She was one of those legendary women across cultures who raised her daughter’s new born child in her advanced years.
My mother, her fourth child, died in childbirth at the young age of 35. My brother was ten days old, still at the provincial maternity ward. I was five.
Grandmother had been there a week earlier. That was an arduous half day trip on several buses from her village on the bank of the Mekong River, some seventy kilometres south of Saigon.
No one had expected this disaster. Grandmother had already returned home to her farm responsibilities. Then news of the loss of her daughter arrived.
Grandmother came back to take the baby home to her village. She and her youngest son, still single, began raising the baby. It was the tenth time for her and the first for her son; but what a terrific surrogate father he became. She was 65 and her son 26 when this happened. After he got married, his young wife lovingly raised my little brother with him.
Grandmother was a terrific woman herself, almost a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, not that she was even faintly aware of the lives of independent women who lived oceans away in the rich first world.
I have more memory of her than of my own mother, having known her for more years, although without a photo of her I had long forgotten her face. What I still remember most though is her calmness, a safety shore for me as a child sleeping in her village home when I visited, listening to the echoes of war in a distance. She lived through two major wars, quietly protecting her children.
She had nine children, five girls in a row followed by four boys; the third youngest was pierced to death in his youth by a buffalo. It was truly a family tragedy, although not very unusual in the life of rice farmers who lived and worked in close proximity with their primary field helpers.
In 2008, I visited the village where my grandmother’s house was. My last link with the family – her son who was the father figure, was no longer with me. I kept searching from the familiar street for the long tranquil path to her house but it had vanished.
The canals that crisscrossed the village, bringing water to nourish the coconut groves of its livelihood, looked a lot more shallow, less lively. But then a lot of years had lapsed impairing my recollection.
What was not distorted was my clear image of her parting gift each time we visited – a bottle of caramel made from the fruits she grew, made only for her descendants.
We used caramel to colour and sweeten a traditional casserole and southern favourite. It took days of simmering a large volume of clear coconut juice to condense it into thick golden caramel, much like the essence of her noble life which she reserved for us.
My grandmother was capable, gracious and independent. I observed her life with deep affection from a young age.
During the anti-French phase of the war following the August Uprising of 1945, the composer Pham Duy travelled far and wide to places where the population faced particular hardship from war activities. Like a war graphic artist, he sketched in music the devotion of a mother in Gio Linh District.
My grandmother from the south, like millions of mothers who knew war more intimately than peace, would know the sentiment of another from central Vietnam.
Mother of Gio Linh
Her crops support her son on the battlefront
She subsists on her more meager meals
Her love of country matches his, her only son
She prays silently for his passionate life
The night brings echoes of gunshots
The elderly mother waters her vegetable garden
She hears wailing in the neighbourhood
The enemies had captured her son
He was beheaded at the market
Speechless, she hurries …
searches for her headscarf
She goes out to wrap his head
Walking home on that lonesome village road
Evening brings echos of pagoda gongs
She feebly raises her hands, tears fill her eyes
She looks at her son’s head
Her own white hair blown in the wind …
(Lyrics by Pham Duy 1948)