I certainly wasn’t my maternal grandmother’s favourite grandchild, however my grandmother received my deepest admiration and greatest affection for her.
My fondest memory of her was her smile. That smile made a child like me felt that I was bathed in love, appreciated and accepted for being myself. Her smile satisfied my longing for tenderness and approval that my parents rarely expressed towards their children.
Grandma possessed a noble beauty that resembled that of the wife of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. Her bright and wrinkled-free face with a smile full of marbled-white teeth etched clearly in my mind. Her fair skin made her look so different to most olive-skinned Vietnamese women. She lived in Saigon, yet like all the rural women, she always demurely dressed herself in the traditional ‘ao ba ba’ and her hair knotted into a bun at the back. Grandma always looked relaxed and happy even though she was widowed and had to bring up five children on her own.
My maternal grandfather’s family escaped communism in Chaozhou, China and settled in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. Grandfather worked as a farmer, married my Vietnamese grandmother and survived a massacre by the colonial French military that took the lives of many male villagers whom they believed were the anti-French-colonist fighters. After that, he moved his family to Saigon and opened a bakery.
Grandfather died at the age of 49 from lung cancer while Grandmother – aged 45 then – was pregnant with her last child and my mum with her first child.
Grandma had ten children but two died in their infancy and childhood in their rural village and one got lost on the way the family fled to Saigon to avoid the French military raids. My mum is the eldest child. We lived only seven houses from grandmother’s, separated by a market. Mum, her other married sister and Grandma all made their living by designing, producing and selling wholesale children’s wear. In Grandma’s later years, she only was responsible for designing and buying materials whereas my unmarried aunts did most of the material cutting and distributing to sewing workers. Grandma and my mum had their own designs for children’s wear and Mum was considered wealthier than Grandma.
When the Communists ran the campaign to forfeit assets of the bourgeoisie, Mum and Grandma had ceased their business after the Fall of Saigon, so we weren’t targeted. Even so, because Dad was a political prisoner, Mum was still afraid that some scoundrel could tip-off the Communists to come to us and find evidence in the hundreds of metres of clothing materials in our house. I made several 300 meter trips carrying some of Mum’s leftover materials to Grandma’s place to hide. Grandma planned that if she was caught, she could lie to the Communists that the material were to be used for her household of six adults in the future. During those trips, I sweated heavily and dared not looking at anyone should it cause suspicion. When I reached Grandma’s house, her smiles reassured me that everything would be fine. I was so relieved when the trips were over.
I regretted that I couldn’t see Grandma before she died at the age of 89 due to kidney disease as I didn’t want to go back to Vietnam where I had risked death to escape, and our family was persecuted. Yet I cried silently when I read my aunt’s letter describing her death and saw pictures of Grandma’s funeral. I always look up at the moon and feel that I see my grandma’s beaming face there.
In the quiet night,
The shining moon light,
Reminds me of your face,
That was brimful of grace.
In the Summer breeze,
Can I still see please,
You sitting in that chair,
Smile at me in your ‘ba ba’ wear.
Across the meadow,
I saw a widow,
Who’s hopeful, strong and bright,
Despite her hapless plight.
In the midday rain,
My mind can’t abstain,
From your funeral scene,
That I wish I had been.
I build an altar,
In my soul ever,
For you – charming Granny,
My love to you daily.