Lola Basyang, 'super centenarian'
PASSAGE - Ed Maranan () - October 17, 2010 - 12:00am

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile The short and simple annals of the Poor.

— Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Ambrosia C. Abanes — Lola Basyang to her 16 grandchildren and around 50 great-grandchildren — passed away on Oct. 13 last year at the age of 119. This week marks the first year of her passing. Appropriate rituals will be held on Saturday, Oct. 16, by her descendants in the house she grew up in. She spent all her life in the quiet barrio of Baguilawa in the mountainous part of Bauan, Batangas. It is only a few kilometers down the road from my hometown of Cupang, but the distance would be shorter if one traveled southwest on foot across the fields and ancient dry riverbeds called agbang in the local dialect.

Baguilawa is reached by going up a winding uphill road off the highway to Mabini and Anilao. The place is touched by modernity only in terms of architecture and some basic rural infrastructure, but otherwise it has remained a peaceful and quiet community with lush forests, undergrowth, and bamboo groves greening its topography that slopes down towards Batangas Bay.

The house Lola Basyang lived in has been altered many times over, just like many of the houses in rural areas whose residents found gainful employment in the city or abroad, and either came back or continued to send money home. Over the years, improvements were made on Lola Ambrosia’s ancestral house, which must have begun life as a bahay kubo of bamboo floors, sawali walls, and nipa roofing. Only the dark, twisting house posts, made from Philippine hardwood, remain of the original dwelling, and they have a petrified texture, feel and sound when touched or tapped. Brigida Abanes de la Rosa, or Nanay Bihing, one of Lola Basyang’s seven children and the only one staying with her, proudly pointed out to us the massive posts which had seen off several generations, and which looked like they would be around for centuries.

Mortals do not have the luxury (or curse) of such longevity, but Lola Basyang — one of a few “super centenarians” among the billions of human beings on earth — could lay claim to being the human equivalent, at least while she lived. When we visited her last year a few months before she died, she was resting and was not disposed to talking much. It was Nanay Bihing who answered most of our questions. She recounted childhood stories of growing up with their parents in that quiet barrio of Baguilawa. Recalling life with a widowed mother, she attributed Lola Ambrosia’s long life to a diet of rice, fish and vegetables, and never letting up on doing domestic chores even in her old age. At the age of 119, she was still able to make her way unaided from bed to bathroom, groping her way around the furniture and along the wooden walls. Laughing, Nanay Bihing remarked that her mother was a stickler for personal hygiene: she only used rubbing alcohol for the most delicate washing.

To this day, the barrio folk still speak with awe of Lola Basyang’s “resurrection” which took place several years ago. She had contracted typhoid fever on Holy Week, and had gotten so ill that by Holy Thursday, she had stopped breathing, and showed no other signs of life. The grieving family washed and dressed her up for the wake. Sometime in the afternoon of Good Friday, she came back to life and sat up, complaining of thirst and tiredness, as though she had been on a long journey. Baguilawa would have been swamped by media people and religious fanatics had the story flown outside the barrio. No devotional cult came out of that incident, and Lola Basyang continued her quiet, simple, industrious existence.

We raised the crucial question: Was there any certainty that Lola Basyang was that old? Did they have her birth certificate? No, said Nanay Bihing and grandson Ponciano “Boy” Macuha, it was among the municipal records burned in a fire, but the barrio folk knew the stories of the legendary old woman of Baguilawa, and their own grandparents had known her to be the oldest during their lifetime. There is only one document that might be offered as proof of her age, and they showed us a framed document with the letterhead of the province’s Panlalawigang Pederasyon ng Pangunahing Mamamayan (provincial federation of senior citizens), which proclaimed (in Filipino):

“This Certificate of Recognition is awarded to Mrs. Ambrosia C. Abanes, a special senior citizen who has reached the age of 113 and an outstanding member of her community, this 16th day of October 2003, on the occasion of Senior Citizens Week in the province of Batangas.”

The certificate was signed by provincial governor Hermilando I. Mandanas (now a member of the House of Representatives). Thus she was 119 when she died in 2009, assuming that the provincial government had taken pains to verify her actual age. According to Boy, not even the National Statistics Office has a copy of her records. It is only the provincial government’s certificate of recognition that established her age, but this would not have been sufficient to prove to the Guinness Book of World Records that in 2009, the world’s oldest human being was living in a remote barrio in the Philippine province of Batangas.

We would never have met Lola Basyang who lived just a couple of barrios away from my hometown of Cupang had the subject of old age not come up when we brought my father to Cupang early last year. Bed-ridden for years now and able to move only on a wheelchair, my father (who turns 92 next month) several times a year tells us he would like to visit the old hometown, expecting each visit to the house he grew up in to be his final one. Boy Macuha and his wife, distant relatives by affinity, are the caretakers of our ancestral house in Cupang. Like the Abanes house, it is probably more than 100 years old, and has undergone various stages of metamorphosis from native hut to termite-ravaged “barriotic modern” of cement, rusted yero roofing and ordinary lumber.

During that visit, we got to talking about my grandfather, Mamay Anong, who had reached the age of 95 and could still manage to chop firewood. We mentioned that our maternal grandmother from Malabon, Rizal, had died at the age of 105, a fact we have always been proud of, as if to boast that longevity ran in our family. And that was when Boy Macuha floored us with the information that only a few kilometers away, there lived a 119-year-old woman who was his grandmother. We felt a frisson of excitement: what a story this would make. We asked Boy to drive us in his passenger jeepney for a brief visit to Baguilawa, there to pay our respects to the grand old woman of Batangas, and of the world.

We brought back my father to Cupang for another hometown visit in June this year, in time for the barrio fiesta. Boy apologized for not having texted us that Lola Basyang had died several months earlier. We met the news with great disappointment and sadness. We had been looking forward to having a conversation with Lola Basyang on our second visit, hoping she was feeling better. I had wanted to add to the video footage I had taken of her last year, and this time have her talk about the secrets of a long life, and other homespun wisdom only a super centenarian would have accumulated through the years.

Lola Basyang had lived a life like the rural folk depicted in Gray’s elegy, except that her annals were certainly not short, and her Good Friday resurrection was not a simple happenstance.

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