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 10:21 PM

April 19, 2005


Sweet One is now twelve. As her nickname implies, she is a sweet child who very much resembles a young lady of sixteen or seventeen in appearance and the manner with which she comports herself.

While the environment in which she has grown up was and is markedly different from the setting of my own childhood, she has had the opportunity to experience similar things. My mother remains on the old homeplace, the pond still has fish, and there are chickens and ducks about the place, but no cows, horses or pigs.

Sweet One usually spends time during the summer with my mother helping tend to "things." As such, she has an idyllic view of life in the country. She is fortunate.

On the homefront, instead of barnyard "chores," Sweet One is expected to care for her dog, the ever clever and wiley Cairn Terrier Riley, as well as the family's Golden Retriever. She is also expected to help around the house, as needed, and maintain her room in an orderly fashion while managing her school work.

All that may seem like a lot for a twelve year old, but I believe in teaching children responsibility and the functions for which Sweet One is tasked truly pale in comparison to what my sister and I were expected to do at her age.

When I was twelve, my father had a hobby: shrimping. An odd hobby, I agree, but most things in my young life seemed to revolve around food and my mother's insatiable desire for fresh food for her family. I have long since accepted her primary expression of love and nurturing is through food. Preparing and serving the best quality of food to her family and others demonstrated her love and affection. Further, she derived a real sense of self-worth and acceptance through others' enjoyment of her meals.

My father was an extremely intelligent man. He spent twenty-seven years traveling the world and was fluent in five languages. Musically, he could play the piano, guitar, flute, clarinet, and saxophone. His interests were wide and varied; however, he was easily bored and after relatively brief interludes of completely immersing himself in a subject or hobby, he moved on to something else that struck his fancy or otherwise posed a challenge to him.

In search of fresh seafood, my father decided to shrimp on weekends when they were in season. Within a year of this particular obsession, he acquired two shrimp boats, each with specially designed nets with hand powered wenches and pulleys. One boat, the main one, was outfitted with a triangular-shaped drag-type net for trawling Big Lake and the Gulf of Mexico around Hackberry, Louisiana. The second had nets mounted on rectangular frames (called Butterfly nets) that were lowered into the water on either side of the boat and utilized the current to wash the shrimp into the stationary nets.

Whether due to his genius and research or sheer luck, my father was most successful and opened a seafood market, in addition to the three television and electronics stores he already had. Mine was the unenviable task of accompanying him on the shrimping expeditions when I was not in school and cleaning boats, nets, and all manner of paraphernalia afterwards. My sister, smaller in stature and strength, was not much help with the physical work of shrimping and was left to sort shrimp and crabs, as well as de-head shrimp when we returned.

To be honest, I actually enjoyed being on the water, despite the very early mornings and hard physical work. As a bonus, my father often allowed me to "drive" the boat and for whatever reason, he permitted me to use "colorful" language on occasion. I guess, it could truthfully be said, even I can make a sailor blush.

In addition to working the boat, I was expected to depart the bus after school at the fish market to wait on customers, clean fish, and mop floors. If I recall correctly, I believe I made $2.50 an hour. As soon as I received my first "paycheck" my father insisted I open a checking account to learn how to manage my money.

After working and saving for weeks, my very first purchase with my own money was a pair of Wolverine boots and a new bridle for my horse. I was so proud to write that first check. Because I was not old enough to drive, I did not have a driver's license and had to rely on my scuba card (I was certified at nine) and my passport as my only forms of picture identification.

If anyone had asked me, I would have expressed my preference NOT to work on my father's shrimp boat and NOT to work in his fish market; however, no one ever asked.

Through experiences such as these, I learned a great deal about the rewards of hard work and the importance of a solid work ethic.

I often wonder if I am providing my children adequate opportunities to learn these same lessons. I believe if we as parents do not insist on these kinds of lessons for our children, we endow them with nothing more than a sense of "entitlement" that will do little to serve them well when the responsibilities of adulthood befall them.

Posted by Christina at 11:04 PM

April 17, 2005


So, ummm, how do you like your eggs?

Over-easy, poached, soft-boiled, fried?

For anyone who saw Julia Roberts (not my favorite) a few years ago in Runaway Bride, the character she played had a tendency to morph into a woman whose likes and dislikes were based primarily on her love interest at the time. Her awakening to the road of self-discovery began when she realized she was unable to decide how she liked her eggs.

Me, I like Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce if someone else is preparing it for me. If I have to cook, then it's over-easy with lightly toasted French bread, real butter, Mayhaw jelly, and at least two slices of bacon. Who cares if, after all that, I am unable to eat for the rest of the day? It's the breakfast of this champion.

Eggs are just one subject on which we can each express a preference. For Roberts' character in the movie, her ability to decide for herself on a choice of eggs marked her emergence as an individual in touch with who and what she was.

If only it were that simple.

If only announcing "I like my eggs soft boiled or poached" catapulted us onto that plane of self-awareness.

Life is not the movies. Life is, well, life.

This brings me to the real issue: How well do we really know ourselves?

We may know some things about our likes and dislikes. I love the taste of strawberries, but am not wild about papaya, but that is not to what I am referring. Knowing ourselves involves an understanding of who and what we are, as well as what motivates us to do what we do.

I am fortunate to have someone, a friend I greatly admire, who is unafraid to kick me in the pants when I desperately need it. This friend asked me who I am, not with respect to my relationships with others, but who is this person inside.

Hearing the question resonate deep within my soul, I initially drew a blank. I had not a clue of the stranger within me.

Take away the labels of mother, attorney, wife, friend, or whatever, and I was left with just me. But, who is me? And, how does one go about defining and articulating something that simply is?

Without a doubt, I am perfectly capable of delineating what it is I like and dislike. But, surely, there must be more to me than that.

Then, are we or do we become limited by the terms we use to describe ourselves?

We are more than the sum of our motivations and desires. We are also shaped by our own unique and collective experiences.

I'm still working on the "getting my head on straight" part and deeply appreciate the very kind and thoughtful support from each of you who commented and sent emails. To my way of thinking, all this is a journey.

As far as Feisty is concerned, each of you is certainly welcome to come along and see where all this takes us. I'm so very glad to have the company.

Thank you.

Posted by Christina at 01:04 PM | TrackBack

April 12, 2005

Cochon de lait

Cochon de lait literally translates "pig in milk" or suckling pig.

My mother grew up outside of Saigon near a place called Tu Duc, Vietnam. She was accustomed to open air markets where every thing imaginable from produce to seafood to meat to silk was available every morning. Thus, fresh meat was always the order of the day for her.

When I was a child my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I entered the first grade. Because we lived in the country we were able to raise all manner of beast and fowl, as well as a vegetable and herb garden.

Unhappy with the selection and cuts of pork from the local meat market, my mother decided one year she would buy a young pig to raise to butcher and fill the freezer. If I recall correctly, she traded a farmer, his name was Mr. Eason, two or three of her prized Bantam (we pronounced them Banty) chickens for a cute little piglet. I named him George.

On an aside, for those uninitated in the way of the chicken, Bantam Chickens were wee chickens with feathered feet and the cutest little brown eggs you ever did see. I do not know whether it was the cute eggs or the feathered feet which my mother found so appealing. All I know is she loved those little chickens. Mind you, these were not meant for eating, we had other regular chickens for that, these were for looking at and gathering eggs; however, I don't recall ever eating those little eggs, but they sure made cute little painted Easter eggs. In this instance, the chickens were used to barter.

George was the finest and smartest little piglet. He was only five or six pounds when my parents brought him home. My sister and I were told repeatedly of George's ultimate fate and every time the subject came up, we nodded, hugged the piglet, and ran off to play with him.

This piglet was an extremely intelligent animal. He followed us around like a little puppy, came when called, but pretty much failed at fetching.

When not out running around with me, George lived in a pen just outside the barn. It was actually a tropical type garden. There was a small stream or creek (pronounced crick where I come from and more than once heard it referred to as a "branch") that ran from the big pond to another much smaller pond a quarter of a mile away. Its path crossed the front and side of the barn, as well. A large culvert was created over the creek in front of the barn to allow passage with a tractor and truck.

Just off the culvert, my mother planted a bunch of different types of bamboo in the soft mud on one side of the creek, the barn side. That stuff caught on like wild fire, grew quickly, and it was not long before they stood tall, dense, and proud.

Much later that entire area was closed off with a six foot wire fence. It was within that fifty by forty foot area that the chickens were given coops and the ducks with their ducklings were allowed to nest and hatch in the "bamboo forest." Only after nesting season and the maturation of the ducklings were they all released into the big pond.

My mother routinely harvested the bamboo in the fowl pen for stakes for her garden, fishin' poles, and other sundry uses. Harvesting required no more than a quick chop to the bottom of the bamboo with a machete. She always cut those things down at an angle and left rather barbaric looking bamboo "stumps" all over the pen. They were the devil if some unfortunate soul (namely me) happened to step on one or fall on another.

All one summer George and I followed much the same routine. The dog and I would get up early, walk out to the pen, release George, then the three of us would tend to the rest of the animals. Only after the horses and cows and chickens and ducks and fish were fed, George was fed and I could have breakfast myself.

George grew quickly and in the fall of that year he hit about 100 pounds and my father began asking my mother how much longer George had left. Every time the question was asked I gave my mother the best liquid doe-eyed look I could muster. Eventually, she caved and told my father that she and the kids loved the pig and she just couldn't butcher him. Apparently, once school started, George would squeal in loneliness until my mother let him out of the pen and he spent the rest of the day following her around as she tended to work outside.

The following spring, George was pretty much full grown and at close to 200 pounds weighed more than my mother, my sister, and me combined. He was a big fella and over the winter had become, well, a bit boorish. He still pretty much followed me around and usually came when called, but when he didn't it took great time and effort and get him back in the pen. Eventually, it got to the point where we were unable to take him out of the fowl pen at all.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

One Saturday morning the dog and I walked out to the pen and we discovered nothing other than a hog had gone wild. Gentle George had turned on his pen companions and ate all but one of the Bantam chickens and killed or eaten all of the ducklings. My mother was beyond distraught, she was pissed. George's number was up.

My mother was five feet one inche tall and dripping wet may have weighed a hundred pounds, but I doubt it. Her uniform was a cotton shirt, shorts of some sort, and those damn thin Asian flip-flop things. She was also armed with her trusted machete.

George could see her coming and knew all was not well.

I had never seen anyone try to kill a hog with a machete, much less a wee slip of a woman. Thankfully, she did not ask me to help, so my sister, the dog, and I sat at the base on an old oak tree to watch and see what would happen next.

As she entered the pen, she called in vain for George to come to her. As I said, this piggy was not stupid. He stood his ground until she got in swinging distance then the chase was on. Every time she stepped on one of those damned spiked bamboo stumps she let loose with some foul sounding Vietnamese and it was not long before she abandoned the flip flops somewhere in the mud altogether.

While my young mind grasped the life and death events unfolding before me, the images were beyond comedic. My sister and I howled with laughter every time the pig bested poor ol' mom.

My mother was one tough, tenacous, and gritty woman. She still is.

The more the pig evaded her, she slipped in fell on the mud or stepped on cut bamboo, the madder she got and the more relentless she became. After an hour or so, she ran that pig to the point of absolute collapse. That's exactly what she did. Exhausted, poor George just dropped to his knees and rolled over to one side.

Victorious, my mother climbed on his back, spent and exhausted herself. But, by that time, she was too damned tired to try to kill him. She just sat on him.

Once she caught her breath, she wearily tracked down her flip flops, pried them from the mud, and limped to the house. It was only after my father got home did she demand he shoot the pig. When he walked out to the pen with gun in hand, he found my sister and me administering aid to the fallen pig. Not even my father could shoot the brokenly tired George. He was just too pitiful.

A few days after that, Mr. Eason returned with a few Bantam chickens for my mother and George was herded into a trailer and taken off. We were later told George made a fine feast. A cochon de lait or cajun pig roast was held in his honor. He was our first and last pig.

Posted by Christina at 11:05 PM

April 06, 2005

My Secret Self

As a child, I had a special place to which I retreated when I needed or wanted to be alone. Actually, there were a couple of special places. The first was a loft in a barn behind the bales of hay. That spot was ideal when it was cold and rainy outside.

The barn was the perfect place to stash things, a favorite toy I wanted to save and protect from others, my piggy bank, and my journal. Well, I later learned that paper, particularly paper money, did not fare so well in the barn, but coins did great.

I spent many hours holed up in the barn with my dog at my feet pretending the loft was the captain's quarters or deck on a pirate ship or the captain's chair on my very own Enterprise. I could be the swashbuckling pirate or the fearless Star Fleet Commander, but not so much the maiden in distress because there was really no one else around to save me.

The other special place was in a very old and very grand oak tree on a steep bank in a bend of a slow moving river. The tree had a fair number of roots exposed and leaned at an angle toward the water.

I loved that tree.

Despite time and erosion slowly extinguishing its life, it continued to grow limbs, leaves, and acorns. The massive trunk was easy to climb because of its precarious angle. Half of the upper part of the oak was directly over the river. It was in the tangled limbs of the top third of the tree that I made my nest among the squirrels and birds.

No treasures were kept in the tree. At most, I had fashioned a hammock of sorts out of part of an old seine net that had once been used to collect crawfish out of shallow ponds.

Pretend play was performed in the loft and everywhere else, but the oak tree was for thinking, watching, wondering, and, occasionally, napping.

Even now I can close my eyes and feel the sun on my face and arms, the breeze tugging at my hair, and the gentle swaying of the limbs rocking me. I can hear the leaves rustle, the birds sing, and the water flow. I can also smell the fresh air and clean water. In my mind's eye, I can see the blue of the sky and watch the clouds roll by.

What I would not give for an hour in that tree.

Posted by Christina at 11:07 PM