This is a love story that sounds like a modern fairy tale: how two widowed people who lived alone, continents apart, found each other.
Lino Palenzuela worked for General Motors and Kessler Marketing and was living in Washington, DC. Toni Villaraza, a public relations maven and co-founder of Bridges, was based in Makati.
During a tête-à-tête, Toni, the widow of Wilfred Gregory, revealed how Lino’s life magically converged with hers. After living in the US for 40 years, Lino finally returned to the Philippines. “Lino was the youngest of seven children. So he was spoiled and doted upon by his parents and older siblings.” He grew up in Manila, studied in La Salle, and worked as a young executive for Shell. After a long illness, his mom passed away, and he moved to the States in his 20s. “This was the time (1967/1968) when the US was the ‘land of plenty’ and everyone was migrating to the country for new jobs and new lives.” He moved to New York, where he met his best friend Eddie del Rosario (brother of Ambassador Albert del Rosario), and eventually settled in Washington, DC. By the way, Lino’s brother is also married to a sister of the Del Rosario brothers. So there was that connection. A recurrent theme here is how small and interconnected the world is.
While living in Virginia in the US, Lino met his wife, Janice Williams, who was employed at the World Bank. Career-wise, Lino had a knack for numbers and, being savvy at investments, he was also active playing the stock market. After a bout with cancer, his wife passed away. Following more than 13 years of marriage, he suddenly became a widower. I asked Toni, after this period of Lino’s life and being rooted in the States, what made him all of a sudden move back to Manila, and she jokingly (but not really) said, “He met Toni Villaraza!”
This is where fate, coincidence, and even synchronicity take place. After losing his wife, Lino would go visit his relatives and friends in Manila every year. He would tell his lifelong La Salle classmates, specifically Joey Cuisia, that being a widower had started to make him feel lonely, and wished to meet someone. Top of Joey’s mind was Toni, since she was the “barkada” of Joey’s wife Vicky. Small world again. Toni was a widow, after all, with two children.
The Cuisia couple arranged a dinner to introduce them. This was on the eve of Valentine’s Day. Toni was hesitant because, according to her, “I don’t like being matched.” But since it was a family dinner, she agreed to go.
Toni’s marriage vow is to give Lino a life of never-ending surprises. She loves surprising family and friends because it sparks joy.
“So that’s how it all began. When we were introduced, I found out he was the younger brother of Delia Carapiet, whom I knew. He wasn’t someone who dropped out of nowhere and I had no connection whatsoever.” Lino, on the other hand, described his impression of Toni as having an “outgoing personality.” He was leaving in two days so invited Toni for dinner before going back to the States. “Since he liked New Orleans cuisine I suggested New Orleans Restaurant in Serendra.” Eyeing crabs at the nearby Claw Daddy, Toni asked if she could order crabs from them. “Considering this was my first date forever and ever, I started to peel the crabs, cracked the claw, and gave it to him. Being American-oriented (most wives don’t do these things), he was touched.” However, this was just a natural thing for Toni to do. “That was the beginning, and it sealed the deal.” They met on Valentine’s Eve in 2009, and the next year, they were married. Lino finally moved back, and started this new chapter in his life.
Their courtship, though, was long distance in the beginning. Lino would keep in touch with Toni through calls every day for weeks. One day, he invited her on a Mediterranean cruise, but she said: “You know, I am quite bothered that you would think I would go with you. I don’t even really know you.”
Lino then made a deal with her: “I will go back to Manila for three months instead, so we can get to know each other better.” Lino opted for a unit in Rockwell and Toni set up everything. And when I say everything, I mean it — from the type of coffee in the coffee maker to providing Lino with a cellphone with all contacts inputted. Maalaga is just the way Toni is. It is no wonder that Lino now seeks her advice on many things. ”I always ask Toni for her opinion on a lot of decisions, big or small.”
By the third month, Lino told Toni, “I think we should look for a house.” It all happened so fast. Toni fondly recalls that time: “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if I was bewitched. All of a sudden, I was just going with the flow.” Lino then went back to sell his house in the States with quite a few hurdles to overcome, while Toni was looking for a property here. One day, he just said, “Why don’t you organize our wedding?” That was his proposal. Toni had butterflies in her stomach and again went with the flow.
Toni juggled organizing their wedding, planning a grand European trip with her five sisters, and working full-time, not to mention fixing their future house. Yet somehow, she was not overwhelmed. On Lino’s end, he miraculously got to sell his home in the US at the height of winter and in the middle of the housing slump. It all just fell into place. It was meant to be. By the time Lino came back, he simply walked into their fully furnished and fully staffed house (all lovingly done by Toni), and into his new life.
Toni’s marriage vow is to give Lino a life of never-ending surprises. She loves surprising family and friends because it sparks joy. This can be big or little surprises, like preparing his favorite breaded pork chops when he craves it. As per Toni, a mature love is not feeling giddy but more about being thoughtful, tolerant, patient, understanding and giving. And giving she profusely does, especially surprises. In Lino’s case, he is a man of few words but makes up for it in his actions. Toni loves the Philippe Charriol brand, and while at a mall once took a fancy to a watch at their store. “You really like it?” He quickly bought the watch, to her delight. He also shows his admiration for her by complimenting her looks when they have a special event, telling her “my wife looks so good!” At night when the couple are sleeping, Lino holds Toni’s hand. A subtle romantic gesture that goes beyond “kilig,” but gives deep comfort and an assurance that “I am here for you.”
Now, let’s go to the other “coincidences.” Lino’s wife died at 62, and Toni married him at 62. The couple that bought his house had the surname Sweets. The pet name of Lino for his late wife was “Sweets.” (By the way, he calls Toni “Honey.”)
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I asked Toni: what can you say to widows who feel that it’s the end of their romantic life? “I am the ultimate romantic,” she said. “Though I wasn’t looking for a partner, I love myself (enough) that I always want to look good and feel good. I would tell my amigas to always dress well. Go out and enjoy.
“In the olden days, the wives, when they’d reach their 40s or 50s, wala na, it’s like they are retired from the world.” Toni is definitely the opposite of this. She is not retiring from life.
Now back in the Philippines for good, Lino has started adjusting to the Filipino lifestyle to the max. “I was so busy when I was living abroad and was working towards retirement life.”
Lino attends socials with Toni, and has reconnected with old friends as well. He now has several golfing friends. The couple travels a lot and Lino pampers Toni with fun and exciting trips. He is a seasoned globetrotter and is the perfect travel partner. He asks Toni where she wants to go and what hotel she wants to stay in, and organizes everything. “We love traveling around the country. We also travel to far-off destinations such as Greece, India, Russia, wherever the winds take us.” They recently returned from a tour of Turkey and Morocco and enjoyed their adventures, which according to them were “almost out-of-body experiences.” The couple stayed at a luxury campsite tent in the Sahara Desert, witnessed goats climb Argan trees to chew on leaves, rode a hot air balloon, and indulged in a Hammam Turkish bath.
I asked if they both expected their lives to turn out this way. To which Toni responded, “There were no expectations at all. It just happened.”