Kamilah Kashanie (KK): It’s the StoryCorps Podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
We know the holidays will look a little different this year. With COVID continuing it’s still hard for people to gather in the same place. But even if we can’t be together, the holidays are still a time for us to celebrate family, and the people we hold dear.
First, we’re going to backtrack a bit, to just before Thanksgiving. That’s when Dr. Anthony Fauci and his wife Dr. Christine Grady recorded a StoryCorps conversation together.
They had always spent Thanksgiving with their three daughters, but were about to be apart from them on the holiday for the first time.
As most of you know, Dr. Fauci has been considered one of America’s main public health experts since the 80s.
That’s also around the time when he met Dr. Grady. They were both working at the National Institutes of Health. For StoryCorps, they sat down to remember those early days in their relationship…
Anthony Fauci (AF): What do you remember about the first time we met?
Christine Grady (CG): I remember the most is that you weren’t as scary as people make you have to be. I know everybody was afraid of you.
And when I first saw you, I thought, “what are they talking about?” he’s young and handsome and doesn’t seem that scary.
CG: Do you remember what it felt like to first become a dad?
AF: [laughs] Yeah, I was afraid.
CG: Afraid of what?
AF: That we had this responsibility for this baby. I was this highly respected physician. You know, and I can take care of any adult you want, but I don’t know how to take care of a baby, so I was very nervous.
When you have a baby in the house that’s just born, you’re afraid they’re going to stop breathing or something. But, I figured this has been going on for millennia, so…
CG: So you could handle it?
AF: So I could handle it.
CG: You’ve been a runner as long as I’ve known you. Do you see any parallels between parenting and running?
AF: Yes. The long haul of it, it’s an uber marathon, so you just have to hang in there and not give up.
CG: I think I approach parenting with everything I’ve got and I think I approach my work with everything I got, too. So, and I know you do.
AF: I mean the idea of sticking with something and not giving up, even when it’s painful.
What we’re going through now is very, very stressful. Stressful because there’s an almost insurmountable work to do. And, you know, the quicker you get a vaccine out that’s safe and effective, the more lives are being saved.
AF: So let me ask you a question. Our daughters have decided not to join us for Thanksgiving because their daddy is in a risk group because of my age. What are you going to miss the most about that?
CG: I’m going to miss having them here. Thanksgiving is such a special time of year and I’m sad that they’re not going to be here. But we’ve got an enormous amount to be thankful for.
So what are you going to miss about Thanksgiving?
AF: I think much the same thing. I’ve been busy throughout my entire life and I’m conscious of the fact that I missed a lot of things when they were growing up. So any chance I get to be with them is precious.
CG: If you could leave a message with them from this interview, is there something you would want them to know?
AF: Yeah, that I’m proud of their decision.
CG: Proud of them in so many ways. I think we have a lot to be thankful for.
AF: Yeah. The thing that I’m most thankful is that, quite frankly, is you.
CG: We have each other, that’s for sure.
AF: Yeah, We have each other, for sure.
KK: That’s Dr. Anthony Fauci and his wife Dr. Christine Grady.
KK: Next, we’ll hear from Kenneth Tan. Just like Dr. Fauci and his wife, Kenneth wanted to talk about the person that mattered the most in his life… his grandmother, Crescenciana. He called her Lola… which is the filipino word for grandma…
Over StoryCorps connect, Kenneth spoke with his mother, Olivia, to remember her.
Kenneth Tan (KT): Lola was my first roommate when I was a kid. So we shared a room. She would keep the light on every night cause she would be up praying, and the light would still be on in the morning.
I just always remember her in the kitchen making hopia. 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. How did I not have, like, childhood diabetes?
Olivia Tan Ronquillo (OTR): (Laughs) The kitchen was always greasy and the electric bill was going up. But that was Lola’s business. And, she never stopped working.
When she was little, she was the top student. Especially when it comes to math, nobody could beat her. But my mom did not finish high school because my grandfather passed away early. So she did all kinds of work to support her family.
And when she had her children, she had to provide for us. There was nobody else. And then when Lola got older, she lived with us, bringing up her grandchildren.
KT: It was I think 2014 and I was in L.A. doing public health. And you called me. You were caring for Lola at the time and so I wanted to come home to help care for Lola because she’d always been the one who took care of all of us. 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.
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.
Lola, she didn’t have the most glamorous jobs, but I think her work was all of us.
OTR: It’s her love for us that I remember most. It was not so much of hugging or saying I love you, but it was all the things she did. You’re right. We are…we are her work.
KK: That’s Oliva Tan Ronquillo and her son Kenneth, remembering his Lola… Crescenciana Tan.
After listening to their story… I wanted to talk to my own grandmother…
You guys can meet her…. after the break…
KK: Welcome back…
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house… She’s lived in the same brownstone in Brooklyn for most of her life… because before it was her house, it belonged to HER grandparents. I never got the chance to meet them, so that’s where we started our conversation.
Kamilah Kashanie (KK): Can you tell me what your grandmother was like?
Velma Hamilton (VH): My grandmother ruled the nest, okay? She was the matriarch. All wise, all wisdom, that’s how she was. I remember people all over the block called her mom or grandma because she had that mothering spirit. My, my grandmother…she had a tendency to take over your life… But it was all done in love. And you have a tendency to give it to her.
KK: Did she do the cooking?
VH: Oh yeah. The house was always smelling of food…
KK: Like a true Caribbean household!
VH: Oh it felt like a true Caribbean house. You smelled coconut, stew beef and bacalao. And you know what! It didn’t matter what she was cooking. Whenever she cooked, she used to share it with the block.
KK: I wonder if you could tell me what Christmas was like in the house growing up?
VH: The way the house changed on Christmas, you smelled more baked goods than anything. And you know what was so funny? I would never forget my aunt used to put angel hair on the Christmas tree. Do you know what angel hair is like?
KK: Like the pasta?
VH: No. [laughs] Angel hair, white, and you know what—it used to itch you to death. But we always had a tree and the house was really neat and everything was shining. I remember that. And my grandmother, she was always giving, always caring; That’s what made her function.
KK: You’re like that too.
VH: You know what, as I’m thinking about….it’s just what we’re made for, we’re made to do. If somebody needs help, how can you not help them?
KK: I think that the most valuable thing you’ve taught me is how to be selfless. Like how to be generous to other people. In like the way we spend our holidays together, everyone’s welcome, anyone can come.
VH: Well if you get nothing else, I’m glad that you at least got that from me. That you’re willing to give of yourself.
KK: So, with all the covid stuff this year, I mean, how do you think we can keep the family closeness for Christmas this year with all of the restrictions?
VH: Well, I don’t know how we’re going to keep it close except to be calling each other, because we have to be so careful, especially with how everything is going. So I don’t think that we’re going to be doing too much this Christmas.
KK: Maybe we’ll do Christmas at your house this year.
VH: Uh, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. (Laughs) So that’s OK. It’ll come again. Life is not over, it’s going to come back again. I have to keep telling myself that, you know, cause sometimes it feels like, all right, well, this is the way it’s going to be, but it’s not. It’s not going to always be this way.
KK: We’ll just make it extra, extra fancy next year.
VH: Extra, extra, fancy next year. Yeah.
But let me ask you something. If you become a mom and then become a grandma, what kind of grandma would you like to be?
KK: I want to be a fun grandma. I just remember always loving coming over to your house. I mean, like, my house was fine, but it always felt like a treat to get to go over to your house.
Like there’s no homework at grandma’s house. There’s no chores here. There’s no broccoli at grandma’s house. Like this is the place where you come to when you want to enjoy yourself. I want to be a grandmother like you. You did all those fun things with us.
VH: Absolutely. I really am proud of you, you know.
KK: Thank you. And now you get a little sneak peek into what I do for work. This is what I do all day!
VH: Yes, yes. And it’s just right up your alley, because you love to talk!
KK: OK. [laughter]
VH: This is definitely your gift honey. You’re operating in your gift.
KK: That’s my grandma… and where I get my sass from… Velma Hamilton.
To find out how to record your own interview with a loved one, go to StoryCorps dot org. While you’re there you can also check out the music we used… and see original artwork created for this season by Lindsay Mound.
That’s all for this episode of the podcast.
It was produced by Abe Selby and Sylvie Lubow. Jud Esty-Kendall is our editor. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd… who also wrote our theme song. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact checker. Special thanks to StoryCorps Producer Jey Born. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie. Have a safe and happy holiday season.