Today, when I try to recall and write memories about my parents and the place of my childhood, I realize how little I know about my father's youth. I feel so sorry that I did not ask my father when I still had the chance to do so. I never believed my father could die so soon. I still remember a few interesting things he told me.
My father was born in the north and began his studies there. During his youth he already liked to write for the newspaper. He wrote articles while in class, but he was caught and punished by the teachers. He had to wear a traditional long dress to go to school, and he usually hung his umbrella on his shoulder. The dress was encumbering, so any time he fought with other kids, he would tie the two long flaps around his waist.
My father left the north to go to the south alone. My paternal grandfather had died early; my grandmother died later. When my father heard the news of her death, he was extremely sad and did not talk for several weeks. Everyday, he bowed down before the altar to the ground a hundred times for grandmother. He said he must prostrate himself before the ancestor’s altar ten thousand times to repay his lack of filial piety, since he had been unable to take care of my grandparents. From time to time, my father asked my mother to cook some very salty dishes made with small shrimps or shredded pork. These were favorite dishes that grandmother had prepared for him when he was a young schoolboy.
My father had come to the south after obtaining a French baccalaureate in
When I was young I did not know what my father did, but he traveled all the time while I stayed home with my mother. Every time he traveled to
When I was about four years old, my mother suffered stage III appendicitis. My father took her up to
When our small family took refuge in
Aunt Ba was very beautiful with her slender stature, and she was very sweet. Aunt Ba gave me a small brown bag to carry change, the kind of cotton bag with a drawstring that attached to the elastic band at the waistline of a pair of pants. Every time my aunt or uncle gave me some change, I would put it inside that change bag and then carefully pull the string to keep the coins safe.
Aunt Ba had a daughter who was renowned throughout the area for her beauty. This was sister Hai Sang. Sister Sang had big round dove eyes. She liked to wear Chinese sleeveless tops, showing her two fleshy white arms . Many young boys in the village were infatuated with her. They liked to send love letters to sister Hai by throwing them over the fence or having the kids deliver them to her. Any love masterpiece would be read to all the girls in the house, who laughed heartily over it. One day when sister Hai got back from the market, after taking all the vegetables and meat out of her basket she found an extra “love amulet” that some young man had thrown in her basket.
On some other occasions, when my parents needed to travel for work, I was sent to the house of uncle Hai in Hung Nhon to play with sister Loan Giao and sister Dung, or with Thao, the daughter of “Ba Tia Hong,” my mother's adoptive brother who was sister Hoi Van's husband.
A few hundred refugees from the north came to start their new lives in the village. I remember the families of uncle Luu Hung and of uncle Ha. There were more than a dozen kids of about my age. All the girls had their hair cut short with a thick band, and they talked with a northern accent so that I could hardly catch the meaning. In spite of their strong accent, we made friends very easily. We spent the whole day going around in the neighborhood, picking wild longans, or playing under the shade of the trees. We played all kinds of simple girlish games, such as throwing a tennis ball in the air and at the same time picking the right number of chopsticks to catch the ball, flicking tamarind pits, hopping on one leg, or foot racing. Once I ran too fast in a foot race, sister Giao held out her leg, and I stumbled and fell down hard, my lips smashed and my knees scratched. I cried and screamed for my mother. Being scolded, sister Giao sobbed fearfully, trying to explain: “Because she ran too fast, I didn't know how to stop her, so I just held out my leg to halt her.”