This week is the 40th anniversary of my family's escape from Vietnam and their escape route was profiled in the American Experience film "Last Days Of Vietnam" that has been shown on PBS this week. It is an amazing film and when we saw it last fall as a preview at the invite of the show's director Rory Kennedy, we were blown away. The details were exactly as my husband and his sister remembered it - except that they didn't know much of the background as well as they needed some of it strung together as they were 10 and 8 years old at the time.
From their recollections and the time line on the film, they realized that they were in the last helicopter that took out Vietnamese. The magnitude of that and how close they were to being those left behind has not been lost on us all - all of our lives would have been radically different. They had always been told that - but weren't sure. Anniversaries are a great time to prompt people to tell the stories of such events that are usually buried down deep - things that were traumatic that they want to forget. I am very happy for this film because it has opened a multi-month discussion between my Vietnamese family and my children about their experience living through war and leaving Vietnam and also having to start again in the USA. The experiences once they got here are even buried deeper than the escape itself. Those were the really hard years. Ripped from your culture into a place that is so different than yours - no ingredients available for the foods you eat. No one who speaks your language and your parents can't work in their professions. Proud people having to take charity and do anything to make money. Just last night a new story came out -- an aunt bringing home work she was paid by NCR to do by the piece (assembly of circuit boards) -- and how everyone including my husband, sister, parents, and their six cousins would sit all night and assemble them to make more money for the combined two families. Think of all the teens you know and how many wouldn't deem to take a job hauling garbage as it is beneath them. These are the stories that I want my kids to hear - we aren't talking generations back. We are talking about years. It is why my kids have to make their own money to buy their own clothes.
To put the icing on the cake, my husband was invited to participate in NPR's Story Core project to have his story of his last/first days archived in the Library of Congress. So a month ago, we traipsed down to the Vietnamese center in Boston to have him interviewed... by his son. Unfortunately our 10 yr old son was too scared of the mike to do it - it would have been so poignant to have him interview his father at the age his father experienced these things. But he really enjoyed listening to the tape. So instead, the teenager was enlisted to do the job. Having a young member was great as my husband chose his stories to give background to things going on in their lives. Things that provide the context to parental decisions, motivations, etc.
We had been asked to bring in photos and some objects for the project. The morning of the taping, we gathered a half dozen of the photos which comprise about 1/2 of all the photos that exist in the family before 1976. So sad. We also had to decide what of the four artifacts that we have in the family that we should take. Imagine that - for us embroiderers and antique lovers who are constantly creating family heirlooms. There are only three things we could put our finger on that came with them - and one other that was from the first days (It's story will be laid out below). There is the small blanket my husband was christened in (and my children as well), one thin gold leaf that is still bent in the shape of my mother-in-laws body where she had sewn it into her clothes, and then a small plastic box of stamps. It wasn't until that day that I knew that the box of stamps was important.
The box of stamps was one of those items handed to my child when we moved into this new house about a year ago by his grandfather. Grandpa can't hear anymore and didn't really explain to the kid what it was. The kid didn't want it, so it got tossed around the house for a bit and I almost threw it out. We all know that our parents give us back things we abandoned in our rooms ages ago in their homes... most of which we didn't want then or now. I am soooo glad I didn't toss it in my normal purging. That morning as we thought of what to bring, my husband said "I should take my stamp collection". "What stamp collection?!" I said (all of a sudden my stomach churning as the realization that I had seen the stamps in a purge cycle). He said "when my parents said we might have to flee - I was allowed one thing. I peeled all my stamps out of my collection book for days and took them with me". OMG - the search was on and I was sooo hoping I hadn't thrown them out in a very bad wife move.
The box was found and they are now featured on the NPR First Days Project website. I thought you would like to know the background of that picture of stamps! It doesn't link to John's interview, but he talks about it there. If you want to listen to or read his story, you can on the site. There are many tear jerking stories there, but his is more full of a child's perspective and many funny stories of learning to be American in the first days. (I thought the Christmas tree story was a riot).
|http://www.pbs.org/firstdays The stamps on the right hand side are just a fraction of the international and Vietnamese stamps my husband collected and was the only possession he brought with him to the USA on his escape via helicopter.|
There is a more hilarious backstory to something else he tells in the interview. John tells a story of the first Christmas as a refugee. He thought he was getting an actual toy but instead got something he needed for the cold winter. A blanket. Listen to his take on it - right from a 10-year old's perspective.
But that blanket is 'The Binky", an object of much consternation in this house. You can listen to his story to my son about the binky. This is my side of it. So I was dating John while we were at MIT and he had this really faded comforter on his bed. It had trains all over it that said 'Trolley Car'. It was a bit juvenile and as we dated for seven years - got really tattered since it was already 10 yrs old when I met him. But he insisted on sleeping under it. After I learned that it had become his first new possession when he got to the US, I got a bit scared. You see, I am kinda into interior design. It is my weakness. I like nice, matching surroundings.
So after we got engaged, I broached the subject of the binky. Quickly I knew I was hosed as he innocently stated that we would be sleeping under it once married. (It was a twin and this didn't seem to faze him). Clearly there was an irrationally holding on to this item that had to do with the trauma of being ripped from your home and things and being a refugee. I discussed it with my mother, a wise woman on matters of men and their tattered things. "Hide it!" she said, recounting the story of a 30-yr old cashmere sweater of my father's (really an assembly of holes at the moment) and her attempts to make him forget its existence. Ok - she really meant that I needed to hide the look of it. I wasn't going to be able to get rid of it, clearly.
So we launched into the plan of "The Great Binky Rescue". Otherwise known as "Save Tricia from having to look at the trains on her bed until her 50th wedding anniversary". I would point out how Binky was getting damaged and its stuffing was falling out and gently suggest that I could fix that - by encasing Binky inside a quilt top of my own making! He bought it. Line and sinker!
|My now very worn out 'rescue cover' on the binky. |
The stuffing from inside of the original inside is coming through in places!
Well... not so fast. He really meant it about sleeping under it! He is like Sheldon Cooper and the famous couch spot. When you bring up the binky, he will wax on about how it is the perfect weight and cold to the touch and yada yada about how it is the perfect thing to sleep under. The fact it is a twin size and he likes to twirl himself in it while he sleeps doesn't seem to register - says the woman who gets cold at night. So it has been now 22 years of (1) sleeping under it daily (2) redecorating the bedroom and suggesting that it become a throw at the bottom of the bed (3) convincing said husband that a duvet is nice and maybe the binky is a better summer blanket (4) buying a king size and saying 'hey - this doesn't fit!' and (5) hiding the thing in our new house! (6) bringing it out only when we are sick to use... it is the perfect weight I have to admit. (7) making a king size ocean waves quilt out of double pinks and shirtings to use in the summer instead of the down duvet...hoping to replace the binky.
Of course when he saw it for this NPR project he had to mention that spring was upon us and it would be time to get the binky out for summer sleeping! (Drat... foiled another summer!!).
Well, I have now noted that this 40 year-old cheep comforter and its 25 year-old quilt cover is looking
pretty bad again. I was asked to open a corner of the blanket so NPR could photograph the inside. (I happily complied... now it needs to be repaired before use!!! And I am so busy....aren't I?)
|Choo Choo the Trolley Car - It's so faded you can't tell that|
blob was a train!
I am a much, much better quilter now. I think it is time for a new quilt covering. This time, I will write the story of the binky somewhere on the edge - can you imagine the quilt historian of the future going through the layers inside? I have no idea what pattern I will use yet - but THIS time I will use colors I like and maybe make it match the family room (a good place to hide it in plain sight as a throw). Maybe the back will have an appliqué with the story of their escape. I might get really creative.
In a home full of handmade quilts and furniture, my samplers and now stumpworked boxes and mirrors it is becoming clear that this binky is the family heirloom we have been making for our kids all these years. It is the most treasured textile in the house. The only textile close to it is "The Ugly Thing".
And that story is for another day. :-)