father, who was the son of Chief Justice Avanceña and worked for him, would live in Baguio throughout summer.”
The Quezon-Avanceñas went up to the resort city not only during summertime, but Christmas and Holy Week, too. Theirs was a large property that overlooked Burnham Park. They loved riding horses.
Not surprisingly, as in the way they lived in Manila, their friends were the ones who came to visit them.
“Our friends always felt so welcome and comfortable, because mom and dad were not only very welcoming but also very non-judgemental. They were very open-minded and so they’re interested in people. They talked with our friends who wanted to talk to them.”
Nene’s brothers had friends who lived with the family in their New Manila home for years because “they just love being in our house. They became so used to living in our home that one time, one of them asked permission from my mom if he could go visit his mom in their home because it was her birthday. ‘Of course, go ahead. She is your mother, after all,’ she laughingly told him.”
Nini Quezon Avanceña fostered a relaxed and friendly atmosphere right in their family home.
“We had a round table that came from Malacañang,” Nene recounts. “It could accommodate 12 people and everyone always sat there. Mom always encouraged open discussions, and there was no scolding or getting angry. Everyone had principles to share and stand up for.
Politics but not money
“As everyone was going through the different stages of development, others more knowledgeable because of exposure in school and the community, some would say things to anger her, provoke her, but to her, it was always just a very open conversation.”
Of course, they spoke about politics. But no, as in the manner of polite families, Nene emphasizes, “We didn’t speak about money or material things. It wasn’t part of our conversation. We spoke a lot about politics and what was going on in the world. We spoke about friends, too, in a lighter mood, sharing our funny experiences with them as well as their achievements and plans. But we just never spoke about material things.”