Truong Thi “Rose” Phuong Mason
1948 – 2013
Born in Vinh Long, South Vietnam on September 5, 1948, my mom Truong Thi Phuong emigrated to the United States in 1972. Four years earlier, she had met my dad by dialing a wrong number…seven times. Bruce Alan Mason Sr. was a 25-year old sergeant in the American Army stationed in Saigon for over three years. My mom was 20 and working at a construction company to help her family whose village had ben ravaged by the brutal and unforgiving Vietnam War. It was New Year’s Eve and my mom attempted to call her boss but reached my dad instead. She apologized in her limited English and hung up the phone before trying again and again until my dad laughed and said that if she wanted to speak to him so badly they should do so in person and invited her to lunch. She accepted and 16 days later on January 15th they were married in a traditional wedding ceremony that included three cups filled with rice alcohol and a tea and candle ceremony honoring the dead ancestors; my dad wore his military uniform and my mom was dressed a Vietnamese Ao Dai.
A month after coming to the United States, my mom and dad were married again in Little Compton in a small civil ceremony in my grandparents’ home. Still in the Army, they moved to Fort Huachuca, Arizona where I was born. Despite the excitement and relief of coming to America, my mom struggled to “fit in.” Like many immigrants, my mom arrived in this country with little knowledge of American Studies: the customs, social traditions and local flavors of this country’s people were as foreign to her as she was to them. She spoke little English, lacked any formal education and was inconsolably homesick. Adding insult to injury was that my mom experienced both resentment and mistreatment by some people who associated her with the divisive and unpopular Vietnam War. She found a job working nights at a canning factory which was located about an hour south over the Mexican border. In the days she raised me while learning English by watching American soap operas (her favorite was Days of Our Lives). My only memory of her expressing any reference to her homeland exist in the heartbreaking and sorrowful Vietnamese ballads she sang to me when it was time for sleep.
In 1978 my family was transferred to Honolulu, Hawaii where my brother was born. Living on a tropical island filled with abundant natural beauty and cultural diversity seemed to suit my mom well. When she wasn’t at work cleaning offices or tending to her bountiful vegetable garden, she made things: her favorite Vietnamese dishes, sewing our family’s clothes and crocheting quilts—while spinning many a yarn of when she was a young girl growing up in Vietnam. Tales of riding water buffalo among far stretches of rice paddies and hunting bull frogs the size a durian, or “stinky fruit”, fireflies caught in rusted whiskey jars and old Vietnamese wives tales about bad boys who peed on the graves of the walking dead who never slept.
We moved to Little Compton in 1982 after my dad retired from the Army. He found a job working at Roma Color in Fall River and my brother and I assimilated quickly into Wilbur School however once again my mom struggled to “fit in.” Living on military bases was by no means ideal yet they were supportive communities inhabited by people from all walks of life, backgrounds and countries. Everyone lived in similar housing units and there was little disparity of wealth. Little Compton seemed even more of a close-knit community back then whose wealth gaps were clear, and it was painfully obvious that my family—especially my mom—were less than privileged and foreign newcomers.
However, despite these and other challenges, my mom persisted. She created her own “Rosie’s cleaning service” business. She swallowed her pride and became the town’s first ESL (English as a Second Language) student. She volunteered for many of the town’s fundraisers and charity drives (her egg rolls became an infamous staple amongst this circuit and other catered circles). And she found new friends from Vietnam by enlisting me to help her search for Vietnamese last names in the pages of the local yellow pages.
Within a few years, we had a huge vegetable garden in the woods, a backyard filled with long-haired lop-eared bunnies and thirty-six Muscovy ducks and spent our evenings and weekends foraging for local eats like periwinkles and mussels, various mushrooms and dandelion greens. In hindsight, I think my mom learned to appreciate the quaint coastal town of Little Compton in large part because it reminded her of her small childhood fishing village on the Saigon River.
It was around this time that I discovered I had an older sister named Thuy. Forced to stay behind during the war because she had not been registered with the US Embassy when she was born, she was forced remain behind due to government red tape. My mom left Thuy in the care of her family at the Ton Son Nhut Airport outside of Saigon with the US Embassy’s assurances that she would be placed on an airplane to the U.S. within a few weeks.
Apart from feeling shell-shocked and trying to process the fact that I had a sister, I remember suddenly seeing my mom in a different light. I had grown up both loving and fearing this woman in equal parts: my mom was as nurturing and curious as she was strict and despondent. She was as hard-working and frugal as she was supportive and caring. I understood that behind my mom’s big smile and joyful expression lurked the dark and sad memories of war and being separated from her family and her daughter. I began to see this woman not only as my mom but a human being whose past and interior worlds existed far beyond my comprehension. Suddenly I gained tremendous empathy with how much she’d suffered; how she had seen her country destroyed, how she had to leave her family grasping the realization of never possibly seeing them again and how she quietly suffered for so many years at having been separated from her own daughter. And how she had to internalize the guilt and the shame and the helplessness she must have felt of having started a new life while pretending that everything was coming up roses.
In 1988 with the help of Little Compton residents Nicholas Trott and Abigail Brooks Long, my sister Thuy was reunited with our parents at JFK Airport after being apart for16 years. Within two years and having just turned 20 Thuy moved to San Francisco where she has been living ever since. Despite the bittersweet reunion, my mom made her peace and accepted their short-lived reunion. She felt that as long as Thuy was free and safe in the United States, she could finally let go of the pain and helplessness she harbored for nearly two decades and carry on.
By the late 90’s I had graduated from college and moved to Brooklyn however continued to spend as much time in Little Compton as possible in large part due to my mom’s unparallel and mouth-watering cooking! Being away from home especially instilled in me a huge appreciation for her staple culinary offerings, from her ground turkey and scallion eggrolls and spicy stir-fried noodles to her Spicy Szechuan Beef and my favorite dish still to this day, phở tái (Vietnamese soup made with oxtail broth, rice noodles, herbs, and thinly sliced rare beef).
My brother and sister had children of their own and like most grandmothers, my mom absolutely loved and adored them. My mom continued working hard and gardening while, alongside with my dad, brought her bowling game to a new level. Both my parents belonged to the Animal House Bowling league in Somerset, MA and for several years my mom was the highest ranked amateur Vietnamese bowler in the SEMA region!
Around 2005, my mom began to serenade the of revisiting her homeland for the first time since leaving in 1972. At that time, the general perception of Vietnam had shifted from being associated and stigmatized by a controversial war to becoming more of a travel destination. Many of my mom’s Vietnamese friends had returned to revisit their homeland and their beautiful photos and inspired stories impacted my mom to do the same. In 2007—35 years after she left—my mom finally returned to Vietnam. I was fortunate enough to accompany my parents and my sister and her family on this trip of a lifetime.
I don’t think I had ever seen my mom so alive and happy as I did during this visit to Vietnam. Both she and my dad were overjoyed by walking the streets of what was long ago a beautiful but war-ravaged Saigon. Overall, we spent one month visiting members of my mom’s family and exploring the intricate inland reaches of the Mekong villages with their overflowing water marketplaces and tropical hideaways. The people were incredibly friendly and gracious, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much they welcoming they were to my family as we were clearly products of what they call the “American War.” The trip was both incredible and humbling and helped all of us though I think especially my mom feel a greater sense of peace within.
My mom, dad and I returned to Vietnam over the summer of 2010. On this visit we hired a guide who toured us through both Central and Northern Vietnam. From Hue to China Beach and Hanoi to the limestone islands of Halong Bay, we traveled extensively throughout parts of the country my mom had never explored. The journey was incredible however it was during this time that my mother’s health seemed compromised. She often grew winded while walking and felt dizzy and weak from our extensive traveling. I assumed these conditions were due to her growing overexcited by our rather exhaustive adventures however I was woefully wrong. Within a month after returning from her second month long trip to Vietnam in 2013, my mom fell severely sick and was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal lung cancer. Initially her diagnosis gave her only three months to live but she fought a brave two- and half-year battle before succumbing to the beast. On Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at the age of 64 she died peacefully at home.
What can happen in seven years in the marked shadow of such a profound loss? Heartache. Unforeseen, uncontrollable sobbing (the kind that punches the breath from your lungs). And of course, despair. But then there’s gratitude. And love (so much love). And life. Borrowing a sentiment from Robert Frost, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” But I would like to add a splash of heart to that sentiment because my mom’s spirit is alive and well – growing as I do, unwavering and full of light. Still she guides and comforts me – makes me question what the hell this journey means but most importantly she makes me smile. I wrote the following words right after she died – they do an ok job of capturing my lost grieving soul after I spent an hour sitting next to her body in our childhood home but not really my true heart of being.
Discovery and wonder illuminate the reefs through which we swim. We live, we love, we learn. Years pass by and we grow older. Then slowly one by one those we know begin to grow sick, let go and die. Before some time, if we are lucky, we will still be here when our mom’s time is up. It is then that those umbilical cords rematerialize and tether us again to their being, their blood and ultimately their last breath.
We are solitary ships who sail from our homelands only to return one day to pay homage to our life-bearer, our ancestry, the goddess of whom all we once were.
Bruce Mason, Jr.
May 4, 2020