When I was six, I had no grandfathers. Life had sprung from my beaming father and his older sisters on the one hand, and my mother and her siblings on the other. Ba Ngoai was the parthenogenic source of it all. I marveled at the power of her small, round belly.
When I was nine and we were settled in our row house in Mt. Airy, my mother set up our ban cung, the ancestor worship table I did not remember having in Saigon, though we must have had one. On it she placed framed, black and white photos of two men, one with a small face and dark, liquid eyes, in a mandarin robe and headdress; the other with a strong jaw and clear eyes, in a Western suit and tie. On days when we paid homage to them, I could feel faint rustlings around the frames ever so slightly upsetting the spiral of incense smoke rising between me and them. But there were no words, and no one else seemed to notice.
When we gathered with my mother’s siblings and my cousins once or twice each year for reunions, we children would line up at bedtime, lying sardine style on cool bed sheets spread over someone’s living room carpet, and fall asleep to the quacking of the elders’ chatter over mahjong and late night snacks in the next room. They gossiped about this person or that person, told stories and clucked their tongues about how hard life used to be and how far it seemed ago. Once in a while, and only if my grandmother was not in the room, the chatter fell on someone they had lost and whom they variably called Ong or Chu. I could feel them reaching for him, something kind, something flawed. A ghost hovered over the table, and the voices hushed.
But lacking mass, the ghost never rooted me. I floated like that, without ground, wondering with increasing alarm as the years passed how it was that I ended up in this family.
When I was a sophomore in college, I met a skinny boy who smiled long smiles, whose voice was elusively familiar, who reminded me of Mt. Airy. He played a Joplin tango for me in the empty dining hall at midnight, and took me to an animation festival in an old theater where he took off his sandals to put up his bare feet on the tiny seat in front of us. He wore ratty, faded clothes with no sense of style. He had the first pair of Birkenstocks on campus, which someone borrowed to use in a Greek play. His eyes lit up when tutoring me for final exams in multivariate calculus, approving when I asked about abstractions. He oozed an easy feminism and insistent, Talmudic need to dissect anything that seemed facile or ambitious. He knew everything, and his hands and feet were just right. His family was vaguely Jewish and had less money than mine. He looked identical to his elfin, 16-year old self in the driver’s license photo, and everyone treated him that way, men and women alike.
That summer my mother would hear none of it. She had friends come over to introduce me to Vietnamese men to whom I could think of nothing to say. My aunts fretted with her.
The next summer, I came home for a short break between Work Study jobs in a medical school lab during one of Ba Ngoai’s stays at my parents’ house. I lay on the tan carpet in the sun porch while she sat knitting in the recliner above me, her slippered feet crossed at the ankles and not quite touching the floor. This was my usual silent companionship with her, and I dozed almost to sleep. Quite unexpectedly, she started to tell a story.
When she was barely a teenager, Ba Ngoai’s father sent her from the countryside into Hanoi so that she could go to school, because she was so smart he didn’t know what else to do with her. This was almost unheard of in early twentieth-century Vietnam. In the city, on campus, she watched a confident, handsome young man with clear eyes and a strong jaw, leading a protest group against French rule. Nguyen Duc Kinh was driven and righteous in a way she had never known. She helped him print and hand out leaflets, listened to his speeches. He was…..and here she used a Vietnamese word I didn’t know. She put down her yarn at my quizzical look, and gently waved her hand in my direction. Like David, she said, he didn’t need very much.
Not long after, the authorities made one of many sweeps for revolutionaries, and this young man was caught and sent to Con Lon prison. For six months, Ba Ngoai prepared care packages for Kinh. She wrote letters to sustain him, and he would reply in poems. When he was finally released during a rare amnesty, they quickly conspired. They bedecked her in fake gold jewelry borrowed from a friend, and rode back to her village so that Kinh could ask Ba Ngoai’s father for permission to marry her. Their first son was born soon after. Ong Ngoai, she said, did a lot of different things to support the family, but he never stopped working for the Party.
Her story leapt ahead seventeen years, to just a few weeks after her seventh child was born. His comrades came to tell him that it was his turn to “march into the mountains,” a euphemism for a death squad. He was not the only one told to go on this date. They promised Ong Ngoai that, if he went quietly, they would not harm Ba Ngoai or his children. Ong Ngoai went home and resolutely removed all his guns from the house as my grandmother frantically protested. We could run away! she offered. How could we run away, with all these children? He hushed her with his logic and left.
To my questions about why they wanted to kill him, she only said quietly that she had asked him the same thing. No one would tell her what happened to him. For days, weeks, afterwards, she begged the Party officers they both had known for any shred of information. You were his friends! Tell me where he is. Give me his body! They had nothing to say. But one day, someone did come by. He slipped into her hand a folded paper with script that she recognized. A poem, from him, before he died. When I asked her to tell this story again, seven years later as she was cradling my first born, she recited his poem from memory.
But that morning, Ba Ngoai had finished her knitting project, and my mother called us in for lunch. Ba Ngoai would never have more than a handful of English words to speak to David, but neither did she ever fret about him.
Aside from Ba Ngoai’s story that day, I had little insight into the history that bore me. The occasional anecdotes and oblique, vague references to names and places past that my parents dropped during my growing up were not enough to even mark a timeline, let alone a narrative arc that would explain why certain family relationships or anything about the war were off-limits in conversation, why my parents invested my brother’s artwork with a preciousness so out of proportion with the effort he put into it, who all the people were scattered around the world that my father spent hours writing letters to on translucent airmail paper, or how anyone remotely like me could belong to this family. I pounded on their cinder block walls and scratched at the bits of mortar. I ran my hands over its powdery, jagged surface, and craned my neck back to shout over the air above, but for that long, long, time nothing spilled over from the other side.