She was born Saturnina Estrada, but with a first name like that, she preferred to be called Nina. Later married to Eugenio Puyat, she became Nina Estrada Puyat, famed short-story writer (Shelley Memorial awardee, one of whose stories were included in the list of Ten Best stories of Jose Garcia Villa) — poetess (Heart of Clay, by which Nina was compared by critics to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay — essayist, librettist, columnist, civic leader, society matron, and a childless perennial Auntie to the young.
She was born on December 14, 19-forgotten, which she herself revealed as the year 1934, but was later corrected by relatives to 1929, then 1921. The national organization of Pangasinenses is called Anak nen Palaris, sons of Juan Palaris, the greatest revolutionary of the province. Actually, Nina and her sister Eva Estrada Kalaw are direct descendants of Juan Palaris, their genealogy traceable for 11 generations since the 16th century.
Nina’s ancestors founded the province of Tarlac which was carved out of Pangasinan and Pampanga. The very word Tarlac is an abbreviation of “Tańedo, Rey de las Cańas”, and named after her family of Tańedo, King of the Sugar Cane. Her family tree is easily traced because every head (Capitan) of Tarlac during the Spanish times were of her family. Part of this family was the fabulous woman Lorenza Tańedo Quiambao known for her fencing skills, who had four daughters who were also accomplished fencers. One of them, Petronila, married Luciano Estrada of Pangasinan — and they became the grandparents of Eva and Nina Estrada. Another daughter Guadalupe married Servillano Aquino — and they became the grandparents of Ninoy Aquino.
Nina Puyat and Ninoy Aquino are second cousins, having common great grandparents. Ninoy’s widowed grandfather married his widowed sister-in-law the grandmother of Eva. Their fathers were brought up as brothers. Eva and Ninoy then became first cousins by affinity, and their common first cousin is Agustin “Toy” Cancio, a real horse of a man, who is the natural father of my daughter-in-law, Vicki Belo Henares.
Nina and Eva Estrada were celebrated in the University of the Philippines as talented campus beauties — Nina as a poetess and Eva as a champion pistol sharpshooter. When the UP candidate for bar topnotcher Enrique Fernando lost to Emmanuel Pelaez of National University, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the beautiful Estrada sisters were blamed — Eva because she distracted the lovesick Iking Fernando out of his wits, and Nina for refusing to go out with Manny Pelaez, and missing the chance to confuse and frustrate him.
Nina Estrada Puyat was a very religious person. Just before she died, she wrote to her nephew Noni Estrada: “Noni, if I were to die tomorrow, and I were to decide what I want you to inherit from me, it would be the Bible, the Word of God.” Once during the wedding of my daughter Elvira, Nina said to herself as she sat beside me in our table, “I wish the Lord will give me a sign that he has listened to my prayers and guided me to the right decisions, like sending one dove to me at this table.” At that precise moment, the newly-weds pulled the string that opened the cage of the love doves. And lo and behold, one dove flew unerringly to our table, landed in front of Nina and stood without fear as Nina scooped it up in her hands. “Nina,” I exclaimed, “Can it be that the Holy Spirit descended on you?”
Nina is my twin soul. My essays, as you readers may have noticed, are studded with private jokes, obscure allusions and double intendres, by which I amuse myself, vent my spleen and make my own day. Nina never failed to spot them; she kept catching me with my pants down, so to speak. For instance, she would laugh at my mention of “enterprises of great piss and movement,” because it is a pun on Hamlet’s “enterprises of great pith and moment” which means actions of greatness and worth, and which I converted into actions performed in the toilet. It was a private joke between me and Shakespeare, and in all the world, only Nina enjoyed the joke.
Nina and her sister Eva were the ones who thought of yellow ribbons as a gesture of welcome for Ninoy Aquino at the time of his arrival and assassination. A genius of an idea, it brought to mind a song popularized by Tony Orlando and Dawn some years ago, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon on the Old Oak Tree,” a country ballad with bittersweet lyrics that told the story of a convict coming home to his love. It became the symbol of the Edsa Revolution.
It is as a poet that Nina will forever be with us, with her exquisite imagery, her passion and sensitivity. She was one of the best friends of my wife Cecilia. When Cecilia died last year, Nina wrote an elegy for her:
A candle burns relentlessly within my mind,
Steadily it drips, keeping time with my tears,
Its flame trembles unsteadily with the tremors
Of a thousand memories beyond forgetting.
Tonight when darkness falls
I shall go out to count the stars.
I know that I shall find one there
That was not there last night.
And it shall shine and sparkle for everyone.
But for me, specially for me, it shall
Smile that old soft smile with which
It soothed my world and made it burst into song.
I love that, the idea that Cecilia has become a new star shining in the heavens. In a poem entitled Paalam, her own Farewell, Nina wrote:
Miss me a little when I am gone.
Look not for me in the urn.
I shall not be there.
Try the sunset that we watched together,
Or the dawn we seldom saw.
Try the grass on which we walked barefooted,
or the winds that we confronted with heads high.
Then you’ll know that I can never leave you, Love.
Anymore than I can leave time, music and light.
And this reminds me of a poem with a similar message, a favorite of my wife Cecilia, applicable to both Cecilia and Nina, together now as they were on earth:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am the million stars that glow.
I am the thousand winds that blow.
I am the gentle drops of rain.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft hush of restful night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die.
In our hearts Nina will never die. And if we look up at the sky on a clear night, we shall see that there is another new star shining in the heavens.
Forbes Sanctuario, September 7, 1994