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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Tribute to My Mother

After eight years filled with heartaches and losses following the fall of our beloved Saigon, my mother arrived at fifty-seven years old to the New World alone, just a few years older than I now. She would die twelve years later of cancer, her work incomplete, her dreams unfulfilled, her body no longer hers to control. Often, the nine of us would ask, “Had she made a bargain with God for our freedom?”

Often, I would tell myself, “I was the cause of her cancer.”

I had always been a headstrong child, and it seemed that without consciously planning, I had devoted my youthful years to destroy my mother’s world order. Where she thrived ahead of her time, I recoiled in shame. She wanted to cut my hair à la garconne to free me of time wasted in front of the mirror and give me a modern look. I sobbed bitterly each time she cut my hair short. I hated her each time. 

She started talking enigmatically to me about how boys could eat girls and advised me to stay away from them. Her words sometimes were too blunt, too embarrassing to hear. They disgusted me. 

After a failed escape from Vietnam, we were put in prison together. While I withdrew into my shell away from my cell mates, she made herself the center of their admiration by giving them haircuts and curing their illnesses with whatever materials she could lay hand on: leaves, salt, cow dung, mud…She read their palms to entertain these southern folks, whom I fear one day would turn against us when they find out about the gold we hid in our cone hats. To my mother, who by nature was as reserved and socially awkward as I, it was exactly for that same reason that she befriended them. While I stubbornly held my head high and kept my wall of silence to preserve our privacy, she erased herself to morph into the role of a simple country woman with nothing more to say than “your love line shows great promise and one day you will meet the man of your dream.”

In those years under the communist rules, she was the one in our family to venture into the crowds, attend mandatory meetings, negotiate with neighbors, take the bus to faraway towns bringing food to my dad in prison, then later, to me in the concentration camp. She alone took care of my sick grandmother, tried in vain to revive my dead baby cousin, walked the length of our boat to get food and water and news from the captain. She was the only one who had not vomited, perhaps too busy offering comfort to all of us lying like dead fish around her in our own bile, moaning and crying.

My parents came to USA with nothing but hope for the future and a willingness to rebuild. Dad spoke fluent English and right away felt at ease with the American fast and furious way of living. He found work easily and became an agent for Prudential. He had ventured to USA first from Belgium to explore the country and decided that we should join him in Los Angeles, where money spilled out of a machine called the ATM, housing was aplenty, and relatives who arrived as refugees in 1975 had already been well-settled with homes and cars, their children attending universities, even Ivy Leagues. My mother, the next one to join my dad, had arrived bewildered by the fast-moving cars on the freeways, the large homes with garage doors that opened up as people were coming home--like magic.

“How can we afford all this luxury?” she had asked, filled with dread, knowing my father’s too-optimistic confidence in “Help yourself, and God will help you” mantra. But mother, she was “like a bird on a branch when it broke,” her literal translation of a Vietnamese idiom when she attempted to describe her situation to her new African American friend from the cosmetology school. Ms. Mercedes, who loved to eat shrimp, was Mom’s first and only American friend because once, in trying to lift my mom’s spirit, she had said, “We were people of the same boat,” a phrase my mother understood very well. She came home to tell us that day, “Didn’t you know my black friend also came here by boat?”

Not only Mom had lost her pharmacist career when she followed Dad’s vision to re-settle here, she also lost her tongue, and with it, some of her fiery temper. She did not give up communication easily, though. One of her favorite things to do was to shop for fruits and vegetables at La Verne’s farmer’s market each Saturday. These robust and engaging men and women who loved to chat with their customers were whiter than white folks. My mother, who was not unfamiliar with the lively atmosphere of an outdoor market, navigated the stalls eagerly and touched and felt everything: the carrots still with leaves, healthy tomatoes still with the taste of the earth, sacks of potatoes and oranges that were “So cheap,” she exclaimed to us, drunk with happiness to see her money well-stretched. Much more than the grocery, it was here that she could open her mouth and talk in an infuse of Vietnamese, French, and French-English, meaning Latin-based English words that she knew well but pronounced them like they were French, to the amused merchants.

“How much?” Mom would ask, pointing at the huge watermelon, as her other hand already picked up a slice of the cut fruit and put it in her mouth. She clicked her tongue in approval when the sweet juice ran down her throat.

The merchant, a tan older man, didn’t know whom he was dealing with. He was a talkative man, and seeing here a small lady rather fair, rather pretty and exotic-looking, with her coy figure and smiling face and an equally-shy young lady by her side, he launched into a long introductory verbiage of himself and his fruits, and the farm he owned, which I could only imagine since the country lulls in his language was also too much for my newly-acquired English. Finally, there were the mention of some numeric figures and the cue word, “dollars.”

My mom took the cue, and without batting an eyelash, counter-offered with, “Five dollars,” which she pronounced “Doll-ah.”

He clearly did not understand a word of what she said. “Pardon me?” He said, perhaps impressed with her accent and the strange words that had to be English but that he couldn’t grasp, he who thought he was born into the language.

“Five doll-ah,” she said again, this time with her five fingers raised up.

It worked.

“No, no,” he frowned. “I don’t bargain, ma’am! Let’s not go there.”

“Six,” she said, and started walking away.

He laughed. “OK, I’ll give you for seven and a basket of strawberries.”

When she ended up in the ICU in her last months of life, Mother had asked for a wheelchair to go out under the blue sky in a burst of renewed strength that made us thought she was recovering. Her request sounded like, “Give me a will chair,” for the will to fight on and survive another battle. She still had so much to do for the family, for her oldest son was still single, and her sixth daughter, the troublemaker, me, had married a Muslim Indian husband who, she assumed, one day would kidnap me to India and lock me up like in the movie Not Without My Daughter. Her last two youngest daughters were still in dental school.

“Do it on my left arm. I need my right to work,” she had told her doctor the day he said he needed to put a chemo line into her vein. She never returned home again.

Rest well, Mom! We all are doing well, and my husband is the best man any girl could have dreamed of. Please don’t move that Heaven too much when you see us down here struggling. You are scaring people up there.

Don’t give Dad a hard time too. One of the reason he lived long was because he was afraid to face you. We love you and remember you always.

About the Author

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Mother, Engineer, writer, manager, and more. I am a bit of everything, a creature of God. I am passionate with life. I fear death and its many forms. I love my mind, cherish my body. I express through WORDS.