Basilia ‘Momsing’ Malonzo–turning 101, her life lived in counterpoint

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When my widowed mother-in-law, Basilia Avelino Malonzo (also called “Momsing” by one and all), turned 95 several years ago, her two US-based daughters started coming home yearly (rather than every other year) just in case it would be her last birthday.

As it happens, longevity is one of Momsing’s many gifts and the daughters have kept on coming the past five years and counting—and still she lives. Her birth centenary in Zamboanga City on May 23 last year had all seven children in attendance, plus a score of apo and great-grandchildren in tow.

Although her vivid snippets of memory mostly belong to the past, this is my way of paying tribute to a woman I have known for over four decades, not least because I am eternally in her debt for birthing the creature who would become my helpmeet and soulmate and life’s partner (with assist, of course, from my father-in-law, deceased since over a decade ago).

More than anything else, Momsing was/is her own person, not an easy feat if you are married to someone who had long been one of the leading lights of the Philippine labor movement. Difficult as it may seem, she lived her life in counterpoint to his.

Cipriano Cortez Malonzo or “Popsing” built churches (he once was a United Church of Christ in the Philippines pastor) and, later, unions. Momsing grew gardens, built homes, and developed homesteads (in Zamboanga and Surigao del Sur), even as she raised the children near-single-handedly (male labor leaders are notorious for being fathers in absentia).

 

Neutral territory

Momsing was a University of the Philippines Home Economics graduate of solid middle-class Caviteño stock, while Popsing was a poor boy from Pampanga who worked his way through college. Her folks did not look too kindly on the match, faulting the Kapampangan twice over for being of lower class and traitor breed (the Macabebes remain unforgiven for serving as guides to American soldiers during the war).

So the young couple decided to settle down in neutral territory—Mindanao, eventually finding their way to Zamboanga City.

Momsing has a keen aesthetic sense, manifested in her national award-winning home gardens, the houses she built (the Surigao one, elevated with bahi or old coconut wood flooring, the one in Moret, Zamboanga, with bamboo floors and full French windows, ensconced in lush flora of ornamentals and towering narra and palm trees, a lotus pond running the length of the lot), the verses she recited from memory (including the Lake poets, “Annabel Lee” and “Hiawatha”), the Spanish songs she sang. (In contrast, Popsing had only “Invictus” and Protestant hymns.)

Oases of calm and beauty

Even as Popsing trudged the length and breadth of Mindanao, organizing workers in its logging camps and plywood factories, its piers and rubber plantations, Momsing carved out her own space in her own time, oases of calm and beauty serving as odd contrast to the rough-and-tumble world of labor unions.

This was her way of holding her own vis-à-vis a husband who had scores of followers and a vocation that was nearly all-consuming. And a good thing she did, her children having priceless memories of an austere, but song and poetry-filled, childhood.

She was also an avid nationalist and incipient feminist, naming her fourth child after the “Noli’s” main character and defending her daughter-in-law’s staunch refusal to change her surname before all and sundry, particularly her husband’s kin who took pride in the Malonzo name (I am that daughter-in-law). Four of the children have biblical names, a hallmark of Protestant families.

Quick of tongue

Momsing was quick of thought and quicker of tongue.  A few years ago, having just arrived from the Zamboanga airport, I asked her how she was doing. “Surviving,” was her curt reply.

Last year, when her US-bound oldest daughter started to bid farewell, she said she wanted to come along. But the former remonstrated that it would be difficult there in case anything happened. “Di ilibing (Then bury me)”—and with that she cut short the delicate subject of death hanging in the air.

But most poignant of all were her words to my husband about four years ago. “So this is how it ends,” she said, after an initial attack of involuntary spasms and gestures (from dysfunctional nerve endings and dead brain cells), flailing about in a St. Vitus dance.

Although Popsing was a man of the Word (as a pastor) and of words (as a labor leader), Momsing was the one who transmuted thought and experience into words, committing these to paper and chronicling the young family’s grueling experiences as war evacuees in the mid-’40s, surviving the conflict and eluding enemy troops by the skin of their teeth. Her war memoirs could make a telenovela series, no kidding.

 

Quiet prayer

And so I end, as I must, with a quiet prayer for a woman soon turning 101, of thanks for living a life of autonomy and agency given the constraints of marriage and childbirth (no reproductive rights then) that, clipping her wings, turned her into gardener and extraordinary homemaker, feeding her children with song and verse and beauty, as well as with food and drink.

Would she have chosen otherwise, had she other options some eight decades ago? I cannot truly say. But one thing is certain, she lived well and she loved well, and for this, I honor my mother-in-law, Basilia Avelino Malonzo.

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