Thursday, June 27, 2019

Goodbye to Grandmas

At the end of April I left France for California to spend the last few days of my Grandmothers' lives with them. And, no, that's not a typo of where I put the apostrophe, as you will soon see. I ended up staying for a month, unexpectedly. My Grandma Ma had not been eat for a few weeks and just out of the hospital for her irregularly beating heart. In short, she was declining. 

Interestingly and uncannily enough, Grandma Lee was also dying. When I had heard Grandma Ma wasn’t well, I looked for a plane ticket immediately, not knowing at the time about Grandma Lee. I followed my instincts without question and my farm bosses were so understanding, telling me to go and be with my Grandmother (they hadn't known about Grandma Lee yet either). 

The night before flying, I had a terrible dream. It was a feeling of imminent death. I called my mother at 2am France time, asking how Grandma Ma was and she said not good, and then clarified that she was talking about my Grandma Lee who was dying. My two beloved Grandma’s were in different stages of transitioning, and I was holding my breath to make it there in time.

G. Lee and my Mom in Da Nang, Vietnam.  By: G.Pa Lee

The starts somehow aligned and I think my ancestors and Grandpa Ma and Grandpa Lee had something to do with it, but I did make it in time. I had one day with Grandma Lee. She was no longer speaking and on oxygen, but I told her all I wanted to say, and was there to spend one day with her. The next morning she passed away. I was sad of course, though I think my jet-lag masked my sadness, and I had felt more tired than anything. My adrenal glands were working overtime, juggling life and death. 

I went to the nursing home each day to spend time with Grandma Ma. I stayed some nights with her and also got to spend time with my sweet cousin Vanessa and aunties Loan and Barbara when we all stayed over night with her, tending to her, monitoring her as nurses came by to take her vitals. Mostly, at least for me, I just wanted to spend every moment I could with her, knowing she would soon be gone.

Grandma Ma's last day outside in the sunshine. Arcadia, CA

Auntie Loan and Connie chatting amongst many family there for Grandma. 

Those last few days with her and all my family was the most beautiful and positive experience of death I have ever witnessed. It’s hard to capture it all in words, but there was this energy of love and deep peace that was so palpable in that room. My Grandma looked so beautiful and at one moment by her bedside I whispered to her that she was beautiful inside and outside in Vietnamese, and she smiled and humbly shook her head in decline.

She just had this grace about her as she was dying, and it was a honor to be a part of the process, to witness it all. She smiled so much of the time and her face lit up whenever she saw one of us. At one point, one of the last days of communication, she whispered in Vietnamese, “thung naow” which means “love each other,” as we all surrounded her bedside, delicately listening, since all her words were whispers. She clapped her hands gently, like she was happy for us to all be together and there with her. We couldn’t really understand or hear everything she was saying, but she looked at us all and her smile was so big, like she knew she had lived a beautiful life, like we were the reflection of a life well-lived; and she had all the love and peace in her heart to go well. Many times I tried but couldn’t hold back the tears, like many of us. I knelt on the floor on my knees holding her hand. We all took turns. 

I try to be strong for her but truthfully, it hurts so much to say goodbye. While I know there is so much more to my Grandma than her physical being, and while I try to not be attached, I am human after all and miss so much her voice, her soft skin and her scent, the little smile she had. Of course it was heartbreaking, I got to cry with my family and together we remembered her legacy of compassion and love for her family and community.

The night before her funeral we got together as a family just as we had for my Grandpa Ma in February and cooked her favorite meal, braised pork and egg in coconut juice, with a side of bamboo shoots, white rice, and of course, nuc mam (fish sauce). Grandma used to make this dish all the time. Dessert was this sticky dumpling with coconut shreds and peanuts. My Grandma used to make these foods.  After dinner we went in a circle and each said something we remembered about Grandma. When it was my turn, I froze, lost my words; It was as if someone had taken away my voice, and I couldn’t speak. I was overwhelmed and the tears came. Slowly I found my words, though that was the first time that had ever happened to me. 

My lovely Nimbo Nam cutting up the banana leaves <333. 

Toasted peanuts to be smashed and mixed with the coconut shreds. 

My Nimbo Thin making the rice flour dough <333.

Rice flour, banana leaf, coconut/peanut filling, oil. 

The coconut shred/peanut filling are molded into the flour and steamed.

My favorite part of the evening was hearing stories from my Uncles and Aunts about those days in Vietnam, a time before my own. My Uncle Mike’s stories were most striking to me. He, like me, had many pauses, holding back tears, while sometimes letting them fall, but he was brave like we all were to share his stories.

One was of when before they were going to escape Vietnam to America and my Grandpa had asked my Grandma to go through their coastal small village of Da Bac in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. This was circa 1975. My Grandparents had an herbal medicine and fishing supply business. My Uncle began by saying, “This is a story I remember of my Mom....” He was with her going house to house and while they were supposed to be collecting money from people who owed them for their herbal medicines and fishing supplies, since they often let people get what they needed without paying if they couldn’t, instead she saw how poor every family was and instead they went to the market to buy these people rice and some pork belly. They did this house after house. And when they got back to their home my Grandpa asked if they got the money and my Grandma said no. 

I love this story because even though I wasn't there, knowing her, it sounds like exactly something she would do. And it shows so much about her character and heart. Even during a time of war, when fear usually makes people suspicious and greedy, she loved her neighbors and acted with loving-kindness. 

Ma Family Têt (Chinese New Year), Da Bac, Vietnam 1973 

He shared another story of when in America, after escaping Communist Vietnam by boat circa 1977, he and Grandma were at a bus stop and they had just arrived to a new country so they were poor and on welfare; but she saw a poor person across the street of the bus stop and told my uncle to wait there and she crossed the street to give this person some money. Being poor is hard, especially with 8 kids, especially in a foreign country, but she still had such a generous heart to help her fellow human. Her humanity was grand. She knew how to love people. She always reminded me of this, and I will never forget.

There are so many stories like this, I could write a book. Actually, I am writing a book and have been for a long time now, but now is more than ever the culmination of research and family stories coming together to write the story of my Grandparents and my family’s journey from Vietnam to America. 


April was an intense month, to say the least. Two matriarchs of my life, gone, together at least. Perhaps they invited each other, my mother speculates. My mom said my Grandma Ma planned it out so well so that I could extend my stay in CA and spend some time with my Mom too. “Now I don’t have anyone to call Mom anymore,” she said to me after my Grandma Lee passed away, “I’m glad you’re here otherwise I’d be sad.” That was the most vulnerable expression I had ever heard from my Mom. “I’m here for you Mom,” I replied.

Being there for my parents who had just loss their parents was also another layer of emotional support I was happy to be there to fill. But, my family, being a big one, carried and shared the sadness for each other, which was another beautiful element of death and grief. It humbles you and if you're lucky, can bring your family closer together. 

Both funerals, celebrations of life, were held at Rose Hills Memorial where most of our loved ones who have passed rest in peace. My Grandmothers passed away one week apart from each other. Grandma Lee on May 1st and then Grandma Ma on May 8th. As a family we honored them in the best way we could and the flowers and speeches were beautiful.

Flowers from friends and family for Grandma Ma; Dad and Grandma photo.

Kev, Dad and I wearing traditional Chinese headbands. 

Flowers in honor of Grandma Lee from her burial site at Rose Hills. 

At 30, I now have no more Grandparents. I know I'm so lucky to have had 2 sets of loving Grandparents, and even more lucky to have had them until 30, except for my Grandpa Lee who passed away when I was 15. It’s still a concept I am adapting to. One chapter in my life has closed and a new one begun. I find myself missing them intensely in spurts.

I was honored to receive my Grandma Ma’s jade bangle, the one she wore everyday and I remember so well. My Nimbo Thin and Nimbo Nam said she would have wanted me to have it. It is beautiful and more importantly, it carries all the beautiful energy of my Grandma, so I feel so protected with it. My Nimbo Thin told me it’s over 40 years old; that Grandma had it since 1972.

I’m not used to wearing something so precious, and my greatest fear is breaking it by hitting my hand against something. But, I am very aware of it so try to be as careful as I can and so far so good. It was hard to get on my wrist! We had to use a plastic bag to slip it through, but it fits perfectly. I also was given her blanket, her beautiful white silk blouse, her knitted vest she always wore, which I had requested, and my sweet cousin Kat found, and a few other trinkets.

During all of this, I had the sweet opportunity to squeeze in some time to meet with my friend Madelon from yoga for tea at her lovely home. She is a gem of a person. I find her to be my spiritual friend, a wise woman and teacher of the metaphysical. We were reflecting together on this season of death in my life, of losing all 3 of my Grandparents within 3 months. She said death was an opportunity to learn. And, in her wisdom, and what I have experienced, she is so right. I’ve learned more than I can express in one blog post, and of course I haven’t even begun to speak of my amazing Grandma Lee yet, though I think I’ll share my eulogy of her here later, since she was an incredible gardener and Grandmother, of course. I wrote a eulogy for Grandma Ma too, but I think I’ve covered the gist of it here.

Lettuce in one of our fields at Isnardi's, my favorite. Puget-Theniers, France

Wild poppies share the field with our veggies.

When I left France, Spring was just beginning, and when I had first returned it was in full force. Beautiful flowers bloomed everywhere at the farm house. Not to mention all the lovely rows of salads and other veggies, which my colleague Indira had beautifully planted while I was away. She is amazing and held the fort down well while I was gone, as did Agnès and Renaud. 

Now, being back for about a month, it is definitely Summer. This week has been very hot 36 degrees celcius, which is 98.9 fahrenheit! I’ve been working just in the mornings from 6-11am or so, and it’s been wonderful. It’s just too hard to work in the heat and inefficient, since the body works slower. I love going to bed at 9 and waking up at 5, when it is quiet and feels like all the world is still asleep.

Coquelicot (poppies) make me so happy. 

Photos by: me, unless noted, or unknown. 

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