Making Life Count: A Turn of the Century Love Story
Francisca Coira's Mission
TB. The coughing and blood stains gave her away. With seven children and the youngest three years old, Frasquita faced a terrible diagnosis. It was 1926 in rural Puerto Rico and the cure for tuberculosis had yet to save innumerable lives. Hers would not be one of them. "I have little time left on this earth," she told herself, "I better make it count."
Francisca Coira grew up in a well-to-do Puerto Rican family. They owned a coffee plantation and her father was a delegate to the legislative assembly. "You're my problem-solver Frasquita," he would say before leaving for the capital. "I know I can count on you. Your brothers have other interests." She was named after her earthly father, but she had adopted St. Francis of Assisi as her spiritual father for his love of the poor. Her father was not jealous of this; on the contrary, "You and I will change the island for the people," he would say to her. She had lost two sisters to illness making her the only remaining girl among three boys. Her dreams took second place to others' problems and these she had to face alone. Until she met Ovidio Lamoso.
Ovidio Lamoso's Ventures to America
A tall, blonde Spaniard whose blue eyes enchanted many a girl and powerful fists and temper settled as many arguments, Ovidio was not a farmer, but a businessman running one of two coffee associations owned still by Spaniards long after Spain had ceded the island to the USA as bounty in 1898. He had arrived on the island alone at the tender age of 12, escaping Spain's version of the draft on his way to Argentina.
While the ship waited for supplies at one of San Juan's docks, the young boy saw a man from the Martorel coffee company with a sign reading, "From Asturias. Need work. Join us." Ovidio did not get back on board ship. "I can always get on another ship and continue to Argentina if things don't go well here," he thought. He never had to move on. Instead, he moved inland to the heart of the mountains. Ciales' mountains echoed the charm of his hometown.
Now in his early thirties, Ovidio had moved up the company's ranks and with a considerable amount of money to his name he longed for the family life he had left behind. Once they found a partner to take their place, the senior partners would retire to Spain to live off the earnings made from the junior partners. Ovidio would soon be counted among the senior partners and return home to Spain. Or so he thought.
Spaniards v. Puerto Ricans: Economic Control
The Spanish associates lent money to the coffee farmers for planting and bought the farmers' final product for distribution. There were no Puerto Rican processing and distribution centers at the time.
"It's not fair!" many argued, "They have cornered the market and we don't stand a chance!" The Spaniards set the prices: fair or not, no one could dispute or compete with them. The only hope the islanders had was a better representation in Congress with the new association with the United States.
This strained economic relationship between Spaniards and Puerto Ricans often ended in disputes and Ovidio played liaison between them and so did Francisco Coira and his daughter Frasquita. Though from different sides, all three saw progress and profit for all if only fair economic practices were enforced.
A Marriage Bridges Two Rivals
It may have been during his negotiations at the capital that he fell deeply in love with Frasquita as she sometimes did visit San Juan, or it may have happened in town. No one knows for they had to keep their talks discrete to maintain peace on both sides. His thoughts tortured him, "I cannot forget the peace her voice instills in my anxious mind. I must fight for her."
She captivated people's attention in her political discussions, ever mindful of her position as a woman and of her goal to help the poor who struggled. Her attractive personality and assertiveness also made many a Spaniard wish they belonged to the Puerto Rican committees with her father if only to be able to talk to her, but no Spaniard dared to talk disrespectfully about Frasquita in front of Ovidio or they would have to deal with his fists.
Their courtship could only be possible if she could convince her father of the positive influence such a union would have on their family and on the less fortunate, for her father shared his daughter's passion to defend the poor. Francisco Coira's response was quick, but sad. He sat down and looked up at his daughter. "My Frasquita, you know I only want what is best for you. Having seen your happiness these days and how Ovidio has defended you in public before the Spaniards fills my heart with joy, but, my child," he bowed his head and lowered his voice. "It is not him that stops my hand to bless your marriage."
Dropping to her knees to see her father's face better she asked, "What is it, papá?" He continued, "Your health is very fragile. How long can you last as wife and mother, if indeed you can survive childbirth? I fear for your health." Her deep brown eyes inspired him to trust that all obstacles could be overcome. "Trust in Jesus, papá. I will be here as long as He wants me to be. You couldn't stop my sisters' earthly departure you will not stop mine. For whatever time I am here I will make it count."
Frasquita and Ovidio were married and settled in town across the street from the coffee processing and distribution center or torrefacción where Ovidio worked. Frasquita, already loved by many, set aside Saturdays as a day for the poor. Anything that came from her family's farm would not be sold; instead, long lines of people stood to receive fruits and vegetables. Often people would comment, "Let's go to the mother of the poor's house. She'll help us." And no one was ever turned away. Ovidio did not openly participate, but he denied nothing to Frasquita's gentle coaxing. Her health, ever fragile, remained strong enough to endure four childbirths. Ovidio decided it was time to return home to Spain with his new family.
Mother Spain Calls Her Son Home
He sent Frasquita ahead with the children to his hometown of Millares in Asturias. The sea voyage was blessed with good weather. Although world war II had not yet been declared tensions between countries heightened. A German submarine had recently been sighted and a drill for the passengers was called. In the confusion the two young girls, Esmeralda, or Yaya as her sister called her, and Esther hid behind a vent tube. Esther, only three years old, climbed inside the tube and began to slide down. Yaya, but a year her senior, saw her sister's body vanish into the pipe and quickly grabbed her foot. At their hysterical hollering all came running and assisted the girls. They were happy to reach land safe and sound.
Secundino Lamoso, Ovidios' father was a burly Gallician who ran a coaching business. Ovidio inherited his temper and perseverance. He had died without Frasquita ever meeting him. But his sisters and mother Esmeralda Garcia became as enchanted with Frasquita's laughter and loving ways as Ovidio. And the climate near the rias created a flush in Frasquita's face that she had never experienced in all her years of poor health.
Colder weather approached and October winds brought chilling nights. One of Ovidio's sisters, Filomena, was ironing Frasquita's bedsheets. "What are you doing, Filomena?" "Frasquita, dear, you mustn't catch a cold," she responded without putting down the ember-filled iron, "I'm warming your bedsheets with the iron."
Frasquita stopped her and invited Filomena to sit on the bed next to her. "Enough, dearest woman! I'm as healthy as an ox. Come and talk to me about the handsome young men in town." At this Filomena put down the iron and looked away. "Young men? They've all left for las islas or the capital!" Frasquita reached for her sister-in-law's hand and said sweetly, "Hush, now. God works in mysterious ways. He'll provide. You'll see."
Reconstruction in Puerto Rico
Weeks passed and while Ovidio was settling all his finances tragedy hit. A fire at the storage buildings that housed the crops ready for market had consumed all the beans. Rumors pointed to the rival Pintuel coffee house. Ovidio knew what that meant. He would have to start over, bringing his new family back to Puerto Rico and leaving his original family behind in Spain again.
"I'm going!" was the adamant cry heard from Ovidio's middle sister Clotilde, "If Filomena can go to America I can go as well!" She ran out of the house and found her sister Filomena behind the orrio barn that housed the fruits and hay. "Filomena! If you go to las indias I'm going also or you're not leaving here with a full head of hair!" Clotilde was not known for her powers of subtle persuasion, so her sister interceded for her. Of the nine siblings four stayed in Spain and Clotilde was one of the ones who embarked with Ovidio's family on a new adventure.
Four more children graced the Lamoso's household. The joy of the children was overshadowed briefly by the loss of Frasquita's beloved father. Her mother Santos came to live with them after her father's passing.
Filomena fell in love with Frasquita's brother Enrique. Frasquita knew her brother was still immature and dissuaded Filomena from continuing the relation. Filomena wrote to her mom for her blessing. The answer: If Enrique is Frasquita's brother he must be a good man. You have my blessing. The wedding soon followed. Clotilde also married a distinguished gentleman from town and settled nearby as well. Ovidio didn't know it then, but had they stayed in Spain his entire family, especially his sisters and wife, would have been part of the horrors in the Spanish civil war. The fire actually saved their lives.
Frasquita's Last Days
Now Frasquita stared at the blood-stained handkerchief and her baby boy on his crib. A sudden chill ran through her. "I can never touch my children or my husband again!" Every family in the island had lost someone to tuberculosis and sometimes entire families died together by locking themselves away from the town in their houses.
Frasquita's self-diagnosis was confirmed by a group of American doctors. They mentioned to Ovidio a place in Saranac Lake, New York that was producing good result in their patients. She hesitated a moment wondering if this was the answer. She asked, "Doctor, please tell me how advanced is my case?" The doctor tried to avoid the answer, but he looked at her and said, "It is quite advanced. Since your constitution was poor to begin with I cannot guarantee that you will return to Puerto Rico alive." "Thank you for your honesty." Silence ruled the seconds and she continued, "If I were your wife, doctor, what would you do?"
The doctor's eyes lit up and looked straight at Ovidio who could not utter a word as he tried to process the pain. "There is one chance. You must live in a place where the air is constantly flowing. Don't allow other people to have access to her so as not to spread the disease, but don't shut her away. Sun, rest and fresh, flowing air may give her body the chance it needs to fight this." Ovidio's life was suddenly restored, "I know just the place."
In less than a month a one-story house was built a top a knoll just outside town. Its design contained a great room in the middle surrounded by six bedrooms and the kitchen. All rooms had doors to the great room and doors to a balcony that encircled the house. No one need go into Frasquita's room except one man. It would not be Ovidio by mutual agreement.
Cirilo and his wife had no children and had befriended the Lamosos on a family outing to the country. Cirilo was a river fisherman by trade and together with his wife they came to assist Ovidio and Frasquita's family. Cirilo took residence in the far side of Frasquita's room. During her long coughing bouts he would clean and comfort her until the coughing stopped. His wife would cook for the family. When Ovidio came home from work he would call through the window and talk with Frasquita. Ever close, but never together, they needed to save the family by sacrificing themselves. He had to survive for the children's sake. On a number of occasions Esther, their twelve-year-old, would bring her sewing by her mother's bed and talk. This was greatly discouraged, but the girl was persuasive so they took great care to keep a distance.
On one very long night when Frasquita's coughing took most of her energy and Cirilo tried patiently to hold her up so she would not choke in her own blood an amazing thing happened. It was already close to dawn and Frasquita had finally found some rest. Cirilo was sure no more coughing bouts would erupt that night and he needed a break. He left the house and walked down to the river hauling his nets. As he was about to release the fishing net he saw Frasquita standing on a rock looking straight at him.
"Virgen Santísima!" He dropped the net and dashed up the hill to the house. He was sure Frasquita was dead. What would Ovidio think; that he had abandoned Frasquita in her last moments? As he flung the balcony door open he found Frasquita sitting up in bed smiling and looking at him, "Cirilo, you saw me by the river. Didn't you?" An immediate "No, Mrs. Lamoso. I didn't" burst from him. She nodded her head in assent and repeated the question, "Cirilo, you did see me by the river. Didn't you?" He could not make himself tell the truth. "No, Ma'am. I didn't."
It was not long until Frasquita died. It was one of the largest funerals that part of the island had ever seen. Her life lasted enough to instill in her family a sense of belonging and self-sacrifice for love of others in peace even in the midst of great pain.
Great tests would challenge Ovidio when only two years later San Felipe a category five hurricane, hit the island and devastated coffee plantings. It uprooted not only the coffee trees that took two years to yield a good crop, but also the shade trees that were decades old and gave the coffee production its distinct quality. He died of a stroke's complications twelve years later remembering his beloved Frasquita and how she endured her pain with love and made her time count.
In the year 2000 my grandmother, Esther Maria Lamoso Coira that fearless tween who ventured into her dying mother's room to sew, died of Alzheimer's complications in our house. Before she died she had a similar mystical experience to that of her mom, where she sat up in bed between my mom and me. Her complexion bright and relaxed she looked at mom as if to say, "Don't you see? How beautiful!" Her arms that had become quite stiff with the years, rose supple and softly as if someone was lifting them to the level of her face. Minutes later she returned to her previous state and her last agony began. Maybe, Frasquita came that night to prepare her daughter for a new journey. She certainly prepared me.