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'We Are Her Work': Remembering Grandma's Legacy

Left: Crescenciana "Lola" Tan with grandson Kenneth and daughter Olivia at their home in San Jose, Calif., in 1990. Right: the family in Oakland, Calif., in 2016.
Left: Crescenciana "Lola" Tan with grandson Kenneth and daughter Olivia at their home in San Jose, Calif., in 1990. Right: the family in Oakland, Calif., in 2016.

As the holidays approach, family is on the mind of many. For Kenneth Tan and his mother, Olivia Tan Ronquillo, memories turn to her mother, Crescenciana.

They called her Lola.

She was no stranger to making sacrifices for her family. She spent her life caring for three generations.

Lola grew up in the Philippines, and in 1982, in her 60s, she moved to San Jose, Calif., to live with Olivia – after helping to put her through years of nursing school — and help raise Kenneth and his big sister Audrey.

During a recent StoryCorps conversation, Kenneth and Olivia remember vivid details about Lola — like how they shared a room when he was young. Lola,he says, "would keep the light on every night cause she would be up praying, and the light would still be on in the morning."

And she was always cooking, Olivia remembers.

Kenneth recalls her in the kitchen making hopia, a Filipino bean-filled pastry. She would be "smoothing out the mung bean, making little pockets with the dough and stuffing them in pink doughnut boxes, and she would let me eat the duds," Kenneth says.

She never stopped working, Olivia says of her mother. As a child she worked the rice paddies with her family.

Growing up, Olivia heard stories about the kind of student her mother was. "When she was little," Olivia says, "she was the top student. Especially when it comes to math, nobody could beat her."

But when Lola's father died, she left high school to help support her family.

She did the same when she grew up and had children of her own. She worked to support her kids after her husband got sick. He died when Olivia was just 2 years old, and Lola was left a single mother. To make ends meet, she ran a stall at the local market. She also worked as a store clerk at a grocery store, a sales woman at a bakery and even a live-in house servant.

"Lola, she didn't have the most glamorous jobs, but I think her work was all of us," Kenneth says.

As Lola grew older, she became wheelchair-bound and unable to care for her family like she had been.

In 2014, Kenneth, who had been living in Los Angeles, moved back in with Olivia to help his mother with Lola. "I wanted to come home to help care for Lola because she'd always been the one who took care of all of us," he says.

Crescenciana died in 2016 at 96.

"Before she passed, she'd tell me stories about her life, and I made a promise. I said I would record everything that I know about her and our family, so that we know how we got here," Kenneth says. "I think I learned from Lola that there's a difference between your job and your work. Your job is something you leave behind at the end of a day, but your work is everything you leave behind at the end of a lifetime."

Olivia agrees: "You're right. We are her work."

Audio produced forMorning Edition by Abe Selby. NPR's Heidi Glenn adapted the interview for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, atStoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.