She was born in the middle of a rubber plantation, as her parents were fleeing south toward Saigon, away from the last minute savagery of occupying Japanese, angry that they had lost the war. When her mother went into labor her father ran to the nearest village to bring a mid-wife to deliver her...and it never got any easier....
Fast forward two decades...
November 4th, 1971. He gave her the window seat on that military contract flight, headed for America. She looked out the window and, no doubt, with an ache in her heart, said good bye to her mother country, never knowing if she'd ever see it again.
She was born into poverty, and married into poverty. Even so, she was a little shocked by his mom's modest old home when he first escorted her up the sagging porch to enter a door with peeling and fading paint. Americans were supposed to be so much better off, after all!
The next morning they would shop for clothes in Kmart, then hit the road en route to the next base assignment. Upon arrival, they found still another old house to reside in, something they might afford on a $200 dollar per month Staff Sergeant's salary. Two bedrooms, one bath and a sinking foundation.
A kindness from strangers would bring the donation of an old bed and an old couch and a dining table. The rest of the furnishings would come from thrift shops and the Salvation Army store. During those first few months finances were so bad they often walked down to the city park and stole toilet paper from the public restrooms and carried them home. Once, without a cent to buy bread, they spotted a quarter in the bottom of the heating grate, took the lid off and retrieved the precious quarter for morning toast.
She had never sewed before but she longed to see her children better clothed...so she went down and bought the cheapest material she could find, but not knowing about sewing patterns, she came home and disassembled their outgrown children's clothing stitch by stitch and laid the pieces out on the floor. She would then overlay the outgrown clothes over the new yards of material and cut each piece a little larger, then stitch the pieces together using an old Singer sewing machine her mother-in-law had loaned her. One morning a neighbor came to visit, smiled at her naivete and took her down to a yard goods store and introduced her to the novel idea that one could actually buy an appropriate sized pattern and make anything you wanted to. She laughed with delight that night at the supper table as she joyfully told her husband of this wonderful thing.
For the next 20 years she would sew most of the children's school clothes, make holiday dresses and Sunday school suits and summer frocks for her children.
She would improve her English reading skills by reading uplifting stories in the Reader's Digest, and when she was ready to become "American" she would attend classes at night; to learn the history of our country and how to conjugate "to be". She would pass her GED exam with flying colors and become a genuine, certified high school graduate. Then she would march into the American consulate and ace her citizenship test and raise her right hand and swear allegiance to her adopted country.
She would achieve all this, even as she faced the heart break of long distant mourning, the death of a brother, then another brother, then her father, and later her mother, and another sister. Even so, this new American had not forgotten her family and her country, even after the Communist takeover when she was cut off from correspondence with them and denied a chance to come home and visit. She would call on her Catholic upbringing to see her through all these travails and she'd take the kids to Sunday mass each week, hoping that the church would someday give them a sense of peace and comfort in their own lives. To this day when she does her nightly prayers she rises to a sitting position in bed; one does not lie prone when talking to the lord....that's disrespectful.
One night after saying her prayers she laid back down and we began softly sharing our worries and concerns of the day. When her husband lamented missing out on an advancement opportunity she offered this in the way of comfort and encouragement: "We are like kites...sometimes we soar and sometimes we sway and dip and come perilously close to crashing....but we have to remember that it is God who holds our kite strings and it is He who lifts us to soar on His time, not ours.
And she would continue to care and worry about the family back home. She found she was allowed to mail a two pound "care" box back home to Vietnam. So each month, she would find a little box and pack it with clothes that she had made, perhaps a bottle of vitamins, or aspirin, or a partial bottle of antibiotics, then take them to Catholic Relief, to be sent home to Vietnam....any thing to help her family who were suffering under a communist regime.
She would be challenged in her new homeland herself. She would follow her husband from base to base and make each new house a home. When he left so many times for years at a time she would be parent and counsellor and bread winning partner and lay at night in bed, worrying about how the kids were doing in school, and how to pay the electric bill, and how to be strong enough to care about a husband thousands of miles away and the kids in the next room.
And when she was given even a little breathing room, some space to stretch her wings, she would set out on another life adventure. Determined to be productive, and have a life of merit, she enrolled in a cosmetology course. Her husband was awed as he would come down for a drink of water in the middle of the night and find her studying chemistry and PH balances and chemical reactions to various solutions and formulas wondrous and strange.
And she graduated with honors and began work as a beautician. When she was ready she opened her own business and worked 12 hour days making that business successful.
These days she's more sedate. Her lovely black locks comes from a bottle. But she is still lovely, looks ten years less than the "68" reflected on her birth certificate, can still squat to pull the weeds from her garden, or bend down to embrace a grand child. She's still sufficiently lithe but, thankfully, weighs a bit more than the 86 pounds of petite waif who left her homeland and accompanied her husband to his.
I suppose you could say she's one of those immigrant success stories. She's learned, she's worked, she's paid her taxes, she votes and she honors our laws and our age old traditions.
So Happy Birthday, "American Beauty".