In this searing reflection, Jennifer Ly reflects on the simultaneous release and reconnection with her grandmother, her bà ngoại. As they scatter her ngoại’s ashes in a local marina, Ly wonders if a Vietnamese refugee would want to be returned to the sea, and yet her ngoại’s spirit is eternally buoyed, anchored to her granddaughter’s dreams, dreams which Ly generously shares with us.
Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues, and family.
Ngoai comes to me in my dreams.
Ngoai died in January, in an ambulance, in a nursing home, in the hospital, from COVID, from a cold, from old age – the story was never clear, Mom’s gulping sobs interrupting the flow, her grief clouding the details. I often forget she even passed: it didn’t feel real until we made it real with the funeral, with the spreading of her ashes in the Long Beach marina. I stood on that rickety old boat as the captain lowered her ashes in a basket into the ocean, the water violently rocking us back and forth, and wondered if a Vietnamese refugee wanted to be returned to the sea. I wondered if my grandmother knew how to swim. I’d never thought to ask her before.
In my dreams, she sits on the edge of my bed, she places a cold rag on my forehead when I feel sick. She steals the wind out of my lungs by scratching it out of my back with her nails instead of coins, cups her hands against my skin in lieu of glass jars, the fire inside just her warmth. She opens her mouth to speak. The inside of her mouth is illuminated, a frogmouth. She says, You forget me. You keep forgetting me.
When she lived with us, she would tell us stories of how she lived in Vietnam, what life was like when she came to America. Throughout the years and since, my parents have debunked those stories when I retell them – that’s not how it happened, she never even lived there, she never even met that person, she was lying.
In my dreams, she is younger than she ever was in my memory, she says in a voice I cannot recognize, I will make you know me.
I remember her wrong. The image of her in my mind is blurred like a line of letters at the optometrist’s office; it is only through the lens of my mother and father and aunts and uncles, with their perspectives and support, that the picture becomes clearer and more cohesive— but I want to start over.
I want to see her on my own. What’s clearer? A or B, B or C, her story or yours, her voice or mine?
Jennifer Ly is a Vietnamese-American writer from Los Angeles. Her work has been published in Hobart and Drunken Daily Mag, and she can be found at jently.net.