How a Vietnamese Grandmother said “I Love You”
January 14, 2019
Hoàng Chi Trương, guest contributor
I learned what it meant to be a grandmother from my mom, from the million ways she showed her love to the grandkids as soon as they arrived at the door. She showered them with LU butter cookies, Vietnamese egg rolls, tapioca banana chè dessert that she made earlier that day. They were sent home with personalized knitted sweaters or embroidered pillows. Of all the material things she’s given my children, I treasured her lovingly handmade items the most. It was her unique display of love while not having much money as a new refugee in America back in those days.
As a young girl, my mom reluctantly gave up schooling for her safety since traveling between villages would mean increasing her chance of being molested by the French and Viet Minh soldiers. She grew up watching the French Colonialists who dominated the landscape during the day, and the Viet Minh or the League for the Independence of Vietnam at night, led by Ho Chi Minh, as they plotted to regain our independence. Instead of learning math and writing, her father wanted her to focus on the art of domesticity, learning how to cook, knit and embroider to become a more eligible bride.
Before she married my father, she helped her sister with the family’s rice planting, harvest, and other chores. But she also had villagers commission decorative pillowcases for special occasions such as a wedding or new babies, or the occasional sofa pillows in the salons of wealthy families. After she became a wife and mother, she used her skills for her family. She sewed, embroidered, and knitted articles of clothing or decorations, and started the traditions of baby’s first set of knitted bonnets, sweaters, booties, and gloves. Each baby or grand-baby would be blessed with a set of her embroidered pillows, including a half moon head pillow and two long bolsters for the crib padding. Traditionally, the patterns were usually of flowers, bamboo, and birds. But when we came to America, she added the popular designs of the Sanrio Hello Kitty because her kids loved them.
We came to America in 1975, and by December that year, my brother was born. Bethel Lutheran Church sponsored our family, and the kind ladies in the congregation gave my mom a white bassinet with frilly white laces. I don’t remember if she knitted or sewed anything that year for the new baby because we had just arrived in Fresno in August. I don’t think my dad knew where to buy yarns or knitting needles, or that they were even on his priority list.
Soon after we moved to our house on Anna Street a year later, my mom had a few anodized aluminum knitting needles and yarns. She knitted sweaters for her baby boy while watching TV yet not missing a beat or having to look down at her stitches. The rhythmic metal needles making the click-click sounds was oddly soothing. I watched my mom with fascination and admiration. We were poor in those days, but we felt grateful and happy because we had each other. My mom didn’t drive, so my dad took her to Beverly Fabrics for yarns, and she knitted a lot of gifts for each of her children and grandchildren. She also bought white cotton fabric to sew pillowcases and colored embroidery floss for embroidery.
I felt proud that I could sometimes contribute to her artwork by buying carbon paper for tracing designs onto the white fabric for embroidery. She asked me to thread the needles because I had better eyesight than hers. Occasionally, my mother showed me how to make a braid of different color floss for easy access whenever she needed a new strand. She taught me how to unravel the skein of yarn and wind it into a ball before knitting because it would roll off smoothly that way. Sometimes she didn’t like what she knitted. If an item got too small, my mom would ask me to unravel the pieces into a new ball so she could start another project.
In those hours of sitting near her while we watched TV, I would be her helper with these tasks to speed up her work. The jobs were never time-consuming or complicated. I appreciated the feeling of being helpful or even needed by my mom. I learned how to knit and embroider simple stitches. She loaned me her spare set of needles and showed me simple stitches, or how to add or subtract them. She even showed me how to knit a hemline or cables. Despite her attempts to teach me, I only embroidered annoyingly simple items. It must be my lack of patience and practice which my mom had plenty of throughout her life.
We didn’t say we loved each other in Vietnamese until we were older and more Americanized. When she was in the early stages of Parkinson’s, I began to tell my mom that I loved her. She smiled in her modest way and responded that she was happy and gratified that she has lived and given tirelessly to her husband, children, grandchildren, and her children-in-law. She had no regrets.
My mother knitted and embroidered her enduring gifts of love to her children and grandchildren and though she never said it, her “I love you's” were intertwined in these stitches. I am learning from my late mother what it means to be a grandmother and keeping her legacy alive through my writing on memories of her love, sacrifices, challenges, and triumphs.
Hoàng Chi Trương, Author of TigerFish and No Ordinary Sue
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