2008 was by any measure, a momentous year. In January, I started my studies at Columbia University with much anticipation and excitement. In February, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. While I was at home visiting him, I received an email from a stranger asking me if I was the same “Minh Ngoc who was in 7th grade at Nguyen Hien School in Danang in 1975?” I responded yes, and this is the reply that came a few days later:
“Hi Minh Ngoc
This is how the story goes!
Back to Nguyen Hien school in 74-75. Everyday during the classes break and ended. My best friend instead hanging around with whole bunch of guys like we always used to do. Then one day, he asked me to go with him and looked for you. Once we located you, then he and I just stood there in the distant and watched and admired you. Just like that days after days. I still remember your dad military olive jeep with 066 license plate # parked and picked you and your bros and sis up in front of the school gate . One day we and your brother Dung ( correct?) hired a lady to paddle her ghe (canoe) to take us to your house across the river and hurry back before school ended or we will get into a big trouble. Do you still remember the Tien Sa Beach? We met you and your family quite often there. All of those good old childhood memories ended in 75. My family left Danang and refuged in Saigon but didn’t leave the country. That was a big mistake. My friend’s dad left the country without his family. So his family went back to Danang. With broken heart ( I guess) he sneaked into school office searched, found and peeled off your black and white portrait photo on the report card. He kept it for awhile then he mailed it to me in Saigon. A month later he came to saigon to visit me. I gave the photo back to him, but he didn’t want to keep it. He wanted me to keep it. He asked me. “Do you miss Minh Ngoc?”. I answered “Yes! very much” then he said “You keep it”, I said “NO”. I wanted him to keep it. Back and forth, then we decided to burn it. Before we burn it. Both of us stared at your photo one for the very last time then came to a conculsion that “Minh Ngoc is gone forever”. He lit up the lighter, I held on the photo with my thumb covered the face. While it was burning from the corner toward my thumb then I let it goes from the 5th floor of my house. Guess what? The fire stopped and the photo slowly landed on the roof of my neighbor’s house faced up. Now what? I asked?. With your slightly burned photo laid there on the roof top. I told him I’ll retrieve it. Without hesitage. I climbed down and picked it up. Ten minutes later I managed to climb back up. Once backed to the top floor. My friend told me that I should keep it as a souvenir. I accepted and happily kept it. My friend left that evening and headed back to Danang. Now just me and your damagedphoto. I was glad properly my green thumb did saved the rest of the photo…………. Minh Ngoc. This is the story I want to share it with you. Have a good day!!!”
I could hardly believe that after over 30 years, this person actually found me (the wonder of the internet) to share this story. For me the past of my childhood is not simply another country, but a magic kingdom that exists only in the collective memory of my family. It exists in the stories we tell ourselves and the images the we keep in our hearts. There are no family albums from this part of our lives, no documents to bear witness to its existence. As my father lay dying and a part of my past was slipping away from me, this story, told so movingly in broken English, came as an unexpected gift. I wept for the boys’ losses, but I also wept for my own loss. In the end, all those stories from the past lent me the courage to give my father’s eulogy at his funeral.
With the encouragement of Vanessa, whose friendship and enthusiasm for life I highly treasure, I had begun this blog to keep in touch with my family and friends afar and to deal with my father’s illness. It became a place for me to focus on the present and the future, on all that life still had to offer despite the gaping hole in my heart. It also became a gathering place of all things meaningful to me. As I grieve for my father, the seasons come and go, and life marches on. In spring I embarked on a significant project for Elle Decoration to photograph the magazine’s Iconic Houses Series. I put my studies on hold and spent time in the summer with my mother as she took tentative steps to forge a new life for herself. The fall brought an historic election. I had never seen so many men and women shed such tears of gladness as when Obama was elected. My father would have appreciated that. He would have loved seeing all of the family together again, under one roof, as my entire family gathered in Bolinas for Christmas. My brothers and sisters and I spent most evenings around the table, talking into the early morning hours. The chords of memory still bind us tightly despite our differences and our separate lives.
In some ways, this blog has been a lifeline. I never expected anyone but my family and friends to read it, but it has been an honor that some of you have found it interesting enough to check in regularly. I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read the posts here. In turn, I have read most of your blogs and discovered many treasures. It’s been an edifying year. I have decided to stop this blog. It’s a question of time. And a desire to return to my analog journal. So I wish everyone a wonderful year, one filled with possibilities. I recently read an interview with Peter Saville, one of my favorite designers, who said that his motto is “Past, present and possible.” I like the idea of the future being all that’s possible.