Salina — He was from a big family; she was from a small one.
Santos Bonilla grew up with nine siblings. Marlene, who he married in 1969, grew up with three siblings. “The family was a joke that he wanted a small family and I wanted a large family,” Marlene said. “We had five kids, so we both got our wish.” In advance of the 2017 Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, which is July 23-29, the Bonillas sat down to talk about the year’s theme, which is “It’s time! Say ‘Yes’ to God’s plan for married love.”
Early in their marriage, Santos said they were introduced to Natural Family Planning (NFP), which is defined as methods used to achieve and avoid pregnancies. These methods are based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
They had three children by the time they encountered NFP while they were living in Topeka. “I thought NFP was kind of crazy because I didn’t know what it was,” Santos said. “I thought they were trying to control me. I thought ‘They’re not going to control me.’ “She started learning it and I was rather resistant because I didn’t know much about my own religion.” The couple was involved with adult education, which is where the concept was introduced to them. “We learned it from other Catholics,” Marlene said.
It wasn’t until they moved back to Salina and their five children were in school that she took a formal class to learn about NFP. “We were open to life, but when we had so many (children) so quickly, I was definitely ready to take a break,” she said. “We had to do a lot of communicating and talking about ‘Are we open to life or are we not wanting to have (more) children?’ To me, it was more of a spiritual thing of trusting God, not knowing what His will was.”
The Bonillas said NFP and their children enriched their marriage. “The best gift you can give a child is siblings,” Marlene said. “It is a life-long friendship if you instill the importance of that.” Yet raising five children came with the inevitable bumps in the road. “Anything in life takes a lot of work. It’s a lot of work to raise children,” Marlene said. “But that’s true in anything you want to do well. The most important thing is to do the best you can. “When they would argue or have fights, I would send them off to a room and say ‘You’re both in trouble. Figure out who did it.’ I would let them work out some of their problems. When you have a lot of kids, you let them deal with it. The benefits are you’re putting responsibility onto the children.”
Now that their children are grown and they have 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Santos and Marlene say continuing the family relationship is still important. Family traditions, such as lunch after Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, are still constant for the family. “We also have game night where our son, Tim, is usually the game master,” Marlene said. “Tim has a few games the littler ones can play and others that the teenagers and adults enjoy.”
Another family tradition — one that’s in its third generation — is family softball teams. “When I came back from the (Vietnam) War, I learned a person’s life can be taken quickly,” Santos said. “I thought ‘How could I continue to be friends with my brothers?’ I got the equipment and we formed a softball team.” The brothers would gather weekly for practice, games, camaraderie and fast-pitch softball fun.
“After a couple of years, the families were getting bigger so some of my brothers started their own ball teams,” Santos said. “My oldest brother said it’s a good way to keep the kids out of drugs, drinking and fighting if you keep them involved in the ball team. Our ball team was used as a tool to uplift the family. As my youngest brother once said, ‘It’s easy to lift up one family, but it’s hard to raise up 10 families.’ ”
As the years go by, Santos said the older participants have become role models for the younger generation, which benefits the young and older alike. With four of their five children around Salina, Santos said the family support continues. “It’s the positive piece about extended family,” he said. “The (grandkids) get to know each other and play with each other. I think it brings the siblings closer together because they’re sharing parenting experiences.”
Marlene said the extended family unit also provides formation for the grandchildren. “The best way to learn how to get along in life is to get along with a larger family,” she said. “You have your own community and you have to learn how to deal with the problems. It’s what makes us grow and learn how to deal with strong personalities or weak personalities. You learn so much when it’s your own family.”