The Pope is gone, my mother-in-law is dead, but life goes on…

This week Pope Benedict 16th steps down, the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years. At the University of Tubingen in Germany, the theologian Hans Kung, author of the forthcoming “Can the Church Still Be Saved?” hopes for a new spring for a fading church. But in the Mekong Delta, in my husband’s family, life flows on uninterrupted like the river.

Every Spring, my husband and his Saigon siblings make an annual pilgrimage to the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life and commemorate her death.

My mother-in-law, my husband’s adopted mother and the younger sister of his blood mother, died 11 years ago on the 16th day of the Lunar New Year.

She was a survivor.

In her 96 years she lived through the first World War, the Great Depression, the 2nd World War, the Vietnamese-French War of Independence, the Vietnamese-American War, the first starving years of Vietnamese Re-unification, the Vietnamese Cambodian War, the expulsion of the Chinese as boat people in S.E. Asia and finally the re-opening of the Vietnamese economy. She mourned the deaths of her only sister, the Viet-Minh insurgent brother-in-law she admired greatly, her husband’s stroke and demise twenty years before her own and the drowning of a grandchild who was trying to escape Vietnam by way of a rickety boat on the South China Sea… Vietnamese food

Yet, at my mother-in-law’s memorial meal, we did not talk about how she overcame these global and national disruptions nor her private sorrows.  My husband, his siblings, his nieces and his nephews, talked about the small things she did for the family: how she baked moon-cakes to sell at Mid-Autumn to supplement the family budget; how she was a martinet about the house, insisting that my husband stoop down every morning to sweep the floor the better to catch stray motes of dust. One sister remembered the silver bracelet for a very small wrist that my mother-in-law had been given as a bethrothal gift. Another talked about how she’d been present at the birthing of most of her grandchildren. Everyone talked about her care, her attention to detail, the doing of the small things to perfection.

Ancestor Worship, VietnamWhen they lifted up the incense sticks at the family altar to pay their respects to her memory, they  were communing not with a photograph but with someone whose essence continued to hover over the house and watch over us. Indeed, I know that my mother-in-law took so long to die because she did worry about her children, especially that last adopted child of hers, my husband. That she finally died in 2002, one day after the 15 day Lunar New Year holidays, was because my husband had brought me and my children home to celebrate Tet with her, the first time he’d done so since leaving Vietnam. And before we flew back to Singapore, my husband sat by her and whispered into her almost comatose ears that he was fine and his wife and children were fine and she could leave in peace.

I did not pray at the family altar.  My Christian niece, her husband and I went to Sunday service at the church three doors away from the family house and said our prayers for her spirit there.

I do not think my mother-in-law, who was a traditional Buddhist woman would have felt alienated at that service. It was quintessentially Vietnamese, starting with the sounding of an old skin drum and the setting of three incense-sticks in a censer. She would have approved of the men and women sitting separately on either side of a central aisle. The Old Testament reading was from Genesis, with God asking Abram to set out a sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, a ram three years old, a dove and a young pigeon and then making the anomalous promise of descendents who would both be enslaved and mistreated but also come into great possession. Catholics Vietnam

I believe my mother-in-law, having lived the life she did, would have understood both the bitterness and sweetness of that promise from God to Abram, the fact that things change despite the absolutes, yet still the absolutes remain.

Next year, my mother-in-law’s anniversary may no longer be held at this home she lived in for over 50 years. The neighbourhood is being cleared for urban re-development. The nieces and nephews are talking about moving out to the suburbs. Architects and surveyors are being consulted. The new house will be bigger, brighter and with all the mod-cons.

A new house, it is something to look forward to next spring, we all agree. Things change. The Pope is gone, my mother-in-law is dead, but life goes on. Love remains.

What about you? What do you hold on to in the ups and downs of life?
Do share. Leave a comment to let me know.

24 Responses to “The Pope is gone, my mother-in-law is dead, but life goes on…”
  1. Joe Bunting says:

    This was very beautiful, Audrey. She sounds like an amazing woman. Also, my mouth was watering for mooncakes and I don’t even know what they taste like!

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Moon cakes
      Joe, if I’ve done things right, you should be seeing a picture of mooncakes from one of my earlier blogs about the mid-autumn festival. They’re basically a baked pastry skin filled with lotus seed paste and the top is engraved with Chinese words. Nowadays the words are just a label describing the fillings. Originally, they were secret messages stating the date and time for an uprising against the Mongols that had colonized China. Being cash-strapped, my mother-in-law made simple ones of boiled soft flour that didn’t have any fillings. She still had the engravings on the top of the cakes though. That Chinese revolution is the essence of the festival.

  2. One More day says:

    Audrey what a beautiful way to celebrate someone’s life. Paying our respects and remembering the little things that matter most. I do that often when the chips are down I think about how my compassionate Father would deal with my challenges and I know he would mostly talk about Loving your fellow human being.

  3. lmccy says:

    Nicely said.

  4. Joan says:

    Audrey – it is wonderful to honor the memory of a loved one. We don’t often do these things in America – only a funeral and/or memorial service shortly after the death. My own parents have been gone for a number of years. While we don’t have a formal memorial each year, I often honor their memory in my heart and give thanks for the way they raised me. I still miss them, but yes, life goes on. It sounds like your mother-in-law was a wonderful person.


    • Audrey Chin says:

      Hi Joan. What’s most important is that they’re part of us. Even if we forget sometimes, they’re still there because they raised us.
      I didn’t actually “know” my mother-in-law. By the time we were able to meet, she had already succumbed to dementia. But I feel I know her well from the stories everyone tells. And I know she’s much loved and missed still. Thanks for dropping by and sharing my world.

  5. It’s incredible how many people lead lives of quiet heroism and great love like your mother-in-law, people known only to their families. But you remember her with this beautiful tribute, and God remembers. So moving, so beautiful, and I’m so glad I read it this morning before starting my day.

  6. Staci Troilo says:

    What a lovely memorial you’ve left for her. Thanks for sharing this piece of your heritage.

  7. chrisbkm says:

    This is a wonderful testament to life a life well lived Audrey.

  8. annepeterson says:

    She lived small but deep. What a great line!. I loved reading how she influenced you. It was a lovely tribute.

    You asked what we hold onto in the ups and downs of life. God’s hand. He extends it just for that purpose. I held it when I was at my sister’s murder trial, when I sat at my brother’s bedside as cancer consumed him, and when we just buried my youngest brother. And I leaned hard as I did the interview. Only God can get us through our darkest times. Because as much as we love our loved ones, He loves them even more.

  9. Audrey! I am stunned with the beauty and honor in this piece. What a priveledge to read, and to share

  10. christhy77 says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

  11. Mary says:

    I am touched by all I read as I discover you. I attended a Vietnamese
    funeral once and it was beautifiul. And yes with Holy Father BEnedict in
    retirement prayer, life does go on and with his continued help

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Mary, thanks for dropping by. I’m glad you enjoyed my writing. There’s more of my writing at including a free download of the e-edition of my novel Learning to Fly. Do take a look. You can also download the book of love poems “Sometimes Words Help” on this site. Enjoy!

  12. auntielucia says:

    Hi Audrey: what a beautiful piece that reflects the tenacity and adaptability of the human race. Perhaps that’s why despite all odds we are like the numbers on the 2nd half of the chess board. The number on the final square squared could be where we are heading — unless North Korea and the US short circuit this progress 😦

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