The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. I packed it in my suitcase in July 2016 for the transpacific flight from Seattle to Manila, Philippines. From there, I would travel to a rural village and hand over all that was left of the woman who had essentially raised me while spending more than 50 years working in my family’s home.
Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was four foot eleven, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes. She was 18 years old when my grandfather brought her home, and when my family moved from the Philippines to the United States, we brought her with us. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly.
It confused me: They would be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. My brother Arthur, eight years my senior, introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was.
“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?” he said. He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family.
To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades. Lola’s role in our family was a dark and, frankly, complicated secret. After my mother died in 1999, Lola came to live with me. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
A dark tradition
At the baggage claim in Manila, I unzipped my suitcase to make sure Lola’s ashes were still there. Outside, I inhaled the familiar smell: a thick blend of exhaust and waste, of ocean and sweet fruit and sweat.
Early the next morning I found a driver, an affable middle-aged man who went by the nickname Doods, and we hit the road in his truck.
We were headed to the place where Lola’s story began, up north in Tarlac province. Rice country. The home of a cigar-chomping army lieutenant named Tomas Asuncion, my grandfather. The family stories paint Lieutenant Tom as a formidable man who had lots of land but little money and kept mistresses in separate houses on his property. His wife died giving birth to their only child, my mother. She was raised by a series of utusans, or “people who take commands.”
Slavery has a long history on the islands. Even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer.
In spring 1943, Lieutenant Tom brought home a distant cousin from a nearby village. He had approached her with an offer: She could have food and shelter if she would take care of his daughter, who had just turned 12.
Lola agreed, not grasping that the deal was for life.
“She is my gift to you,” Lieutenant Tom told my mother.
“I don’t want her,” my mother said, knowing she had no choice.
Lieutenant Tom went off to fight the Japanese, leaving Mom behind with Lola, who fed, groomed, and dressed her. At night, when Lola’s other tasks were done—feeding the dogs, sweeping the floors, folding the laundry—she sat at the edge of my mother’s bed and fanned her to sleep.
One day, Lieutenant Tom caught my mother in a lie. Furious, he ordered her to “stand at the table.” In a quavering voice, Mom said that Lola would take her punishment. Without a word, Lola walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound.
In 1950, Mom married my father and moved to Manila, bringing Lola along. Lieutenant Tom had long been haunted by demons, and in 1951, he silenced them with a .32-caliber slug to his temple. Mom had his temperament—moody, imperial, secretly fragile—and she took his lessons to heart, among them that you must keep those beneath you in their place, for their own good and the good of the household. They will love you for helping them to be what God intended.
My brother Arthur was born in 1951. I came next, followed by three more siblings: Albert, Ling, and Maria. While Lola looked after us, my parents went to school and earned degrees.
Then the big break: Dad was offered a job in foreign affairs. The salary would be meager, but the position was in America—a place he and Mom had grown up dreaming of.
Dad was allowed to bring his family and one domestic. Lola was terrified, she told me years later. “It was too far,” she said. “Maybe your mom and dad won’t let me go home.” What convinced her was my father’s promise that things would be different in America. He told her that as soon as he and Mom got on their feet, they’d give her an “allowance.” Lola could send money home. Her parents lived in a hut with a dirt floor. Lola could build them a concrete house.
We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964. I was four years old—too young to question Lola’s place in our family. But as my siblings and I grew up, we came to see the world differently.
Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it when her mother fell ill with dysentery and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. “How could you even ask?” Dad said. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”
My father was transferred to the Philippine consulate in Seattle. He took a second job cleaning trailers, and a third as a debt collector. Mom got work as a medical technician. We barely saw them.
Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say, her voice venomous. “An idiot could remember.” Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying.
When guests came over, my parents would ignore Lola, or, if questioned, lie and quickly change the subject. We lived across the street from the Misslers, a rambunctious family of eight. “Who’s that little lady you keep in the kitchen?” Big Jim, the patriarch, once asked. A relative from back home, Dad said. Very shy.
Billy Missler, my best friend, didn’t buy it. “Why is she always working?” he once asked me.
“She likes to work,” I said.
“Your dad and mom—why do they yell at her?”
“Her hearing isn’t so good …”
Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We spent our first decade in the country learning the ways of the new land. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, whether we deserved to be accepted.
There was another reason for secrecy: Lola’s travel papers had expired in 1969. After Dad quit the consulate, he arranged for permanent resident status for our family. Lola wasn’t eligible. He was supposed to send her back.
Lola’s mother, Fermina, died in 1973; her father, Hilario, in 1979. Both times, she wanted desperately to go home. Both times, my parents said “Sorry.” No money, no time. My parents also feared for themselves, they admitted later. If the authorities had found out about Lola, as they surely would have if she’d tried to leave, my parents could have gotten into trouble, possibly even been deported.
Our family moved from Seattle to Honolulu, back to Seattle, then to the Bronx, and finally to Umatilla, Oregon, population 750. Mom often worked 24-hour shifts, first as a medical intern and then as a resident before she got her license to practice as a doctor. Dad would disappear for days, working odd jobs but also, we later learned, womanizing.
For days, Lola would be the only adult in the house.
When I was 15, Dad left for good. He didn’t pay child support, so money was always a struggle. My mom kept herself together enough to go to work, but at night she’d crumble in self-pity and despair. Her main source of comfort during this time: Lola. I’d find the two of them at the kitchen counter, telling stories about Dad, sometimes laughing wickedly, other times working themselves into a fury.
On our way to Lola’s village, Mayantoc, Doods and I passed through beautiful country. Mountains ran parallel to the highway on each side. From ridge to ridge, west to east, I could see every shade of green.
“Two hours more,” Doods said.
His not knowing anything about the purpose of my journey was a relief. I had enough interior dialogue going on. I was no better than my parents. I could have done more to free Lola. Why didn’t I?
I tapped the cheap plastic box and regretted not buying a real urn, made of porcelain or rosewood. What would Lola’s people think? Not many were left. Only one sibling remained in the area, Gregoria, 98 years old, and I was told her memory was failing. One of Lola’s nieces had planned a simple memorial, followed by the lowering of the ashes into a plot at the Mayantoc Eternal Bliss Memorial Park.
Doods veered northwest. Two lanes became one, and then gravel turned to dirt. The path ran along the Camiling River, clusters of bamboo houses off to the side, green hills ahead. The home stretch.
Standing up for Lola
In the late 1970s, I was attending college an hour away. On my frequent trips home, I heard Lola say that her mouth hurt. Then her teeth started falling out.
“That’s what happens when you don’t brush properly,” Mom told her.
I said that Lola needed to see a dentist. She was in her 50s and had never been to one. A year went by, then two. Lola’s teeth looked like a crumbling Stonehenge. One night, I lost it.
Lola could barely eat because her teeth were rotting out of her head, I screamed at my mother. Couldn’t she think of her as a real person instead of as a slave?
“A slave,” Mom said, weighing the word. “A slave?”
We argued into the night. I would never understand her relationship with Lola, she said. Never.
“Why do you stay?” my siblings and I sometimes asked Lola.
“Who will cook?” she said. Another time she said, “Where will I go?” This struck me as closer to a real answer. She had no contacts in America. Phones puzzled her. Fast-talking people left her speechless, and her own broken English did the same to them.
I got Lola an ATM card linked to my bank account and taught her how to use it. She succeeded once, but the second time she got flustered, and she never tried again.
After my big fight with Mom, I mostly avoided going home, and at age 23 I moved to Seattle. Mom’s health started to decline. Diabetes. Breast cancer. Leukemia. She went from robust to frail seemingly overnight.
When I did visit, I saw a change. Mom had gotten Lola a fine set of dentures. And she cooperated when my siblings and I set out to change Lola’s immigration status. It was a long process, but Lola became a citizen in October 1998. Mom lived another year.
The day before Mom died, a Catholic priest came to the house to perform last rites. Lola sat next to my mother’s bed, holding a cup with a straw, poised to raise it to Mom’s mouth.
The priest asked Mom whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes. Then she reached over and placed an open hand on Lola’s head. She didn’t say a word.
A new life
Lola was 75 when she came to stay with me. I was married with two young daughters, living in a cozy house on a wooded lot. We gave Lola license to do whatever she wanted: sleep in, watch soaps, relax. I should have known it wouldn’t be that simple.
She cooked breakfast, even though none of us ate more than a banana or a granola bar in the morning, usually while running out the door. She made our beds and did our laundry. She cleaned the house. I found myself saying to her, “Lola, you don’t have to do that.” “OK,” she’d say, but she kept right on doing it.
It irritated me to catch her eating meals standing in the kitchen, or to see her tense up and start cleaning when I walked into the room. One day, after several months, I sat her down.
“I’m not Dad. You’re not a slave here,” I said. She was startled. I took a deep breath and kissed her forehead. “This is your house now,” I said. “You’re not here to serve us. You can relax, OK?”
“OK,” she said. And went back to cleaning.
She didn’t know any other way to be. I realized I had to take my own advice and relax. One night, I came home to find her sitting on the couch doing a word puzzle, her feet up, the TV on. Progress, I thought.
I knew Lola had been sending almost all her money—my wife and I gave her $ 200 a week—to relatives back home. One afternoon, I found her sitting on the back deck gazing at a snapshot someone had sent of her village.
“You want to go home, Lola?”
“Yes,” she said.
Just after her 83rd birthday, I paid her airfare to go home. I’d follow a month later to bring her back—if she wanted to return. The unspoken purpose of her trip was to see whether the place she had spent so many years longing for could still feel like home.
She found her answer.
“Everything was not the same,” she told me as we walked around Mayantoc. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends were like strangers. She’d still like to spend her last years here, but she wasn’t ready yet.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
Lola was as devoted to my daughters as she had been to my siblings and me. We took her on family vacations, but she was just as excited to go to the farmers’ market down the hill. She taught herself to read. Every day, she watched the news and listened for words she recognized. She triangulated them with words in the newspaper and figured out the meanings. She came to read the paper daily, front to back. I wondered what she could have been if, instead of working the rice fields at age eight, she had learned to read and write.
During the 12 years she lived in our house, I tried to piece together her life story. She often gave one- or two-word answers to personal questions, and teasing out even the simplest story was a game of 20 questions that could last days or weeks. Some of what I learned: She was mad at Mom for being so cruel all those years, but she missed her.
Sometimes she’d felt so lonely that all she could do was cry. But living with Mom’s husbands—my dad and her second husband, a volatile man named Ivan—made her think being alone wasn’t so bad. Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family. What came her way instead was another kind of family: Mom, my siblings and me, and now my daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.
Lola lived to 86. Her heart attack started while she was making dinner. A couple of hours later, she was gone. She died on November 7, twelve years to the day after Mom.
Going through her boxes in the attic, I found photo albums with pictures of my mom. Awards my siblings and I had won. A stack of yellowed newspaper articles I’d written. She couldn’t read back then, but she’d kept them anyway.
Doods pulled up to a small concrete house amid the rice fields. Before I even got out of the car, people started coming outside.
“This way,” a soft voice said. Following close behind were about 20 people. Once we were all inside, they sat down on chairs and benches arranged along the walls. I remained standing. People glanced at me expectantly.
A woman in a housedress sauntered in with a smile. Ebia, Lola’s niece. This was her house. She gave me a hug and said, “Where is Lola?”
I handed my tote bag to her. She sat on a wooden bench and pulled out the box. She set it on her lap and rested her forehead on top of it. Her shoulders began to heave, and then she was wailing—a deep, mournful, animal howl. I hadn’t expected this kind of grief.
Before I could comfort Ebia, a woman walked in from the kitchen and wrapped her arms around her. The next thing I knew, the room erupted with sound. Everyone was crying. I was so fascinated that I barely noticed the tears running down my own face.
Ebia sniffled and said it was time to eat. Everybody started filing into the kitchen, puffy-eyed but suddenly lighter and ready to tell stories. I glanced at the empty tote bag on the bench, and I knew it was right to bring Lola back to the place where she’d been born.
Alex Tizon died unexpectedly in his sleep, of natural causes, at age 57, on the same day in March 2017 that the Atlantic decided to publish his story on its cover. Tizon never got the news. Although he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Seattle Times, his wife, Melissa Tizon, called this “his ultimate story.”