MAILEEN HAMTO Reviews
Every Ounce of Courage: A Daughter’s Reflection on Her Mother’s Bravery by Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino
It is estimated that the Second World War claimed the lives of over one million military and civilian folks in the Philippines. Renowned food blogger Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino’s family is among the survivors of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942 through 1945, a tragic episode in the country’s history mired by brutality and savagery. In her memoir Every Ounce of Courage, Besa-Quirino focuses the spotlight on her mother, Lourdes “Lulu” Reyes Besa, who served as a volunteer for relief and humanitarian efforts during the war. A serendipitous phone call from Robert Dow – an American soldier who survived the Philippine theater – inspired the author to pore through family archives and uncover her mother’s story.
Lulu grew up in opulence and privilege as part of Manila’s most prominent families. As the eldest daughter, she also bore immense responsibility for her widowed mother, Lola Nena, and younger siblings. During the war, Lulu leveraged her family’s social status to gain the trust of the “Kempei- tai,” the Japanese military police during the occupation. Organizing other Manila socialites, Lulu gained access to the prisons to provide food, medicine, and even spiritual counsel to the detained Filipino and American soldiers.
Filipinos are often lauded for their courage and resilience amid hardship and turmoil. As I read Every Ounce of Courage, I reflected upon how my grandparents’ generation endured the trauma of war. The Besa family had considerable resources that provided a semblance of protection from the atrocities of war. But even their wealth could not prevent one of their own from being captured and tortured in Japanese war camps. While rumors of espionage abound, Lulu was determined to do what she can to alleviate the suffering of others in the midst of chaos, violence, and death.
There is more to the book than stories of agony and struggle. Best-known for her sumptuous Filipino recipes, Besa-Quirino adeptly infuses her passion for gastronomy as she tells stories from her family’s experiences before, during, and after World War 2. While the matriarch, Lulu is the main focus of the book, readers also get to know the entangled lives of the Besa-Quirino clan. The memoir underscores the values of kapwa: interdependence and connectedness. The book reveals as much about the author as it does about her mother, Tito Bobby, Tito Willie, Tita Helen, Lola Nena, and others. For the fortunate and persistent, there is life after war. However, like other Filipino families who survived the war, pain and heartache are felt generations hence. It's a good thing there is always food that brings comfort and healing.
Maileen Hamto was born in Tondo, and raised in Sampaloc, Manila. As a part of the vast global Filipino diaspora, she has called Texas, Oregon, and Colorado her home for the last 32 years. Her late maternal grandparents, Victor and Placida Dumelod, were elementary school children when World War 2 broke out. While they were still alive, neither spoke much about how they suffered during the Japanese occupation, but the rupture and trauma were evident. Maileen recalls being reminded by her Lola – lovingly called “Mommy” – to hasten with finishing her meal, lest the Japanese soldiers came.