Below is my slideshow/tribute to my parents at their anniversary party–though only some of the photos are included here. My parents are two ordinary people who have had extraordinary achievements and challenges in their lives. To me, it is the way they overcame these challenges together that is their greatest achievement. It is no surprise to any of us, who know and love them, that the fifty-year mark is only just the beginning.
A couple’s golden anniversary is usually celebrated through a retrospective of their lives together, of the family they’ve built,
and of their individual contributions to the community and their careers. As their children,
we are really only privy to their lives as a couple post-children. We didn’t get to see them when they were kids,
or watch them meet for the first time,
fall in love,
or get married…
Any of our knowledge about them as two young lovebirds is secondhand, through faded photographs or stories from someone’s rusty memory.
But one day last summer, at one of many very difficult visits my mom and I had with my dad while he was hospitalized, I got to witness my parents falling in love with each other all over again. It was toward the end of my dad’s stay, and he was fighting so hard to get his mind and life back. We didn’t know how lucid he would be on that night, or any of those nights.
But after dinner I asked my dad if he remembered the first time he met my mom. He nodded sheepishly. It was January 1961 and he was meeting her at the bus station to escort her to her freshman dorm. She was the only female out of 14 national scholars that year selected to study abroad. She had just spent 2 weeks earlier in DC for orientation
and was now en route to meeting this stranger, a junior at Miami U.
He recalled that he immediately thought she was cute and so petite. And full of energy. I asked if she was at all nervous meeting a strange guy in an even stranger country. He chuckled and said no. She talked a lot, he said.
Suffice it to say that as my dad was telling me the story, as if it had happened just yesterday,
my mom looked down at the floor then fussed with her hair, but she was grinning from ear to ear.
It is one thing to remember the exact moment of meeting your life partner for the first time, but it is another to hear him recall with so much clarity and affection all these years later, especially during the most trying time in your marriage. And if you knew how tough my dad’s situation was last June, you would know that it was nothing short of a miracle to have had such a beautiful conversation. And that’s what it’s like to watch your parents fall in love.
So what exactly happened on that bus ride?
They talked nonstop and discovered how much they had in common. As my dad now says, they just clicked. But as my mom remembers it, she was just very grateful he had helped her find her way to the campus. While a chemical reaction was going off in my dad’s head, my mom was terribly homesick. Way too homesick to read any romantic signs.
One week after meeting her, my dad took my mom out on their first date. Six months later, she went away for summer vacation. My dad said that it was during this separation that he knew he was in trouble; he was so distraught over her absence that he knew he had to marry her. But she was in no rush for anything serious.
So much can change in a year. By the Spring of ‘62, right before Daddy’s graduation from Miami U,
they began discussing marriage. My dad simply told my mom that he was going to marry her. He did not see any point in a formal proposal because, to him, it was already a done deal since their first meeting. He said the whole first encounter and his feelings for her—and I quote– happened as naturally as going to the post office to pick up the mail. So basically my mom was his mail-ordered bride.
The only wrinkle in all this was that my dad would now have to move to DC to attend grad school at Georgetown.
Not wanting to leave my mom behind, he did all the leg work to get her transferred to American U, also in DC. Once they were both in the same city, my dad knew it was safe to buy her a ring:
It was $99 before tax, a substantial amount on a meager scholarship budget.
By the summer of ‘62, they had both written their families for permission to get married. On June 24, 1963 the two families threw a big engagement party for my parents in Saigon in their absence:
And on August 31, 1963, my parents were married in DC:
They had a brief honeymoon at Niagara Falls because school was starting. My dad received his master’s degree from Georgetown the next summer and took a job while waiting for my mom to graduate from American University in January of 1965. When they flew home to VN shortly thereafter, my mom was almost six months pregnant with Janie.
My dad’s first post in Saigon was as an instructor of English at a medical school. Then he was drafted and spent almost two years in the army, which included 9 months of bootcamp. After he was discharged, he went on to teach as an assistant professor at the University of Saigon Teachers College while simultaneously serving as the Director of the Center of Languages until April ‘75. My mom’s first job was teaching ESL at the Vietnamese American Association. She also got a job as a translator at the US Embassy and continued to teach at the VAA until 1975.
During the first decade of their marriage they had the three of us. For a very long time I thought Janie and I were twins
because Mommy always dressed us alike…
And then, hello, can we say triplets?
Parents, please refrain from dressing your children alike. This can only lead to an identity crisis!
It was tough enough to raise three kids, but their second decade together would prove to be the biggest game changer. April 1975. Mom got a call from an American in charge of the evacuation from Saigon. He was a friend of my aunt’s new husband, Uncle Gerry. Mr. Brown told her we had 15 minutes to get to his house by the airport. My dad rushed home and we all got into his car with a single suitcase that mom had packed a few weeks earlier upon warnings from Daddy’s CIA students who knew the country was about to collapse.
During the ride my parents discussed how they could go to our grandparents’ houses to say farewell, but there was absolutely no time. When we got to Mr. Brown’s, he told them we would be leaving with the orphans being airlifted out of Vietnam. No luggage allowed. And no men allowed… In that instant my parents had no choice but to leave my dad behind. Mr. Brown assured my dad that he would help him find a way out and instructed him to move into his house for better security. Daddy went home to gather his personal belongings and found Mommy’s half-prepared lunch on the kitchen counter. The pain was unbearable and Daddy immediately moved into Mr. Brown’s home as planned or risked not getting out. There, he was given a gun and a fake US passport. Just like in the movies.
Meanwhile, we were huddled inside the orphan plane, which was technically not meant for passengers but cargo. While waiting for liftoff, the Vietnamese police came on board with searchlights to make sure no men or unauthorized passengers were there. The American pilots told us to get down on the floor and covered us with a tarp. We had to remain deathly still for fear of being discovered. After three suspenseful hours, the plane finally took off and we arrived at Clark airbase in the Philippines.
Back in Saigon five days later, Mr. Brown put my Dad on a US military mail truck and smuggled him on to a plane. He was allowed only one briefcase with essential documents and some cash. We reunited with him at the refugee camp. Out of sheer luck, my parents ran into my dad’s youngest brother and grandfather in the dining hall. The immigration people let my elderly grandfather join us on our quick relocation to Guam and then Camp Pendleton in California. My uncle, now 27 and just out of medical school, was kept back a few weeks then sent to Florida to wait for a sponsor.
Our family was sponsored by my mom’s college roommate’s parents in Indiana, and these are the pictures of our arrival with my paternal grandfather. The Schmidts welcomed us into their house with wide open hearts:
I love this picture of my mom with Julie because I know there were very few moments of carefree laughter for her when the future was full of the unknown:
Luckily my sisters and I had each other,
and the unknown was just part of the adventure of growing up. Apparently, we were also trying out for America’s Got Talent:
After a couple of months in Indiana, we moved to Michigan where my dad had found a job. But severe depression had set in by then, and by November Uncle Gerry drove cross-country to move our family back to Georgia to be closer to them.
With professional help and medication my Dad got better and we moved to San Antonio where he worked as an ESL teacher at Northrop. His students were members of the Saudi Arabian Royal Air Force so he would come home with all sorts of curse words in Arabic. My mom got a job as a coordinator for the Catholic Charities’ refugee program. This is a picture of our first house there:
With a lot of hard work and saving on my parents’ part, we moved into their first brand new home:
But more than that, my sisters and I also got a brother for a few months when my cousin Thuc arrived with his father, Bac Thao, from the refugee camp to live with us. My parents had sponsored them.
In 1981, my parents made a big move to Dallas where they both began working for the school district. My mom went back to the classroom at Spence Middle School and my dad became the district-wide coordinator for the ESL program. After 7 years at Spence, my mom became a teacher trainer, then director of ESL bilingual teacher training program, then executive director of beginning teacher support program. She retired from DISD after 21 yrs. In retirement she was a consultant for a publishing company. As for my dad, he retired from the school district after 17 years in charge of ESL and foreign languages. Then he joined TWU as an associate professor and retired as a full professor after 13 yrs in 2012.
The last three decades of my parents’ marriage have been full of activities and milestones typical of any growing family. There have been numerous graduations—there’s mommy receiving her master’s degree…
and travel. To this day, even in retirement, they are constantly on the go. But at least they get to do everything together now. They are so joined at the hips that I’m beginning to think my mom is married to her parole officer. If we are out of the house for 30 minutes, she has to call him to check in. If she is late by a few minutes, he will call her.
I have never known a more hardworking, generous or steadfast couple than my parents. I always thought it was required to hold at least two jobs at the same time when you grow up because that’s what my parents have always done to put us three kids through school. I believe in community service because they have always given back to their community, even when it was a great sacrifice to do so. Watching my parents start over in 1975, completely from scratch, has taught me that anything is possible in life, as long as you give it your best.
So if this what they have accomplished in the first fifty years of marriage, I can’t wait to see how they will top it in fifty more.