By Maria A. Beebe, Ph.D.
I WONDERED why 50 years is called golden. Fifty-eth birthday or fifty-eth anniversary is golden. I think of gold as jewelry. Adornment. The wedding ring. Gold dangly earrings. Gold bangles. Gold necklace. Gold slippers. Gold enhances other gemstones. Since it is for adornment, it signifies beauty. And wealth?
Prompted by the “golden anniversary” congratulatory messages on 1 September 2020, I decided to take stock not only of the fifty years of being married to James but also of the gold adornments from some of the places where we lived and worked. This stocktaking naturally brought to mind key political milestones that touched us, so I added excerpts from my 2017 chapter “Developing an International Development Repertoire” in DISRUPT 2.0. Filipina Women. Daring to Lead.
Gold used to be the currency of choice. Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London, explained that out of the 118 elements, gold is stable, portable, non-toxic, and relatively rare. Moreover, gold has a distinctive golden color resulting from folding together quantum mechanics with relativity. As explained by Professor Sella, electrons in the gold “slosh around a little” and “absorbs a bit of the blue spectrum light, giving the reflected light its distinctive golden” color.
The color gold is synonymous with divinity and power. Christians maintain that the color gold is a reminder of the strength and omnipresence of God. In Hinduism, the color gold relates to virtue and wisdom, learning, meditation, and self-guided improvement.
In color psychology, gold celebrates success stories, motivating people to achieve their potential. The color gold rewards triumph, and that is why gold is the medal of champions. Gold is the color of positivity, uplifting, encouraging, and optimistic.
Right after we got married in 1970, James and I were assigned as Peace Corps Volunteers in Bontoc, Mt. Province in the Cordillera Central mountain range in northern Luzon. We both taught at Mt. Province Community College.
In addition to tattoos, a prized adornment, even for men, is the singsing, worn as an earring. The gold earring, equivalent in value to one carabao, is the most coveted. James gave me a gold singsing with the simple design that some people say is a fertility symbol. Later, when we could afford it on our Peace Corps salary, I ordered another singsing with a more complex pattern. I wear both as pendants. The story was that the singsings were made from gold panning in the Chico River, which we could see from our house. As early as 1574, the Spanish colonists launched their first expedition to survey the gold deposits of Northern Luzon.
After graduate school at Stanford, James signed up as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer. Although I was the “dependant” spouse, I did find a contract job as a teacher at the Khartoum International School and then as a USAID human resources staff. Our first posting was to the Sudan, where we lived in Khartoum, which lies at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile rivers. In the Sudan, I first learned to extend my cultural adaptability to a context outside the Philippines and the U.S.
Our time in the Sudan (1979-1983) was relatively peaceful. President Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiry talked about turning the Sudan into the industrial power-house of the Middle-East or North Africa and oil explorations looked promising. Sudan is home to the Meroe pyramids, named from Meroe’s ancient city, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, an ancient African kingdom north of Khartoum. Gold and iron mining existed under the realm of Meroë. With archeologist friends and their children, we took our young son David to spend a long weekend at the excavation site in 1981. In first grade, David won an award for the best essay for his report on our trip. “In the desert, there is a place called Merowe. We drove vehicles that had 4-wheel drive. We camped there for 3 days. There was a big full moon. I saw lots of pyramids.”
Our daughter, Ligaya, was conceived during our time in the Sudan. I was medivaced to California during my last trimester, with James and David planning to arrive before the due date. On mother’s day, May 1, 1982, I received this note from David.
We traveled back to the Sudan when Ligaya was about six weeks old. As a family, we lived there for another year and worked on international development programs.
My Sudanese artisanal gold consisted of a necklace with my name written in Arabic, a bracelet fashioned in the style of elephant hair bracelets, and a Cleopatra style necklace. A favorite treasure is a wall hanging with the saying written in Arabic gold letters, which translates to “everything good comes from Allah.”
From the Sudan, we were assigned to the Philippines. While en route, we heard the news that Benigno Aquino Jr., a Filipino political leader was shot on August 21, 1983, as he stepped on the tarmac upon returning from a 3-yearself-imposed exile in the U.S.. We arrived during Aquino’s funeral. Aquino’s death was a turning point in Philippine history, inspiring people to take to the streets to protest President Ferdinand Marcos’s government. Marcos called for a “snap” election on February 7, 1986. Cory Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino, won the election. The incumbent President Marcos, at first, refused to concede, leading to “people power” that began on February 22,1986. Marcos fled the Philippines on February 25, 1986. I consider the events before and after Marcos’s departure to be the best time working as an expatriate consultant for USAID/Philippines and reconnecting with the extended family, especially with my Lola, who was in her eighties.
Before the Spanish colonization, our Filipino ancestors used Philippine gold filigree jewelry as bodily adornment. Proof is provided in the Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms Exhibit that opened on September 15, 2015, at the Asia Society museum in New York City. The exhibit included 120 pieces from the 10th through the 13th centuries on loan from the Ayala Museum, Philippines. Check out Pinoy-Culture’s video and be astonished. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpbWBwf7c54
Below are my two pieces from this time in the Philippines, a bracelet and a filigree pendant.
We could have extended our stay in Manila. However, our 5-year-old daughter started receiving invitations to birthday parties at posh hotels in 1987. Feeling sure raising our children in an over-privileged environment was not the life my husband and I envisioned, we opted to go to the next assignment, Liberia, a very developing country in West Africa. I had a job offer before the move because of reviews of my USAID/Manila performance.
The American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia in 1821 on the coast of West Africa. It was intended as a home for free-born blacks and freed slaves from the U.S. without considering the indigenous Liberians. Over time, the indigenous Liberians resisted the expansion of the Americo-Liberians. In 1980, Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian and a non-commissioned officer in the army, led a bloody coup d’etat against President Tolbert. Samuel Doe became President, ending 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination over Liberia. When we arrived in 1987, Doe was still the President, a referendum approved a constitution providing for a multiparty republic, and the outlook for Liberia’s future seemed hopeful. USAID started to implement economic development activities and to support civil society development. In December 1989, Charles Taylor, another indigenous Liberian, led a rebellion against President Doe. In April 1990, American families, including us, were evacuated.
Gold, diamonds, and iron ore form the core minerals of Liberia’s mining sector; however, Liberians have concentrated on alluvial gold mining along the rivers for many years. I bought my artisanal bracelets from the Lebanese gold merchants.
Our arrival in South Africa in January 1994 for James’ assignment would be quickly followed by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in early February, all-race elections in April, and his inauguration on May 10. From 1950 onwards, the Population Registration Act divided South Africans at birth into four “racial” categories-black, white, Coloured (mixed race), and Asian. Mandela declared at his inauguration that “Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.” Hillary Clinton, who was part of the high-level delegation to the inauguration, was in a secure area when I saw her. I had the audacity to motion to her so I can shake her hand and tell her how impressed I was with her speech.
Nearly half the world’s gold is located in the Witwatersrand basin, an area the size of West Virginia, in South Africa. Yet, my inventory yielded only a pair of dangly earrings and a necklace of Coptic crosses made in Ethiopia.
The gold treasures yielded rich memories, some sad, mostly happy. Memories are not just about remembering past events but also about making decisions now, now is the future, even with the added uncertainty of Covid-19.
Both James and I celebrated our 50th birthdays in South Africa. Then, James retired from the foreign service and became a professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA for 17 years. There were many more countries after South Africa and many more golden memories during the third chapter of our life, marked by passion, risk, and adventure in the 25 years after 50. As Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot writes: “We must develop a compelling vision of later life: one that does not assume a trajectory of decline after fifty, but one that recognizes it as a time of change, growth, and new learning; a time when ‘our courage gives us hope.'”
James and I are happy that our most precious treasures — David and his wife Elisa; Ligaya and her husband Steve are now on their way towards 50 years, albeit many more years, and are continually filling our treasure trove of memories.
As I look back, here is my key NUGGET of making it to the golden years.
Just like carefully choosing gold adornments, as an individual, I have the agency to decide who to marry, decide to stay together “for better or for worse” but with the intention to make life better, one year at a time, and decide to continue to have a growth mindset even in our golden years. For James and me, it has always been and will always be:”Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry, 1970).