Grandma Tu…the grandmother I never had the chance to know. Grandma Tu lived her life on the other side of the world – in Vietnam, where my mom is from. I always hoped that one day I would be able to travel there to meet her…but life happens, and making a trip of that magnitude always seemed to be on my grand list of things to do “someday”. Sadly, I received the news recently that she passed away, and “someday” has become “never”.
I feel a great sense of loss, even though I never knew her. But my sadness is not just for me; the worst part is the sadness that I feel for my mom. Thirty-some years ago, my Vietnamese mother and my American father, who was serving in the Army, fell in love and married. She then left her mother, all of her family, and the only home she ever knew, to start a new life with my dad in the United States. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her. She knew how to speak English, but I am sure that there were many times that she wished she could talk to someone from her country, just to hear the familiar sound of her native tongue.
Twenty years passed before my mom had the opportunity to fly back to Vietnam and see her family again. Twenty years. I feel bad when a whole month goes by and I don’t see my family. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to go 20 years. I was in college at the time, and I remember the big news that my mom was going to make the 8,000 mile trip with her brother, who was now living in Maine. You read that right; the trip was a little more than eight thousand miles. It was not an easy one. Vaccines, passports, tickets, layovers, hours of flight time, hours of driving – not to mention the jetlag, heat and humidity, and the food she was no longer used to. My poor mom got sick on the airplane, and remained sick the whole time she was visiting there.
I wish I could have been there to see what a fantastic reunion it must have been. Tears of joy and sadness in abundance at the same time. Later my mom told me that, remarkably, Grandma Tu looked exactly the same as she did on the day she left. My mom describes her as a sweet woman, who, like my husband’s grandmother, was widowed at a young age, and left to raise ten children on her own. She had a hard life, but she had an unshakable faith in God. Mom recounted how sweet it was to hear her mother trying to say our names, the names of her American grandchildren, as she looked at our pictures, and that she wanted my mom to “tell them that I love them”.
Sometimes my mom will tell stories from her childhood, which, in light of my grandmother’s passing, has really made me feel a sense of urgency to record these stories on video. Once, she told me how her mother sent her out to weed the garden…unfortunately, my mom couldn’t tell the weeds from the vegetable plants, so by the time Momma Tu figured this out, there was quite a bit of damage to the crop! Then there was the time when Momma Tu had plans to shave everyone’s heads, boys and girls alike, leaving only a patch of long hair at the top of the head; you could pull the hair up to keep cool and clean, and let it down to protect your scalp when you were in the sun. “I ran away and hid from her,” recalled my mom with a smile. When Momma Tu finally found her, my mom cried and begged her not to shave her head. Momma Tu just laughed, and let her go, hair intact.
After a month-long reunion with her Vietnamese family, it was time for my mom to return to her American family. And that was the last time she ever saw her mother’s face. The last time she held her hand or hugged her. The very. last. time.
That was more than 15 years ago. If there was any silver lining, it was that at least she was able to talk to her on the phone once in a while. But now that Grandma Tu is gone, mom will never hear her voice again. She can’t even be there for the funeral. It’s so heartbreaking.
Sometimes life gets so busy that we can only see the tasks that are right in front of us; there are some things that we always plan to do, “someday” or “as soon as I get a spare moment”. This photo is one of the few images that our family has of Grandma Tu; up until my dad scanned it and sent it to me, my sister, and my brother, the only copy was at my parents’ house. We actually only have a single tiny little photo of my Vietnamese grandfather; if something were to happen to this photo, it could never be replaced. There are many family photos that are either at my parents’ house or mine (lent to me when I was going through my scrapbooking phase), and we only have one copy of each photo; they were taken, of course, before the age of digital cameras. As a photographer, one of my cardinal rules is to back up photos in multiple locations in case of a terrible event like the house burning down. I can’t believe that so much time has passed and none of us have made the attempt to scan all these photos. It seems like such a monumental task when I think about it, especially since many of the photos can’t even be removed from their album pages now. But I can’t make any more excuses, and I can’t wait for “someday”. Grandma Tu taught me that.
I love you, Grandma Tu.