Chapter 14: Mai Le’s story/ disc 2
Shortly before she was to graduate from secondary school, her father informed her that Ngoc had died. Soung’s father suspected that she’d committed suicide, but the death certificate listed “death from natural cause." My mother begged to return home for the funeral, but Bernard said it was unnecessary. Ngoc had been cremated in the Buddhist tradition and her ashes sent to Vietnam in accordance with her wishes.
Mother was devastated until she received a letter from Ngoc. All it said was:
My Dearest Soung, find your mother. I've always felt shame for taking her place. She should have been with you. I love you, my daughter.
So in 1972, Soung decided to visit her mother's homeland. She informed her father that she was taking a year off before attending university and traveling to Vietnam. She was determined to find her mother and visit Ngoc's ashes.
1972 was a dangerous year in Vietnam, especially for a 17-year-old Eurasian woman traveling alone. Luckily, for once, her father faced up to his responsibility and arranged to have an emissary from the French embassy meet her as she got off the plane. The embassy employee helped her through customs and into a waiting limo.
It's a half hour drive from Tan Son Nhat to District One and her hotel. During the ride, he tried to advise her as to the dangers that were lurking in every corner of Saigon. But she just stared out the window fascinated by the tableau of exotic life that whisked past.
Mother was truly an innocent abroad relying entirely on the Patti's family travel agent for all her arrangements. Her liaison was a man of discriminating tastes, booking her accommodation at the Rex Hotel, which had long been a Saigon landmark and the family's preferred hostelry If he'd known that at that moment it was the headquarters of the American Forces Information Service, I'm sure that he would have booked her elsewhere, since the place was sure to be overflowing with gauche Americans.
My mother was a beauty, Not in the classic Chinese sense, but she had been blessed with the best of the two cultures that had produced her. Her face was elegantly slim with high cheekbones, framed by raven black shoulder length hair. Her slightly almond-shaped eyes were clear and an impossible intense blue, a gift from her father that startled almost everyone who met her.
Determined but still a little naive of the world-at-large, she had little firsthand knowledge of what to expect in her search. Her father had provided her with the last known address of her family clan and nothing else.
She'd spent two days in bed in an effort to recover from her travels. She was finding the heat and humidity difficult to deal with and longed for the breezes of autumn in her home of Paris. On the morning of her third day she awoke with renewed drive and after her morning toilette, she walked down to find the lobby overflowing with a variety of occidentals all speaking at once. Luckily she spotted the concierge. After arranging for a car and driver for that afternoon, he directed her to the dining room where breakfast was being served. As with the lobby, the dining room was packed. The maître d' told her she'd have to share a table if she wanted to eat in the next hour or so. She acceded and he escorted her to a table where our father was halfway through his "Going to War Breakfast" chili con carne, fried eggs, and ice cold Coke.
Mother always laughed when I made her retell me the story of their first encounter. How she had been aghast at his lack of table manners and his total disregard for what anyone around him thought. They had just struck up a conversation when someone walked up and told father it was time to go. Mother said she stared in disbelief as he shoveled in the rest of his food, downing it with his third bottle of Coke in one long gigantic swallow. He wiped his chin, stood up, grabbed his gear from the chair next to him saying, "Nice meeting you Ma'am,” gave her a wink, and was gone in an instant.
Later in the afternoon, mother began her quest in earnest. She had exited the hotel, speaking with the doorman who directed her down the block to where her black Citroen and driver were waiting. When she arrived, the driver addressed her by name and opened the rear door as she stepped in. He had spoken French to her and she gave him a little start when she answered in Vietnamese. Her Vietnamese was very good but she did have a distinct European accent. That, coupled with her European dress, blue eyes, and youthful beauty, was a bit dazzling for the driver and other denizens of Saigon.
She passed the driver a slip paper with the address her father had given her written on it. Once he'd read the address, he was a bit hesitant but finally relented after a fervent talking to and a hefty gratuity. They had to stop several times asking directions from locals, which often caused them to backtrack but finally he pulled over in front of a large compound surrounded by an ancient stone wall. After consulting the driver about protocol, she went to the gate and had to hammer the well-patinated gong several times before someone arrived. She introduced herself as Tu Thi's daughter, saying she would like to meet her family. The woman, who looked like a maid was startled and after a few moments of indecision said that she would ask. After she closed the door, Soung could hear her scurrying away.
The maid was gone so long that Mother had returned to sit in her car just to get some relief for the incessant sun. A half an hour had past when the woman returned with two unpleasant looking men at her side. In a flushed face and tentative voice, she approached Soung, asking her name and in which hotel she was staying. After writing down Mother's replies, the maid, with downcast eyes, told my mother that the Luru family had never heard of Tu Thi and that Soung had no relations in this house. The maid bowed, turned and closed the gate with finality as the men took up post on either side of the gate.
My mother was at a loss as to what to do. She sat in the rear of the Citroen in a quandary for a while. Because of the neighborhood, the driver was becoming antsy, suggesting that the safer course was to return to the Rex. The eagle-eyed concierge spotted her gloomy demeanor as she came in from the shimmering heat of the street. Silently approaching, he mentioned that the rooftop bar was very agreeable at this time of day, a great place to ruminate about the day’s events.
After the arduous ascent up the stairs, she was greeted by a much-welcomed breeze. She found a wicker chair in an out-of-the-way corner, ordering a glass of lemonade and reflected on the rejection she had just been subjected to. It was four in the afternoon and she wanted to wait a couple of hours before calling her father to ask his advice.
Naturally, Bernard Martin Patti advised his daughter to come home at once, it was too dangerous to stay, but my mother was a little headstrong and decided to stay a few more days. She still had to make her pilgrimage to were Ngoc's ashes were interred. Soung spent the early evening mentally girding her loins to continue her quest.
As a Parisian, at 9 pm she put on her obligatory little black dress and went downstairs to have dinner. The same maître d' greeted her. With a smile, mother described him as a slight Frenchman in his early forties, with salt and pepper hair, missing three fingers on his left hand and a romantic glint in his eye. He led her through the overcrowded room to the same table she had shared that morning and our father. He stood to greet her. "How'd ma'am, nice to see you again.”
Flustered, she stood staring at the maitre d' as he pulled out her chair, coaxing her to sit. Once down, she hid behind her menu, finding it almost impossible to look at John Stanley's big broad American smile. She wasn't sure how to view his openness; either he was guileless or way too sure of himself. Mother told me at that point she almost fled back up to her room, but decided she was too old for that kind of behavior.
Like the few Americans Soung had met in Paris, he had a silly, way too optimistic view of the future which, for some reason, she found both admirable and unsettling.
She stared at the menu for a few minutes while she composed herself and let her nerves settled. After some polite conversation and a recommendation from the waiter, they both ordered the ubiquitous and tasty Pho soup with steamed rice. She had green tea while he continued to enrich Coca-Cola. He was amazed to learn just how young she was and immediately took on the mantle of big brother, if only in the hotel proper. There was only a four-year difference in their ages, but since his time in the service and in his new job, he thought he knew how the world worked and what measures to take.
Most of the young Americans in the hotel couldn't tell the difference between a young woman searching for her mother or a boom-boom girl looking to pay the rent. And since she was beyond beautiful, he altruistically wanted to make sure no one misinterpreted who and what she was.
After dinner, much to her consternation and over her protests, he'd made sure she'd gotten back to her room safely. Once the lock turned, he said good night through the door and headed back downstairs.
Next morning in the lobby, while waiting for his ride, our father noticed a larger than normal police presence. With a sudden burst of commotion, he saw by mother, surround my men in suits and uniformed police, being whisked out of the hotel and into a waiting car that sprang into traffic as soon as her door was closed.
Later, John Stanley inquired of the houseman on his floor as to what had happened. It seems that when mother had returned to her room, she'd found the woman from her visit to the Luru compound that afternoon hanging in her closet. It took her half an hour before she was calm enough to call for help. Within 15 minutes of her call, a crush of people had responded. Embassy staff, Saigon police and any number of hotel bigwigs were trying to decide who would do what.
Mother was moved to a secure room on the third floor and left to ponder events. A little after 3am the French undersecretary from the embassy knocked on her door. After asking after her well-being, he got down to business, showing her the note found on the maid. Written in black ink on white rice paper, it read, "You have no family. Best for everyone you leave Saigon. Soon before you here, cost more blood.” At the undersecretary's urging and after a frantic call to her father, she agreed and the embassy got things moving.
It would be eleven years before their stars would align again.
Soung Archimedes Patti arrived back in Paris worn out and frayed. Her plane touched down on a cloudy Autumn afternoon. The terminal was crowded and there was no one there to meet her. She was filled with conflicting emotions as the cab dropped her at her father's front door. The maid greeted her warmly but the family was out of town. So she was alone in that giant relic of privilege. The portraits of her ancestors looked down from red velvet walls as she belligerently looked back finding not a glimmer of commonality. Heartsick, she traipsed up the stairs to her third-floor bedroom and the comforting yellow color of her room.
She had gone to Vietnam in hopes of some kind of family connection but had suffered only rejection. Over the next few of months, she steeled herself, determined to forge a life of her own.
Her father's family was delighted that she had decided to attend university in England and begrudgingly agreed to pay her expenses as long as they weren't too extravagant. Being a loner was an advantage in achieving knowledge. While her fellows were out partying and seeking sexual conquests, she was enriching her mind and developing a plan to deal with all the hurt she had endured.
Over the next four years, she thrived and graduated summa cum laude, moving straight on to graduate school in America. She again applied herself and two years later she graduated speaking seven languages and holding Masters degrees in Political Science, International Business, and Physiology. Viewed as a shining star, she interned for several political figures but found the hypocrisy spirally draining.
So at the age of 25, she set out to conquer the world.
Three years later, she was using Singapore as her home base while she traveled through Europe and Asia in her position as a consultant and mediator. She had just landed at Chang International Airport on a flight from Switzerland and was famished. She decided to stop for a bite to eat before facing the grueling task of getting a cab and making the long ride to her apartment.
She was halfway through her grilled chicken salad when a tall Westerner left his table and approached her. "How'd ma'am, don't know if you remember me, but I sure remember you. It was a while ago at the Rex Hotel in Saigon. I saw you to your room and then, the next morning, I saw you leaving and have always wondered what had happened."
She looked up at him and at first drew a blank, but when he smiled it came back to her, the naive American. It was obvious that he wanted to talk and with her new life’s motto, say yes to every challenge, she invited him to sit down.
"Yes, you are the young man who insisted upon escorting me to my room, even after I requested you not. But you were a gentleman and, once I was inside, you departed. I remembered your smile, and I can see you still have it. What are you doing here in Singapore?"
“I’m in transit at the moment, just waiting for the boarding call of my flight.”
“It this work or pleasure?” she asked.
“Work. I’m still in Import/Export, based here in Singapore. I spend most of my time traveling, but I have a place here and have learned to love this city,“ he said, as she found his smile overpowering
"That sounds oddly familiar. I've been here two years myself. I work as a consultant for international business firms who are having difficulty integrating into their host country. I sort of smooth things out for them,” my mother said.
“Do you find it interesting work?” Our father asked.
“More than interesting. I love prodding and cajoling competitors into a mutually beneficial accord. And of course, I make sure labor shares in those benefits,” my mother proudly proclaimed.
“Sounds like you’re dedicated, It’s a blessing when you love what you do.”
“And do you enjoy what you do?”
“Yeah. It was my first job and I’ve become addicted. So I guess it’s something we have in common.”
Over the airport sound system our father’s flight was called and he stood and gave my mother his card. “I’ll be back in town in two weeks and I’d love to have dinner. If you’re amenable, and I hope you are, give me a call.”
She did, and they were married six months later. Which, at that point, made John Stanley Price a bigamist in the full sense of the word. From what I can surmise from the dates, you, my brother, would have been about a year old.