Sunday, July 13, 2014

Saigon, Chicago, Cleveland

There's a scene in an early episode of the most recent season of Downton Abbey that goes something like this:
One of the recently widowed Mary's suitors has come to dinner.  At the end of the evening, her mother-in-law Isobel, for whom the event has been excruciating, shakes the young man's hand and says, "I hope that we'll be seeing more of you."  Isobel's nemesis, the Countess Dowager, says in an aside to someone else, "One hates to admit it, but that was very well done."
I think it's something to which to aspire, that people say that we have done well when circumstances seem to dictate that we would not.
Yesterday, the Quiet Husband and I attended the memorial event for Josh's former fiancée's mother.  In a strange twist of fate, it was held here; several members of the far-flung family live nearby, and so they decided that all would gather here.  A's father and I have been in very occasional communication, which meant that he told us when his wife died, and welcomed us to the event.
We debated until the last minute  whether to attend and, if so, for how long. In the end, we decided to go for a bit of the gathering time and stay through the lengthy program (which, finally, we had to leave before its conclusion, since I had another obligation).
I am so glad that we went.
We have not seen A in nearly six years, not since the day she joined us to clean out the apartment she and Josh had once shared in Chicago.   We all learned a great deal about one another and about Josh's death on that day, one of those days that burns itself indelibly into your mind. She and I corresponded frequently for a year or so, but in the ensuing five years she has built a new life, become engaged, and moved to a new city. While I wish that her life were with my son, it was a tremendous relief to see her doing well and talking animatedly about her work and family. 
I don't know how A experienced it, but our conversation reminded me of one many years ago.  Our daughter had flown into Chicago from her semester abroad in Prague, and the two girls and I lingered all morning over breakfast. A told us about her decision to drop out of her academic graduate program and focus her life upon dance; I remember the excitement I felt for her as a young woman finding her authentic path in life.  I felt some of that pleasure for her again yesterday, knowing full well the life-changing terms of the interruption we had all experienced.
Insofar as the memorial event was concerned, it had been engineered by A's father to tell the story of his marriage, beginning with his life in the Air Force in the waning months of the Vietnam War, and the young Vietnamese woman who told the cousin working in the officers' club that she wanted to meet an American.  Slides, videos, photos, memorabilia: the story ~ of 20th century Vietnam, of a young woman whose girlhood had been marked by devastating loss and hardship, of a young officer, and of a family life spent criss-crossing the country in a peripatetic military career ~ was spell-binding.  And A spoke beautifully about her mother, their relationship, and her loss. 

 (Saigon, 1966)
I still don't really know why we went.  To see A.  To honor the mother with whom I had once thought I would share the role of mother-in law but in the end never met.  To honor the father who was a support to me in ways he probably knows nothing about.  To recognize the small and tenuous and yet striking connection between our families.  I don't know.  But I am grateful to have witnessed what I did.
Since Josh died, I have often thought of Eleanor Roosevelt's words: You must do that which you think you cannot do. At first, those words applied to getting out of bed.  Now, to other things, but still often.  I find, though, that I am usually grateful in some way to have done whatever it was that it seemed I could not.  I am grateful for this.


  1. Grace abides when least we expect.....doing that which you think you cannot do.