3- My Mother’s Childhood

23 Tháng Năm 200712:00 SA(Xem: 9497)
3- My Mother’s Childhood

During the time when Cambodian rebels and the Viet Minh were hunting for officials of Hoa Hao Buddhism  in the 1940, all villagers unanimously became involved in self-defense, and they protected their leaders very heartily. The believers considered and treated each other as brothers, members of the same family. Whenever someone got sick, others would come to his/her home to give a massage or help in whatever ways they could.

There was a cholera epidemic, and the village organized a volunteer public health unit. A house with a patient would beat the gong. The health unit came to their house to give a massage and to provide medicine made on the prescription of the Prophet, of which they prepared plenty to distribute in the village to treat the disease. The potion was mixed with alcohol, and it proved to be very effective in curing cholera and helping the villagers overcome the epidemic.


My mother always remembered that terrible year, marked by all kinds of disasters. Whenever the French troops came in for a “raid”, the youngsters rode through the village on their bikes and sounded a warning. It was important that the pretty girls hide themselves immediately. My mother and aunt Hai Bac used to run directly toward the river bank near the house of Duc Ong, or sometimes to the Ancestral Temple. They knew a hiding place there, a large hole carved out by the water when the river ran high. Reaching this place, my mother and aunt Hai would creep quickly into the hole and then pull down the duckweed to cover the surface. They would stay there in silence and fear until they heard the messenger’s announcement that the French troops' raid was over; then they would climb out, all wet and dirty.


Before going to Saigon to learn the fine art of housekeeping, my mother had been a student of Ecole Primaire (French Elementary School), which later became Long Xuyen elementary school. Until today, fifty years later, my mother still remembers and feels great love and respect for her first teachers and schoolmates. She made close friends with Ms. Ba Giap, Ms. Phan, and Ms. Nam Liep. She was good in almost all the subjects she studied, but not in mathematics, because she did not like to calculate. She excelled in drawing and embroidery. The teachers often asked her to embroider handkerchiefs for them to make presents to their friends.


From a very young age my mother had had an inspiration for religious practice. Alone in her room as a little girl, she had worshipped the Goddess of Mercy (Quan The Am Bo Tat, Kwan Yin). She would worship and bow down low four times every day: in the morning, at noontime, at five in the afternoon, and at twelve in the evening. Before going to bed, she sat with crossed legs under the mosquito net and recited Buddha's name.


During school terms, she stayed in a boarding house managed by the teachers, Mr. Cu and Ms. Hoa. She recalls: “Things were very different in those days than they are now. After the first wave of northern refugees into the south, in the early 1950’s, students in high schools and universities started to wear long dresses in school. But in my time, still under the domination of the French, the students wore only a well-ironed white ba ba (a rural outfit consisting of a cotton blouse) and pants and carried a school bag in one hand and an all-weather umbrella under the other arm.”


The house in which my mother shared a room was full of teenaged students. The boys stayed on the second floor and the girls on the first floor. Every four girls shared one bed. After school, everyone went home for dinner; the girls carried food from the kitchen and arranged the tables, while the boys hastily picked meat and shrimps or stir-fry vegetable into their bowls, and then covered them with rice. The girls were either too shy, too scared, or too slow to tell the teachers about those tricks, so often they just ate plain rice without any other food, or just poured a bit of leftover salty fish sauce on top.


My mother laughs jovially when talking about the naughtiness of the young boy students. At night they would just show their faces to the teachers, sit down at the common study table for a while, and then disappear somewhere else. When the teachers, after finishing their text preparation or test correction, discovered the absence of the boys they took a rod and came to the boys’ room, lifted the mosquito net and called their names. Although they boys appeared to be lying there underneath the blankets, no matter how loud the teachers yelled there was not the slightest answer or movement. Then they lifted the blankets and saw what was underneath: only long pillows. The teachers did not say a word, just sat down and waited patiently. Finally, the boys climbed over the windows back into their rooms. Now it was the time for punishment. The boys had sneaked out to go to the movies. The teachers ordered them to lie down in a row and whipped each one twice on the buttocks.


At this funny part of the story, my mother suddenly stops to wipe tears in her eyes. She seems touched by the memory of her male schoolfellows. I ask her why she feels so sad. She says: “It ended pitifully, my child! Many of those young boys were later killed by Viet communists.” She stays quiet for a while, then says: “Do not talk about those sad events anymore. Memory always carries both joy and sorrow. That was the war time!”


Now, resuming her mood of amusement, my mother states: “We are now in the United States and can eat whatever we want. I like to eat rice noodles, but sometimes seeing too much meat really puts me off. It was different during that time.”


When my mother was just a little girl she lived in Long Xuyen. Only once a week could she afford to have a treat.  Her favorite was the rice noodles at the food-cart of a Chinese street-vendor called Chu Sinh. He pushed a three-wheel cart; the cart-box in front contained a caldron of soup, surrounded by all kinds of meat, vegetables, spices, and noodles. The cart also had a cover to protect the food against rain and sun. He sold a bowl of noodle soup for two piastres. If you wanted more meat, the cost was two and a half piastres. The order given, he put some noodles into a big heavy bowl, then a few slices of pork, two pieces of liver, one piece of heart, a little ground pork, and then he poured the soup over it. Afterward, he put in a few leaves of watercress, onion and shallot, soy sauce and pepper. How delicious was the noodle bowl! This was not all; you should also know the art of consuming it.

In that time, as a teen living far away from her home, she had no money other than an allowance from my grandparents. So she had to be very frugal to make ends meet, and yet she derived great delight from spending money sensibly. She carefully carried the bowl of noodles and sat down by the roadside next to her girl friends. She picked meat, liver, and heart onto one side, and then started to eat the noodles. She planned to eat the plain thing first and then spend more time enjoying the good part. However, she did not plan for the schemes of her tricky friends.  They knew her habit, so while she was busy eating the plain noodles they took andvantage of her preoccupation and picked the meat and liver out to consume them all, then they all laughed so loudly, included the one who had been cheated. The young days were so tender and happy, without the slightest pains or worries.


At that time, the young people also had the pastime of building huts, and many other interesting entertainments. At weekends, my mother came back to her home to wash her clothes and prepare for the next school week. She carried her clothes out to wash in the river by the bridge called Henry, which is now renamed Hoang Dieu, where the French army had built their barracks: Son Da.  On Sunday, however, she had time to herself, and she built a hut with banana leaves, then cut the peppermint leaves to make hats. Her previous house had been on Gia Long street, near a creek, from the main road to that house, there had been a bridge. She had liked to go down to the creek to cut the duckweed, then she used the long middle trunk as bread for her bread selling game, which could take an entire pleasant day.


These were a few sketches of my mother's activities as an innocent teenager. My grandparents were themselves very religious.  They had been living virtuously and did not spoil their loving daughter. Until now, my mother still retains that well-bred attitude.  She says: “You know, my child, today when I recall these old stories, I still feel a high regard for my teachers. Even when I was older, when I happened to meet my teachers I still crossed my arms and bowed before them respectfully. I still had the feeling of excitement, anxiety, and shyness that I used to have when I faced them as a small child. I think the love between teachers and pupils will never fade away.”

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18 Tháng Bảy 2010(Xem: 14819)