The Bitter and the Sweet by Marivi Blanco
I used to think the word “bittersweet” was just another torch song cliché, the sort of Latinate expression that Tom Spanbauer would have expunged in a Dangerous Writing class. But over the last week, I kept returning to it as the only word to describe the tumble of events. At yoga class last Thursday, I managed my first unassisted headstand (sweet). That afternoon, the book contract from Penguin arrived in our mailbox (double sweet). An hour later I learned that my favorite aunt, Tita Tess, had succumbed to cancer.
A consummate diplomat, Tita Tess set up homes in Bern, Bangkok, Rome, Vienna, and Bombay, somehow finding time in between to escape a destructive first marriage and leap into a second, two young daughters in hand. Forsaking her job to support her husband’s, she held court as wife of the Austrian cultural minister in Rome and learned a few languages so that nothing escaped her notice. Dinner at Tita Tess’s home was a carnival of tongues, with Sasha and Tracy trading gossip in Italian, Uncle Franz joking in German, my aunt directing the cook in Ilonggo and me, keeping up in my profoundly plebeian English.
I first visited her fresh out of college, besotted with Europe and bedazzled by my first grown-up romance. Jumping at the chance to play Auntie Mame, Tita Tess showed me around to Trastevere and her favorite basilicas, then took me by train through the Tirolean Alps to watch the opera in Vienna. When the affair imploded, I sought her out again, unwilling to return home to my scandalized parents. “My God, you should be grateful,” Tita Tess would chide, pouring me yet another glass of chianti. “Most people would kill to be in your place, nursing a broken heart in Rome!” I really should have listened, but the city of persimmon buildings with kissing couples on every block offered sparse comfort to an overwrought 21-year old.
And yet Tita Tess persevered, distracting me with books and deliciously inappropriate anecdotes about our large extended family. Decades later the lore she passed on enriched my first novel.
Sadly, all those years of carousing in smoky cocktail parties finally caught up with my aunt. Last May she collapsed in her Vienna flat; doctors discovered that cancer had colonized a good part of her innards. I emailed her a copy of my novel, thinking to amuse her. When she complained she couldn’t focus on a computer screen, I dreamed up a plan to fly to Vienna and read the whole manuscript to her at the hospital.
“You know, summer plane fare costs so much that I’d have no money left for beer,” I teased on one of our last phone calls.
“Oh, just come. I will pay for your beer,” Tita Tess promised.
She never got around to picking up that bar tab. A week before her flight home to Manila, my beloved aunt passed away. It was a keen irony that my book contract arrived the day I learned Tita Tess had died.
This time, I persevered.
The next morning I wrote Tita Tess’ obituary and emailed it to our family in Manila; after that I signed the Penguin contract and sent it back to New York, marking two milestones on the most bitter of sweet days.
After authoring ten books for children, Marivi Soliven Blanco moved on to writing four more books for an adult audience including Suddenly Stateside, a collection of essays on the Filipino diaspora, and Spooky Mo, a collection of feminist horror stories. Her essays and short fiction have been widely anthologized in Philippine textbooks. While her day job as a telephonic interpreter offers constant inspiration for new stories, writing continues to be her primary vocation.