Memory, some would suggest, may be akin to a film reel created by direct experience. With a film to run through the projector, one can see the film. Without the reel, where do the moving images come from? I suppose it’s fair when I am asked, ‘Where did the memories of your grandfather come into it?’
When I met my grandfather, he was living in a retirement home in Brisbane, Australia. He lived in a place that was as quiet, timid, and suburban as Saigon was raucous, wild, and filled with temptation. In his last years, my grandfather went to bed early in a tidy bungalow-style apartment, with a walkway in front, and an outdoors sitting area in back. The sitting area was especially pleasant, because it was partially enclosed by bricks that had gaps in them – so that the breeze and light could pass through. The apartments were like little motel rooms, each of them with identical doors and windows facing out onto a lawn. Over a span of several years, I traveled from Canada three times to visit my grandfather. On the first occasion, my grandmother took me to visit. They had been divorced for years, and she lived in New York City. On the second occasion, I went with my parents and sister. On the last occasion, he was ill with renal cell carcinoma. He had decided not to have it aggressively treated, and instead to focus on comfort care. During that illness, I stayed most of a summer with him, along with my uncle.
There, that sums it up.
Within that frame, is contained all of my actual memories of my grandfather. There is more detail within it, of course. My grandfather liked to go out for morning walks. He wore suspenders, and a hat. When he was sick with the kidney cancer, we worried about the amount of blood he pissed into the toilet bowl. In the afternoons, sitting at a small table in the back sitting area, we enjoyed the wonderful local tropical fruits of Queensland. On some evenings, we went out to eat in excellent Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, at the invitations of family friends.
That’s it – my actual memories of my grandfather consist of a series of quiet visits in Brisbane, a quiet city. Readers of ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’ might ask, ‘But what about your accounts of street fighting during Tet Offensive? What about the sights and sounds of Cholon streets after dark? What about the gambling dens and beautiful prostitutes?’ Where did they come from? I have no direct memories of those places. My grandfather did.
What of my memory of being told about memories? I tried to ask my grandfather as much as I could, and sometimes this was revealing, but he was not a voluble storyteller. He did not paint the scenes. He told me how the price of a piece of land he had bought from an Indian for the school’s expansion had been too high. He sometimes became irritated as he spoke about something my grandmother had once done. In a general way, he shrugged at the victory of the North Vietnamese, saying, ‘Then it was all over’. He might change the topic or ask me to make tea. Sometimes he would talk for awhile, warming to a particular episode, only to get to a point where he began to look tired. I would change the topic.
There are only a few episodes of which I have a specific memory of my grandfather telling me about them. One stands out – it was an incident that took place in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion in World War Two. My grandfather was part of an import-export business. Amidst the chaos, thieves broke into the storehouse. I couldn’t tell you what was stored there. My grandfather found some men who were willing to help him – now I’m not sure who these men were. Along with my grandfather, armed with long wooden poles, they confronted the thieves and drove them off. They might have been stevedores. I’ve also forgotten what happened to the storehouse stock that was saved. The main thing I can picture is my grandfather, a young man, yelling at the thieves, backed up by his toughs. That is not my memory – it is what I imagine from being told of a memory. What do I actually remember? I remember my grandfather chopping one hand in the air as he told me the story, sitting ram-rod straight, reliving the emotions of fear and victory in the conflict. That’s what memory is really like – intense in vision, lacking in pertinent details, with key explanatory components missing, and adamant about the purpose of the story.