This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
Eleonor was nervous. Her knees shaked as she carried her luggage towards the waiting shed. This evening, she was to meet Jose, her boyfriend, at the shed to elope. They had long planned for this event. They were to settle in Iloilo, Jose’s home province in the Visayas Island of the Philippines.
As Eleonor approached the waiting shed, she saw Jose already waiting. He was early, she thought. Their agreed time was nine ‘ clock in the evening. Jose was wearing a blue jacket, black cap and denim jeans. Besides him was a black bag. He stood as soon as he recognized Eleonor. With a smile on his lips, he embraced her.
Eleonor and Jose made a beautiful pair, their friends say so. Eleonor Garcia, 20 years old, brown-skinned daughter of Inang Rosa, was a paragon of virtue – simple, humble, kind and industrious. Though average-looking, she caught the eyes of Jose de los Santos, 24 years old, bank teller, and a bachelor. With his handsome look and gentlemanly ways, Jose was the object of fancy of many women in their locality. The two met at the christening of Liza’s child, their common friend, where they acted as ninong and ninang*.
Eleonor admired Jose silently. His perseverance in courting her amidst the strong objections of Inang Rosa endeared him more to her. Love letters were handed secretly to her by their friend Liza either at their house or at the market’s stall where Eleonor and Inang Rosa sell garments and Ready to Wear items. In their entire courtship, Eleonor never allowed home visits or dates for fear of Inang Rosa who was very strict. Still, the courtship bloomed into a beautiful relationship.
As Eleonor and Jose waited for the bus that would take them to Manila, Eleonor was very quiet. Jose, meanwhile, was excited of their journey. Eleonor turned pale and cold as she saw the bus slowed down at the shed.
Holding Jose’s arm trembling, she mumbled, “I can’t do this, Jose. She’s all alone now. She needs me. I’m sorry.”
Jose was speechless. He stared at Eleonor with confused and pained look. “Please…Eleonor,” he begged while the bus waited for them to ride. When Eleonor did not respond, Jose signaled the bus to go without them. He was so shocked to utter a word.
In the days that followed, Eleonor heard nothing from Jose. She was sure, he was angry at her for backing out at the last minute. He was so hopeful they would begin their life together in bliss in his hometown. How often did she hear him talk of his dreams – a house and lot, four children, a fishing business.
Eleonor hoped Jose would understand. When weeks passed without a word from him, she knew she was mistaken. Jose was hurt and had left her for her silliness.
Liza, their friend, answered her doubts when she visited their house. “I received a letter from Jose last week. He had resigned from the bank. He is now in Iloilo. I thought you are with him. What happened?”
“I…I changed my mind,” replied Eleonor. “I feel guilty leaving Inang alone.”
“What about Jose? Don’t you love him?”
“You know, he’s the only man I loved,” said Eleonor. “But Inang is old.”
“Jose loves you so much,” replied Liza.
“I thought he would understand,” said Eleonor meekly.
“Don’t be so naïve, Eleonor. It’s about time you think of your happiness,” advised Liza.
This was to be the last news she would hear about Jose. Months, years passed. There was no communication from him.
Meanwhile, Eleonor busied herself with their garments store in the market. Since she took over the store, it had enjoyed brisk sales. She also got admirers but Eleonor took no interest in any of them.
One day as Eleonor returned home just before noon to prepare their lunch, she saw Inang Rosa chatting with Manuelito, her cousin and the town’s postman. Every week, Lito would drop by their house and see Inang Rosa. Eleonor observed how her mother was fond of Lito. Perhaps Lito reminded Inang Rosa of Carlos, Eleonor mused.
Carlos was Eleonor’s older brother. At seventeen, he rebelled against Inang Rosa’s strict ways and ran away from home. He became a part-time student. However, he met an accident on his way to work and died.
After the incident, Inang Rosa became more watchful of Eleonor. She was always with her, protecting her from suitors at home and in the market.
`Eleonor greeted Lito at the terrace with a smile. “Got any letter for me, Lito?” she knew this was a silly question because she had expected no letter from anybody.
“No, none today, Eleonor,” said Lito smiling.
“Why are you late today? I am hungry,” said Inang Rosa in a sudden change of mood. “I want to go inside now. Help me.” Inang Rosa stretched her hand to Eleonor and she was guided inside the house.
Lito bade Inang Rosa and Eleonor good bye and went home.
Inang Rosa, Eleonor observed, had grown irritable and stubborn with age. She attributed this to the old woman’s rheumatism which has hindered her regular activities.
Since her childhood, Eleonor remembered how Inang Rosa persevered in raising her and her brother. Widowed at thirty, Inang Rosa earned their living by raising a few fattening pigs and selling garments she bought from Divisoria in Manila.
To help her mother, Eleonor had to stop schooling after high school. She took care of Inang Rosa who grew sickly through the years. Eleonor would prepare her mother’s meals, bathe and dress her, wash and iron her clothes and take her to their house terrace for her morning delight – watch people pass by their house.
One night after dinner, Inang Rosa sat at the terrace with Eleonor.
“I think it’s best for you Eleonor to stay single. Marriage brings in a lot of problems,” said Inang Rosa.
“Why are you saying that, Inang?”
“This house will be yours and you have a small business to sustain you. Besides, I will still live long to keep you company,” continued Inang Rosa. “That Jose of yours…”
Eleonor was surprised. How did she knew of her relationship then with Jose when it was a well-kept secret, Eleonor wondered.
“I don’t like him. Do you have any news of him?”
“None, Inang. It has been three years.”
“Perhaps he had married a better-off girl. It was good, you two broke off.”
Arguing with Inang Rosa was useless. To cut the conversation short, Eleonor excused herself. “It’s late now, Inang. We should rest. I’ll be up early tomorrow.”
The conversation with Inang Rosa brought back vivid memories to Eleonor. How she missed those days when she and Jose were very much in love. How is he now? Is he married as Inang Rosa said? If only… Eleonor wiped the tears in her eyes and forced herself to sleep.
Another year had passed. Life went on smoothly for Eleonor and Inang Rosa. Until one morning, a neighbor came rushing to Eleonor, “Hurry Eleonor! Your mother had an accident.”
“What? Why?” Eleonor was shocked. Immediately, she closed the market stall and went home.
Neighbors already flocked at their house when she arrived. Eleonor sobbed when she saw Inang Rosa lying in bed with Lito beside her. She knew then, Inang Rosa had died.
Upon Lito’s narration, Eleonor learned that Inang Rosa asked Lito to burn some papers in her chest to unload it of its contents. As she went into her room to get them, she missed her steps, slipped on the floor and banged her head.
Inang Rosa was buried after three days. Eleonor mourned her death. She was now alone. For two days, Eleonor did not open her market stall to fix Inang Rosa’s belongings.
Eleonor pulled the chest under Inang Rosa’s bed. It was heavy. This was the first time she would open the antique chest. She remembered how Inang Rosa spanked her and Carlos for attempting to open the chest when they were still children. From then on, Inang Rosa had worn the key to the chest as a pendant. In her necklace.
The contents of the chest were in disarray – old pictures, title of their house and lot, a few money, and letters bundled with a rubber band. Eleonor scanned the letters. She has her name on them. Hurriedly, she looked at each letter, they were all hers!
Eleonor grew tense as she opened one letter. She was certain of the penmanship.
It was written six months after Jose left her. It expressed how Jose missed her presence and how dull life had been for him after they parted.
Eleonor was overwhelmed. She was elated to know of Jose’s love in spite of what she did.
Another letter pleaded her to writ back. Jose had already sent her seven letters and they were all unanswered. Jose also sent her birthday, Valentine and Christmas card.
The last letter Eleonor opened made her heart sank. It read:
February 20, 1980
For two years that I have written, you have not replied. Why?
My dreaming of owning a house and lot and establishing a fishing business here in Iloilo have been realized. My only dream left is to settle down and raise a family.
I would like to share this dream with you but you seemed not interested. Shall I teach my heart to love someone who will love me in return?
I will never forget you Eleonor. I will be praying for your happiness.
Eleonor wept as she hugged the letter to her heart. She called out Jose’s name in between sobs. This was the second time she had let go of Jose. How could her mother do such a thing? For the rest of the day, Eleonor mourned her broken heart.
Early morning, Eleonor fixed herself up and went to Lito’s house. Lito and his family had just finished their breakfast. He was surprised to see Eleonor.
“Eleonor! What brings you here? Is there anything I can do for you?” asked Lito.
“I want you to explain these letters. Why didn’t you give them to me?” said Eleonor in a controlled temper.
Lito took the letters from Eleonor’s hand and examined them. These were addressed to Eleonor and were sent three years ago.
“I know I gave all your letters to Inang Rosa, Eleonor. She told me that she would hand them to you as soon as you arrive from the market,” explained Lito.
Eleonor left Lito and went back home. Her mind kept tracing the events that transpired. So this explained Inang Rosa’s morning routine of staying at the terrace and her fondness for Lito. Were these the papers Inang Rosa planned to burn as well? Eleonor felt cheated.
Months passesd. Eleonor spent most of her time at the market. When Inang Rosa was still alive, she cooked pansit or any special dish to celebrate a special occasion. Now that she was alone, her birthday was just another day for her.
Her garments were well patronized. It was almost five’o clock and she was preparing for home when a man’s voice called out her name.
Eleonor turned her back. Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Jose?” What…What are you doing here?”
“I had a business deal in Manila so I decided to drop by the province to visit an old friend. How are you?” Jose was looking intently at Eleonor.
“Oh…I…I am fine. I was just about to go home.”
“I heard about your mother. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” answered Eleonor.
“Can I invite you for dinner? For old time’s sake?”
“Now? A…ah…” Eleonor was about to reject the invitation but Jose cut in.
“You can change clothes. I will wait for you. After all, aren’t you about to go home?”
“Ah…yes,” Eleonor stuttered. “If you will wait.” This was to be the first time Eleonor and Jose would eat together in public. In their two-year relationship, they never went for a date for fear of Inang Rosa.
Eleonor closed the market stall and went home with Jose. After a quick bath, she wore a navy blue dress with white polka dots. She put on a little make-up.
Jose took her at Lutong Bahay, the best restaurant in town noted for its native recipes. They were eating silently when Jose asked, “Why didn’t you write back?”
Eleonor looked at Jose. Will she tell him the truth? “I didn’t receive you letters. Not until lately…I found them in Inang’s chest.”
Jose nodded with a grin. “I was hurt.”
“It was not intended..” explained Eleonor. “Anyway, that was over.”
Eleonor, in a more jubilant tone, tried to perk up the conversation. She changed the topic. “How many children do you have now?” she asked Jose.
“I have one. He is now two years old,” said Jose.
Jose’s answer confirmed her doubt. Eleonor was disappointed. How could she go out with this married man?
“And you? How come you’re not married yet?” asked Jose.
Eleonor was embarrassed by the question. “I had to take care of Inang. Besides, there was nobody special.”
“Will you marry me then, Eleonor?”
Eleonor almost choked upon hearing Jose’s proposal. She took a sip of soft drinks and managed to smile at Jose’s silly joke.
Jose read Eleonor’s mind. He repeated his question. “I’m not joking, Eleonor. Will you marry me?”
Eleonor’s face turned serious. She was in no mood for such kind of talk. “Are you crazy? You’re already married!”
“Huh? No…no…” Jose knew Eleonor misunderstood everything. “Yes, I have a son, an adopted one. But I am not married. I never was,” said Jose. “I had girlfriends before but it was you I really want to share my life with.”
Eleonor thought she was dreaming. She could not believe what she heard.
“Do you still love me, Eleonor?” Jose held Eleonor’s hand. “Will you marry me?”
Eleonor could not speak.. she stared at Jose for almost two months. Then she whispered, “Yes.”
Jose was ecstatic.. He took a small box wrapped beautifully in a gloosy red paper and gave it to Eleonor, “Happy birthday!”
Eleonor was delighted. He remembered, she thought. Slowly, she opened the box. It was a diamond ring!
“ This will be our engagement ring.”
“Jose, there’s one thing. I cannot marry you yet. Not until after nine months.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Jose. “We have to wait for Inang”s babang luksa**. That will give us time to prepare for our wedding,” said Jose with a wink.
*ninong and ninang are Filipino words for godfather and godmother
**babang luksa is a Filipino tradition of prolonged mourning of a departed someone for nine months, and after which mourning stops and life of the grieving party returns to normal.