|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Khai
About twenty years ago, along Ly Nam De Street in Ha Noi, Mrs Mao the widow carried two big bamboo baskets on her shoulder pole to pick up frangipani flowers strewn abundantly on the courtyards of its public buildings during the night. After picking up the flowers, she swept their wide expanses tidily.
"My dear old Mao, you don't have to do this. This is the job of the security guards in those offices," a passer-by remarked one day.
"I think otherwise, dear," she replied. "Old people can perform this job far better than the young ones. Moreover, I've got nothing to do right now, but idle away all day long."
At noon, she spread the flowers on a pavement section of the adjacent Phan Dinh Phung Street to dry them, before resting under the dome of a large office gate, where she'd been spending every night all year long. In the evening, in great spirits, she helped a tea seller nearby serve passers-by a few hot cups of tea. Early in the morning, when it was still dark, a vendor of sticky rice with peanuts came and sat where old Mao was still sleeping soundly under a sedge mat.
"Mrs Mao, wake up, wake up. It's already dawn," the pedlar informed her n a soft voice.
Immediately, she got up, yawned and combed her long, hoary hair, watching others display their foods on large bamboo trays along the wall of a garage that repaired cars.
"I haven't seen her husband for ages," she told the sticky rice vendor, pointing the one who was selling vermicelli soup. "What's the matter with him?"
"I heard he's been sick for months now. I feel sorry for her. How can she earn enough to feed her whole family with such a sick person?"
"Do they have children? Perhaps they aren't city-dwellers from around here."
About 9 a.m., the vendor of Thanh Tri banh cuon (steamed and rolled rice pancakes) began counting her morning's earnings after selling out all her food. Suddenly, a cyclo (pedicab) driver on his bone-shaking vehicle came up to her with a forced smile. At once, she gave him a bundle of banknotes with an unpleasant scowl on her face.
Late in the evening, old Mao reported what she had seen to the tea seller.
"Poor them! That couple is leading an unfortunate life. They can hardly make ends meet, let alone pay off their debts," the seller observed with a deep sigh.
"Don't get angry, Mrs. Mao. I feel that nobody here is as crazy as you are. You behave like a tramp while you've got lots of grown-up children who can accommodate you properly. If you live like this, you will be accused of being cruel to all of them."
"There's always a reason," replied the old woman, showing her intact set of black-died teeth. "Nothing is perfect in this world. A mother is good, but her children are bad; while a well-educated husband is nice, his wife turns to be otherwise. In my case, my children are all obedient, whereas I'm cross-grained. I can't stay with any of them for a whole day because they don't like it although they're fond of me," she went on sadly.
"What's more, when an old person has to lead an lonely life, it's quite unwilling," added the soft-drink seller.
"I don't think so. When we're unable to care for anyone, we shouldn't expect that they would pay us any attention."
"In case we fall ill, or worse, when we have one foot in the grave, who'll take responsibility for us?"
"It's all God's will. Since the Almighty lets me be well enough like this, it means that I can live quite alone. I hope my death happens swiftly. Nobody will bother themselves about my plight."
Her name, Mao (meaning Cat), came from the time when she was born, 1904, the year of the Cat. Now, at seventy-three, she had two sons and a daughter, two daughters-in-law, one son-in-law and many grandchildren, both boys and girls. Her children were all public servants, and everyone except her daughter led a comfortable life. Her daughter had several young mouthfuls to feed and was struggling.
She came from a rural stock. When her husband died young, she took her children to Ha Noi to try and eke out their living. At first, she was a scrap dealer, then she found a menial job in a municipal public work as a scavenger. Although her work was tiresome, she was able to get her children through school. When they grew up, they managed to find good jobs and had their own families and were soon provided with accommodation, so their living conditions improved considerably.
On the whole, none of her relatives complained about her conduct, including her children. Her occupation as a refuse-collector was a bit of a drawback. And apart from her menial job, she did not have the Hanoians' delicate manners. She talked loudly and dressed untidily. She spoke about the hard work she had to do when they were poor, embarrassing her children and grandchildren when friends came to visit the family.
Although she had three children of her own, she didn't stay with any of them for a long time. A month with each child, and then she returned to her native place and lived her youngest brother for a few months. When he died, his wife and children ill-treated her beyond her expectations. So, with every passing year, her visits to her native place became less and less frequent. She only returned home to commemorate the death anniversaries of the clan's ancestors.
It was in 1976, when the mother of her younger daughter-in-law visited her daughter and grandchildren when Mrs Mao was around, that she decided to live alone forever. The wealthy visitor made some insulting remarks about her previous, and menial jobs. A few days later her sons spoke to her.
"Now that you're very old, you should live alone in comfort for the rest of your life," said the elder brother. "We feel the best way for you to enjoy old age is to return to our native village and stay there. We will take care of your living expenses."
She was silent for a few seconds. She tried to control herself, on the verge of bursting into tears. What mattered to her now was her deep affection for the little kids, not the money because her pension was sufficient to live a simple life in the countryside.
On second thoughts, she decided to stay in Ha Noi without their notice, where she could see her grandchildren easily without spending lots of time and money to travel. Her daughter or the daughter's husband were the only ones to visit her at the dome gate.
* * *
Early in winter, the sunshine became weaker and the wind turned a bit colder. In those days, in addition to picking up frangipani flowers, she also walked around in the Phuc Tan area to collect medicinal plants. After drying them, she would carry bags full of dried herbs to Lan Ong street and supply shops selling oriental medical products.
Seeing the old woman lead such an austere life with frugal food habits, the tea seller close to her temporary shelter asked her, "Why do you have to live such a life when you've got lots of money to spare?"
"For the sake of my little grandchildren, that's all."
"Why haven't your sons and daughters-in-law ever visited you during the whole past year?" The tea seller's voice showed her skepticism.
"I told them that I would live in the country, very far, far away from here, and that they should save their money for their kids' schooling rather than squander their hard-earned income on unnecessary travels," she said in anguish, trying to conceal their filial impiety.
* * *
Many years had passed. Every time I went to Ha Noi on business, I rode my bicycle along the streets of Ly Nam De and Phan Dinh Phung. As I did I remembered the tall and thin old woman with hoary hair under a coarse cloth turban carrying two big bamboo baskets full of bundles of medical herbs on the pavement, walking with unsteady steps.
I wondered: Did she pass away in her native village amidst the cries of her children and grandchildren? Or did she go one night as she slept soundly under the large dome gate at the street corner?
I was unable to see any familiar among vendors of those years so I could get some information about her.
Is a human life so easily forgettable, leaving behind no trace for today or tomorrow?
Translated by Van Minh