If Aurora Dy Tan had been born in another time and place, she might have become an artist instead of a businesswoman.
Born at dawn in a small town in Catanduanes, the Philippines, she was named for the Roman goddess of the sunrise. Her talents as a sculptor blossomed when she helped out at her father's restaurant and catering business; she often carved centerpieces of animals and flowers out of chilled butter.
Later in life, after she moved to the United States, she made "countless" teddy bears for sick children, her family said. And even in retirement, sitting on her living room couch while engaged in family conversations, she would carve small figures out of soap. A bust of the comic strip character Sluggo still sits on a shelf in her Fairfax County living room.
But Tan, born into an entrepreneurial Chinese family, pursued a career in business, working her way through school, war and immigration. She died at age 77 on Sept. 22 at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington of pancreatic and gallbladder cancer.
Her parents, who owned two department stores in the Philippines, opened a Chinese restaurant while she was a girl, and she became her father's assistant, tagging along as he bought supplies, working with him in the kitchen and learning about the business world from the inside.
She was 14 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and she was drafted into the Women's Auxiliary Corps of the Philippine guerrilla forces. She worked as a nurse behind the front lines during the long occupation.
After the war, she immersed herself in education, finishing high school and enrolling at Far Eastern University in Manila, despite societal disapproval at the idea of a young woman who attended college and lived on her own. Never one to sit still, Tan tutored others after school to have money to send home for her younger siblings.
One rainy day in 1951, a young journalist with the Chinese Commercial News, the top Chinese business paper in Manila, dropped in at her apartment, following a friend of hers who sought shelter from the storm. Johnny Chin-hian Tan was smitten; every other day, he showed up at her door to invite her out on an excursion, he said, and after three weeks, he proposed.
"She was a smart woman, independent, very hardworking," her husband said last month on a similarly rainy morning. "She was supporting herself and sending money home to her family. She was a very responsible person . . . and she was very beautiful."
While her husband worked at the newspaper, Tan started a Manila dress shop called Milady's and became a wedding consultant. She sold all her jewelry, except her wedding ring, to buy her first sewing machine, said her daughter, Evelyn Tan Powers.
Soon, two sisters and a cousin moved in while they attended college, and the busy home teemed with dress-shop employees, dress designers, embroiderers, beauticians, sales agents and domestic staff, Powers said.
The lessons Tan learned in those early days saw her through many future business ventures, from dress shop to beauty salon, clothing factory, real estate and, with her siblings, auto battery factory.
During Ferdinand Marcos's tenure as president, Johnny Chin-hian Tan was imprisoned for seven months for practicing journalism, he said. Upon his release, the couple ran a real estate brokerage and decided to move to the United States to help care for their autistic grandson. In 1983, she arrived, and her husband followed a year later.
At age 67, she started an at-home day-care service, the Village Kiddie Care, full of "a happy little army of babies and toddlers" who called Tan "Auntie Mama" and her husband "Uncle Papa," Powers said.
She turned her entire living room over to the children, said Marcie Williams, who sent two of her children to Tan and whose blond daughter insisted that she was really Chinese.
"She put the alphabet up on the wall, she took out the furniture and had all the toys. They designed this kitchen, well, really a storefront, [with] a little cash register and shopping carts," Williams said. "It didn't take long for it to be apparent to me that they were really good with the kids. . . . She would have the kids learn the alphabet, practice their handwriting. They all knew their letters and numbers. She was so proud of the kids accomplishing anything."
When Tan realized how prevalent the Spanish language was in the Washington area, she enrolled in Spanish classes at Northern Virginia Community College and received straight A's. She learned how to use the Internet after she was 70, haunted health and book Web sites and e-mailed friends and younger relatives around the world. She was proud of having voted in her first U.S. presidential election in 2000 and was looking forward to her second presidential vote this year.
She died the day before her absentee ballot arrived.