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27/02/2022 - 08:11

My grandma and Tet of the old days

Every year, around the 20th of the 12th lunar month, just before Kitchen Gods Day, we the children in the city center were sent to the family lineage house on the slope of Ha Khe Hill near Thien Mu Pagoda to visit our grandma and helped her prepare for Tet since my parents were too busy to come.

I always remember the skinny figure, with grey hair and a serene face, who stood there on the porch in front of the doors welcoming each of us. She counted every single the grandchild before coming back into the house. The garden was soon filled with laughter, which made her face fresh up with joy.

For my grandma, the period of time was the busiest  of the year. She was busy because she had to act as a leader everywhere from the garden to the kitchen and took care of us. From the 22nd day onwards, it was the cooking time of the daughters-in-law. Her voice was heard everywhere. She advised people how to prepare for a traditional Tet for the whole extended family. 

After eating sweet soup of hyacinth beans which she had cooked before for us, we were assigned tasks. First of all, it was polishing the bronze sets at the altars. That was reserved for boys.

While they were working, my grandma was walking around observing. She said while chewing betel watching. “On New Year’s Days, the altar is most important, then comes the house. The altar must be clean and tidy so that our ancestors would bless us with good health, and our family with wealth. Cleaning worship objects is the duty of boys who will be heirs. It is also a way to show our gratitude to our ancestry. You must do it well. Girls will do other things. 

She then jokingly recited poems as a way to educate us. She changed the line “Boys read and recite poems” into “Boys polish bronze sets,” and she took her granddaughters to the warehouse where antique crookery was stored for special occasions such as death anniversaries, festivals, or New Year’s Days, reciting “Girls prepare bowls and dishes.”

She asked them to bring bowls and plates to the table and clean them. She picked up each piece and commented on it, then decided which piece for which kind of food. 

The small eight-fairy bowls were for sweet soup, the bowls decorated with apricot blossom and crane  were for soup or boiled rice, the delicate Jade Trinket plates or bowls were for bat buu (eight-ingredient meal), the small-sized dragon-and-phoenix plates and apricot--and-crane dishes were for sticky rice or stir-fried meals. She also told us tales about the patterns on them. 

Her graceful voice led me to rivers and mountains of the old days but they were as familiar as the Huong river where I swam, and the Kim Phung mountain where I breathed in and out moments of childhood.

Among us, I was the one who enjoyed her stories most, so I was the closest to her during Tet. After assigning tasks to everyone, she held my hand and led me around. We went the kitchen and asked people there to prepare the Marantaceae leaves, banana leaves, pineapple leaves, pork, mung bean, shallot, salt, pepper and fish sauce for banh tet and banh chung.

"Pigs oink oink for shallot and pepper,” she said. She added that one should learn features of ingredients thoroughly based on the ancient experience. She then decided on their sizes and weight.

On this occasion, the kitchen was always the busiest place in the house where people cooked banh chung and banh tet, made sweet food, and prepared offerings. She knew who was good at what. Under her guidance, everyone tried to do her best.

On Tet, the food was displayed on the table like pieces of art. They were a harmony of colors and flavors, evoking in people lots of emotion to the tongue and eyes.

When we were done with food, we turned to clothes that we would wear on Tet. It seemed that to children and my grandma, Tet only came when we wore our new clothes. Even at night when we were in bed half awake, we still heard our grandma tell my mom about new clothes for Tet. 

At that time, ao dai was worn in a pair. Inside was a light silk ao dai, and outside was another of silk or brocade. As for pants, they must go well with the outside ao dai of brocade, velvet, or silk, and they should not be too colorful. 

Grandma often taught us how to select colors for our ao dai. If the inside was light pink, then the outside should be marine blue; moss green inside, then coral color outside; then red and brown; purple and green or light yellow. Never being too colorful was the way elder people combined colors. 

She also advised that clothes for children should be made out of thick silk, and pants should be loose for them to play, and that it was not necessary to be trendy with clothes of nylon. Hearing her talking to mom, I dreamed of new clothes to wear on the first day of the new year to greet grandma with my brothers and sisters.

Her words were so caring and loving, but I did not understand all their significance until later. 

My grandma’s stories about Tet were almost endless. Her instructions, one after another, were like fairy tales or even dreams. To an 8-year-old girl, days before Tet were endless. When I followed her, my imagination was filled with colorful images. 

Until one morning of the late year, Mrs. Nay boiled a pot of water smelling of lemon in the back garden near the kitchen. The big jar of rainwater was full of grapefruit flowers picked from the garden. That was for the year-end bath. 

Her year-end bath signaled the end of all the preparations for the new year and that people were ready for a new year as a new person, so it was as solemn as a ritual. My sister was allowed to rub her back while I poured water over her.

I realized my grandma always wore 5 layers of coat during the winter with many pockets for different things, one for money, another for betels and nuts, and still another for her facial towel. It was the first time I had seen her skinny body. Her arms were long and bony like the apricot blossom branches in the garden. Her fingers were long and smooth. Her breasts were loose, unlike my mom’s and my sister’s. But I could feel the warmth from her breasts. My grandma had always been slender since her girlhood.

Oh, my grandma looked so slender and fragile in the winter wind. I was about to cry and forgot for a moment about the new clothes I was dreaming for. 

At that moment and in the heart of a naive child, I suddenly thought of the destiny of a human being from a pretty girl to an old lady. That woman already devoted her whole heart to her extended family, preserved and nourished the family customs, and saved all her love for her children and grandchildren. 

Then on the first day of the new year when my mom took me in new clothes to greet my grandma, I was half awake with my unfinished dream about a fairy. The ancestry altars were bright in candle light with shiny incense bronze sets and trays of colorful and delicious sweets. In decent clothes, everyone in the family stood in line to express our New Year’s Day wishes to her.

And I saw, with my eyes wide open, next to the brilliant apricot blossom branch, my grandma sitting beside the small table for tea drinking, the gorgeous beauty of a fairy in green and annatto. It was “the most beautiful apricot blossom branch” on earth. 

Story: Thai Kim Lan

Photo: Bao Minh

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