Sunday 18 October 2020

The first time - and only time I met aunt Phi Lê was thirty years ago, when I went to Vietnam for the very first time. It was my birthday gift from my father and my uncle for my 20 years. 

Aunt Phi Lê lived in Saigon. She was one of my father's elder sister. I immediately felt comfortable with her. She was gentle, sensitive and very easy to talk, for the young Parisian born Vietnamese boy that I was. 

I would often find her in the kitchen and she was surprised to see that I was a natural in a kitchen - her sons weren't really the domestic type, to put it mildly. 

Her husband would sit all day long on a wicker chair near the house entrance, talk to everyone, comment on everything, and barely move from his spot, whilst drinking beer and smoking cigarette after cigarette.

I really admired her for her resilience. She came with me and my uncle when we all went to Huế to celebrate my grandmother's ninetieth birthday. It coincided with my being in Vietnam, so it was even more meaningful. I met hundreds of cousins, aunts and uncles, twice, thrice removed, friends of my father's, friend's of my uncles', friends of friends of the family...

But it was with aunt Phi Lê that I felt the most comfortable. I shall always remember her amused expression as I would share about my life in France, about how I lived it, what I thought... Even if it didn't make much sense to her, she would always be open and understanding. Perhaps it was a special treatment for the nephew from the foreign land. I don't know...

Then she more or less reluctantly went to the US, as the family had an opportunity for a 'better life' there, although I thought she would have been better off staying in Vietnam, with all her friends, relatives, all her life... 

I never saw her since. Only heard from her and got short greetings from her through my cousins. Then, Alzheimer struck a few years ago. Needless to describe how life was for her and her family, especially the two daughters who had to tirelessly take care of her. So much for the 'better life' in America...

The very last time I saw her was through a Facetime conversation between her and my father, when my parents came to Vietnam last year. It wasn't much of a conversation, but I thought saw a (not a pussycat).. a glimmer of joy in her eyes when my father talked to her. I took a picture of the moment, but I don't think I want to post it here.

My cousin just told me that aunt Phi Lê has left us. I can only feel relief for her, for everyone. I can't help thinking about my own mother. It's sad. But it's also a deliverance. 

She is now at peace and freed from earthly troubles. 

Sad and relieved.  

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