Stories of my grandmother

Reflecting on the positive life of my role-model

In front of my childhood home.

It’s easy to mope. My initial inclination after an emptiness this deep is to curl myself under the sheets of my bed and hug my teddy bear until a large swath of time magically heals the fresh wounds of loss. On Tuesday, November 15, my beloved grandmother passed on peacefully at 90 years young. Even though we had all begun to brace ourselves a few months prior, it seemed all too sudden.

However, coping with such unprecedented grief called for a more productive response, one that eventually brought about introspection and self-realization in the past 24 hours. I started by channeling grief into uplifting thoughts — my grandma fought ‘til the end, yet was very calm and serene when she passed. My grandma was a woman of great beauty, inside and out — even during her last days. The day following her passing was actually warm and pleasant outside. After all, she was born in November and loved taking walks year round.

A large part of my grandma lives on within me, and that is something in which I find solace and sanctuary. My grandma’s personality, values, and general attitude are traits that I seek in new friends and even significant others. Above all, she was a symbol of strength, class, and optimism — even during times of doubt and family conflict.

I was hesitant to publicly share her life on the internet and intended for the following tribute to be a private stream-of-consciousness for myself. But after recently recalling fond memories of my grandma, I realized that it was only prudent to honor her life by showing the world how she lived — with selflessness, devotion to family, and energy — or “feisty”, as my sister put it. These traits, along with her storied life in Vietnam and America, will continue to inspire my own actions for the rest of my life. It is with this that I can find some refuge and comfort in a rather emotionally taxing time. It’s my hope that the following memories and photos of my grandmother can better illustrate what I mean.

My grandmother and I lived together in the same house from day 1 of my life. She was my rock and my caregiver, especially when my parents were not home. The following picture is technically from day 2 of my life but you get the point.

May 19, 1990. Little me. Grandma still a bit skinny after only 2 years in America

During elementary school, there was one morning when I was running late to catch the school bus. My grandma, while rushing to get me ready, opens the door and attempts to stall time with the school bus driver. She does the Asian “come hither” gesture with her hands. But the driver misinterpreted it as my grandma waving off the school bus, as if to say, “go ahead, Mikey’s not taking the bus today.” I thought my schoolmates were teasing me at my grandma’s hands-on approach to sending me off in the morning and greeting me after school. Later on, I realized they were just jealous.

During a subsequent occasion when I similarly missed the bus (either because I was late or simply didn’t want to go to school), she decided to walk me to school — the entire 0.5 miles. Back when I was a kid, that seemed like a journey because you had to cross the “big street” — Aptakisic Rd. In her later years, she would easily cover that distance in one day — by walking around the house and staying active. This is truly the type of grandparent I aspire to become.

My mother’s company would have holiday parties that rented out an entire facility, with decorations and a “real” Santa to boot. (All corporate holiday functions seemed more lavish and ostentatious in the 90s). I was a greedy little punk and wanted a 2nd round with Santa, in hopes of landing a 2nd set of gifts. I was too shy, so my grandma went in my place. With her limited English, she unsuccessfully communicates that the gift would be for her grandson. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my grandma with her outstretched arm reaching for a gift in Santa’s far hand as Santa tries to dangle it away from her. An arm’s length reach did not intimidate my grandma, and so she was able to finally convince Santa to let her have the gift, which she promptly gave to me. Merry Christmas, y’all.

I’ve lost count of the number of times my grandma has had to re-sew my socks for me when I wore them out while running around like Dennis the Menace. I think my mom eventually caught on to the stinginess factor and started to purchase me new socks more regularly. My grandma kept my old white crew socks that she had meticulously sewed. Later, you would see her walking around the house and wearing them on cold days.

Growing your own herbs is rightfully a prerequisite for running a Vietnamese kitchen. My grandma loved to tend to her garden; it was a therapeutic ritual for her. She was always very proud of how much her garden had grown. Even after she’s passed, the mint leaves continue to grow. Once in a while, I harvest some for my tea or cooking. With some luck, I’ll eventually come back to plant some near her resting place back in Vietnam.

Left: Probably during the first couple years we had moved in to our house in Long Grove (early 2000's). Right: Nov 17, 2016. Trust me, it looks more verdant during summer.

I grew up watching my grandma prepare dinner in the kitchen. I was always fascinated by her routine. One day, when I was surely younger than 10, I was intent on observing so that I could somehow recreate a meal myself. She finally relented and let me bring over a chair on which to perch myself so I could bring myself to counter height. She fills the rice cooker with rice, then water, then presses down on the button on the rice cooker to steam the rice. “Done.

As a grandma, it was her innate skill to spoil her grandchildren, but especially me more than my older sister. She used to peel the skin off grapes before feeding them to me. For a while, I didn’t know you could eat grapes with the skin still intact. And when my mom wasn’t looking, she’d feed me a lumping spoonful of sugar before spooning the primary spoonful in to my cereal. Needless to say, I started my school day with extra gusto.

Throughout her life, she always smiled the same way. She hardly showed her teeth. Instead, her smile melted in to her cheeks, her eyes, and even the wrinkles on her forehead. It was a grin that spoke measures of emotion.

1994, maybe.

I had a little toy car when I was younger. No, not the electric kind that the spoiled brat down the street would have. The manual transmission one(see photo below). I’d drive it around the house in circles that would make a gymnast dizzy. I’d especially drive it during dinnertime. The rest of my family would sit at the dinner table like “civilized” people. When I would pass by the dinner table, my grandma would lean over and ask me in Vietnamese “hết xăng?” (out of gas?). I would nod smugly and she’d feed me a scoop of dinner. Rinse and repeat.

I didn’t stop driving this car until I could no longer fit through the door.

One of the things I will miss the most is saying “Hi, Ba” after coming home from a day at school. “Ba” is short for “bà nọi,” which means paternal grandmother in Vietnamese. My grandma, the ever-punny jokester, would reply “Hai, ba… bốn!” ( which means “two, three,…four!” in Vietnamese). She got my sister more than once with this.

My grandma was a great baseball pitcher. I think she’d pity me when I would try to play baseball by myself — yes, my childhood imagination made it possible. So I’d invite her to come and pitch a soft baseball to me. As the catcher, I’d flash her some signs (e.g. fastball low and away) while crouched down on one side of the family room. She didn’t understand the different types of pitches, even after my multiple attempts to explain. But no bother. She managed to throw a strike most of the time.

Either the air conditioning wasn’t working, or we were just being stingy in the sweltering Chicago summer. It was difficult to sleep at night in such conditions, but I always found it easier to fall asleep with my grandma beside me. She’d roll out my aunt and uncle’s bamboo mat and we’d sleep in the ground in the living room together. Sleepovers with my grandma were way better than with any of my other childhood friends. One time, I even heard her talking in her sleep. I’d like to think she was talking about me, because I could here her mutter in Vietnamese, “if you want it, just get it.”

My mom was quick to supplement my education with extra math homework after school. I would cheat and ask my grandma. I’d just point to “2+2=” on my worksheet and she would say “2+2=4” in a tone that seemed to have said, “you should know that.” My grandma was a genius to me.

On the first day we transitioned my grandma in to the nursing home in April 2016, her memory and grasp of language had slipped significantly. However, she was still able to comment on her first meal at her new home, which was mostly home to Korean residents. When we finally persuaded her to try the soondubu jigae (korean tofu soup), she commented, “nhạt” (bland). From then on, we switched her meals to the “American” option that the non-Koreans at the home were eating. Since that day, I don’t think I’ve ever personally ordered a Korean tofu soup.

May 1997. The bunny ears in full effect.

When it came to snacks and kleenex tissues, my grandma never failed to procure some from the bottomless pit that was her pocket(s). A quick check in my pockets today would reveal very similar contents. Except probably no tiger balm…yet.

I became accustomed to my grandma listening to me practice piano. Even if I had played terribly and knew I had botched the piece, she would still express her applause.

In the same room as the piano, we’d have our altar where we’d pay respects to our ancestors through Buddhist chants and prayers. Now it was my turn not to have a clue what was going on or what was chanted, but to still be supportive. I came back to the same altar the night she passed. At that moment, it all seemed to come together.

Actually, there was a Vietnamese children’s song that my grandma had asked me to play on the piano a few times. She would sing along. So I guess she did follow along to my piano-playing once in a while.

I can still hear the sounds of my grandma cooking in the kitchen. The smells and scents of delicious Vietnamese food that had wafted up the stairs and in to my bedroom, signaling that dinner was imminently ready. The one dish that I will cherish with me for the rest of my life is her fried rice. Only a few ingredients: rice, chinese sausage, scrambled egg, fish sauce, and garlic. I tried to make it the same way when I cooked for her in her later years.

It was a quasi coming-of-age moment when I realized I had surpassed her in physical height. She was reaching for some paper towels on the top shelf in our bathroom. As you may have guessed, I successfully retrieved the paper towels for her — while teetering on my tippy-toes. I must’ve been around 10 years old.

It had been a rainy and dreary day. I got home from my 1st or 2nd grade class and couldn’t wait to show off my knowledge of rain that I had “learned” in class. I told my grandma that when a cloud can no longer hold all the weight of the rain, the cloud lets go, and it rains. Of course, my science was way off. But of course, my grandma beams a smile and is proud of me anyway.

Like clockwork, my grandma would always watch the weather report. I think Tom Skilling on WGN was her favorite meteorologist. She’d be ecstatic to catch him broadcast the weather report more than twice in the same day. I always said that if we had The Weather Channel growing up, my grandma would have it on 24/7. Except, of course, when Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right were on.

When my mother was away on business trips during my high school years, my grandma would take it upon herself to make sure I woke up on time in the morning. She would slowly open my bedroom door, slowly peak her head in to my room, and switch on the light without saying anything. Ow, it burns.

Later on I realized she didn’t want to wake me up by using her voice since my father was likely still asleep down the hall. While letting a groggy, protracted yawn escape me, she’d be already making her way down to the kitchen and trying to assemble breakfast.

When Grandma and I were both at home, I could always pinpoint her exact location in the house just by listening for the high-frequency sound emitted by her hearing aid (in addition to her trademark humming and clapping). Sometimes I’d have to walk over to tell her the hearing aid was going off because it wouldn’t be good for her ear. She’d simply pat it with her fist, and it would stop emitting the sound.

March 2016. Always in an upbeat mood; singing and clapping to tunes from another era in her life. Or just making it up.

When I was little enough to still be carried up the stairs, my grandma would count each step she took when climbing the stairs with me piggybacking. Needless to say, I got really good at counting to 13.

On the same set of stairs, my cousin Phil would introduce me to a game called “shoe ball,” where we take turns rolling a golf ball down the stairs (like Plinko) until it would land inside of one of the shoes we had neatly arranged in a row at the bottom. Our golf balls would inevitably miss, and the sound of the balls clanging on the linoleum floor would prompt my grandma to scold us. Good times during rainy summer days.

Her hugs were hearty and memorable. She would hold you tight and gently swing you from side to side. I enjoyed seeing the look on people’s faces when they were surprised at the strength of my grandma’s embrace.

She always had an assortment of snacks in her bedroom to share with me. We loved Gardetto’s. She knew my favorites were the brown rye chips, so she’d save them and pick them out for me.

Left: She looked so classy and beautiful in her áo dài. Right: What she wrote on the back side of the left photo. Maybe she forgot to send this with the actual letter?

From what I can tell, she was writing to her sister/friend about how tailoring an áo dài in the United States is much more expensive than doing it in Vietnam. Elegant cursive was the only way she knew how to write, which means it was the same way she taught me when I was learning to write. I think my cursive still takes after hers.

Modeling another áo dài she owned:

Always the classy lady.

Aw. It still amazes me how she could carry such a chubby ball of joy.

In later years, I was handed the torch to become a caregiver for my grandma. Basic tasks, such as operating a microwave, became a mental test for her. Her role and my role had gradually switched. I learned to decipher her language, which had regressed to babbling. I learned to interpret how hungry she was based on which snacks she was reaching for on the kitchen island. I learned how to take care of a human being at the most basic level. My friends often joked that it was good practice for marriage.

Summer 2016. At the nursing home. Thank you for letting me steal this photo, Kim Anh.

Welp, there you have it. My relationship with my grandma wasn’t always perfect, but we always had the best intentions for each other. From the order in which I make fried rice to the way I fold my freshly-laundered clothes, I am the man I am today because of my grandmother. It was unfortunate that dementia slowly claimed her, and I urge you to support or donate to dementia or Alzheimer's research. But in the meantime, if you still can, spend some quality time with your grandmother. If she too has passed on, I’d love to hear about the ways you celebrated her life.

As my Dad (her son) put it, “you are with us forever.” She is also with grandpa now. And hopefully I get to have a daughter so she can be named after my grandma in some way. “Linh” certainly has a nice ring to it.

May 9, 2014. She was being shy about me taking her photo. Fortunately, I got this. This is the face I’ll always remember.