A Memoir for One
This time a mother wanted to tell her son about her life, but she did not want her story broadcast, only to be shared. her goal was not a best-seller, but a family heirloom.
The book had an unexpected beginning. I was dropping off my shirts at the dry cleaners and chatting with Thanh, the Vietnamese woman who owned the shop: “Light starch and hangers, please...” “Yes, it is a lovely day….” — that sort of thing.
But it happened to be the day before Yom Kippur, and at one point Thanh asked if I would be fasting.
“No,” I answered. “I’m not Jewish.”
But then, casually, in a just-making-conversation kind of way, I asked: “Have you ever fasted?”
And she said, “Yes. Once. For five days.”
And then the chit-chat ended, never to return. “I was escaping from Vietnam with my husband. We drifted on the ocean in a boat for five days without food or water. The boat sank just minutes after we were rescued.”
I didn’t say anything— I couldn’t—but she went on.
“I’ve written it all down, and I want to make a book and give it to my son Michael.”
She snatched up my button-downs and stuffed them into a laundry bag.
“He’ll be graduating from college next year, and he doesn’t know about my life.”
The bag disappeared below the counter.
“But I need to find a writer to help me. My English is not good enough.”
I found something to say: “I’m a writer. I can help.”
She gasped and stepped back. Her eyes widened, then glistened with tears.
“I can’t believe it,” she said as she leaned across the counter and clutched my hands. “You’ll do this?”
“Sure,” I answered. “I’d love to.”
“I’ve been praying this would happen.”
We said nothing for a moment, each of us silenced by what had happened between us. Before this day Thanh and I knew nothing about each other, even though I’d been coming in for at least a year. But now a story had emerged from the small talk, a long-held desire was shared, and a book conceived.
I began by reading her diary. In 1966, when Thanh was 12, Communist soldiers arrested and murdered her father. He’d once been the mayor of their village and a member of the old government. Thanh and her mother and two younger siblings soon fled, wandering through Vietnam for the next three years, scraping out a living and running from the war. At 18 she settled into a career as a first- grade teacher at a Catholic school, but when the Communists took power in 1975 they arrested and imprisoned her for this. Religion was now illegal, and Thanh had to be “re-educated.” They released her after just a few months, but Thanh knew she could no longer live in Vietnam. She did not get out, however, until 1978. By this time Thanh had become engaged. Her fiancé had some connections, and together they squeezed into a crowded, leaky wreck of a boat and headed out to sea. After five days of storms, seasickness and hunger, a freighter rescued them and took them to Singapore. From there they made their way to Holland and, eventually, to America.
It was a terrible story, filled with suffering and a fierce struggle to survive. I now knew that Thanh was a remarkable person—yet her son knew nothing about what she’d lived through. I started to work on the book immediately—mapping out chapters, moving things around, putting together a narrative that sounded like Thanh.
The following Friday I came to Thanh’s shop at closing time for the first of many meetings. We’d sit in the back, and I’d read to her what I’d written and ask questions:
“When your father was arrested, did you run after him?” She did, until the soldiers drove her away.
“How can you tell the difference between distant shelling and shells that could hit you?” Distant shells go “whumph”; dangerous shells scream across the sky.
“How did you feel the first time you tasted an apple?” Amazed and delighted, just as she was by the American soldier who’d given it to her.
I’d push her gently back into those days during the war, when she was hungry, afraid and still grieving the loss of her father. I was cautious at first, but Thanh confronted her past fearlessly and urged me to ask her anything, even though she almost always ended up in tears.
After an hour or so I’d go home, usually pretty wrung out myself.
Over the next few days I’d type out my notes, rewrite, and jot down new questions for our next meeting. We worked like this for more than a year, and when the text was ready I designed a cover, laid out the pages, and had 20 copies produced.
When Thanh’s son graduated from college this past May, she and her husband threw Michael a party and gave him a present.
“Mom, this better not be a book,” he teased. “I just graduated, and that’s the last thing I want.”
“Just open it,” she said.
As he unwrapped it, the guests turned toward him and the room grew quiet.
“What is it, Mike?” someone blurted. “Another book?”
Everyone laughed, but Michael wasn’t listening. He was reading and looking at his mother, reading and gazing on a stranger, reading and encountering a hero. Thanh stood quietly before him, looking back, and then they embraced.
Sometimes, publishing can be a very private act. This time a mother wanted to tell her son about her life, but she did not want her story broadcast, only to be shared. Her goal was not a best-seller, but a family heirloom. Fortunately for Michael, I’m comfortable asking nosy questions and Thanh was brave enough to face a painful past and create a memoir for one.
Scott Shindell teaches writing to business students at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. He also works as a freelance writer and editor.