Back to the story-telling pictures, my favorite is of a cute and coquettish little girl, dated 1951 by my father. The girl wears a short Western dress with a big bow at the chest, and white shoes with straps. Her hair is parted on the side, adorned with a small bow. She smiles broadly, both of her hands open wide to show all ten fingers; her pose is soft and girlish. This picture was also taken near a Heaven's Altar; a fishing-net that somebody hung over the fence in the back makes the background quite special.
I wonder why my mother seemed to like to make me look more like a boy than a girl. Perhaps she dreamt of giving birth to a boy when she was carrying her baby. The picture taken on my first birthday looks exactly like a little boy, with very short hair and in boy's clothes. Even the one taken in a commercial photography studio shows my mother holding me in her arms.
In another picture taken with sister Danh, the daughter of my nanny, I wore a white outfit, my hairstyle short in a Japanese fashion, my eyes round and opened wide. In another one, I am with sister Thanh, my other babysitter who frequently took me out.
On the reverse side of a picture taken with sister Loan Giao, my father noted: “Hoang Cam and Loan Giao.” Sister Giao looked thin in her rural blouse cut very long to suit her growing-up age. Sister Giao was the daughter of Uncle Hai To, a mapmaker who came from Hung Nhon, a province in the north. Uncle Hai helped many northern refugees who had escaped from the north by letting them stay in his house and helping them settle in the South. Many times I thought of asking my father about the name Hoang Cam that he had first given me when I was a baby, but then I forgot, and then my father passed away and could no longer give me the answer. Someone once explained to me that Hoang Cam was a very bitter medicinal herb, but I still wonder if it is really the name of a yellow bird.
In addition to the pictures in my album, I still keep many of my mother. One of my favorites shows her sitting poised at a desk. She had long hair braided and wound around her head in a Northern style, a long dress with an open collar, and a pen in her hand. A vase full of paper lotuses she had made was set on the desk. Nearby was an alarm clock on a shelf. A calendar with a panorama picture and decorated with small paper flowers was hanging on the wall. However, the wall in the background was made of dry grass; with a hammock lashed over the thin wood columns. This would be the interior of our old house in the village.
In another picture taken in a photography shop, my mother sat on an old style armchair covered with flowered velvet. She wore a long dress and was fully adorned with earrings, necklace, bracelet, and a long woolen scarf with a square-stripe design covering her shoulders. She had a posh attitude, her legs crossed, her right arm rested over the chair, her left arm placed over her thigh. This picture reflects her identity as an offspring of the renowned family Nguyen Hoa in Long Kien village in Ong Chuong.
I also keep a very special picture of the “three bathing beauties” taken by my father. They were my mother, aunt Ba Yen, and aunt Hai Hoi Van, swimming in the river wearing their everyday outfits. The only difference was that they looked wet. The other two young women were smiling but my mother was frowning crossly. Aunt Ba Yen was the daughter of Mrs. Sau Nhan, and she became the wife of Uncle Sau Du who was Duc Ong’s nephew. Uncle Sau Du's real name was Huynh Huu Thien; he was captured and killed by secret agents of President Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1960’s when he was traveling from Saigon back to the western region with Uncle Le Hoai Nam, teacher Tran Van Tap, Mr. Huynh Thien Tu, and driver Vanh. All of them were faithful followers of the Prophet, and they all suffered the same fate on that journey. After the downfall of president Diem in 1963, all five families brought their cases to court and won. All those who had executed the murder order from the former government admitted their crime during the trial, and all the victims' families were compensated. But no such award, no matter how large, could ever compensate for the suffering of losing those loved ones and the hatred and indignation of surviving family members. And those deaths were so horrible: the victims were stuffed into canvas sacks, tied to heavy rocks, and drowned at the bottom of Nha Be river.