Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART TWO. Finding the American Dream (1983-86)
6. Stirring the Melting Pot
BACK IN SAN DIEGO, I felt like a motorboat revving my engine while still tied to the dock. Dennis’s short, angry life had slowed my search for myself in America, and I was still having trouble getting rid of the extra baggage. I was an explorer without a compass: a missionary without a mission. One minute I felt elated and energetic, the next I was awash in tears.
Compared to my condition when Ed died, though, I was worlds ahead. Then, I was a wide-eyed, ignorant immigrant whose only assets were her will to survive and the love of her children. Jimmy and Tommy got over the shock of Dennis’s death fairly quickly, because they had already been through a lot and were happy to find some peace. Alan, though, who was not only the main object of Dennis’s affection, but of our conflict, took it a lot harder. Before, he was a happy-go-lucky kid. Now, he was somber and pensive and spent most of his time in his room, listening to bedtime stories Dennis had recorded. At times like this, I wanted to hold him extra close, but he often turned from my affection. His sullen glances struck my heart like arrows.
Some Chinese parishioners from the Baptist church took turns staying with us, as was the Oriental custom, for our first few days of mourning. With their support, I went back to work a week after Dennis’s funeral. People there were kind. They were concerned about my health and gave me the space I needed to get well. Unfortunately, one woman who had counseled me to throw Dennis out made a very disturbing remark. It would haunt me for the rest of the year.
“I hope Dennis left you something to get by on,” the woman said, fiddling absently with her circuit board the way a village gossip weaves a basket.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know—an estate, life insurance, all that.”
“I don’t know if Dennis had any insurance. He barely had enough money for food. Anyway, I don’t want his money. It brought us nothing but bad luck. I just want to put everything behind me.”
“Well, hon, you’d better have your lawyer check it out. If you don’t get the dough, the State of California will—or some greedy relative. How’s that gonna help your boys?”
I wanted to tell her to mind her own business, but I had tangled enough with “the American system” to know that she was right.
That evening, Jimmy and I unpacked Dennis’s van, which had been sealed since the police investigation. Inside, among a lot of other papers we couldn’t figure out, was a million-dollar “double indemnity” insurance policy on my life, along with newspaper clippings about mass murderers and men who had killed their families—even an old TV Guide with a couple of shows circled that dealt with spouse abuse and serial killers. I was so horrified I couldn’t speak and although my first impulse was to trash them before the boys could get a look, I decided that my lawyer should see them first.
He took much longer to riffle through the files than I expected. “This is pretty spooky stuff,” he said, although I didn’t need a lawyer to tell me that. When he got to the legal papers, he said, “Well, there’s at least one silver lining: you now own your house free and clear.” He explained about mortgage insurance and “the death of the principal breadwinner,” although, in that case, the wrong person had probably died. “Also,” he said, “the police reported the death as a vehicle-related accident, so your automobile insurance owes you some money, too. Wait a second—what’s this?”
He pulled out a legal-size, blue-bound document folded like an accordion. “Well, I’ll be damned. It seems Dennis had a hundred-thousand-dollar government life insurance policy—with his sister Janet as trustee. Alan and Victor are shown as joint beneficiaries. Look—here’s your signature on the bottom. Don’t you remember signing this?”
“No.” I told him the truth. I had signed a lot of things Dennis put in front of me. Most of them were so confusing I wouldn’t have known what I was reading anyway; and if I questioned anything, it usually caused a fight.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. Under the circumstances, I think I can get the policy turned over to you. Do you want me to give it a try?”
“No—I don’t want the money. It’s tainted—bad karma. I know you think that’s silly, but I believe it. I would rather Dennis’s sister gets the money than fight over things anymore.”
The lawyer leaned back in his oversize chair and gave me that “amused parent” look I had grown so used to. “That’s very noble, Ly, but how does Alan benefit if his aunt keeps most of the money for Victor? If she’s trustee, she can use it any way she likes. Don’t you think Alan would be better off if you controlled his share?”
I felt myself being pulled back into the swamp of Dennis’s life. Although I really and truly didn’t want anything more to do with Dennis’s money or possessions, I realized the time might come when Alan would appreciate my forbearance. I gritted my teeth and said yes. A few weeks later, I got a call from Janet. After asking politely how the boys and I were doing, she got right down to business.
“Ly, I got this awful letter from your lawyer. It says you want to be made trustee for the policy he set up for his sons. That’s not right, Ly. If Dennis wanted you to administer the funds, he would’ve named you in the policy. In fact, he specifically said you were not to act as trustee. You even signed it, saying you understood and gave up any legal claims. Now—here you are, pulling a stunt like this! Why don’t you respect Dennis’s last wishes and leave things the way they are?”
“Because I know what is best for my son,” I answered. “I cannot rely on you or the insurance company or the banks. I could not even rely on Dennis when he was alive! I spent the last two years trying to protect Alan from his father! But please—do not worry. I don’t want to control all the money—just the half that belongs to Alan. Victor should have his money, I agree, and you are welcome to that. I only want what is best for my son.”
“Okay, Ly. I don’t want to fight over this, either. I’ll agree to give up trusteeship for Alan if you can find a lawyer who will take my place and be co-trustee with you. Have him draw up the papers and I’ll sign them.”
She hung up and although I felt justified in everything I said, I still felt sad and unsettled. I did not want my relationship with the Hay-slips to go the way of my relationship with the Munros. I believed in the power of families to help kids grow up, and felt bad that Tommy had been lopped off like a thorny branch from the American side of his family tree. Maybe in his maturity he would find some way to rediscover his roots among Ed’s family, but the precious years lost in between would never come again. I did not want this to happen to Alan—yet here we were, drawing battle lines on legal papers, pitting Alan against his American half brother. It seemed as if a garden with even a sliver of “Vietnamese bamboo” was doomed to wither on this side of the ocean.
Even with no bribes to pay, justice can be expensive. Because of the divorce and other legal bills, not to mention the cost of two funerals, I was paying out everything I earned each month with creditors lining up for more. Thao’s children came back to live with us as well as Anh, the youngest of my original foster children, and Chanh, Jimmy’s half brother. This only increased our monthly expenses, but the happiness I found in a crowded house more than made up for the cost.
My lawyer wrote everyone to whom we owned money, asking them to give me a little time after Dennis’s death to straighten out his affairs. Most of them expressed their condolences with dunning letters and threatening phone calls. When a husband dies in Vietnam, people leave the widow alone while she pulls herself together. Unless they do, the family risks falling apart. Without the family, no debts get paid. Now, I had to settle not only my debts and our joint debts but Dennis’s private debts as well: not just his lawyer (I was supposed to pay for all the trouble he caused me?) but previously hidden expenses from Dennis’s “other” life—his one away from the family.
The worst were the credit card people. When Dennis signed up for the cards, they treated us like royalty. “You need more money?” their letters would say. “Fine—just spend more and we’ll increase your credit limit.” Dennis was happy to comply. When one of them called to complain of Dennis’s high unpaid balance, I could only laugh and tell him, “You think my dead husband owes you a lot—think of the soul debt he has incurred in the afterworld!” I began to explain the Buddhist principles of karma but the dunner hung up and never called back.
When things looked worst—when our family debt stretched out for months and months beyond my income—I comforted myself with the story my father told me when I was about nine, about money and its true value.
“There was once a hard-working farmer, Bay Ly, in a village very much like ours.”
“Was he as hard working as you and Bon Nghe?” I asked, thinking nobody could work as diligently as my father and oldest brother.
My father laughed. “He made us look like idlers! He did not lift a finger unless it gained him something and his hands were always busy—that’s how hard he worked! Of course, he owned many paddies and employed a great many poor villagers, all of whom he expected to work as hard as he did but for a fraction of the reward. Consequently, people looked on him as very mean and cruel, which he never understood, since he worked harder than anyone and gave jobs to people who would otherwise go begging.
“Anyway, his wealth increased over the years, and he built a great house which he filled with gold and jewelry—the things you buy when you already have too much. Still, he traded sharply with each vendor and paid his laborers no more than the going wage. In his eyes, people were valued like beans in a market—worth no more than what a clever bidder would pay.
“One day, the man fell terribly ill and his sons gathered around him.
“ ‘Father, I will call the greatest physician in the land to come and cure you,’ his number-one son said.
“ ‘No,’ the farmer replied, ‘I have worked hard all my life. It is time now for me to rest.’
“ ‘But our lands will perish without you, father,’ his number-two son said. ‘Come back and show us what to do.’
“ ‘Rubbish,’ the farmer replied. ‘I have already shown everyone what to do by my example. You will all get along just fine without me.’
“ ‘Then let us hire the best stonecutter in the land to carve a huge sarcophagus so that your body may rest forever with your treasure,’ his number-three son said.
“ ‘No,’ the farmer replied, coughing his soon-to-be last breath. ‘Just find a hollow log and use that for my coffin. Cut holes for my two arms so that my open palms can dangle. Parade me three times around the village so that people can see I carry nothing to the grave, then bury me in our ancestral cemetery. Disburse my treasure to those who have served me best, not neglecting the villagers most in need.’
“ ‘But father,’ the sons cried together, ‘why should the richest man in the village be buried like a pauper?’
“ ‘Because I want everyone to see that you can’t take your treasure with you. Vac tien ra ma mac ca cai chet—Shall I take my money to the grave and bargain with death? All we have after passing is our soul, which can travel to its next life only if it is unburdened. I want them to see that the true wage of hard work is not money in a treasure house, but the health and happiness of the friends and family you leave behind.’
“So saying, the farmer died and his sons did as they were told but also took it upon themselves to build a temple in his honor where the farmer’s soul is nourished even to this day by the thankful prayers of later generations.”
“Do you want Bon and Sau Ban to build a temple for you after you are gone?” I asked my father.
“No, little peach blossom,” he said, handing me my hoe and gently swatting my bottom in the direction of the fields. “A poor farmer’s church is his paddy, and like the wealthy farmer, we must be about our business.”
Like rice seedlings, planted row by row, my resources slowly grew. Alan and Victor split Dennis’s insurance benefit, which gave them each a nest egg for education and emergencies. The mortgage insurance gave me the choice of paying off the house or receiving a lumpsum payment. I took the money, since the monthly payments of $375 were quickly looking like a bargain in California’s heated real estate market.
The “death van,” as I thought of it, was paid off by Dennis’s auto insurance, but I couldn’t bear to keep it one minute longer. I ran an ad and sold it to the first caller. We fared much better when the “accidental death” portion of the auto insurance was settled: a check for forty thousand dollars, which I used to satisfy the rest of our creditors.
With my worldly debts paid, I turned my thoughts to the things I owed the spirit domain. I had avoided the Buddhist temple since Dennis’s death because I felt bad for disregarding my monk’s advice. True, I had taken Dennis back, but my patience ran out after a single year—a drop in the ocean to the cosmic god. Still, I wanted to mend those fences.
My su received me graciously, as he always did. Instead of lecturing me on my responsibility for Dennis’s death, he simply asked if I “wanted to do anything for the temple”—penance for whatever was still troubling me. I said yes, and was given a list of chores: from the menial—sweeping up—to the more significant, stuffing envelopes and helping with the temple’s outreach program. Since I now had some extra cash, I made a larger than usual donation with the hope that some of it would go into improving the shrine, which was the centerpiece of every temple and the way visitors gauged the health and generosity of the local Buddhist community.
Word now began to pass in the Vietnamese community that the Hanoi authorities were letting individual packages get through to needy families. I began sending “care packages”—boxes of good American clothing, food, and drugstore medicine—to Tinh, my niece in Danang, who I figured had the best chance of any relative to survive the Communist purges. She had also been used by various branches of our family to keep in touch, so if anyone knew how to reach my other relatives with gifts, supplies, and letters from America, it would be her. My relief packages went unacknowledged, but still I persisted. Co cong mai sat, co ngay nen kim—with perseverance, one can whet a piece of iron into a needle.
Thinking about Tinh and my family gave me the courage to dig out the notes about my childhood I had transcribed on lined paper a few years before. I didn’t know how long our money would last and I would have to go back to work, so I decided to use this rare “vacation” to finish what I had started.
The task was much bigger than I supposed.
Because of my third-grade education, writing was tedious: making marks on paper was laborious enough in my tortured longhand, but thinking of the right words to say was even more difficult. A villager’s vocabulary focuses on getting through the day, saying our prayers, and gossiping, rather than on discussing big ideas—so I spent more time looking up words in my Vietnamese-English dictionary than I did actually putting them on paper. Fortunately, the wheel of life had turned far enough to give me an unexpected ally.
Jimmy was now a fifteen-year-old handsome teenager. Like many of our race, he looked more youthful than his years, except in the eyes, which had seen more than they should. He was intelligent and worked hard in school. And he was my son, which meant he had my father’s heart. Jimmy, I decided, would be my collaborator and teacher.
When I was studying for U.S. citizenship, Dan had encouraged me to take all the necessary classes and then some. Ed was indifferent to my education, but was glad to see me happy. Dennis thought anything beyond my Bible education was a waste, and said so often. I was a poor student in things that required memorization and rule-following, like English grammar. I was a good student, though, in subjects that seemed useful—such as citizens’ rights—and legends from American history.
I particularly liked the stories about Abe Lincoln. I was fascinated that America had waged its own civil war, just like Vietnam. Although I never dared mention it in class (because the war was still going on), Lincoln reminded me of Ho Chi Minh. The highest goal for both men had been to hold their country together, even if part of it wanted to break away. Both Uncle Ho and Honest Abe saw that, in the long run, a divided house must fall. America should thank its stars that its great civil war lasted only four years (instead of five times that long for mine), and that the last living memory of it has long since passed. Many of those suffering souls are no doubt back among us, reincarnated with new lives. Some are still struggling to learn old lessons; you can feel it in the soil. Every old battlefield is hot with frustration and unexpended hate, even in the dead of winter.
My favorite teacher was an old woman who struck me as the very image of a Nico or Su mau—a female shaman or wise old godmother. (Gender makes no difference to the nearly perfect souls that inhabit such bodies. They are about to ascend to a higher plane of existence, so they are indifferent to earthly preoccupations like sex and ambition.) I visited this teacher often after class to hear stories about her youth and the tribulations of an earlier age in America, when everyone was so poor even the economy was depressed and the United States was not yet the world’s policeman. I also told her stories about my family and the history of Vietnam. Eventually, we visited each other’s houses and I considered her one of my best American friends. She astounded me one evening, though, when, as I was leaving, she took my hand and thanked me for taking the time to teach her so many things. It was the first time anyone but my boys had ever suggested that I knew anything worth knowing. For me, like my American instructor, teaching was as natural as learning.
So Jimmy became a very proficient student of my life, although I had to ease him into this occupation gently. To prepare the way, I bought him a Commodore computer.
“You’re getting pretty good with that keyboard, aren’t you?” I smiled a proud mother’s smile.
“Yeah, I can really whip out my papers now. Thanks.”
“Then you’ll have free time to help me with my notes and stories.” I held up a box half filled with writing paper. Jimmy’s face fell.
“Gee, I don’t know, Mom. I didn’t take typing at school. I sort of learned on my own—” I could see he was in a hurry to get to the mall and feed quarters to the computer games, or was today his day for baseball? “Maybe I can do it tonight.”
“Okay, so you do it tonight and won’t watch TV?” I could tell he hadn’t thought the deal all the way through.
He put down his jacket and picked up the first page of the manuscript. “Why are you doing this anyway?” He could not conceive of anybody working so hard over something that wasn’t “due next Wednesday.”
“It’s a book—my book! Tram nam bia da thi mon, ngan nam bia mieng hay con tro tro—Stone wears out in a hundred years, but words can last a thousand! It’s the story of how I grew up in Ky La and what happened during the war and how you were born in Danang. Yes, you’re in it!”
With more enthusiasm, he dug deeper into the stack.
“Well, you’ll have to wait and see, won’t you? You have to work your way to it.”
In the end, he agreed to help his mom in her daunting task. I think the only reason he promised to do it—besides reading what his mother had to say about him—was because he thought I’d never finish it. Ignorant farm girls don’t write books. What Jimmy didn’t realize was that this was my—our—“treasure house.” As my father told me, we must be about our family’s business.
Part of that business was to learn more about business itself. Because I now had some assets—a house and some cash—to manage and never had to think about such things before, I took a course in business administration. What I lacked in professional polish, I made up for in experience—on the Danang black market, in my abortive but very instructive venture into the deli business, as a production line supervisor. When it came to sizing people up and figuring out how to get something done and make a little money in the bargain, I was first in my class. While the other students studied the book and talked to the professor to get good grades, they often came to me when they thought about starting a real business. Which is not to say that I was unimpressed with American business education. In Vietnam, it would have made a very good scam!
The thing I disliked most was the way my teacher made business seem like a dog-eat-dog affair, which in my experience (even in the black market) it never was. The most successful people I knew spent a lot of time earning the trust of those on whom their success depended. I learned early that it was better to make a small profit from many customers—and have those customers come back—than to rip somebody off and spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. (An it no lau, an nhieu tuc bung, my mother used to say—Eat a little to feel better; eat too much and feel a bellyache!) That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be aggressive about getting what you want; only that “looking out for number one” really means getting everyone—customers, partners, employees—to want you to succeed as well. I used to call my professor’s shortsighted advice “the class on being selfish.” Of course, America was the world’s economic colossus and my home country was very poor, so who was I to talk?
I applied the best of what I learned to my volunteer work at the temple, which is where I now spent most of my free time. With their minds always on the next world, the monks needed plenty of help in this one. I always looked at it as an investment in my soul, with principal and interest paid in my next life.
Jimmy and Tommy spent a lot of time at Dennis’s old church. I understood why. The big white church gave them the kind of American family life I couldn’t. They were now going to regular services and joined Bible study groups of their own, some of which met at our house. Despite the sometimes overbearing zeal of people like Dennis and Janet, and what I felt to be the misdirected spiritualism of their holy men, I bore no ill will toward the Baptists. Although their theology seemed a little loony (their compulsion to “convert heathens” without a hearing, for example, seemed like holding a trial wherein only the prosecutor was allowed to speak), the people who believed it were fundamentally good. As the monks assured me, god knows his own face even when others can’t recognize it.
I only became uncomfortable when my boys, one day, decided I had to convert to Christianity to escape the flames of hell.
“Don’t you know that the only way to salvation is through our Lord, Jesus Christ?” ten-year-old Tommy said.
“Why do you worry so much about changing other people?” I asked.
“Well, if you knew the world was going to end, wouldn’t you want to save as many people as you could?” Jimmy replied.
“Well, the world ends for everybody one day or another; some sooner, some later. What difference does it make if it ends all at once? That’s just more work for god, but if he wants it that way, it’s fine with me.”
“Mom—” Jim said disgustedly. “You’re missing the point.”
“No, I don’t think so.” I was sorry now that I hadn’t made more of an effort to instruct them in our traditional family beliefs the way my father had instructed me. Perhaps just giving them the example of a weird old lady chanting by a smoky shrine was not the way American kids learned best. We would actually have to talk about things.
I said, “Suppose the three of us are driving in a car and it goes off the road—”
“Then Tom must be driving!” Jim socked his brother on the arm and I hushed them up.
“No, really, suppose the three of us go off a cliff and god has to decide which of us to save. Who would he choose?”
“He would save the people who believed in Him,” Jim said. “Me and Tommy.”
“He would not save me?” I tried to look hurt.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you accept him as your Savior?”
“No, but I know I am one of god’s children. I worship as I was taught and try to live a good life. Why would he be so mean to me just because my paperwork wasn’t in order?”
“Mommm!” they whined in unison.
“You see, I believe natural law carries the seeds of all religion: mine, yours, Dennis’s, Ed’s Catholic family’s—everyone. Men have found a hundred little ways to get the details wrong, but god needs just one way to be right.”
“I don’t understand,” Tom said.
“Well, when you come to me and ask me to believe in Jesus, I ask you, ‘How do you know Jesus is your lord?’ and you say, ‘Because God says so.’ Then I ask you, ‘How do you know God says so?’ and you say, ‘Because Pastor Bob told us.’ So I ask, ‘How does the pastor know?’ and you say, ‘Because he has studied the Bible.’ And who wrote the Bible? ‘Learned men,’ you say, ‘who have heard the word of God and seen His miracles.’ So, I conclude that you are asking me to believe in Jesus because other men say so. Wouldn’t it be better to listen to god directly—to see his miracles yourself?”
“You mean like Jesus walking on water and all that stuff?” Tommy said enthusiastically. “Sure, but that happened a long time ago.”
“No, I mean miracles that happen every day: babies being born and birds squawking across the sky and dreams at night. That is how god talks to us. To me, those are real miracles worthy of a cosmic god and we are all part of them. You agree—it’s easy to believe in god when you see the miracles yourself, right? I tell you I see them every day. Therefore, it is easy for me to believe in my god, no matter what others think or say. From what you say, though, the Baptists believe God reveals himself just to a few people and the rest of us have to take it on faith. That is faith in men, Jimmy and Tommy, not faith in god.”
“So who would God save when Tommy wrecks the car?” Jimmy asked, a little less certain.
“I’m not god and I’m not a Baptist.” I chucked his chin. “You tell me!”
My business and religious interests collided one day in the form of Tuy, a girl I met at the temple. She came in on a busy day and had the monks shave her head in front of everyone—a big act of atonement. By shaving her head, we Buddhists believe, she emulates the condition of a newborn baby, who comes into the world with only its karma from another life, not the new soul debt created by recent mistakes. It’s a way of signaling the cosmic god that you’re willing to start over and not repeat the same error—an act that makes everyone feel better, even if the sinner relapses. I was glad to have witnessed it and went over to thank her afterward. We got to talking about our backgrounds.
Apparently she too had been married to an older American worker in Vietnam. Like me, she also had marriage problems and got very sick. Although she didn’t tell me what she had done to shave her head (and I didn’t ask—that would have been impolite), I got the feeling it had to do with bad choices and men, things I knew something about. Tuy said that, as part of her new life, she was thinking about opening a jewelry shop. I told her I was studying business and hoping to find a way to invest the small amount of money I came into after my husband died. We agreed that neither of us felt comfortable doing business with the rapidly growing Vietnamese community: they were all sharp, experienced business people and a little cutthroat. We felt we would be taken to the cleaners. However, we were impressed with each other and Tuy asked if I would like to see some samples of the kind of jewelry she planned to sell.
We met the next day (she was wearing a wig now, so her sin was between her and god) and she showed me a bag full of lovely diamonds, jade, and pearls. She said she had bought them from Vietnamese refugees “just off the boat” and my heart sank. Still, she swore she had paid a fair price for each, the most she could afford.
“I just need a little more cash to open the store,” she said. “And I’ve already found the perfect location. Do you think you would be interested?”
“Well, the jewelry is very nice, but I just want to take things easy for a while. I really can’t afford the risk.”
“What risk? I’ll let you hold these pieces as collateral. They must be worth at least seventy-thousand dollars retail.” Her face then clouded up. “Le Ly, you’re my last hope. My husband won’t help and he’s turned all our friends against me. He doesn’t want me to succeed—to be anything on my own!”
That sounded familiar enough to make my own eyes water.
“Okay,” I said. “All right. I can give you forty thousand—just about all I have. I’ll keep these jewels in my safe deposit box. I know you are a good person inside. I know you are serious about turning your life around. I think it would be good for me—for my soul—to do what I can to help you.”
She thanked me effusively and, true to her word, her little shop was open in a week. Like a proud mother, I saw in her effort the reborn “daughter” of my own little dream—the Oriental deli—that had been smothered by Dennis in its infancy.
Unfortunately, Tuy faced other problems. Everything that could go wrong did—not all because of her own bad judgment and inexperience, but bad luck and bad timing as well. Not long after she opened, she called in a panic.
“Ly, I need the jewels!”
“What? You mean your collateral?”
“Yes. I can’t pay my wholesaler so he’s stopped delivery on my stock. Unless you let me sell that jewelry, I won’t be able to pay my rent!”
I thought for a moment, wondering what my business instructor would do; but the blame for losing the cash was mine as a not-so-careful investor. I realized that what I had really been trying to purchase was heaven’s favor by giving a sinner another chance, and that I had accomplished. To keep her jewels on top of that, after she had tried and failed would simply have added to my own moral debt.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll bring them by.”
Of course, I never saw my money or the jewelry again. Tuy’s husband had been right, she was just a bad business person. It taught me a valuable lesson, though: don’t judge other people’s experience solely by your own. To Tuy’s credit, she made periodic attempts to pay me back—a hundred dollars here and a hundred there—but I’ve never expected to see my forty thousand dollars. The last I heard, she was working as a masseuse and had been arrested—I was afraid to ask what for. I certainly did not want my money so badly that she should break the law to get it, so I sent her a note telling her not to worry about it—I would get along just fine until she was back on her feet.
If she shaved her head again after this fiasco, nobody at the temple knew it.
I decided on a different strategy to protect and multiply what money I had left. Twice burned, I was afraid to start another small business, so I attended some investment seminars hoping to find an answer. At one seminar, I learned that “common stock” represented ownership in a company and that you could buy it without having to manage the business or suffer all the hassles. Since bigger companies issued most of the stock on the market, it was possible to buy “shares” in big established corporations—the best of all worlds!
I became a stock junkie.
I bought shares in entertainment companies that made glamorous American movies. I bought stock in high technology firms, like the company I used to work for. I became “part owner” of giant corporations that cranked out products every American seemed to need. Whenever one of their ads was on TV, I would call the boys over and squeal, “Look! Your mother is part owner of that big company. Isn’t that great!” Eventually one of them asked that if I was part owner, how come we didn’t get their products for free? I told the boys they were too young to understand business and sent them back to their homework, but it seemed like a pretty good question.
Of course, by this time, the “Reagan recession” was over and the economy was on the way up, so just about every stock did well. In less than a year, I made a five-thousand-dollar profit and had the self-confidence to try to put my old life completely behind me.
Since Dennis’s death, I had wanted to leave the neighborhood. The boys spent a lot of time with church people and, at their impressionable age, I wasn’t sure everything they learned from them was healthy—too much intolerance and blind faith in angry men. I also didn’t feel comfortable working in the yard where I could feel the eyes of my neighbors on me. I could almost hear the mothers cautioning their daughters: “There, you see what happens to you when you worship false idols and kick out your husband? Look how lonely she is—a poor black widow!”
In a way, they were right. I kept in touch with Lan, who had now opened a secondhand clothing store in El Cajon, but we had less and less in common. Always a bit aloof, she never really applied herself to becoming an American and, I suspect, always thought my eyes “were becoming too round.” I occasionally went out with Kathy and my friends from Digidyne, but I had trouble warming to the singles scene. I was ready for something else—a true new beginning.
After a little searching, I found a new, smaller house I liked a lot. I discovered that if I liquidated my stock portfolio (which now matched my original $40,000 nest egg) and borrowed $20,000 against my house, I would have the $60,000 needed for the down payment and could service the monthly mortgage on both places by renting our big old house.
“That’s a good plan,” my banker said, looking at the figures I jotted down, “but what happens if you can’t rent the first house? You’ll need to show us another source of income. Anything will do. Just bring in a pay stub and I’m sure your loan will go through.”
This was very disappointing because by this time I was deeply absorbed in writing my book and had neither the energy nor inclination to go look for a menial job just to satisfy the banker. I wondered who could help me out without making a big deal of it. Against my better judgment, I called my sister Lan.
“Look, this house is a good deal,” I told her. “Home prices are going up fast in California. Unless I trade up now, I will be priced out of the market. If you give me a letter saying I work for your store, I will cut you in on part of the profits. We can’t lose.”
“Oh?” Lan asked. “What about the law? You don’t really work for me. I would have to say I pay you something. I wouldn’t want you to come back later and demand money based on that letter.”
“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t be doing any work—”
“Oh, that’s very nice! Money for no work?”
“No, no.” I knew Lan was toying with me but I tried to hide my frustration. “It’s just for the banker. Just a piece of paper for his file. He already said he wanted to lend me the money. It’s just a formality.”
“But it’s still a lie. I don’t want to lie for you, Bay Ly. It’s not right. It’s as if we were back in Danang—”
“Yes, exactly! And we did lots of worse things in Danang!” I was starting to get angry.
“But this is America.” This was an odd argument coming from Lan, but I listened. “I thought the old ways made you angry, Bay Ly. You’re always going on about the corruption in the South. Well, here you are trying to do the same thing in America. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up going to jail—or being deported. Is that what you really want?”
I hung up, mad as could be. But as I cooled down, I realized Lan was right. How easy it was, with a little knowledge and the smell of a few dollars in your nose, to cut corners, to take the easy path, to add new debt to your soul even as you put money in your pocket. Especially as you put money in your pocket! I called the banker and told him I couldn’t go through with the deal. I should’ve called and thanked Lan, but I was still her baby sister and just couldn’t lift the phone.
My interest in real estate brought me into contact with many people: brokers, investment advisers, businessmen. I met one developer who, in addition to being very professional where finances were concerned, was personally very kind, and interested in me and my family. His current project was a custom home development in Escondido, about thirty minutes north of San Diego. He said that with residential real estate values growing faster than the population in San Diego County, home prices even in the outlying areas were ready to take off. Getting in on the ground floor in this new neighborhood, he said, would accomplish both my objectives: to invest in a brand new area and start a brand new life.
When I finally saw the development, the reality was even better than the dream. I fell in love with a two-story five-bedroom house with a sunken living room, a family room, and a big kitchen. After a few calculations, we figured that with rents so high now and demand so great, I would be able to cover both the old and new mortgages with money to spare. I applied for financing and waited for the other shoe (my lack of a backup pay stub) to drop, but it never did. Because of all my equity, the paperwork went through without a hitch. Than tai go cua—Lady Fortune had finally knocked on my door.
Of course, feeling prosperous and being prosperous—spiritually—are two different things. I went to Los Angeles to hire the only available Ong Thay Dai Ly—an astrologer who reads earth signs and could give me the auspices of the house. On the long drive back to Escondido, the short, husky psychic explained the foundation of his craft.
“The Chinese zodiac goes back many thousands of years, little sister,” the round-faced shaman said. “When the Buddha was leaving earth, he called the animals to bid him farewell. One of these animals was a rat who saw a big elephant browsing by the roadside. ‘Come on, Mister Elephant,’ the rat squeaked, ‘we must hurry to say goodbye to the Buddha.’ The elephant simply shoveled up more hay and said, ‘You go, little rat. I am too big and important to rush. The Buddha will wait for me.’ But the Buddha didn’t, and the first twelve animals to arrive were rewarded with their own namesake year, forming the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. First was the rat, followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. Everyone born in a given year takes on certain qualities of the namesake—the “animal” that lurks in the human heart. You say you were born in the Year of the Ox, which is the Water Buffalo in Vietnam. That means you are dependable and patient—a tireless worker—but you can be stubborn. You respect tradition but this can sometimes lead you into prejudice. You are romantic but love often makes you the fool—am I right so far, little sister?”
I blushed because it was as if the astrologer were looking into my soul. I only hoped his spirit sight would be clear enough to discern the pitfalls and stumbling blocks in the home that was to be my fortress for the future.
We arrived at the site of the almost completed house around three o’clock. Like the first geomancer, he circled the structure compass in hand, noting which doors opened in which direction. He also dug in the earth, tasting it the way a chef tastes dough, and rolled it between his fingers. Inside, he consulted his celestial charts and tables. When he was finished, he took me into the kitchen.
“Here is your only problem,” he said solidly. “Notice how your front door lines up with the back door in the kitchen. Everything that comes into your life the front way will go out the back: men, money, happiness, you name it. I suggest you build a wall across the opening or at least block the door—put a bookcase against it and always keep it locked. Other than that”—he rolled his charts—“I suggest you move in on the eighth of July between ten and twelve in the morning. Bring fruit, flowers, a bucket of water, a dead chicken, and plenty of incense and paper money to burn: these are the things you’ll need to propitiate the spirits of earth, water, and your ancestors. It’s also a good idea to invite a few homeless spirits, too, since you were a child of the war. Put some of the food on the floor, too, so that the crippled spirits can feast—everybody always forgets about them. If you like, I can come back and help you with the formal blessing.”
“Yes,” I said, “I would like that very much.”
When the house was finished, we moved in like a colony of ants: one stick of furniture, one carload of belongings at a time. About halfway through our two-week-long effort, I spent a night alone in the house just to enjoy its quiet and sense of peace. My dreams, for once, were my own: no Ed, no Dennis, no nattering relatives, no war ghosts—nobody but the entity called Phung Thi Le Ly. I enjoyed it immensely.
Our new household was decidedly smaller. Thao’s children went back to live with her (Escondido was too far for their mother to commute) and, similarly, Anh and Chanh wanted to stay in San Diego near their friends. Amidst our new neighbors (who, in a new development, were all newcomers themselves) in a new community, we felt like pioneers. The only things we’d have would be the things we made for ourselves, and we knew our work would be good.
For the next few weeks, the boys and I landscaped the yard and I installed custom curtains and miniblinds, sparing no expense for this investment of a lifetime—song phai co cai nha, gia co phai cai mo! I got a carpet as lush as Leatha’s. My developer friend, our first guest, estimated that the value had already increased by $25,000 since I first made my offer, almost a year before. This was the America we had dreamed about in Vietnam. This was the America I yearned for when I arrived with Ed: a place of my own, steeped in beauty and good karma; hospitable to flesh and spirit, promising security in old age, leaving me answerable to no one but myself.
The day finally arrived for the Ong Thay Dai Ly to formally bless our house. I had carried out all the preliminary rituals and acquired all the materials he said we would need for the ceremony and the convocation of household spirits. He arrived from Los Angeles with two companions.
“These are your associates, brother?” I asked respectfully. “Acolytes? Your disciples-in-training?”
“No,” he answered absently. “This is my brother-in-law and his neighbor. They want to go to the San Diego Wild Animal Park when we’re finished. They’ve never been there.”
The four of us gathered near the den’s walk-in closet where my Buddhist shrine was set up. Jimmy and Tommy weren’t entirely sold on my beliefs, although they respected them a little more. In return, I tried to keep my religious paraphernalia out of sight so their school friends wouldn’t think their mother was too weird. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t always work.
I put unblemished fruit on the altar, along with smoking incense and a recording of chanting monks—in stereo—one of the best applications of American technology I had seen. We drew the drapes and made the room as dark as possible. I lit as many candles as I had and their perfume quickly mixed with the incense to give the place a surreal quality. Our souls relaxed and prepared us for our encounter with the incorporeal world. In his role of medium, or xoc dong, the geomancer produced a mystic slate, like a Ouija board, and placed it in front of us. He began chanting with the record and we all closed our eyes.
After a short time he said, “The spirits are here.” Then he got quiet; then giggled like a little kid, which really startled me. “Oh, there are so many of them! I can’t believe it! And high spirits, too—very elder ancestors. And outside, there are many more—younger, lower ones who want to come in but can’t. Oh, this is marvelous!”
Suddenly, the xoc dong broke the circle. In his normal voice he said to me, “Ly, why don’t we build a little altar for the lower spirits in the dining room. It won’t take but a minute, and we should be polite. There really are a lot of them. You might like to know that Ed and Dennis are among them.”
As quickly as I could, I put some offerings on my dinner table along with a very fine ceramic Buddha.
We resumed the séance and the higher spirits had their say. Unfortunately, it was in the language of a superior plane and we understood none of it, but after a half hour of mumbling, chanting, and jerking in his chair, the xoc dongcame out of his trance—very thirsty—and pronounced my ancestors extremely pleased with their new spirit home and the work I was doing in America.
“My work?” I was genuinely puzzled. “What work is that?” I couldn’t believe my ancestral spirits could be particularly proud of my ill-fated deli and Tuy’s bankrupt jewelry store. “What is the work that pleases them so much?” I asked again. But the xoc dong didn’t say.
“Now I have a message for you from Dennis,” he continued. A pained look came over his face. “He’s standing back—he’s a little shy. He doesn’t want to come into your new house. He’s not used to his new world. No, that’s not it. He’s bitter—yes. But he forgives you. He is a student of the other spirits and is learning from their wisdom. He wants—he asks—for you to take his soul to the Buddhist temple. He says, ‘Place me in the temple.’ He also tells you to lock your door always—”
“Which door? The kitchen door? The kitchen door is sealed.”
The medium looked very pained now and I could tell he wanted to break contact. Dennis could do that to you.
“He says he will watch the house. He says he will watch your house—until you put his soul to rest in the temple—” The medium’s eyes popped open. “Well, that’s it.” He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Are you sure that was Dennis?” I asked. “He was a very strong Christian. He swore that if he died, he would not come to visit me like Ed. I’m surprised he even talked to you.”
“Dennis is surprised now about a lot of things.” The xoc dong drank some more water. “We humans can see just beyond the end of our noses, eh? But spirits can see everything. In life, we see in three dimensions. After death, we see in dozens. It takes some getting used to.”
“But he’ll be angry if I take him to the Buddhist temple. He hated that place.”
“Not anymore. Trust me—he’s very uncomfortable where he is. He senses the warmth of the temple. He wants to be soothed. He’s like a sailor all alone in a small boat on a vast, foggy sea. He is lost and the temple is his only beacon. In the temple, his soul will receive the instruction it needs. As it finds peace, so will your living family—his descendants—find peace.”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Although I was gratified that my ancestral spirits had followed me to this new place, I was still perturbed about Dennis. I knew that angry spirits were very temperamental and had to be handled in just the right way. I wanted Dennis to find peace, but I didn’t want to inflict hau qua—the curse of a bad ghost—on the monks and congregation at the temple. I felt I was in a terrible quandary.
The next day, I drove to the temple and told my su that I wanted to perform Qui y—the ceremony for anchoring a lost soul. I apprised him of the dangers, which he knew very well. To my relief, the monk agreed with the xoc dongand added that I would be paying off a good deal of soul debt by helping to guide a lost spirit to the path of enlightenment. He told me exactly what I must do.
That evening, I prepared a soul feast—vegetarian dishes and rice—for Dennis’s spirit. I brought the food and framed photographs of deceased members of my family to the temple shrine, then got down on my knees and stretched my arms out over my head. I named all the lower spirits who had died away from home and whom I now wished to be comforted in the temple: my brother, Sau Ban; my father, Phung Trong; my first husband, Edward; and my second husband, Dennis. The monk then asked the three “spiritual jewels”—Buddha, the Enlightened One; Dharma, the Teacher; and Sangha, the Highest of High Priests, Keeper of Mysteries—to accept these lost souls into their infinite facets. The monk then placed the photographs in the inner sanctum among the resident souls.
And that was it.
I thanked my su and made a generous donation to the temple, although this wasn’t strictly necessary. The monk said goodbye, but in a way that was strange—both happy and sad—and gave me a benediction I hadn’t heard before: “Le trao hoc vi.”
During the long drive back to Escondido, I mulled over the wisdom of what I had done and found my soul getting light, my feelings more buoyant, with each passing mile. By the time I parked in my garage and crossed back into my dream house, I was so lighthearted that I might well have floated above the carpet, as airy as one of my spirits.
I got down my Vietnamese-English dictionary and looked up the monk’s benediction. It was the phrase used to congratulate students when they graduated from high school or college. The word was commencement. It meant the end of one great thing and the beginning of something grander.