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Hawaii News | Incidental Lives

A beloved lei of offspring keeps growing around her

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Second of two parts

When Maria Victoria "Nena" Li Won was told that she had been selected as one of six outstanding Sacred Hearts Academy alumni to be honored at the school’s annual scholarship gala, she was truly mystified.

"Why?" she said. "I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. Why me?"

Part of the answer is preserved on the walls of her Kaneohe home. There in the living room are photographs of her nine children, seven of whom are still living. In the dining area are photos of her 20 grandchildren, each of whom had to graduate from high school to earn a place on the wall.

The family jokes that they’d have to build an extension to accommodate photos of Won’s 22 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren.

"They just keep coming," said Won, 98, laughing.

In fact, Won said, she’s always been surrounded by children, from her siblings to her fellow boarders at the Sacred Hearts Convent to her ever-growing family.

Coming of age during the Great Depression, Won earned money baby-sitting right after high school. When her uncle and aunt adopted an orphaned baby, Won spent a couple of years at their home helping to care for the child.

Eventually, Won put her child-rearing skills to work on a family of her own. Her husband, Paul, worked for Hawaiian Bitumuls and traveled the Pacific working on paving projects. Won took odd jobs to make ends meet.

"I cleaned houses on Saturday mornings and baby-sat for young couples on the weekends," Won says.

Won also ironed clothes for kumu hula Kaui Zuttermeister in exchange for hula lessons for her girls. That led to another avocation.

"The girls always needed lei, so I started planting flowers around the yard."

In time, Won’s floral creations drew the attention of flower shop owner Ailene Townsend, who provided lei to many of the top local entertainers of the day.

Singer Ed Kenney adopted Won’s meticulously constructed kika lei as his signature adornment. Won recalls long hours spent picking the hundreds of tiny flowers needed for each lei. Her children would deliver the lei in Love’s bread bags.

Haunani Lee says her mother worked hard not for personal riches, but for her children.

Those children, and the generations they’ve given rise to, remain close by, closing a circuit of love and comfort.

"Her remark to us is always that she didn’t need much because we are her gold," Lee said. "Today she enjoys her generations of gold and is never lonely."

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