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Three Roses From Heaven (A Love Story)

Divine intervention. Heavenly guidance. I don’t know what to call it.

My mother likes telling me this story, sort of a legend, of the miracle that touched our family years and years ago. Lola and Lolo are long gone from this life, so I can only tell the story as it was told to me. I do hope that they can forgive me if I get anything wrong.

My lola, Teresita "Chita" Cervania, had always been very religious. From a young age, she wanted to devote her life to God as one of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, like her sister Pepita. No less than seven times did she run away from home, begging the Mother Superior to take her in. Time and again her father would drag her home. Later, when she was older, her father relented, and allowed her to stay in the convent. Chita thought her prayers had been answered at last.

But Chita had been born with a heart condition, and the sisters told her that God's work was not easy. Strong though her faith was, her heart was weak; she would not be long in the service of the Lord. With a heavy heart, she returned home. She would find other ways to serve the Lord. She instead became a teacher.

Her best friend, Zeny Martin, had no such aspirations. Zeny loved parties and dancing, going out and meeting new people. But like many young women at the time, she couldn't just go out by herself. Her father would never allow it.

Here was a pleasant young man, a handsome mestizo, her best friend’s brother no less, and he wanted to marry her. But she wanted to devote her life to the Lord. What was a young woman of the 1950s supposed to do?

It may have been a college prom or a grad ball. Whatever it was, her father finally relented, but on one condition: she had to be chaperoned by her brother Guillermo—Ermy, to his siblings.

But Ermy didn’t want to go. He didn’t have a date! So Zeny promised to find him a date. Of course, that date was tall, beautiful Chita.

The rom-com version of this story would be that Chita met Ermy, and they fell in love and lived happily ever after. But Chita didn’t want to marry Ermy, however persistently he courted her.

I could only imagine how confused she was. Here was a pleasant young man, a handsome mestizo, her best friend’s brother no less, and he wanted to marry her. But she wanted to devote her life to the Lord. What was a young woman of the 1950s supposed to do?

Ever devout, Chita turned to prayer. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes called The Little Flower of Jesus, was her favorite saint, and it was from Saint Thérèse that she asked for guidance. If God really wanted her to marry Ermy, perhaps Saint Thérèse could send her a sign. Many devotees of the saint would ask for signs to be sent to them in the form of roses.

Chita asked that Saint Thérèse send her a red rose, from a person most unexpected.

One day, after class, a student approached her, one she thought was not fond of her at all. Shy and timid, the student drew near, and presented her with a red rose. Chita was stunned. Her student could not have known that this was the sign she had begged of the saint.

It wasn’t enough. Chita prayed once more to the saint, as if to ask, are you sure? She asked for another sign: a white rose, from a long lost friend. Surely, the same prayer wouldn’t work twice.

But it did. Soon after this plea, Chita was visited by an old friend, one she had not seen in a very long time. And this friend came bearing a gift, in the form of a white rose. Chita could not believe it. 

Was Heaven really telling her to marry Ermy?

Still unconvinced, Chita prayed fervently, asking for the impossible. If God really wanted her to marry this man, then he himself would bring her a third sign. Chita prayed to Saint Thérèse: if God really wanted her to marry Ermy, then he would visit her on Good Friday, bringing her a rose. It should be yellow, her favorite color.

Chita knew it could never happen. Good Friday was a busy, busy day for the Martin family, and for Ermy especially. The family served the Santo Entierro, the central figure in the Good Friday procession. The Santo Entierro—everyone referred to the figure as the Señor—was in Castillejos, Zambales, quite far from her home on Oroquieta Street in Sta. Cruz, Manila. Ermy was the one who attended to the Señor’s business: flowers, carriage, robes, marching band, the pasyon.

If Heaven meant for them to be together, then Ermy would visit her instead of going to Zambales, and she knew he would never abandon that responsibility.

But there was a storm that week, or some other emergency. I like to imagine the scene at the house on Oroquieta Street unfolding this way:

The house would be drenched in rain, the leaves of the huge mango tree in the backyard weighed down by an unusual summer shower.

On that Good Friday, Chita would have been at home, perhaps reading, or praying a novena, or maybe preparing to attend the procession that would start at Binondo Church. Someone would call her to say she had a visitor. She would go to the receiving area near the stairs.

And she would be shocked: Ermy would be there, his hair plastered to his head, his clothes wet, and in his hand, a yellow rose.

I wish I had heard the story when I was younger, so I could ask Lolo how shocked Lola looked when he arrived. Did she fall on her knees, telling Saint Thérèse that she would accept God’s will and marry this man? Perhaps she fainted? Maybe she simply took the rose, and his hand, and said she would marry him.

This last scene seems the most likely. If I had asked, I’m sure Lolo would have told me the entire story, over a merienda of toasty, buttered pan de sal.

Lola and Lolo got married in 1953. He was 32, she was 25. In 1954, my mother was born, and to this day she is thankful to Saint Thérèse, the Little Flower.