Small Creatures, part II

‘He taught me the word Ee-vac-oo-ey-shun.’ Evacuation. Most of the family (Bac Nghi was in the states for school by then) left during the war. Literally during. Like whizzing bullets and nighttime flights onto crowded boats. ‘It was dark and horrible. We had young kids and people were dying. There were pirates all over the ocean.’ But they made it. First to the Phillipines and then on to San Diego. Eventually up to San Francisco to the house where she still lives.

Being honest again, my heart sank a bit when my mom told me that Ba Ngoai was down in Socal and might need a ride back up. This meant planning around someone else, probably extra driving, and the aforementioned potential awkwardness and Iron & Wine-lessness. Mom was on the phone with her and handed me the receiver. She asked me when I was planning to head back, I answered noncommittally and was pretty happy when she said she would call me if she needed a ride back up, and if she didn’t call, she would take the bus. A default I could work with. She asked me if I remembered how long it’d been since Ong Ngoai passed. A bit of quick mental math and, ‘2003 so… seven years?’ I’m glad I got it right, and I’m sure she was too.

May 2003 was a crazy month. One week in particular. I’d decided last minute (i.e. just before the ticket prices went up) to go to Senior Ball and asked Sarah T. to the dance in a cooperative effort with Bach which involved some pseudo-legal use of call slips and singing in the back room of the speech and debate building. One night that week we got a call and my mom picked up the phone, she began to cry and I think we all knew what was coming. He’d had been sick for awhile. That Saturday I wore a suit to the funeral and a tuxedo to the dance. We also found out that Cau An, my mom’s youngest brother, and Co Rosie had had their baby girl who, coincidentally was named Sarah (Sarah N. though. I know, your head was about to explode.)

‘Did you know that Ong Ngoai was a judge in Vietnam? And he worked for thirty years in the courthouse in San Francisco!’

She ate her cheeseburger slowly and didn’t even touch her orange juice until later in the car. I’d gotten the double cheeseburger mini meal and a large iced coffee for the road. While we ate I looked at her, careful not to stare. Is this unique, or is it not that surprising that I’d never really taken a close look at my very own mom’s mom? I think I could pick her out from a lineup, but honestly, who needs hard, close-up details when there really usually only one, at most two, small old ladies in the room? Familiar-but-strange is how I’d put it. This tiny woman had nine children. Nine.

Back on the road. Along the way, actually a few times, she fell asleep. Face upward, mouth the slightest bit ajar. Toward the beginning of the trip, at one point, she actually took out her rosary beads! Hail Marys maybe. Or earnest prayers to the Saint of Automotive Safety.

‘Grandpa was always emotional. Kind of like your own dad. One time, your mom’s schoolmate got sick and had to go to the hospital. Your mom went to visit her after school and you know, this was before cell phones or anything. She got home late and Ong Ngoai was furious! They always had to be home right away.’

I think I heard Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ and ‘Teenage Dream’ at least ten times, total. Not too surprising actually, I guess. I turned the balance a good deal over to L, so she could sleep. The sun was bright and intense, Central California is also beautiful, in its own way. It’s kind of like what I’d imagine driving through the country would be like. Straight lines, farmland, CAFOs. Periodically we’d pass neon signs that read, “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL”. Is this true?

Passing some sort of orchard, ‘Cau Huu used to love going here and running around in the trees. But after the first time Ong Ngoai didn’t want to stop anymore so we just looked.’

At one point I look over and she’s tapping her hand in rhythm. In time with California Gurls’ contagious beat.

A bit after the junction with 152, ‘Your uncles use to cut grass here in the summers. I’d make them lunch and poor Bac Nghi (mom’s oldest bro), one time I made him a rice dish, but by the time he ate it it was no good because I cooked it too much.’

One time at Cau Binh’s house the whole family was gathered in the living room for some reason. Maybe we were eating. Ong Ngoai was wearing shorts and me and Ryan were astounded, like open-mouth astonished, three-saucered-faces surprised at how huge and defined his calves were. Old man calves, the eight and ninth wonders of the ancient world.

‘Ong Ngoai was so mad when Di Kim started dating Cau Khanh. They dated for ten years!’
‘That’s way too long.’ I agree, in my crappy Vietnamese.
‘Ong Ngoai didn’t even want her to date at all,’ (I guess a way to say ‘date’ in Vietnamese is equivalent to ‘go play’) ‘But Di Kim said, ‘Dad, this is San Francisco! You should be glad that I’m dating a boy.” Grandma clarifies this, to make sure I know she’s talking about homosexuals. When Cau Khanh attened UC Berkeley, Top Dog hot dogs cost a whopping $0.75. Yep.

We hold a memorial service for Ong Ngoai every year. Some memorized prayers at the grand-house and then a trip to visit his ashes. On the day of his funeral service my uncle gave, from what I remember, a pretty good gospel presentation/sermon. My dad was pissed. Not really because of the content, but because of the length. My dad enjoys writing and public speaking, he’d had something to say. I always wondered about what kind of emotional battles a left behind spouse faces. Especially in Ba Ngoai’s position. I’m sure the freedom to go to church more often, to hang out with friend, to take twenty-day trips down to socal is a pleasant new development in her life. But do you feel guilty when you enjoy doing things you can only do because he’s gone? Logically, I don’t think so, but who feels logically? Is she actually happier? What if sometimes she doesn’t even miss him? But then, then you have seven hour road trips northward with your grandson, where almost as consistent (and sometimes as often) as mile-markers, every field or hill or McDonald’s drive-thru unearths a forgotten memory of him.

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~ by justinhong on September 24, 2010.

3 Responses to “Small Creatures, part II”

  1. i sense david foster wallace

  2. thanks for sharing man. your grandparents lived in some pretty crazy times. i’m glad you got to hear those stories. makes me wanna go back and hear more of my grandparents’.

  3. […] 7 11) Let’s be honest, August 25 12) Small Creatures, part I; Interlude: Soft Shoulder; Small Creatures, part II; Small Creatures, part III, September 24 & November 29 13) Lust, Prayer & Pain, December […]

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