Memories of my Ong Noi

I’ve only met my grandfather once, when I went on a two-week trip to Vietnam. I arrived at the airport in Saigon the summer when I was eight.

It was the first time I traveled outside the country. I expected straw huts and endless rice fields. Saigon, it turns out, reminded me of Garden Grove.

My grandfather had heard that I was coming for a visit, and he was looking forward to it. The first time he saw me, he pulled me toward him for a closer look with his weak, rough hands. We struggled — he pulled me in, I was pulled away — as he rained my cheeks with kisses from his gummy, cold lips.

The experience was so agonizing that it may never leave my mind.

The entire time I was there, I dreaded meeting my grandfather, not because I didn’t like him, but because he wouldn’t stop giving me kisses. I would cringe and complain every time he zoomed in for the pucker punch, but he and the rest of the family would laugh and ignore my complaining — his kisses just kept coming.

I had fun meeting my family from across the sea, and I had a blast riding on a scooter through the busy, thriving town of Binh Duong where my dad grew up before the Communists forced him and thousands of Vietnamese out. I loved the food, the shopping and playing with chickens and dogs. I also spent a lot of time at my aunt’s house, which she had successfully converted into a backyard foam factory. What I didn’t miss were the unsolicited kisses that my grandpa showered me with. I was so proud to win the final skirmish, dodging his last attempt at a goodbye kiss. For once I didn’t have to wipe my wet cheeks.

Two weeks after I came back to the States, as I tried to adjust to normal life, he passed away. When we got the news, I was happy because I was never going to endure a gummy kiss again. My dad scolded me, but I was only a kid. I didn’t think about how sad it was. A few days later, my dad went back to Vietnam to attend his father’s funeral.

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When I went back to Vietnam years later, my cousin told me something that made me feel guilty for not accepting those kisses and for not trying to talk to my grandpa more than I did.

She said that the last time I came to Vietnam when I was only eight, he already knew he was dying. He knew months before I arrived, and everyone began to accept the fact that he was going to leave us soon.

When he heard that I was coming to Vietnam though, he pulled himself together. He was barely strong enough to walk short distances when I was there, but I heard that before I came, he had stayed in bed for months.

During my stay, we visited my uncle’s house, a large and quiet farm alongside rice paddies stretching across a reddish-brown river. My grandpa played Vietnamese Opera on his faded violin. I’ve never heard a violin played that way before. To me, it was so alien yet so beautiful. I could hear distorted creaking noises coming from the old instrument, but the imperfections only made his music sweeter.

My grandpa spent the night at my uncle’s house. That night, I was told that he whispered to himself. He thought everyone else was asleep, but he didn’t know that his niece overheard his last words. Instead of complaining about his aches and pains, he muttered all the names of his loved ones. And finally, he said that he loved me very much.

His kisses weren’t just because it was the first time he met me, it would be the last time.

It was to make up for not being able to see me again.

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