by Van Gia
Our life today is more comfortable than ever before. We can communicate with each other very fast even across long distances. We can chit-chat on Facebook with great ease. Out of the blue, I received a message: "Good day, aunt! Do you remember me?"
"Who's that?" I thought. A lot of people who call me 'aunt', so who could this be?
"You won't remember me as we haven't seen each other for a long time. I am Thao's daughter."
"Which Thao I've known a dozen of them!"
"Aunt, my mother Thao used to be your neighbor."
"Oh, God! You're Lan! Where are you now? How are you?"
"I'm studying in Berlin, Germany. I heard that you're going to Germany, so I wanted to get in touch with you. I want to meet you."
"How old are you now? Are you married?"
"I can't find a husband, auntie!"
"So how old are you? You should be one or two years older than my son."
"Yes, I'm a year younger than your son Tuan."
"How did you know I am going there?"
"I saw it on your Facebook."
Lan was Thao's daughter, my neighbor a few years ago. Thao had moved to live in another place. It had been a few years since I had seen her. We lived next door to each other for several decades. After she moved, Thao sometimes came to visit us but every year the visits became less frequent. She only visited us. The other neighbours did not know she had moved. The day she moved, she said to me while we were jogging together: "I'm going to move to another place." I was a bit surprised. Thao never explained to me why she had left. I didn't pry. I only asked: "Will you move far from here?" "No, not far. I sold this flat and bought an apartment in a condominium near the depot across the road. With some extra money, I invested in my daughter's education," she said. It seemed a good idea as few of our neigbours were friendly with her.
A few days later, Thao moved to her new apartment.
Lan was her only daughter. Her husband worked as a guard in my office. Thao worked as a housemaid for another office. Years before, all of us lived in poverty. When the renovation period began, we all were able to do business to make life easier. Many people became rich, but there were still many of us as poor as ever. Good luck had come to some people, not to all, certainly not to Thao's family. Fortunately, they had been allocated a small patch of land by the office and they had borrowed money to build a two-storey house.
We were no richer than Thao's family, but we had stable jobs. Sometimes, my husband or I went on business to other provinces or abroad, and we could buy things to improve our lives. About ten years ago, I bought an induction cooker when I went on business in Australia. At that time, an induction cooker was quite unfamiliar to people here. I showed it to Thao and she praised it to the skies. Yet, time flies. Several years had gone by and Lan had finished university and gone to brush up her knowledge in Germany on a full scholarship. I thought Thao and her husband had been unlucky compared to us. All the people in the residential quarter thought so. I wondered if Thao, her husband and Lan knew that we had thought about them like this?
A few days later, while I was waiting for my visa, I logged onto Facebook and had a message from Lan: "Aunt, I have a secret for you!"
"What's the secret? When I visit, will you have time to show me around and act as my interpreter?"
"Yes of course!"
"Remember, don't get so engrossed in your studies that you forget your mother."
I remembered when this girl was in the 9th and 10th grade. She was so thin, but she worked hard. Many children did not like her, saying that she came from a poor family. Once her mother came home late from work and asked me to pick the little girl up from kindergarten. When dinner time came, I gave Lan some food, but she didn't eat. My son Tuan asked her to eat, she refused again. I coaxed her to eat the food: "Don't you like the food I cooked?" She shook her head. When I asked if her mother did not allow her to eat food from the neighbours, the little girl nodded her head. "Eat it and I will ask permission from your mother later". But she still refused. Her father was an alcoholic. He did not care about the family chores. I felt that he had some hidden sadness. He never talked with anyone in the neighbourhood.
I hoped that when I was in Germany Lan would be a good interpreter. We talked a lot on Facebook. She told me about the best restaurants, hotels and places of interest in Berlin. But she still did not disclose the secret she had mentioned the other day. I asked: "How do you look now? Are you big or still small?"
"Can I send you my photos?"
And as quickly as she could, she had sent me her photo; it was a short girl in a beautiful skirt. She stood in a flower garden, her face beaming with a smile. Near where she stood was a rocking chair and a dog. How she had changed, I thought! "You look lovely. All the boys are chasing you, I am sure!"
"Did you recognise me?"
"Yes, though you have changed a lot."
When I got to Germany my schedule was very tight. For five days, I didn't have a day off. My boss told us to work hard with the partner and none of us was allowed to be absent. After that, we had three days off.
Lan came to my hotel on Monday night. I had to report any guests to my boss. I took Lan to meet him. After, I asked her if she had any secrets to tell me. She smiled and said that she would tell all when I came to see her in her boarding room. She insisted that I go see her. I agreed because I also wanted to see where she lived.
Having taken a metro, we got off and walked for a short distance before we came to her flat.
"Without you, I would be lost."
"I got lost a lot at first, aunt. But I have got used to it. Here we are!"
There was someone inside the room. When the door opened, a woman rushed to embrace me.
"Oh, dear, I've been expecting you for quite some time!"
Lan laughed. Having regained my self-control, I realised that it was Thao.
"What a naughty girl you are! Your secret is your mother Thao"
I stayed with them that night. Thao said:
"Lan has been here for 8 months, but she has worked hard and earned a lot of money. She bought me the ticket to come here!"
"What have you worked as, Lan?" I asked.
"I worked as an apple picker, a gardener, a dish washer, a baby sitter, everything, aunt" – Lan answered.
All of a sudden, I asked:
"What about your husband Thao?"
"He died a year ago. I am all alone, so my daughter asked to come and live with her for a few months."
"Why didn't you tell me about it?"
She kept silent.
Lan was carrying a tray full of food from the kitchen.
"You've only had Western food since coming here" – Lan said, adding – "So my mother and I will treat you to some Vietnamese food!"
We chatted merrily together. We talked and talked, as if we had forgotten the food. We were overjoyed at meeting each other after years of separation.
Later, I asked Lan to take me back to the hotel. Thao gave me a gift:
"Sister, I still stay here with my daughter for a few weeks more. You go home first, so I would like to send this small gift to your husband and son Tuan. I will come to see you when I am back home"
I was startled upon seeing the gift. It was a leather wallet and a belt. I knew these things were not cheap here.
"No, I can't take it. How could you afford this?"
Thao said with a voice that was about to burst out crying:
"In the old days, we were very poor and most of our neighbors despised us and ignored us, except for you. I always remembered the love you had for us. Now my life is better and my daughter has a good education. So please accept this modest gift from me."
I took the gift with thanks.
Now alone in my hotel room, I wondered why I had not come to visit Thao's new house even though I had promised. Poverty cannot pursue man's life for good. Or as the saying goes, every cloud has its silver lining.
Translated by Manh Chuong