Armal, Asturias, Spain, 1898
There was no wedding. If I could’ve done anything differently, there would’ve been a wedding. A wedding with a gown, many guests, dancing, food and music. All my friends were as disappointed as I was. They’d been planning my wedding since before I had turned ten. The same with me for all of them.
No wedding. Instead, these documents.
I sign my name, and everyone bursts out in applause and singing. It is not much of a wedding ceremony, signing a piece of paper, but when José and I are an ocean apart, what can we do?
It is raining. Again. The muddy ground and chilly air gives me a headache. But there is something in my hand that separates this rainy day in Asturias from any other. To some people it may only look like a piece of paper, but to me it is my life.
A ship ticket.
“I wish you didn’t have to go, Eloisa,” my mother says, handing me my cloak. Poor Mamá. She had everything set on me marrying Luis, who is in Armal like us. Instead I go overseas, to Puerto Rico. “There’s still time…”
She sighs, and I tie the cloak around my neck. The journey across the sea will be long and tiresome in of itself, but today I leave my house, my siblings, and all my friends with their weddings and parties. Are there parties in Puerto Rico? Will I have friends? For as much as I’ve been longing to leave Spain, I feel a pang as I glance around my little house.
“Safe travels,” my sister Carmen says.
“Gracias.” I kiss her on the cheek, and she wraps her arms around me.
“How I will miss you,” she murmurs.
“And I you, Carmen.”
We break apart.
“They are improving the ships,” my father says. “Soon a voyage will not be long. We will come visit you, Eloisa. Do not doubt it.”
And with that, he turns the doorknob, and I leave the house.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1911
I cannot imagine my other life. I cannot imagine life without José, without the children, and I cannot imagine life away from Puerto Rico. Today is the anniversary of our “wedding.” With Mercedes in my arm, I open the door to my husband’s shop, which he shares with his brother Bernardo. The smell of foods imported from Spain mingle delightfully in the air.
“My husband has bought the smells of Spain to Puerto Rico on a warm summer’s day,” I announce, since he is not busy with a customer.
“Eloisa!” he says. “And Mercedes! Whatever are you doing here in the middle of the day?”
“But it is not just any day, José. It is our anniversary. Do you not remember?”
A smile creeps across his face.
“Of course I do,” he says.
“I thought you might be able to come off work a little early.” I smile at him teasingly. “For a little party, no?”
“One thing I’ve learned about you, Eloisa, is that nothing you say is ‘little,’ especially when it comes to parties.” But José is not exasperated; he is preoccupied. He sits down on a crate. “Eloisa, I must tell you something.”
The smile fades off my face, and his.
“What?” I ask, the word sounding as a breath rather than a word.
“Bernardo is leaving.”
His words send my vase of a life in Puerto Rico into shatters. “Leaving? But why?”
“He wishes to return to Spain,” says José. I cannot say I blame him; I cannot remember the sight of my mother’s face.”
“We aren’t leaving.” It is a statement, not a question. “We can’t leave – you love it here! No?”
“I do love it here,” he says quietly. “I do.”
“We will not leave,” he says with a decidedness that helps me to let out my breath. “I am taking over the business; he has sold his share to me and it will continue to be profitable, I am sure. Do not worry, Eloisa. We will stay.”
The party lasts late into the night, but the children fall asleep early. Bernardo, José, and all our friends in Puerto Rico eat the foods I prepared; and our celebration sways between talking, eating, drinking, and dancing. At one time, José lifts me in the air, and we swing around and around.
Still Bernardo lingers in the backdrop, not physically, but in my mind. He and José have not been home for many years. I see the image of Mamá in my minds’ eye, and Carmen and all my friends in Armal, but my link to them lies in the letters they send me. Will I one day leave Puerto Rico, one day when the letters have yellowed and the faces blur?
Miramar, Puerto Rico, 1913
To see the sea! Now this is paradise. Holding Mercedes’ hand in mine, the other children behind us, I throw open the doors to the balcony. The sea, the glorious sea sparkles at us. Antonio, the oldest, grasps the railing.
“Imagine, the sea whenever we want it,” I whisper, almost to myself. “Miramar. To see the sea.”
José steps onto our balcony. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you – “
He shakes his head. “You found this place all by yourself, Eloisa, and I am so glad you did.” He kisses me on the forehead.
“I want to see too!” Luisa says, jumping up and down. Rosario crouches down to peek between the bars.
“But you are looking at it, right now,” I say. “See, the sparkling blue out there? That is the sea.”
That is the sea, I write in a letter to Carmen. The blue expanse that looks like a precious jewel, it sparkles so brightly in the sun’s light. Back in Armal, we are enclosed by mountains.
The door opens and Antonio, Little José, Rosario, and Luisa burst wildly into the house. I smile at them. “How was school?”
“Good,” Antonio says. Little José nods.
“We learned a new letter!” Luisa pipes up.
“I can sing a song!” says Rosario.
When they leave, I turn back to my letter:
And we have schools here too, Carmen. The children go every day and learn new things. José is well, and …
As if my words summoned him, José walks in the door. He has a strange look on his face, one I have not seen before. He sits across from the table where I have been writing, and looks me in the eye. “Eloisa, listen to me.”
And I listen.
It does not matter, I had told José. As long as we find time enough together over the next few years, I will be happy. It does not matter at all.
But of course it matters. It matters to learn that your husband is going to die.
I throw open the balcony doors, and I breathe in the Puerto Rican smell I love so much, the smell we will leave behind when my husband wants to go back to Spain and see his family. I think of how selfish I am, and I cry.
I wish he wanted a funeral. A big funeral with lots of people, singing, talking and prayers. Instead, he wants a quiet service for just the family. And of course I do not argue with my husband over his wishes. It frightens me to have to discuss this with him.
It is Luisa.
“Yes?” I worry my voice will crack with emotion.
“When are we leaving?”
“You know. For Papá. Spain.”
I sit on my bed. “Next week. We have the ship tickets, and we will be leaving early in the morning.”
Luisa sits down next to me.
“I don’t want to leave,” she says. “And I don’t want Papá to leave either.”
“Neither does anyone, Luisa,” I murmur. I want to say something more to comfort her, but instead of words, there are tears.
At the port a week later, I catch my last glimpse of the sparkling sea. I wonder if José sees it too. I do not ask. He has gone silent. Where once he was laughter and parties and the business, he is now a kind of statue. I want to say something, to wave a magic wand and cure him, but I am helpless.
We board the boat. When the children are eating, somewhat occupied, José waves me over.
“I’m sorry, Eloisa,” he says. “I know you don’t want to go back.” He takes a deep breath. “You and the children can leave after the service. But it’s important to me, to see my family one more time before… “
And then I am crying. “Don’t say it; it sounds like you’ve given up hope. I am selfish. I’m so sorry… ”
The boat rocks and jerks against the Atlantic Ocean.
Castropol, Asturias, Spain, 1913
I had never been to Castropol. I lived my whole life in Spain mostly in Armal, but José is from Castropol. And so now here we are, in Castropol by the sea, just as the winter weather sets in. It is damp, cold, rainy, just as I remembered Spain, and the wind makes a lonely, howling sound. But José is embracing his brother. “Bernardo! Oh, I missed you…”
His mother stands to the side, and when José lets go of Bernardo, they embrace.
“What do we do, Mamá?” Luisa whispers to me, her forehead creased. “We don’t know these people.”
“No, but they are family,” I remind her. “That is your grandmother.”
“She is?” Luisa asks.
I nod. “And you have more family, in Armal, where we will visit soon enough.”
“Eloisa!” José’s mother calls out. “Oh, it is good to see you! And the children too – such, bright, happy faces…”
If anyone passed by, they would think it was a family reunion, but I glance over at José, and I remember the real reason we are here.
The winter holidays slip through my fingers like water through a sieve. All I can think about is José, and: is this his last holiday? The words make my stomach hurt. He travels Asturias like I don’t think he would have otherwise. We leave Castropol. We see Ovideo, Gijón, and Aviles. The children come with us, enthralled. Even the little ones seem to comprehend somewhat.
One day we stop by a mountain range.
“There,” José says.
“There what, Papá?” Antonio asks, which is what I was going to ask.
“This is where we come from,” José says. “This is what I wanted to see. This is Asturias. This is home.”
I remember how glad I was to leave Asturias. I never thought of it as “where I come from.” But it is true. My throat is tight with emotion.
“I love it here,” Luisa says.
Castropol, Asturias, Spain, 1917
There is no funeral. The way he wanted it. In the days following his death, it is the way I wanted it as well. I cannot think of the funeral like a party. I need to cry. I need to remember.
I do not notice the cold, the wind, or the rain. In general, I do not think about where I am, where I come from, and where I want to be.
The children cry. I think. I hardly notice. José’s mother takes care of them. I walk outside, a misty haze drifting through the tips of the mountains.
I complained. I wanted a big wedding. A big funeral. To stay in Puerto Rico. But I loved him. I loved him without a big wedding. I loved him without a big funeral. I loved him if we were in the mountains of Asturias or seeing the sea from our house in Miramar. And did I ever tell him that?
Hours pass. How many, I do not know. I wrap my quilt around me for warmth. And then the question comes to me, the question I do not want to answer.
Now where do we go?
Armal, Asturias, Spain, 1918
As the days passed, the option of leaving became clearer in its ridiculousness. The Great War had broken out soon after we arrived. All we could do was to hope that the war would not come to Spain, and it did not – Spain stayed neutral.
And now the war is over. Just as I can allow myself to see the sea again in my mind, this offer from Mamá.
“Stay in Spain with us, Eloisa. You and the children. Please… we missed you in Puerto Rico.”
I do not want to stay.
It is drizzling a little today, which is not a surprise. I take a picnic basket and call the children – who are now not so much children as they were when we arrived – to the mountain range José showed us in our travels.
“Your grandmother has offered – ” I begin.
“I heard,” Antonio said. “She told me as well.”
“There is a better life for us in Puerto Rico,” I say. “An education for you children. Your father’s business, carried on. A view of the sea…” I try to smile.
“But Mamá, Abuela is not young,” Little José says, and the other children nod their agreement. “When she is… you know… will we have to come back?”
I take a breath. This is a possibility. “Maybe,” I admit.
“And then Abuelo? And your uncles, and aunts, and how will we ever see them again?”
Luisa’s voice brings back a memory, a memory of when Bernardo left. He had not seen his family in years, and he couldn’t stay in Puerto Rico, no matter how beautiful. For the first time, I feel a flicker of doubt. Is it wrong to leave my family for where I would be happier?
And then the answer comes to me.
“Maybe,” I say. “It is important to know who came before us. But it is also important to carve a path for those coming after us, and their future. And I believe that the path is in Puerto Rico.”
There is another silence.
Then – “Can we see the sea?” – from Mercedes, who had heard me talk of our home in Miramar.
I nod. “We’ll buy a place near the sea again.” And with those words, I feel hope rising in me.
Author’s Note: ‘To See the Sea’ was based on the true experiences of my great-great-grandmother, Eloisa Castrillón Infanzón. Though I have fictionalized the story to make it richer, I believe I have not changed the basic facts. Soon after the family returned to Puerto Rico, Eloisa died at age forty-eight, in 1926. I am the great-granddaughter of her youngest child, Mercedes.
Lena is a fourteen-year-old Philadelphia homeschooler who loves writing, reading, spelling competitions, and pretty much anything that has to do with language and literature. I have really enjoyed participating in the “Teen Lit Magazine” workshop at the Musehouse Literary Arts Center in Germantown and am excited to be published in Philadelphia Stories Jr.!