Friday, September 9, 2016

happy birthdays


My Ông ngoại (maternal grandfather) is 97. He looks good, eh? Supposedly bà ngoại is younger than him but the other members of the family suspect otherwise. I think she is a centurion already. She used to claim that she looked older because she had a harder life. That she had a harder life, I have no doubt. She was orphaned and taken in by her father's sister, a doctor's wife whose kind treatment of her can be seen by her bowed legs. She said it was from carrying heavy items for the family but I suspect rickets. I didn't know the story in the late 1990s when my parents were living in Hanoi and we visited bà ngoại's family. I recall that they wrote to us after the visit, asking for money. I felt bad that my mother never replied or visited them again, but now that I know the story, I don't feel so bad. I was too young to understand then, but I suspect that the warm family reunion was only at the surface and the actual purpose was for bà ngoại to rub their noses in her good fortune. She waited over 50 years to serve that dish. 

The reason that I suspect bà ngoại is older, beside her looking older, is that I don't think that an orphan who was treated as the family servant could have saved up enough money to book a trip to France by her early twenties. But maybe she did. She certainly had motivation. 

My grandfather was from Dalat, a much loved son. He was tall for a Vietnamese man and in my opinion, handsome. He always wore a flat cap; it was his trademark. I later discovered that the cap and his sweeping hairstyle covered a huge, ugly scar at the top of his forehead. It still leaves me feeling out of sorts when I think about the physical tells that reveal how each of my grandparents have survived hardship. Despite the obvious sign of a past trauma, my grandfather is a jolly man. He smiles at the world. While my grandmother is kind but wary, my grandfather is effervescent. It is obvious what drew my grandmother to him. I can imagine him in his early twenties, fresh out of university and working in Paris. She would have met a confident and happy man, sure of his abilities and secure in his family's regard. It was not easy for her to trust him but his steady kindness and warmth prevailed.

Almost 25 years ago, my grandmother had cancer. The surgery to save her life left her with a stoma bag. The doctor told my mother and aunts that my grandmother could probably live another five years if the cancer didn't return. Obviously, she long ago exceeded the prognosis. I know that she is only alive because of my grandfather and his insistent care. She was very depressed and gave up for a long time. My grandfather cajoled her into eating. She would not change her bag and so he did it for her. He forced her to start living again. His will is an awesome thing to behold. It was what helped him rebuild his life after the war. It is what keeps him and my grandmother alive. I suspect that he would live to 110 if that was his will.




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