This was written in 2004, by Kim Luu. I found it on the computer, and am sharing it here because it’s really a good read. The pictures are from a more recent trip to Vietnam that Kim took in 2010, with her mom and others from the Buddhist temple that her mom is active with.
My Grandfather’s Grave – By Kim Luu
I have never seen my uncle cry. Not the heaving kind that affects your entire body, and leaves those around you at odds over whether to leave you alone to bask in waves of emotion that so clearly need to emerge, or to come to your aid with arms of solace. Uncle S. is in his mid-forties, dresses in his Wimbledon whites on and off the courts, and has told me his favorite joke nearly every time we’ve gotten together since I was six.
“You know what, Kim? I don’t care what your mom says about you, I still like you,” Uncle S. tells me, before he chuckles, amused by his own humor. Bellows of laughter emerge without fail.
Today, though, Uncle S. nearly hyperventilates through his tears as he kneels down in front of my grandfather’s grave to make out the inscription on the headstone. The inscription is in Chinese, which Uncle S. can’t read, but the three vertical characters of my grandfather’s name next to the year 1978 are more than recognizable. It has been nearly two and a half decades since Uncle S.’s return to Vietnam, and just a little longer since his return to this exact spot. Its toll on him shows. He holds his two teenage sons close, as all three of them kneel down to inspect the clean edges of the engraved inscriptions on the polished stone. Between sobs, Uncle S. tells them that his father, who passed away shortly before my family left Vietnam twenty-five years ago, used to attend all his track meets. It’s funny how someone spends nearly their whole life raising you, and that lifetime distilled becomes the stray hour or two of a track meet when you were 14.
For me, it has been nearly eight years since my return to this spot. Eight years ago, on my first trip back to Vietnam since I left with my family at the age of 1, we awoke at dawn to leave Saigon. We drove hours past countless roadside coconut and Pho stands, seas of green rice paddies, and endless chains of bicycle couriers delivering 20-foot long sections of piping. We drove through Mekong Delta villages, took ferries across wide murky brown rivers that finger through the native quilt of red dirt and green foliage. We took unpaved roads to unmarked roads before turning back onto unpaved roads. We make right and left turns signaled by coconut tree markers and old homes that seem to endure forever before parking our car at the edge of a small town. We followed a narrow foot path through a field of lightly manicured weeds to make our way to a clearing dotted with above-ground graves set on slab platforms to keep the eternal resting out of the monsoon-drenched earth. My Great Aunt, who even at 77 had a sharp memory and crisp recollection of things like coconut tree markers, guided us. Although a new home has been built here and there along our route, little has changed- including my Great Aunt- over the last eight years.
This time, my family is a crew of twelve. Mom, Grandma, Great Aunt, aunts, uncles, and cousins arrive to the graveyard where my grandfather and great-grandparents were laid to rest. We have brought a whole steamed chicken (complete with an oversized date stuffed in its beak), steamed rice, longan, mangos, lychee, and green bean deserts as offerings for our ancestors. We carefully lay the food out on plates arranged on the ground in front of the gravestone. We serve the steamed rice in porcelain bowls decorated with a thin line of gold colored paint around the lip, and set chopsticks to the right. We arrange the main course, fruits, and deserts farther away but all within an arm’s reach. My grandmother is surprisingly nimble, as she lights incense to place in the ground and directs the food arrangement efforts. Other cultures may bring flowers, but a three-course meal is our sign of respect. As smoke from the incense trails its grey tails into the sky, we dutifully start cleaning up the area around the graves. We pull weeds out from around the edges of the platforms, starting at my great-grandparents’ graves and finishing at my grandfather’s. Even in death there is seniority. And even in death, the Chinese don’t want you to go hungry.
We work methodically and almost fanatically to clean the area. We don’t talk, other than to offer our hands at stubborn weeds when another’s efforts have failed. We don’t have garden shears or brooms, but bare hands and tree branches transformed into makeshift brooms work fine. My mom sweeps the back corners of the grave’s platform, careful to sweep even in the back of the platform where the tropical trees overhead have shed a season’s worth of leaves. Her tears drop to the ground; she brushes fallen leaves over them with long efficient strokes and continues to clean.
We have nothing to offer today except our efforts and the quality of our steamed chicken. We mourn and weed in equal parts. Perhaps it consoles us and our sorrow to feel that loved ones remain loved and remembered, even in death. We are here to remind ourselves that even in death, they are cared for, and that we care for them. Or more than anything, perhaps it is consolation to ourselves that we have not forgotten to love and to remember; and that, maybe in turn, we will be loved and remembered too.
I wasn’t even a toddler when my grandfather passed away, and do not have memories of him or my great grandparents. My cousins hadn’t even been born. But for my Mom, Grandma, Aunts, and Uncles, the memories are vivid even if the exact dates aren’t. In equal parts, their vivid memories serve to soothe and hurt. The scene before me plays like a complex game of Musical Chairs. And after time’s songs get played a little longer, we will rotate roles of those holding and those held so that we each have our turns with the vivid memories. Today, it isn’t the difficulty of facing old vivid memories that make me sweep and weed with such vigor, it is the fear of facing vivid memories in the making, like these.