April 30, 2005

Her Story

After sixty or more years of French Colonial rule, she was born on a coffee and tobacco plantation outside the southern Vietnamese city of Da Lat in the fall of 1943. She was the third of what was to be five children.

Her early memories were of snacking on sweets while seated on her father's lap and accompanying him on his daily rounds to check his crops and survey his lands. She was her father's favorite and endured the scorn, not only of her older siblings, but her mother as well.

Her life was her father and when he was present all was well and right in her world.

That idyllic world was fractured with the breaking of dawn during her tenth year. There was chaos in the household when it was discovered the lord, master, and revered father failed to wake and return from slumber to the living. In the silence of the night, he merely passed from this world into the next.

Behind him he left a shell of a wife nursing an infant, a three year old daughter, and the nine year old daughter, as well as a married daughter and son.

The eldest child and only son became the new patriarch and immediately sold the plantation, gave the mother a small house and settlement, then divided the proceeds with the oldest sister. No banks were trusted or used in those days and a family’s wealth was invested in land and gold jewelry with occasional precious stones.

Thereafter, the son took up gambling and when he lost all, joined the military and abandoned all, but his wife. The older sister relinquished her share of the family’s wealth to her husband and was never heard from again.

In that culture at that time, female children were regarded as liabilities. Their only value was to future mothers-in-law because it was incumbent upon sons to support the larger family unit and bring wives home to serve their mothers. A family with no sons was poor, indeed. A family with no father and only a weak and unscrupulous son was destitute and damned.

Within a month, the mother had willed herself to join her husband. In her mourning, she simply refused to eat and in the agony of her loss faded from this life with no thought to her three remaining children. She was quickly followed by the infant child who the nine year old was unable to provide the necessary milk.

Alone and completely abandoned were the nine year old and her chubby little three year old sister. Their care had been entrusted to the family maid, but once the mother passed, she took the remaining items of value from the house and absconded with the plantation’s foreman.

Orphans were frowned upon as they were viewed as the harbingers of bad luck; however, a paternal uncle allowed the two young girls shelter in return for their tending of the pigs and chickens. The girls were not favored by the woman of the house. Their meals consisted of what little rice or vegetables were left in the bowls when the members of the household were replete from their meals. Further, they were not afforded the opportunity to continue with school because they were of so little value.

For three or four years the girls continued to exist under these conditions with no kind word or comfort from anyone but themselves. Eventually, a maternal grandmother sought them and brought them to her home in Saigon to keep her company in her advanced age. This grandmother had lost her second husband, had no sons, but was in the unique position of having her own resources and answering to no man.

Despite the hardship and arduous existence, the middle child had blossomed into a beautiful young lady. Her younger sister had lost her baby fat, but while not beautiful, retained a cheerful and loving disposition. The girls’ extreme closeness was forged less by their birth relationship than the struggles and adversity they had already survived.

With the grandmother, the girls were allowed to attend school and were instructed in the manner of genteel ladies. There were fashionably dressed in silk ao dais. At sixteen, the beauty of the middle child attracted the attention of the matriarch of a wealthy family. Arrangements were made for the young lady to meet the grandson.

Under the watchful eyes of the aged women, the young lady was introduced over tea to a handsome young Captain in the South Vietnamese Army in 1959. He was one of two children, the second son. His older brother had been married for seven years, but remained childless.

Each was attracted to the other and further betrothal arrangements were made and solidified between the families. A wedding was scheduled for the following spring.

The young Captain continued to call on the young lady and they began to spend more and more time together. She found herself deeply in love with him and flourished under his attention. His were the only eyes since the death of her father that had looked warmly and favorably on her. She gave herself to him wholly and completely.

A few months before the wedding, the young woman was noticeably heavy with child.

Her shame rendered her unsuitable to marry the young Captain. His family forbade him from ever seeing her again. Torn between his love of the young woman and his duty to his family, the Captain took his own life.

After a healthy son was born to the young woman, the matriarch and older brother to the Captain inspected the child. He was found to resemble his father, the young Captain. A claim was then made by the Captain's brother for the child.

It was during this period the young woman began working as a beautician in a salon to support herself and her son. Her sister continued to attend school and helped her keep the baby when she had to work. The young woman had refused to relinquish her son to his uncle and struggled to carve a place for herself, her baby, and her younger sister.

The Vietnam of 1961, particularly in the cosmopolitan city of Saigon, was heavily influenced by many years of French colonial rule. Work days were divided into late morning and early afternoon periods, then late afternoon and early evening. During the break between working hours, citizens enjoyed leisurely activities. One of these was swimming at local clubs.

Because it was a male-dominated culture, there were two separate facilities, one for men and the other for women and children. Curiously, the pool and dressing areas for the women and children were in plain view from the men's facilities; however, the men's facilities were further up a hill and obscured from inquisitive eyes below.

At thirty, the American had already spent several years overseas. He was fluent in Spanish, German, and French; however, his study of Vietnamese had just begun. His last assignment was complete following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. An attractive man, he was married and divorced twice already and never seemed to lack female companionship.

During this period of rest during the workday, the American and a friend were enjoying cocktails, the warmth of the climate, and an unobstructed view of women and children swimming below. It was his second week in country and the third time he had had seen the young mother at the pool. Inquiries had been made and his interpreter confirmed the young woman was unmarried.

With an almost ever-present interpreter, the young lady and American began dating. To him, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and carried herself with grace and dignity. To her, he was tall and strong and unwavering in his affection for her.

However, the Captain's brother and family continued to press for custody of the then seven-month-old child. Without money or the influence it bought, the young woman was on the verge of losing her son. The Captain's family wanted and needed the heir and when the child was fully weaned, she was told they would come for him.

The American was well aware of the young woman's situation. He wanted her and not the child. He offered her marriage, but made no mention of the child. She knew the Captain's family mourned his loss and the brother and his wife dearly wanted the child for their own. She also knew she could not provide for her baby as they could. She never asked the American to help her or accept her baby. With anguish in her heart and deep regret, she relinquished her baby to his father's family.

The young woman married the American and her world again underwent a drastic change. Once she belonged to him, he systematically began to isolate her from her beloved younger sister and insisted she venture out only under his watchful eye or those of his bodyguards.

After a year or so of marriage, she was desperately unhappy. She managed to escape one afternoon and ran to her grandmother’s home where her younger sister was again living. The American husband found her. In front of the sister and grandmother he began the first of many beatings she would endure for years to come. To the grandmother and sister he threatened death should either darken his door. With that, the young woman was dragged back to his domain.

In 1964 a daughter was born to the couple while they still lived in Saigon. Shortly thereafter, his work would take them from country to country. While in Heidelberg, Germany in 1967 a second child was born, another daughter. In Turkey in 1969 the woman suffered a miscarriage after a particularly brutal beating. Her transgression at the time, she had cried because she was homesick. In 1971 the family returned to the States for the daughters to avail themselves of an American education. In 1972 the woman suffered a second miscarriage, also following a brutal beating. In 1975 she watched the fall of Saigon on a television set while she cried and hung onto to what children remained. Her sense of loss almost complete because she believed with a North Vietnamese victory, she would never be allowed to return home.

In the interim years she tried to provide her daughters with all the love in her heart while she ached for her homeland and a sister and son left behind. As she had since she was nine years old, she continued to endure and struggled to persevere in a climate which saw not only her husband’s rage directed at her, but against her children, as well.

Her daughters eventually left home and made their way in life. She remained with her husband who had mellowed some with age and infirmity. The physical abuse eventually stopped, but the verbal mistreatment and mental manipulation continued until just weeks before his death. Her time with him began with days and ended only after forty-three very long and hard years.

She is now sixty-one, almost sixty-two years old. She has had no contact with anyone in Vietnam for over forty years. Yet, she is determined to find not only her son, now aged forty-four, but her long lost baby sister, now fifty-five or fifty-six in a country long ago torn apart by war and presently under Communist rule.

She is putting her affairs in order to go in search of those left behind.

A part of me wonders whether she will return, once she is again in the land she calls home.

Posted by Christina at April 30, 2005 10:21 PM

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