My grand parents.

Hanoi 1930.

My grand father lived on a business street near downtown Hanoi. They sold bricks there.  And my grand-father got the revered nickname of Mr. Brick. He rented the two front stores and lived in the back, a huge two story house with rows and rows of bedrooms and a well-landscaped small garden completed with hills and streams, gold fishes and a rainwater reservoir.

My grand father literally raised mythree brothers, most of their cousins, some of their friends and even a few cousins from my mother’s side. He never accepted any help from his children, then all married and moved out into different regions of the country. My parents were in Laos, while my uncle and his wife settled down with his wife in Vinh-Yen as landowners and farmers. My three aunts were married to professionals, a medical doctor, a teacher and a businessman. Some of them sent their children to my grandpa as soon as they reached junior high school age, sometimes earlier in the case of my parents. Where my parents were, Laos was a jungle, and we girls stayed behind going to local schools, yet when we moved back to the city of Vinh, Nghe-An, in Central VietNam, my sister Le was also sent to live with grandpa to attend “the Couvent des Oiseaux” in Hanoi, then supposedly the best for girls. She stayed at my grandparent’s place until we all moved back to Hanoi after my father’s bankruptcy, his works and his money washed out overnight by a terrible hurricane and by the world depression of 1929. My older sister hardly finished Grade School.

So, my grandfather with his meager retirement benefits as a secretary and the rent money managed to give the children some stability in life, a home,  and a feeling of belonging and of being connected.  Upstairs, there was a huge room served as the place of worshiping the ancestors, but except for Tet, the children used that room for their study room.  Downstairs, looking out in the garden was the place to eat: 3 big platform-like pieces of furniture replaced the dining table and chairs. Meals were served on big brass trays of close to 3 feet of diameter where kids sat crossed legs all around eating noisely. I used to be fascinated by the intricate design of those brass trays, which could have been served as pieces of decorative furniture instead of just for food holders. Another of this food tray was served separately for the women of the house. The helpers or servants ate in the kitchen later. My grand father who was in his 70 then, usually took his meals with the 2 of his younger friends now his boarders, for peace and quiet reason. Little kids like me took their plates and went to sit on benches near the bonsai garden. We loved to watch big golden fishes dancing in the miniature ponds under the well landscaped dwarf trees.

Grandfather had a concubine, 30 year younger whom he saved from a Madame in town. She was originally from a small town called Nam Dinh so we all called her “co Nam”. Co Nam was a terrific cook. Having to feed 15 to 20 persons a day, she had to be frugal using only inexpensive recipes, which she turned into delicious dishes. She loved the children and had more fun with them than with my parents or my grandparents. She always gave us the best. We too loved her, so when my grandfather died, we welcomed her into our house with joy. She had such a happy and loud laughter that made everybody want to join her.

Unfortunately for us, after a while she wanted to go back to her hometown where she had a brother and some relatives. We missed her and her cooking and her laughing. The house in Kham Thien that my grandfather gave her was sold. We never heard from her since. I would like to come back to talk about Co Nam again later because her life represented the unfortunate lot of women in the old days who had not experienced neither freedom nor independence, yet to me she was happy and grateful to be with us and especially loving and kind to everyone, unlike some other women who had everything but still found ways to be unkind and selfish. The quality of being humane is not given to everyone.

The extended family at the time was overwhelming indeed. However, we have to understand that the way to communicate and to transport was reduced to none then and all people had was each other. I like to write about my grandma now. She was from the same village as my Mom. She chose my Mom among other candidates of a marriage arrangement because, she said, they could come back together to visit  the friends and relatives they both knew. My grand mother was a gentle and  compassionate woman. Too bad I never met her. I only heard my Mother praise her mother in law. When a new bride, my mom had to stay with her in laws for a couple of years while my father was far away at work, (Laos, Central VN, or in another town doing Public Works, building roads, bridges or buildings). My father only came to Hanoi to see his wife now and then.

My Mom said she felt loved and protected from my grandma while my aunt was mean to her. (My other aunt turned out to be the benefactor of my family. She is alive and lives in Hanoi with her children. I was so pleased to see her in 1996.)*

This was a story my Mom liked to tell: One day, my Mom cooked and accidentally burned a pot of stews. My grandfather asked who did it. Grandma promptly replied that she did. Case closed.

Later when her daughter confronted her with: “What did you do that for?”  She said: “Why not? I shut you up didn’t I?”. My aunt, the wife of the medical doctor was like Cinderella’s stepsister indeed, only very polite and very subtle in her meanness. My Mom said she would not let my Mom do anything in the house, saying: “I will do it, I will take care of it, please let me etc…” She would not let my mom get involved into any house project, so she would feel useless, helpless, lonely, missing her husband, missing her own family, and above all unsupported. Fortunately, my grandma was there for her. And grandpa also. My Mom still talked about these memories (in her 90’s) with tears in her eyes. Two years before she died, my Mom said she had forgiven her sister in law.

Now, about my step grand mother. Because, yes I had a step grandmother who was my grandmother’s younger sister!  We called her BaTre meaning younger grandma. Ba tre was too shy, so my grandma thought the only way she could look after her younger sister was to get her husband to marry her, which my grandpa agreed. (!) She had one daughter who died in a car accident at the age of 30, so BaTre was left alone behind after my grandma and grandpa passed away.

In his will, my grandfather asked my parents to take her home with us and to take care of the function of after- death memories (anniversary of death is an important date). To this day, my sister Le and I still keep the tradition and the promise. We have nothing to loose. It’s an excuse to give ourselves a break and a treat.

It seems to me that there was a lot of understanding and tolerance under that roof on Brick Street. Except for my aunt, of course. But she wasn’t really part of the household since she got married soon and moved to another city with her husband. My grandfather, on the other hand, was a gentleman who treated his wives and the grand children with justice and tolerance. Nobody ever heard him being rude or bossy although he was well known to have a very hot temper.  He never blamed anyone. When angry, he would go out into the yard, would lift his head up and voice some anger over toward some “Con khi, con khi” translated as “monkeys, monkeys…” He kept the connection going well with our origin village, regularly and officially registered every new addition to the family in the lineage generic tree, regularly paid all dues for everyone without saying a word to his children who were to busy with a modernized life in other cities. Responsibilities were handled properly according to the village rules and regulations for example after certain age, young males must participate in civil functions like the preventive building of dikes in the region. If one could not go in person one should manage to get a substitute. My grandpa always got things done. Everyone respected him. Policemen, postmen, trash men, beggars feared him and loved him. I only knew him a year before he died. That will be another story I like to tell another time. My grandfather with his silky long white hair put up on the top of his head in a little bun the size of a thumb occupied a special place in my mind and in my heart. He died in Vinh Yen at my uncle’s place. That day when we all got in line to come to his death bed and to kneel in front of him to bow farewell, was the first time in my life I knew how being proud felt. I was proud of having come from him.