There are some people in our lives that we have the habit of associating with beauty. Worldly aunts with perfect faces who live decadent social lives and who we don’t see around too often, magnificent teachers who awe us with their ability to combine operatic singing with the laws of higher math, a much-loved older friend from childhood who can make up fabulous stories of fairies and mountains and purple skies. With them we never have bad memories; our times together were always magical. And we have always made it a point to share only good stories with them, so we can cling to this ideal, magical idolatry that we have of these beautiful people and not drag them down to the realities of our own not-so-beautiful lives.
One of the people that I associate with beauty in my life in this way is Annabelle. She was my classmate for a year in high school at the Colegio de Sta. Isabel in Naga City. She was very simple, demure, and quiet. She was the Maria Clara of our batch. She had straight black hair that fell down her back in a shiny sheet, and not a hair was ever out of place. In college, at the Ateneo de Naga, a hush fell on the corridors whenever she walked past, looking fragile and ethereal. She always smelled of powdery perfume, and she hardly wore any makeup. Even the sound of her name evoked the image of flowers and ribbons.
I maintained a certain distance with her for the fourteen years that I’ve known her. We were friends, but we never got to the level of the nitty gritty. I felt she was too beautiful for anything and anyone to ever be nitty gritty with her. But we shared good memories. She was my only high school classmate that I invited to my wedding, and she is one of Chandler’s godmothers. When her turn came to get married, I was her only high school friend there.
She got married today. It was a beautiful wedding. Small, tasteful, graceful, elegant, and wonderfully planned, it was a wedding that only Annabelle can pull off. Just this afternoon she walked down the aisle of the Naga Cathedral, resplendent in a white satin gown created by Ariel Alvarez with rhinestone embellishments, and in a style that only she can pull off, tiny silvery-white bows running down her train. I was glad that nobody in the cathedral knew me, because I was actually bawling into my pashmina behind everybody else, with a pew all to myself. I was crying partly because she was even more beautiful than I remembered, and partly because at that very moment, I realized that I had misjudged her.
Fragile, ethereal, beautiful Annabelle of the flowers and the soft voice and the fragile hands and with whom I never shared the nitty gritties of my life is actually one of the strongest women in the world. She got married, after all! To make that decision indeed takes remarkable strength. She not only deemed it important that she walk down the aisle with the man she had loved for years, she had also bargained to bear with the physical burdens of becoming pregnant, and of childbirth, and of raising children. She will become fat for a while. She will be up at odd hours caring for a toddler with a cold, a preschooler who is afraid of monsters under the bed, or perhaps waiting up for a husband who had been held up at work. She will warm up meals for him very late at night even when she feels like just going to bed. She will worry about the plumbing and her eventual wrinkles, and that a window in the basement somehow does not shut right. She will buy socks and coloring books and vegetables and chili plasters. She will think deeply about which bicycles to buy for her children, and will worry that her husband might have forgotten to bring an umbrella to work on a very rainy day. She will keep house, or manage a household. She will build a family and make choices for them. She will worry about a teenaged daughter who is out on a date with her very first boyfriend. She will worry about her children as they learn how to drive. She will have gray hairs. She will think about whether to dye them. She will start wearing high heels less and flat shoes more. She will cry a great deal, too. She will cry at her children's graduations and at at their weddings, and cry at the birth of her grandchildren. She will cry when she suspects that her husband does not love her anymore, and she will cry when she realizes that he loves her more than he did on the day they were married. She will cry when he sings her a serenade at their fiftieth wedding anniversary. She will make sacrifices. She will be happy, with the kind of happiness that can only come out of sincere hard work and pure love.
And as I think about her now, I see that she has been strong all along, even before she got married. She had dealt with the death of her father, one or two broken hearts, friends who have been disloyal to her, and people who barely know her but who consider themselves experts at her private life. She had put herself through law school at the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga while working at the Naga City Prosecutor’s Office and caring for her aging mother, and she was strong enough to mention to me that she has seen the papers for my marriage annulment case and strong enough not to pry further. She was strong enough for a restrained friendship with me. She was strong enough to let go of disloyal friends. Not the stuff of legend, but I find remarkable beauty in that nevertheless. She was strong enough for love, and to make choices in favor of love. Beyond her physical beauty, her fragile perfection that seeps through her every spoken syllable, her every eye blink, lies the even grander beauty of a strong character and an unshakeable, grounded spirit.
This is what beauty had taught me today: That it is nothing like I thought, that it is beyond everything I thought.