Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Vietnam Years

In the study was a Zenith TV. Rust-colored herringbone chairs flanked the room. My mother and uncle, smoking, glued to the screen. My brother and I would line his GI Joes up on the carpet at the foot of the screen. Every now and then we'd look up to find the same set of pictures, it seemed, on endless loop. Soldiers, and more soldiers, in a hot green climate. Helicopters. We grew bored with the TV, begged to turn the channel. No, said the grown-ups, my uncle with his beard matted from the sticky sweet remnants of iced coffee (heavy sugar, heavy milk) after iced coffee. He was disheveled even then. My mother, no beard, iced tea, not coffee, but her and her brother's animated voices were of a piece. Why was everyone loud and on edge?

In the next room my grandfather lay dying. He'd been dying for years, for my whole life. He kept having stroke after stroke after stroke. He dribbled when he ate. He had a male nurse named Eddie, male and also black. That was confusing to a little girl who thought nurses were supposed to be female and white. The soap operas the cook watched had plenty of nurses, but they were always young, pretty, female, and white. The cook herself was black.

Sometimes my mother would plop me on my grandfather's lap for a photo. He smelled bad. I wriggled away as soon as I could.

One morning my mother looked sad, not the watching-soldiers-on-TV sad. Worse. She told me that my grandfather who'd been dying forever and ever had died. I hadn't expected that. Dying didn't seem an end point to me but rather something one did quietly in a closed-off, stale room with a nurse named Eddie and plenty of bibs.

My mother said that I wouldn't sit on his lap again, that he was somewhere else now. Trying to make sense of it, I asked her if that meant he'd gone off to the hot place to be with the soldiers. That made her cry.

I was relieved that I'd never have to see him again. I'd always run fast and breathless past his scary room, and now I could walk.

Eddie, though, Eddie I would miss. He always high-fived me and my brother. I thought my grandmother would find a different job around the house for Eddie to do, but she didn't.

My mother and her brother continued yelling at the TV, but lately they were yelling at this guy, even though he was the President. They kept talking about peachment. I liked peaches, but I didn't like this sweaty man on the TV much.

Now the adults watched the soldiers and these pictures of a building they called "water gate," which made no sense, because where was the water, where was the gate?

I missed cartoons, even more than I missed Eddie, and definitely more than I missed my grandfather. Nothing to do but line up GI Joes in tidy rows.


V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

such vivid memories captured from a child's point of view...i haven't thought about my memories of vietnam. i remember relief when my big brother wasn't drafted because of his scoliosis and relief when my cousin walter came home...

Tara R. said...

I grew up in the Vietnam era too. I remember watching the nightly news and hearing the "kill numbers," only when I was an adult did I realize how terrible that truly was.

Anon said...

The bad old years captured perfectly.

ozma said...

That strange experience of not fully understanding but being so very observant that is part of childhood. You captured it perfectly.

Bibliomama said...


Christine said...

I'm in the process of recording/writing many, many childhood memories and it is fascinating and exciting to read yours, too. to me watergate was a weird jello salad before it was a scandal.

alejna said...

I've found my thoughts returning to this post several times in the last few days. I first read it while we were visiting my in-laws. My father-in-law has been slowly dying for the past several years, and I can't help but wonder how his fading presence will be imprinted on the memories of my children.

But I did enjoy reading the memories of child-Sarah, and seeing things through her eyes.