It started because we all wanted a seat on the couch.
As is often the case in large families, there weren’t always enough places to sit. The living room in our house had enough space for two large arm chairs and a couch. My parents got the arm chairs, we kids had to fight for a piece of the sofa. We could squeeze four of us without touching — a key element to relatively peaceful TV watching. That left three kids on the floor.
Like all good families we had rules. Number one rule on TV night: if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the sofa (first come, first served), you were good. But, if you got up for anything you HAD to say, “I get this seat when I get back.” And say it loud enough to be clearly heard. Otherwise, you lost that prime spot to the quickest kid on the floor.
We were a scrappy, contentious lot, but we were honorable. As long as you played by the rule, your place would be waiting after you went to the bathroom or got your drink. If you forgot to say the phrase, though, all bets were off.
Surprisingly, there were plenty of times that one of us would forget, and we would try to wheedle our way back into that still-warm spot, hoping that everyone else had missed the fact that we hadn’t said anything. But there was always someone who knew you hadn’t and an argument would ensue.
One night my father put his foot down. He forbade us to say “I get this seat when I get back”. Never again, he said. My father always meant what he said.
This was a problem. We would no longer have a modicum of control over where we sat and for how long. Without our rule there would be constant seat stealing and chaos. What were we to do?
. . . . and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention Plato wrote in The Republic. Plato was a pretty smart guy.
In our case, necessity led to the invention of mongwa. My brother Jaime its creator.
We slipped that word into the matrix of our family life so smoothly my father didn’t notice at first. One word is so much shorter, ergo, less noticeable than eight. By the time he did notice, I think he actually thought it was pretty clever, so the word stayed. It moved beyond the living room and into the kitchen, the dining room, the porch steps — any situation where there were more people than places to sit.
Decades have rolled by since mongwa entered our lexicon. Now it’s as much a part of our family as our DNA. We all still use it, though its necessity is seldom the point. It’s a secret handshake, a wink, a nod. An acknowledgement. We were kids once in a fractious family and we lived to tell the tale. Most of us. Two brothers are no longer here. Still, they were part of it and saying mongwa brings it all back and we are kids again. We remember.
But every once in awhile it still means the same thing. I get this seat when I get back.
It’s the rule.