Friday, April 05, 2013

What I Remember of my Nanny Mai

I just found out the death of someone so very dear to me: My nanny, Mai.

I have known her all my life and she has been part of my family since I had memory. I have many memories of her.

She cleaned me up and put me back in bed when I was still suckling on a bottle of milk or whatever it was we had in Vietnam. I have a huge missing chunk of missing memory between life and eight years old when I was transplanted here in California but I never forgot those nights when I would in my sleep barf out my last bottle of formula and she would clean me up and make sure I was okay.

Later, when I was ill and feverish she would go to the market and buy grapes (do you know how hard it is to find grapes in Saigon back in the day?) and split them, take the seeds out and feed them to me.

I remember when I was a butt and being a spoiled brat, I fought with her and tore the sleeve of a shirt that she herself made because later I learned that she sewed all her clothes because that was what she could afford. I still see the moment clear as glass today and have never forgiven myself for it.

I remember when she gave me a roasted giant cricket and told me it was a delicacy. Maybe that was the start of my culinary adventures along with sitting next to her plucking freshly slaughtered hens that were gotten from the market earlier that day. I plucked my first bird and pulled out its guts when I was probably five. This is where and when I know where my food comes from.

I remember when I was cleanly bathed and dressed in my pajamas in the early evening and I was convinced by the cook's son that I should go after the fish and hopped in the fish pond, going after Grandpa's Koi and got so much hell for it.

I remember all the kindness and love she has given me despite the distance when our family left Saigon because of the war and she stayed behind. All the years following, my family here still cared for her, made sure she had what she needed despite the distance. In my two trips back to Vietnam, I went to see her and even in her aged form, she was still bright, kind and nurturing as always. She has been with our family since a teenager and her loyalty was unfaltering and we have tried to reciprocate no matter the time and distance. I am as much of a fabric of her as anything in this universe.

She taught me how to tell time, how to read a clock.

I'm sure she placed the first pencil in my hand before a piece of blank paper. The earliest photos of us were of me and her at a table on the second balcony of our house and me making scratches on a blank.

It was 25 years after leaving Saigon before I saw Bac Tu again. She was a lot older but still vibrant. She was proud of her family and especially grand and great-grandchildren and I met some of them. It was a happy time. In the years in between, most contact was through my grandmother and other family members and members of her family one of them, Lien who is her grandmother that I am friends with still here in San Jose.

I remember I'm not sure what age I was but in her mind I should be getting married, she sent me an old timey I don't know what you call it, a nuptial bedsheet according to old Catholic ideals; a sheet with a hole in it for you know what when I got married. I know that she is too practical and not very Catholic but it was cute.

I remember later she sent me two pairs of hand-sewn pajamas (because as a child, she would have nothing less but hand-sewn clothing for me. Yes, I know I was spoiled). They fit me almost perfectly because at that time, she had not seen me for 20 plus years. The shoulders were just too snug and the pants were just a tad long. She must have figured me to grow up to be a greater man.

When I saw her in 1999, she was still my Bac Tu. She was older, less energetic but the life in her was as the same. It was only the physical shell that aged. We had a meal together and that was what was important. Even then, I was not sure that I would see her again but she was a strong woman in ways that I could not count the stars in the sky.

I returned in 2005 and saw her again. She was much older and more frail, slower but all her continents were in position. In the time between, I would always get news from her grand-daughter Lien and I would occasionally get photos. Regardless of her age, she was always regal.

In the latter years when she was too old to work she focused on spirituality: Buddhism.

I know then before I understood it in her manners and more so now that Buddhism was and has always been her keel. She led a life of kindness.

I don't think I could say more and something more highly of someone in my meek experience than to say that Bac Tu led a life of kindness.

She is gone from this physical life but she has been and always shall be part of me.

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