Taking Care of Jims

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By Betsy Lizotte

At bedtime, the four year old Jim ran down the marble stairs and across the marble floors asking his mom if Daddy, the 51 year old Jim, could move over in the casket and make room for him. He wanted to sleep with his dead father.

It was January 1975 and Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese Army in a matter of months. Jim’s mom, Vo, Thi Quynh-Hoa, had laid the 51 year old Jim inside his teak coffin on a thick layer of jasmine leaves and then added a thicker layer on top, some of his clothes pressed in all around him to accompany him on his journey to wherever death leads. “The jasmine absorbed the odors of the body,” said Quynh-Hoa (pronounced Whinn Wha.) During each of the three days that the dead Jim laid on the kitchen table in his coffin, Quynh-Hoa told her four year old son that he might see Daddy again someday, but that would be a long time off. “For now, we need to let Daddy rest,” said Quynh-Hoa in Vietnamese.

Named after a beautiful Chinese flower, Quynh-Hoa had delicate limbs, graceful hands and manicured nails. She was classy, wearing designer clothes bought on sale, and blow-drying her hair to a lustrous shine every single day before leaving the house. Her lips were pouty, like a pink, spring tulip.

Although her visage matched her beautiful flower name, her voice and stature were birdlike. She seemed to speak through her nose instead of her mouth and her sing-song voice spoke both Vietnamese and broken English exquisitely, like a tiny canary perched in the awning of a Saigon café. She would forever speak English with a heavy Vietnamese accent, pronouncing her “th” with her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth instead of between her teeth, more like a nasal “d” sound. In a sort of language irony she pronounced her “s” like “th.”

Despite being a diminutive 4 foot 9 inches tall, Quynh-Hoa is filled with a resilience akin to bamboo. She was 24 years old with four children, two of her own and two of her husband’s from a prior marriage, when she finished her husband’s tomb and burial preparations and the American ambassador in Saigon told her to hurry up and leave Vietnam. She left on April 19, 11 days before the North Vietnamese Army invaded Saigon and coopted her mansion-villa there. When she last checked, the government was using her mansion as officers’ quarters.

In Vietnam she had worked with her husband to run their transcontinental shipping business. The difference in their ages harkened to the 1800s, but Quynh-Hoa said they had a partnership, not an old-fashioned patriarchal marriage. They owned several ships, lived in a mansion villa with marble throughout and a plantation thirty minutes away where they grew coffee beans. Their mansion was 20 minutes outside of Saigon with a cook, a driver, a maid, and a gardener. “We in Vietnam very wealthy,” she said. She starts to tear up when she remembers, “[We]have [a] comfortable, beautiful life.”

That life began to unravel in early January, 1975. On a Monday, she went with her husband Jim to sign a big contract with a Vietnamese company to ship shrimp to Florida. That night, after Quynh-Hoa and Jim gave the four children a bath and tucked them into bed, the couple got into bed themselves. “I just Lean over to turn off the switch light and he pulled my arm tight and he told me, ‘Mummy I’m dying.’ I said what? He said ‘Darling I love you very much, but I’m dying.” Although they brought him to a local hospital, within hours he had passed away.

Quynh-Hoa was devastated and found solace in preparing her husband for burial and constructing a tomb for her dear husband, not realizing that the North Vietnamese Army was going to win the war and overtake her home in a matter of months. She painstakingly found a coffin large enough to fit her husband’s six-foot body and then covered him in jasmine. Then, she hired contractors to build him a tomb on the family plot. She said that her husband loved Vietnam and her family was his family, so she wanted to bury him there, not knowing that she wouldn’t be able to come back and visit his tomb for nearly 20 years. Finally, the tomb complete, her dead husband, Jim laid to rest, and the Ambassador urging her to hurry, she left her homeland.

On April 19, 1975, she got on a TWA flight with her four children. She flew from Saigon to Bangkok to Amsterdam to JFK, then traveled by car to Maple Shade, New Jersey. The four children were Marie, who was eight, Mona Lisa, who was six, Jim, who was four, and Margaret, who was two. Marie and Mona Lisa were the dead Jim’s children from a previous marriage, while Jim and Margaret were her’s and the dead Jim’s. While on the two-day trip home, she huddled the children together close to her during the long layovers, especially in Bangkok, so they wouldn’t be kidnapped.

When they got to Maple Shade the dead Jim’s brother, Al, and his sister Marylin were waiting at a house that the dead Jim had bought the year before. Al and Marilyin were staying there until Quynh-Hoa got settled in. There was no furniture in the living room and the house was much smaller than the Vietnamese mansion. Quynh-Hoa speaks about the Maple Shade house with gratitude. “I called it the magic house,” said Quynh-Hoa. “It looked so small outside, but insider there were lots of rooms.” About a week after she arrived, Quynh-Hoa’s mother and a close family friend who helped take care of the children, all came to live in the four bedroom house in Maple Shade.

Their income consisted of widow payments from the dead Jim’s Military retirement pay and social security. It wasn’t enough to support the four children and five adults living in the house. Quynh-Hoa knew she would have to get a job. She ended up with three. She feels blessed that she found so much work. She had a full time job in an accounts payable department of a local business, a part-time job in a butter factory, and another part-time job in an up-scale women’s professional clothing store. “Every week we got butter [as part of our pay],” said Quynh-Hoa. She still fries eggs in butter and uses it liberally on toast and potatoes.

The four year old Jim Bogart lived in Maple Shade with his grandmother, mother and siblings for twelve years. “We would eat Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, and fresh spring rolls, all with lots of basil and mint, while sitting on the floor,” said Jim. His only complaint about his early days in America was the bullying.

Quynh-Hoa relates how during their second year in America, when little Jim was in first grade, he started coming home with scrapes on his face, then a black eye. She found out that some children were making fun of him because he couldn’t speak English very well, he was small, and he had different eyes than the other children. She went to the school principal who told her she needed to have Jim defend himself. She was angry and thought that was a stupid thing for him to say.

So she contacted an Air Force officer, named Wayne, who lived nearby and had been a friend of her husband’s. Wayne went to Jim’s school and sat in the car watching for Jim to come out. Soon he saw Jim come out of the school, then watched as a bigger kid started chasing Jim. Wayne got out of his car and came up behind the bully, grabbed him by the back of his shirt and held him up in the air. Wayne is over six feet tall and the boy’s feet dangled off the ground. Wayne told the boy that if he ever touched Jim again, he would come find the boy and do to him whatever he had done to Jim.

After that, Jim stopped getting bullied. He made lifelong friends, played baseball, graduated from Maple Shade High School and joined the Army. He is now a Colonel in the United States Army.

Quynh-Hoa is proud of her son and appreciates the opportunities that she and her family have had. “I was glad to come to America,” said Quynh-Hoa. “Even though I leave everything behind.  I don’t feel sorry, I don’t feel regret. Everything for the kids…That the reason I come [to] America. Good education for the kid[s]. And […] people don’t have to look down on them. We’re here, we’re equal.  Freedom. That’s all about [it].”

Source: Stories of Immigration and Exile

Feras Nabulsi