It was the sad memory of Christmas that made my mom, Lulu, then a young woman in 1947, walk around the Escolta, Manila’s shopping mecca at the time. World War II had ended. It was liberation in Manila. Lulu hoped to find solace in the tinsel and glitter at the stores. As jolly carols resonated from nearby, Lulu checked the crisp 50-peso bill she had, a gift from an American serviceman given in gratitude. During the war, she was helping American and Filipino soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March by bringing medicine to soldiers in concentration camps. Her own brother Willie was incarcerated and survived the ordeal.
Lulu did not feel right about spending the money on herself. The country was recovering from the war, and people had lost family and property. She wanted to make sure the money went to something important.
Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks. She saw a family staring longingly at a brightly decorated window. The mother looked tired. The nine children of different ages, obviously hers, peered into the store display. They were dressed simply, a sharp contrast to the smartly dressed shoppers bustling about, carrying brightly wrapped packages. Something about this family made Lulu sense they were not buying. They were just looking. An idea lit in her heart. Lulu approached the family.
"Ma'am, are these your children?" Lulu smiled at the woman. After exchanging pleasantries, Lulu found out the woman was a widow. A sympathetic chord struck Lulu's soul. The woman reminded her of her own widowed mama; the children brought back images of herself and her brothers when they were little. There were sad holidays when funds were scarce and her mama had to find creative ways to stretch the budget to give the family a happy Christmas.
Lulu then decided the 50-peso bill belonged to this woman and her family. She handed it to the widow. "This was given to me by an American officer in gratitude for the charity work I did for prisoners in concentration camps. I want you and your children to have it. Merry Christmas," Lulu told her.
The woman and her children were overjoyed. Lulu's heart leapt at the happiness she gave this family. She then hurried along to make it in time for Christmas Eve Mass with her mother and brothers.
Every Christmas my mom, Lulu, shared this story with us. Though she was simply Mom to me, to others, Lulu Reyes Besa was one of the most outstanding women of her time. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the United States in 1947 and cited by Major General Moore as "one of the outstanding heroines of WWII." As president of the Chaplains’ Aid Association from 1942-45, Lulu Reyes headed the Crusades of Charity, bringing medicine to POWs in concentration camps.
In 1946, Lulu became co-founder (along with Miss Baby Quezon) and president of the YLAC, Young Ladies Association of Charity. They built free elementary schools around the Philippines with religion an integral subject. She received the Ateneo Ozanam Award in 1953 for her Catholic Social Action achievements.
In 1958, Lulu helped founders and the Redemptorists priests raise money to build the National Shrine of Our Perpetual Help in Baclaran. She received the Fleur de Lis Award from her alma mater St. Paul College of Manila (now SPU) for civic service. She was also a recipient of the Papal Award Pro Ecclesia for her religious work.
Lulu later found out the widowed mother she helped that Christmas Eve of 1947 was Pelagia Villaflor Soliven. One of Pelagia’s sons was Max Soliven, who became one of the most influential Philippine journalists. He wrote his version of this story in his column. When Mom died in 1981, Mr. Soliven reprinted the story of the 50-peso gift in his Christmas column.
The Ozanam award Lulu Reyes received from the Ateneo de Manila described her best: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Mom is gone now but her Christmas story moves me to tears every holiday. Her memory shines brightly in my heart. She gave happiness that Christmas of 1947 to one special family.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
More articles by Elizabeth Ann Quirino:
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Bank Exec Nina Aguas: Woman Of Influence
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