Hoang Tran To Phuong
My grandmother, on my
mother’s side, has two children - a daughter and a son.
For her, the saying "a son means an offspring, ten
daughters mean no offspring" was a truism. So all her
attention and affection was focused on uncle Ba. My
maternal grandfather’s family used to be the richest one
in the village. When he died of some serious illness,
she inherited his entire wealth. Everyone in the family
was respectful to her. Mother and uncle Ba never talked
back. She had strongly opposed the marriage between Dad
and Mum because his family had no "position" in the
village. He was also not the eldest son, just a soldier
waiting to find employment after the nation’s
liberation. Mother cried and cried, until grandmother
gave in. But she stressed that a woman should follow her
husband, and that all the assets of the family would
belong to Uncle Ba. The wedding ceremony was a simple
one with just close relatives present. As for Uncle Ba,
he did whatever grandmother told him. He had a mild and
gentle nature, and was careful not to displease her.
When I was five years old, a grand wedding party was
organised for Uncle Ba. Grandmother was laughing
heartily, and she looked very happy.
When I was 18, my aunt had been a daughter-in-law for 13
years. Mother said that aunt had to work from dawn to
dusk, and unlike other people, had no spare time.
Although she was very rich, at the end of the week she
had to present her final accounts to grandmother. She
worked like a machine without any respite or delay. Many
evenings she went out into the corridor to cry, taking
care even then that grandmother did not catch her doing
it. The miserable life of a daughter-in-law made aunt an
Grandmother was ageing and ailing and seldom touched her
food. She spent the whole day on her bed. Mother often
returned home to visit her. Uncle Ba was always glad to
see mother and me. Aunt was indifferent. She did not say
hello to us. She cleared her throat and asked:
"Mother has not passed away, why do you come to ask for
Mother pretended not to hear. I stared at aunt. I could
not believe that a girl cast in the typical "diligent
needle work, modest, proper speech and morality" could
behave like that. She took a broom and turning to
"Please don’t mind! The house is very dirty, I have to
I threw her an unpleasant look, and Uncle Ba was ill at
ease, but as he was used to pleasing his wife, and did
not utter a word. Aunt laughed:
"Mother is only slightly ill. If you are worried that we
cannot take care of her, please take her to your house.
I have no objection."
Mother left the medicine for grandmother, and over and
over again, asked uncle to take good care of her. She
managed to be polite to aunt, because she knew that her
life as a daughter-in-law was miserable. I knew that
mother wanted to take my grandmother to the city, but
she dared not tell her. She loved uncle Ba so much, she
would not agree to leave the house, whatever happened.
Also, she did not want to rely on her daughter. Although
I was her granddaughter, she did not love me because I
bore the family name of another person. And, of course,
I was a girl. In these days when gender inequality was
becoming obsolete, I could not understand the strong
hold it had on grandmother. All those times I visited
her, she never greeted me once. I could never taste a
fruit, although there were plenty of laden trees in the
garden. She never gave me any presents. Everything was
given to Sang, my uncle’s son. He was eleven years old,
and very small. Aunt feared that if grandmother had some
affection for me, she would treat Sang differently. So
she did not like me.
was very pleased whenever I visited his house. He took
me around to go fishing, to wade through the stream, and
even taught me to shoot at birds. I was fed up with
boys’ games, but I did not want to sadden him, and
reluctantly followed him. He liked to hear me talking
about the city, about my school and my class, his eyes
widening as I spoke. Back home, he recounted everything
to his mother. She said flatly
"If you like the city, you can go to live there,"
she also glanced at me
"my child, we are people of the countryside, we are used
to eating countryside rice, what is the use of going
Very angry, I left for the garden.
The atmosphere in the house was getting colder and
colder. Grandmother lay in her bed, racked by coughing
fits, groaning occasionally:
"Aunt Ba, give me some water"
or " Aunt Ba, I want to have some soup."
Aunt Ba was very busy in the house at all times. I was
very quiet, whenever I was there, but would never do
what Aunt Ba told me to, and she would be furious. Once
I heard her complain to uncle Ba:
"Why do I have to be so miserable? A daughter-in-law is
like a servant in this house."
Then the dam broke and she sobbed uncontrollably, and
all that had been locked up within for a long time
seemed to pour out. She recounted what she had to do in
the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. Uncle Ba
remained calm. He tried to comfort her.
"You should try to bear with it, don’t get angry with
mother. Anyhow she is very old now."
"How much longer do I have to endure this? Why don’t you
entrust your sister with the task of caring for her? She
would be much happier if she lived in the city."
Uncle Ba said gently:
"Because mother does not agree!"
"You have only to rent a taxi, and take her there.
Uncle Ba lost his temper:
"Don’t be insulting."
"You dare scold me, do you? Now my husband as well. Have
I not been tortured enough?"
Uncle Ba flew into a rage and slapped her. She covered
her face and cried out loud. Neighbours rushed in to
restrain him. It was the first time I’d seen him like
this. Aunt looked so miserable and pitiful. The
miserable life she’d had to suffer for so many years had
turned her into another person. Too much forbearance
sometimes changes the nature of human beings, making
them selfish, like the drop of water that makes the cup
overflow. I did not hate her anymore, and began to
commiserate with her. And I feared the fate of being a
daughter-in-law. I’d never seen any sign of discord
between my paternal grandmother and mother, nor had I
seen my parents quarrel. Mother was devoted to her
mother-in-law, who loved her very much and repeatedly
said she was very happy to have such a daughter-in-law.
Mother was worried. She decided to bring grandmother to
the city. Grandmother would not agree, consenting only
after strong persuasion from relatives. Aunt sighed with
relief. She said:
"Sister, you can take her away. My husband and I will go
see her very often!"
Then she walked briskly into the kitchen. I followed
mother home. Sang cried and asked to go with us. Aunt
ran up to him and slapped him sharply on his buttocks. I
burst into tears. I was very sad for him, but did not
know what to do.
Grandmother was sent to the hospital. Uncle Ba came to
our house to look after her. Some nights, mother did not
sleep. There were dark circles under her eyes. Father,
who was always away on some mission or the other,
visited grandmother whenever he returned home. Many
times grandmother twisted and turned, calling out uncle
Mother and uncle Ba spent many months beside my
grandmother. One day aunt took Sang along when she
visited her mother-in-law. Sang sobbed:
"I miss you very much, Granny!"
She nodded and stroked his hair.
Aunt smiled derisively:
"How miserable you are, Sister Hai! But it is nothing
compared with what we endured for the last ten years and
Grandmother sat up slowly, and said angrily:
Then she was caught in a coughing fit. Mother was
panic-stricken. She ran to grandmother and rubbed her
chest. Uncle Ba frowned. Frightened, aunt pulled little
Sang home. Sang ran back to hug his grandmother. Aunt
went into the corridor and looked into the room from
behind the door.
Grandmother twisted and turned for many nights,
complaining she could not sleep. A month later, she
passed away. She did not leave behind any will. She only
held my mother’s hand. Though I was not close to her, I
felt deeply the loss of a grandparent. The distance
between life and death was so fragile and frightening.
Mother looked emaciated. Uncle Ba and father hurried
back and forth organising the funeral. Aunt rushed to
the coffin and collapsed. I hated the pretence and did
not want to look at her crying. People came home to
offer their condolences. I was as sad as a stale noodle,
but my eyes were dry.
Midnight. The lights in my house were still on. Aunt was
sitting in a corner of the house, wiping her tears with
the tail of her mourning robe. Suddenly, I felt that I
had been too severe and prejudiced against my aunt. I
hoped that her tears would flow downstream, not
upstream. Her remorse seemed to rise from deep within
her heart. I wanted to comfort her, but was afraid. I
went to the kitchen to pour some tea for her, and became
lost in thoughts. The tea overflowed from the glass.
Translated by Huong Tu