I loved my grandmother; who was my mother. If someone were to ask me, “Who is your mother?” I would respond, “bà nội” which means “grandmother” in Quoc ngu (Vietnamese). I miss my grandmother’s arms wrapping around me. In her arms I would feel safe. Though I am old and withered, even now I long for the days when my grandmother would hold me. Warm and secure were her arms from the gun fire and eminent danger in the distance, during thunderstorms on hot sticky nights, whenever I needed her. I long for my grandmother’s arms because there was always peace there. For a long time in my life, there was no peace for my country and no sự an ninh (peace) in my heart.
All of my children hold a special place in my heart. Each of them hold different parts of me that I can clearly see now. I wonder if the same fondness I have for my grandmother my children share with me. Did I hold them enough, love them enough that they will miss me when I’m gone? Did my children feel safe with me? Was I their great protector at one time or another? This makes me think about my daughter; the daughter I lost so long ago.
My husband and I worked very hard to ensure they had food to eat, a place to live, and clothes to wear. This wasn’t easy in Vietnam during the 1960-1970’s. My husband was a fisherman and I worked various jobs; mainly as a seamstress. In 1970, I took my two youngest children (6 & 3 years old) to live with my aunt for a few months because I needed help with taking care of them. During this time, war was all around us. We were lucky enough to live in a US Army base through American connections my husband made through working various jobs. With my husband away on a fishing trip, the fast pace of everything around us made taking care of my youngest children very hard. In those times, you hesitate to send your children away for fear of losing them to the horrors of war. But when you send your children to your Aunt’s house or a close relation, there’s a feeling of security your children will be safe. Two weeks later, I received word that my youngest daughter had drowned in the river near my Aunt’s village.
Nothing can prepare a mother for the death of their child. When I saw her little body lying so still, my heart shattered into millions of pieces. I wished for her to open her eyes, smile and laugh, get up and run off to play with her sisters, but she didn’t. Did she cry for me as her body slipped into the currents of the river? Did she imagine my arms holding her as she let go of life under the muddy water? As I cried over her little body, I gripped my shirt so tight I could have ripped it from my body. The emptiness inside me was filled with tears and pain. To this day, I never mention her name because I think, maybe it was not her destiny to be mine. I think, maybe she left us so soon because she was born in such an unlucky year, the year of the Tet Mậu Thân 1968. Weeks later, when my husband returned from sea, I was ashamed to tell him one of our daughters had died. When I did, my husband went into silence, mourning for our loss. He could barely look at me or speak to me which made my heart again, shatter into a million pieces. This was a time of so much pain.
In this same year my daughter passed away, I was pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. This made my husband very happy. The birth of my son made me happy because my husband was happy again as we had no living sons. My very first pregnancy was a boy, but he did not live very long after birth. I think, maybe all my pain for losing my little girl made me give birth to a little boy. My son brought our home so much joy… And just like that, life went on. After my son, I gave birth to three more girls. Our family was lucky enough to immigrate to the United States as refugees from the war. We raised our children the best we could in the US, trying hard to give them what they needed. At long last, my children have grown and moved on to their own lives and their own families. And yet, the daughter I lost so long ago pains me still.
The Pho Series are based loosely off memoirs of a woman and her daughter of Vietnamese descent.