Story Collected by Liz Thomson
For my story circle object, I brought in allergy pills and an asthma inhaler. Even though I just turned 40 years old, the objects bring back childhood memories like they were yesterday. When I think back to my childhood and the outdoors, it’s not too happy. My memories are of me inside with Ma doing inside house stuff, while Kim and Mom are doing outside stuff. Whether Kim was having more fun than I was doesn’t really make a difference – but to me, it seemed more fun. This dichotomy made an impact in a few ways. Sure- I also could have tried to be outside, but as a kid, I had asthma and allergies. So being outside equated to difficulty in breathing, sneezing, and probably being sick for the next few days… missing school. Looking back through my childhood stuff, I found many “get well” cards on an annual basis from classmates and teachers. I guess it was a thing.
Being inside with Ma, I learned how to cook, do the dishes, vacuum, and dust. Therefore, I got to know her more. This increased my relationship with her as she was the one who had travelled to Vietnam in the 70s and had eventually adopted me and another baby girl. Growing up, I was always more interested in my Asian culture more so than my sister. So as I’d be inside with Ma dusting or cleaning, sometimes she would tell stories about Vietnam.
In Vietnam, she was privileged to have had hired a young woman to help do the housework and eventually to sometimes take care of me. Her name was Bay. She believes at the time, Bay was a late teenager. Ma would tell stories how Bay would dress me up to go out shopping or whatever, and she’d be so proud – like I was her own. She would take naps with me on the floor.
One of the funniest stories is how Bay potty trained me, but not like one would think. In Vietnam, plastic disposable diapers were rare to get, so she used cloth. However, since Ma worked for the Army she could get some from the Commissary. One day, Ma caught Bay holding me over one of the rare plastic diapers and making a whizzing sound to pee. I performed perfectly on demand. Ma didn’t know whether to laugh or be annoyed. I’m sure she laughed and then explained to Bay the diaper’s usage.
In 2007, I went back to Vietnam for the first time and on the second to my last day I met Bay. She was married and had many kids. She lived on a small farm about one hour from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). After driving by car to the area, we then had to go by scooter to her farm. It was my first time on a scooter, and I just felt lucky that it was only the two of us riding, as I had seen as many as four people on a scooter during my trip. Her farm had a fishpond, mango trees, and other veggies. Their home was made of wood with open sides. The kitchen was a mud-like hearth that was mostly open air. I wasn’t expecting this. Through a translator, I asked her questions about taking care of me as a baby, and I updated her on Ma, Mom, and Kim.
Fast forward to today. Ma passed away in 2010 and very quickly Mom’s health declined significantly. Within a year, we moved her to an assisted living home, sorted through decades of stuff, coordinated needed house renovations, and eventually sold her house she had owned for nearly 40 years. It was a very sad and traumatic experience, but there weren’t a lot of other options.
I now have a deeper relationship with Mom since we’ve gone through all of this transition together. I am her primary caretaker and the person the nurses call for medication changes or when she falls. I am the one who continues to go down regularly to visit and do errands. At her new place, there is a courtyard where residents can plant flowers. We brought a few from the house and planted them there.
Now as an adult, my asthma and allergies are not that bad, and I found myself on my knees digging in the dirt. “Where do you want this one?” I ask Mom. She directs me to a specific spot that she thinks is good for the plant, but also so she can see it when she eats meals in the dining area. Being in the courtyard, she laments how she misses her beautiful rose garden and her former vegetable garden. She criticizes how we sold all her tools and stuff – and how I had to buy these few garden hand tools new.
For Mother’s Day, I bought her a plant and we planted it together. I hope it survives and blooms for her to see everyday.