My maternal grandparents didn’t just deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—they literally had to dodge bullets and bombs. Perhaps this is one reason why their love affair is so fascinating.
My grandfather, Antonio Ortega de los Reyes, was a municipal judge in Ligao, Albay, in 1941 when he was called into military service as a first lieutenant of the infantry at Rogan Barracks in Legazpi City. Though rather small of stature, he was highly intelligent, and a natural born leader. He was inducted into the USAFFE, and the next year became a commanding officer in the Bataan campaign.
Because he was on active duty when the Americans surrendered in 1942, he joined the notorious Death March, but you won’t find his name among the dead. Family lore has it that a Japanese guard beat him up and kicked him into a ditch; but the guard was remiss and opted not to use his bayonet to finish the job. And so, my lolo was able to play dead—for three whole days, without food (possibly the time it took for the POW line to pass him by).
On the third day, he started his trek from Nueva Ecija to Albay, where he would join the guerrillas. For two years, he was their recruiting officer (so you can imagine his powers of persuasion) and he later became their Commanding Officer. They fought tirelessly, in secret, without help from the U.S. servicemen (they were only recognized for their efforts upon liberation in 1945).
The romance here is that my lolo did not spend his guerrilla years without a partner; my lola, an active nurse, joined him in the mountain ranges. It is unclear whether he sought her out, or if she took the initiative, but they were together.
Lola Dining, or Dina, born Bernardina Jaucian Anson, was orphaned at a very young age. Because she came from a well-to-do family, she was fostered at a convent. (She and her younger sister would spend vacations playing musical chairs among their extended family, although they were legally adopted by an aunt.) Naturally, she was fluent in Spanish, learned all the so-called feminine graces, and became so devout as to consider taking the veil herself. She actually became a nurse but I’m led to believe she would have become a nun, too, if not for my Lolo Tonio.
They were introduced by Dina’s brother-in-law, Paquito Oira, an ambassador who naturally mingled with military officers. Tonio was instantly smitten; Dina was a little more reticent. But she must have felt something, because when Lolo came a-courting at San Juan de Dios Hospital, where she worked, Dina immediately felt the need to pray. (My aunts would later read her diary, and it’s there in black and white: “Tonio came to visit. Heard three masses.”)
I’m told that my lolo would wait for my lola for hours. He would also write reams of love letters. During the early years of the war, he would hide these missives behind the statue of the Virgin Mary for my lola to pick up at her leisure. (He was an accomplished writer, my lolo, and if a storm hadn’t destroyed an entire bodega of his papers, there would be no need for me to write this narrative at all.) His charisma made an impression, his patience won affection, but I’d like to think those letters actually led my lola to fall in love and marry him.
So inseparable were they, that a pregnant Dina endured the hardship of Tonio’s guerrilla life. Food was scarce, of course, and most days all they had to eat was bitter gourd. The plucky Dina was no liability; Tonio was lucky to have her with him. One time, they were set upon by what was likely a reconnaissance unit of Japanese soldiers. In desperation, Dina pushed Tonio into a man-sized hole (another life-saving ditch, yes), and promptly “sat” on his head, while extending her full skirts to hide his body. The Japanese soldiers didn’t suspect that the large pregnant lady was harboring a guerrilla soldier, and didn’t bother lingering.
They survived the war, had 10 children, and were quite the lovey-dovey couple, dancing cheek-to-cheek, singing to each other, and celebrating their anniversary together without fail. Spanish was their secret language, offering a moment of privacy in a house full of curious children—a house he built himself, on her inherited land in Guinobatan. So eager was he to start their married lives that he didn’t wait for the wood to shrink, and so the spaces between the wooden slats of the upstairs sala became their little joke.
In his latter years, Lolo Tonio had failing health—he had a heart condition—and I remember him mostly as a fairly stern man with a cane and a hot water compress. (My favorite story is how he enrolled in my Uncle Cirilo’s class, to ensure the latter actually attended, making the college professor supremely nervous.) Without a doubt, Lolo loved his family and my lola especially.
After Lolo Tonio died of a heart attack, they gave him the full military honors, but it was my lola Dina’s soprano voice that gave the most heartfelt tribute, sweetly singing their song, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” behind her widow’s veil.