We hold memorials, not only to remember those we love, but also to share with others the stories of our loved ones –the tiny, idiosyncratic details which made them a unique part of our lives, the timeline of events which in their entirety sets a life apart, and the multiplicity of ways in which their lives touched ours. In this telling, we can shed light on this one beloved of our own, whose dying has left us bereft, but whose living cast our souls that much closer to heaven. I shared this memoriam when my grandmother passed away on 11/12/2006.
I’ve told the story of her passing, the privilege of being the last to hear her heart beat. This, then, is the story of her life, as told through the eyes of those who loved her. She was born to well-to-do parents in North Vietnam in the Year of the Snake. As was the custom of that time, she finished school at an early age. She married my grandfather at 15. She bore her first child at age 17. She had 11 children in total, though only 7 lived to adulthood. She and my grandfather were very religious, and were respected elders of the church in her village. She fled from the Communists to South Vietnam in 1954. She became a widow in January 1970. She fled the Communists again in 1975 to come to America. She lived in Woodhaven, Michigan for the next 31 years, raising children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
That story though, leaves out the details which reveal who she really was. The well-to-do family into which she was born was a farm with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. She walked to mass daily, carrying her shoes and washing her feet before entering the church. She married my grandfather, not because he was a wealthy man, but because he was known in her village to be a good man. Though he had been orphaned, he knew his letters, and was well-respected as an honorable man who had made his own way in the world. Two years after she married him, at age 17, she gave birth to a son, then buried him shortly thereafter. She called each of the children who did not survive to adulthood her angels. Though she had borne 11 children of her own, she took in two sons of a widowed cousin. She bore all of her children but one daughter at home, often getting up the next day to work. She survived for months at a time, alone, while my grandfather sought work in South Vietnam. When she and her family fled North Vietnam, they left only with the clothing they wore, but my grandfather was able to rescue all of the holy articles from the church, to bring to the South.
Just before Saigon fell in 1975, at age 60, she made her way from her village with her two youngest daughters, first to Vung Tau to get to international waters, where she was turned away because she was a woman, and then through road barricades to Saigon, where her second daughter refused to leave Vietnam without her mother and sisters. She survived refugee camps in Guam and the Philippines before arriving in the city in which her eldest daughter had made her home. She never went back to Vietnam. She never saw her oldest living son again, as he preceded her in death.
Though she never learned to speak more than a few words of English, she was much more Americanized than some other Vietnamese Americans who arrived at the same time who wouldn’t touch hamburgers or French fries, some of her favorite foods, and one of the few English words she could say. She loved to sing, and taught me all of my prayers. She loved to fly on airplanes, and preferred the window seat. She traveled to Vietnamese Catholic pilgrimages in Missouri, vacationed in Tennessee, Mackinac Island, Colorado and California. She couldn’t wait to go to church every Sunday, and never missed mass until she became ill. She prayed constantly, rosary beads always at hand. She loved babies, massaging their chubby legs, and kissing them in the Vietnamese tradition by inhaling that unique baby scent. She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren fiercely, and expected them all to abide by the Christian principles with which she had raised them. She died peacefully in the company of loved ones, having just received Communion.
Who is to say what one person’s passing through this world can mean? For my grandmother, testament to her life is borne out in those of her own blood standing among you and far away in Vietnam. It is up to us, the living, to bear witness through our actions, to her courage, her love, her wisdom and her faithfulness.
Today I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived with my grandmother until I got married and moved out of the house. I am thankful that she lived long enough to have squeezed and kissed each of my children, and that I’ll always have the example of her loving kindness to guide me.