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A Vietnamese mother’s indelible advice

Vietnam Heritage, July-August 2011 -- Right until my mother’s death last year, in her dim eyes I [I am Vietnamese (Kinh)] remained a child of ten, even with my grey hair. I only became a grown-up when my mother left this world.
Truly, people would gain maturity after the passing away of their mothers.
Whenever I left home she would remind me to put a hat on to prevent sickness and return early to go to bed.
When I went to a party, she told me to abstain from drinking. If I rode a motorbike she entreated me to go slowly, be watchful and not fall asleep.
My mother was so simple. Her hairpin was made with a used ball-point pen. Her back-scraper was formed from a dry areca spathe cut short and dented. Her advice was plain but I still could not attain the carrying out of it all.
She always taught me never to use a piece of paper with letters on it in the toilet: we must respect writings and not soil them; it brought to my mind recommendation by Victor Hugo, the famous French author: ‘We should know that letters are living beings.’ My mother could not read; and in my understanding her illiteracy was the very reason of her respect of writings.
She always taught us that whenever a beggar came to the door children in the house must directly give alms in rice to practise charity toward people in need.
Mother always forbade us to wash dishes at twilight. She said that in darkness the wandering and hungry ghosts might hear the noise of clinking bowls and vessels and mistake it for an opportunity of food-offerings and gather in their miserable state.
 In her mind and soul, hunger and sufferings exist not only in our earthly condition but also permanently reside in the world of the dead. Therefore, compassion must be extended, ever widened. I could perceive and touch her heart.
Before her death, my mother’s eyes became dim and her ears deaf; her legs and hips were unbalanced, and she had to use a walking stick. But she was not worried about the collapse. She was simply anxious about the children and grandchildren, making no exception on my case, the most aged among them.
When I had sessions or socialised and was late in homecoming, I had to telephone home. Even if I had told her I was eating out, when I returned I saw that she had set apart a meal for me. Rice and soup were put on an aluminium tray emerging from water to prevent ants and protected with a plastic, latticed cover with, on top, a palm-leaf hat against pollution by house gecko. The meal looked like a person’s head under a hat, lonely, resigned, tattered, and patiently waiting.

By Ngo Phan Luu
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