Tales of Mom

In honor of this day, five Sun writers tell stories of their mothers

Mama, finding her way again

May 14, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

In the last month of my dad's life, he spent little time talking about dying too soon at the age of 59. He said little about how much pain he felt from his cancer. Mostly, he just worried about making sure my mama would be OK.

Not that Mama had ever been helpless -- she often reminisces about trekking through jungles and crossing rivers neck-deep as a girl on the way to market in Central Vietnam -- but they had been married for 32 years and he had made it his life mission to provide for her and their five girls and two boys.

"Take care of your ma," Dad said, extracting promises from each of us. "Don't leave her alone."

Dad was Mama's world. He was the one who taught his 18-year-old bride how to wear makeup after whisking her away to be the wife of a South Vietnamese Army officer. He bought her clothes, paid the bills, drove her around since she didn't drive, and fixed everything around the house. He often liked to say he taught her how to cook, too, which always made Mama roll her eyes.

She was dependent on Dad, so much so that weeks after he died in August 1991, a trip to the supermarket to buy a broom made her break down in tears. "I never had to worry about things like that before," Mama said, sounding lost.

But deep down, I think she knew that she was a long way off from that naive girl he first met in a village near Hue.

After all, this is the woman who ran the household while Dad, a lieutenant colonel, did his part in the war. The woman who escaped with him in the dead of night during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The woman who, six months pregnant, climbed a rope ladder to board the last ship out of Vietnam and helped Dad carry their six other children to safety.

Dad might have handled the logistics in getting our family to America, but Mama made it a smoother trip. At sea for days without food or water, Mama befriended the ship's crew and charmed provisions from them to feed her starving kids and other passengers.

In Maryland, where we settled, Dad taught himself to fix cars and got a job as a mechanic. He had been to America before to train with the U.S. Army. But Mama had to learn the basics of English with a tutor every afternoon (at Dad's funeral, Mrs. Templeton teased Mama about how her English had barely improved after 16 years). Mama made sure we got on the school bus every morning, took us to the doctor, the dentist and the grocery store and made sure we ate dinner together every night.

We were poor, my parents always said, but we were together. That was what was important.

With the loss of Dad, none of us was sure of our path in life anymore. It took time, but we eventually found our way, and so did Mama.

Not long after weeping over the broom, Mama, at age 52, hopped on a plane back to Vietnam to visit her mother. It was a trip she always thought she'd take with Dad, but this time, she went alone.

She never flew, much less went anywhere, without Dad or one of us. As excited as we were for her, we could not stop worrying. Which one of us would hop on a plane and lead her back if she got lost, we wondered.

We should have given her more credit. Not only did she come back, she came back early by figuring out how to change the departure date from over there, and she also came back full of praise from our relatives.

"They told me I speak English like the wind," Mama said, laughing so hard that the only noise that came out of her was air.

In the years since, Mama has learned how to apply for credit, start bank accounts, write checks, catch a bus to take day trips, phone the electric company when the power goes out and even call the Internal Revenue Service hot line when she's got a question about her taxes.

But most of all, she has kept our family together. She has quelled the inevitable squabbles. She has guided us through life's big decisions. She has chided us when we seemed to lose our way.

She has been the powerful force that keeps the family sane and, truth be told, insane, because there is not a thing that goes on in our lives that she doesn't know about somehow. "Not your business, Mama!" we tell her, half-joking, when she meddles. She always just laughs and tells us she has no choice.

"How can I help if I don't know?" she asks. Somehow, the way she says it makes so much sense.

After all, Mama has proven that there's very little that she can't do -- although I'm sure Dad would be very relieved to know Mama still can't drive. We can barely keep up with her as it is.

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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