I was eleven before I knew her real name – Le Thi Canh. We called her Ba ngoai – Ba for female of the grandparents’ generation, and ngoai of the maternal line, the ‘outside family’ that has to earn acceptance by the ‘inside,’ noi, village of the father. I was twenty-two before I knew much else about her.
Before then she puttered around the edges of life. She never had a home of her own in America, instead rotating from one child’s house to another throughout the year, spending a few months each in Florida, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, so as not to wear out her welcome. Some houses she rarely went to. She was as ngoai as ngoai could be. Having few living expenses, she spent her Social Security checks on graduation and birthday gifts for grandchildren, took slow walks, or gardened. She nannied my younger cousins. She claimed to not speak English, but on most afternoons we could find her watching soaps, ankles crossed with her tiny round body barely denting the sofa, crocheting or knitting. She could tell the latest storyline from any of them, in Vietnamese. When she was in my mother’s house, she helped more with cooking than my mother sometimes wanted. She stood silent whenever my mother lit into me, but might say something quiet out of my hearing later, enough to calm the mother.
In my parents’ house like most Vietnamese homes, there is a quiet place called a ban cung. Sideboard, mantel, bedroom bureau; it doesn’t matter. It might be permanent or portable, the incense sprigs propped up in raw rice in a teacup base, banquet food piled on mismatched china, and photographs laid out when needed then put away. It is the ancestor worship table, the focus of offerings that descendants make to the wandering (and apparently starved) ghosts of forbearers on their death anniversaries. Told to pay my respects, with little of how explained to me, I stood at the alter three times a year, once for each grandparent lost, on the anniversary of their death, balancing incense between my hands, and helplessly turned my eyes downward.
Ba ngoai was my only living forbear, the one I didn’t have to conjure. She was the medium. She hung suspended in her own crevice, between joy and eviscerating grief, authority and impotence, the living and the dead.
You bring along the dead to start a life over, layered with the living to bind the two together. This is what my parents had packed in valises in early spring of 1975, long before they found a way to get us out of Saigon. For weeks the suitcases stood neatly in a row, then packed in the trunk of our red sedan, ready for any opportunity. Among a few changes of clothes, birth certificates, school diplomas, proof of employment, and dog tags on chains to later hang on each child engraved with their names and instructions for contacting Dan Ross should they get lost, were carefully wrapped photographs. There were color photographs of us children with scouting troops, in school uniforms, posed before scenic backgrounds at the zoo, by the water at a Dalat resort; of me and girl cousins in matching red Tet dresses with blue polka-dot chiffon pockets and cap sleeves one year, polyester Twiggy yellow pant suits with large white daisies another. Black and white photographs of my debonair parents – him walking a bicycle with hair slicked off a high forehead, a tilted Hollywood head shot of her in a Bouvier do, full lips and cheekbones, looking barely Asian and vaguely like pictures of Anne Frank. A separate pile of photographs of the dead – the paternal grandfather, ong noi, in mandarin headdress and black ao giai, a projection of Chuong’s face at forty with eyes dark and bottomless, the way of artists; the maternal grandfather, ong ngoai, in modern blazer and tie, a projection of my baby brother, Tuan’s, face at thirty, the film overexposed and the print faded so that his hair looked blond; a group of my father’s school friends; grandaunts whose names I didn’t know; and no photos of the paternal grandmother – ba noi, which made my father so sad that I was not allowed to ask about it.
My grandmother had no photographs on her table. She arranged its surface in her bedroom when she came, usually closer to the floor, with a bit of silk, incense, bronze boxes and Buddha statue, a small drum, and prayer books. She had remained Buddhist when my parents converted to Catholicism; this should have been a clue. An hour or more each day, she sat with small legs crossed to click-clack on the drum and chant in the bastardized Sanskrit passed down from Indian Buddhist missionaries to their Vietnamese converts. The transliteration has no meaning in Vietnamese; it’s pure gibberish. If prayer is contemplation, she could not have relied on the chants for content. I sat outside her bedroom door, secretly listening to the sedative, white noise that induced the trance state necessary for contemplation. They channeled, for her, all that she came from and had lost, right into the second story of my mother’s gray stone colonial. The syncopated rhythm of her nasal mutterings opened floodgates to an overwhelming grief that was as much mine as hers. We barely spoke during her visits, hobbled by our half languages.