Family Summer Camp
Those two dapper gentlemen on the left are my grandfathers. Those two ladies on the right are my grandmothers. My parents are the awkwardly stoic couple in the middle.
With my paternal grandparents visiting, I feel inspired to explain my little role in my little family universe and my summers with my father’s side. All four of my grandparents are alive. My mother has 5 sisters and 3 brothers. My father has 5 brothers and 2 sisters. On my mother side, I have 17 first cousins. On my father side, I have 11 first cousins with 1 on the way. One of my first cousins has another 2 kids of his own. If you include just the in-laws that have married my uncles and aunts, I have a gigantic family.
My birth was a point of pride for the family. More so for my father side because I was deemed, “cháu đích tôn”. Which means chief paternal grandson. I’m the oldest son of the oldest boy (my father) to have a son of my grandfather. My godfather is older than my dad, but has no children. So I occupy this spot in my family.
My paternal grandfather named me. In Vietnamese, your family surname comes first, then the middle name, and then your given name that you go by. Actual names in my family have a great deal of meaning and serve a purpose. My grandfather has since told me that the reason he left his country was to ensure that my generation would be free. Mind you, my generation wasn’t even born yet, but he knew he had to leave to ensure his grandchildren would be free.
At my birth, my middle name was one commonly used in my family. It’s a distinctly male name that means virtuous. It’s a name that has gone back as far as anyone came remember. My given name literally means descendant. I am the virtuous descendant of my family. In total, it meant to my grandfather that I was the chosen son to carry the virtuous name and character of my family. Even more important is that my paternal family descended from the Ngô Dynasty that gained power and ruled from about 930 AD to 968 AD. Two of the 12 Lords Rebellion who overthrew the dynasty share ancestry with the dynasty.
On my mother side, it’s not as straight forward. My mother is the oldest child. The oldest son does not have a child. The next son didn’t have a child until 8 other grandchildren were already born. That cousin, despite my family’s best efforts, doesn’t have a strong role in the family because of my scumbag uncle. My grandparents have traditionally favored me and my siblings for being the grandchildren of the oldest child. I have two older male cousins born to my mom’s younger sister, but they fall beneath me in the hierarchy of things.
While growing up, I spent many of my summers in Florida living with my paternal grandparents. They were deeply religious people who required me to go church 6 days a week. No one else had to go church that often except for me and my grandmother. Everyone else was older than me and were exempt. My grandparents had a small grocery store (where Big Tymers Fashion is in the above picture was where the Mekong Food Store used to be).
In that same building (where the grocery store is in the picture below), we had 4 little cell block bedrooms with false walls set up by my uncles. They were paper thin and you could basically fall through them. From front to back, there was the living room with 2 couches and sofa bed, first bedroom was my grandparents, then the girls room which consisted of two full size beds next to one another, the annex room with another two full size beds literally placed next to one another, and then the boys room to the back which had two bunk beds. This living space was in maybe 800 square feet. (The width of that yellow wall was the wide of the living space in that building. I don’t remember how far back the building was.) Anywhere between 10 to 20 people living in that space at any given point. This was a huge step up from the project housing we lived in before the store.
Those summers, I woke up and was either taught Vietnamese in the morning or I “watched” the store. Which basically meant, I sat at the front of the store, watched TV or played video games, and waited for someone to come in. When they did, I went and got an “adult”. Depending on the customer, I snooped around as kid as shoplifting security. Beyond just a grocery store, it was like a Vietnamese Blockbuster. The entire building was lined with shelves of dubbed Chinese/Vietnamese movies. The whole family would watch these movies while sitting in the store or in the living room at all hours of the day. The rental system was a notebook with college ruled paper. Family and friends took priority and then everyone else.
Most afternoons consisted of some type of activity. My aunts would often take me to different parks or the library. My uncles would drag me to the Rutherford High School tennis courts. There was a park a few blocks away from the house that we played flag football. Behind the store was my first basketball goal. A lot of pickup basketball was played back there. The store was next to a furniture store and the delivery guys would come and shoot hoops with the family. Having anywhere between 7 and 12 teenaged or 20 something year old men in the house, it could get extremely competitive in the house. I learned how to play tennis, basketball, volleyball, football, waterski, kneeboard, windsurf, sail, swim, and wiffle ball in that environment.
Depending on what my grandparents or uncles were doing, I might have been required to walk to the vườn (means garden) which was this lot that my family owned about a mile away where we had a catfish stockpond and a large garden with a greenhouse and chicken coop. We grew a lot of what we sold at the store.
The pond is to the left of that gigantic banana tree, the greenhouse is to the right, the chicken coop is behind it, and this lot… is kinda gigantic. Yes, that picture is current. Yes, we still have it. What I remember most about this lot was being on my hands and knees picking weeds. If it didn’t look like grass, it got plucked.
The only thing I ever got my hands on from that garden were the bean sprouts. We had them by the bushel and brought them home. They would soak inside these rubber trashcans until we sat down on little stools, “cleaned” them, and toss them into bags to be sold or eaten by the family. This was the one food prep related chore that I was allowed to do with my grandfather. He generally did such work quietly, or mindlessly mumble/complain, or tell me stories that I can’t quite remember clearly. I was 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 years old… so not much stuck. Mostly centered around… love family, respect God, Communism sucks, and don’t be stupid. A lot of my family’s storytelling centered around the theme of mistakes. Everyone loved telling long elaborate stories about how someone in the family or someone the family knew messed up royally… and it would end with the family member telling me (or anyone else younger who was listening) to never do that.
The other chore I had was to seat up the folding chairs around the dinner table (two long folding tables set inside our kitchen). I’d scoop rice into bowls, set the bowls around the tables, and put out chopsticks and spoons. After dinner, I put the chairs up. My role was miniscule, but I served some purpose. The women cooked. The men washed dishes. Post dinner was Family Feud on TV and playing cards. The teenagers liked occasionally lifting weights, and I was subjected to post-dinner situps and pushups.
My grandmother made it a tradition to say a night time rosary whenever she felt like it or for the commemoration of the death of a family member. Vietnamese tradition has a long standing history of death anniversaries. Such a tradition even has a wikipedia page. The oldest grandson even has some special roles in that tradition.
I, being of virtuous mind and heart (at the time), often insisted on saying the nightly rosary. My grandmother would wake up all my uncles, aunts, and second cousins (who were all teenagers or in their 20’s) and force them to pray… because of me. I was the annoying good kid, but somehow everyone loved me regardless.
Long past bedtime, if we were lucky, all the young people in the house would wake up and make the trek to the kitchen. My teenaged cousins all worked at restaurants in the area. Whatever food they brought home from the restaurants were a delicacy in the house. I remember waking up to hunks of steak and lobster. As kids, we were excited when they brought home plastic drink swords that we could play with. Many a night was spent judging the dining options and menus of the restaurants as we critically ate the food.
Weekends were a different beast in the house. I remember Saturdays almost exclusively meant going to the beach in the morning and watching movies in the afternoon. It was the one day where everyone was mostly home and one day of the week that I didn’t have to go to church. Sunday morning was always an adventure because half the choir was half my family. They would go and practice before church. The rest of us would walk across Business 98, through a trailer park, and cross another street to get to church. Men on the right and women on the left. After church was always brunch which often included the parish priest or some other family visitor… which always made me feel uncomfortable. I had no other name to these people except as my dad’s son or my grandmother’s oldest grandchild. Sunday afternoons were matinees, napping on the couch, playing sports, or picking weeds.
Looking back on it, being the youngest kid in that house during those summers, I was probably a chore to drag around for my older relatives, but that very environment has firmly grounded my entire life. I don’t remember my dad and uncles working on their shrimp boat, but I grew up with bright orange fishing baskets in the house that reminded me that the business put my family in a better position.
My little place in the universe was in large part defined in a store near a smelly paper mill.