A typical Del Guercio family dinner is about to begin. The bells chime, sending an echo through the marbled foyer softly bouncing into the dining room where I am putting the finishing touches on the table. What began as a mockery of my mother’s elaborate table setting tradition- it has now become my tradition.
A long well-aged wood table is covered in lace, accompanied by eight chairs fighting for space in front of a finely ornamented place setting. Apiece with a gold charger, white china, folded linen, formal silverware- placed ever so
carefully, a wine glass, a water glass, a bread plate, a salt, and a pepper, and a small silver frame with a name in cursive to indicate the owner of the reserved parking spot. I learned this trick from my mother of course, assigning seats ensures who you dine with for the evening.
Madeline and Jake, my sister and brother in law, patiently waited outside, they arrive perfectly dressed as if they came straight from a J-crew photo shoot. I, on the other hand, spent the day in pajamas; I cleaned the house, set the table, hid things I didn’t feel like cleaning or finding a home for, and quickly threw on a dress.
The bells chime again and before I can react, the massive wood door creaks open, and immediately slams against the wall. My in-laws Liz and Peter have arrived. Peter enters with his back turned to the room. He pulls Liz, who’s seated in a wheelchair. With one arm clutching her purse, the other clutching the chair, she is dragged in as if she was a ton of bricks in a wheelbarrow, all 103.5 pounds of her.
“I’m here, with my stroke”, Liz says with feat and purpose.
Liz suffered a stroke a month ago, and has not regained the use of her dominate right arm and leg. Dr. Hoan told her that the CT showed a tiny mark the “size of a pencil eraser” on her posterior left lobe. She blames her childhood for the stroke. Her speech was altered considerably; before now Liz spoke with an ever so slight slur. But now, her speech includes pauses where she must think slowly about the pronunciation for each delivery. A stroke is an attack on the brain and according to the National Stroke Association, unfortunately every 4 minutes someone dies from a stroke. Every 40 seconds, a stroke occurs. Liz reminds us of these statistics daily. She survived.
My mother-in-law is dressed in her finest pajamas, with freshly manicured hands and feet, and hair all in place. She isn’t going to let the stroke stop her from feeling or looking good.
I direct everyone into the living room. Peter wheels Liz in and she claims the couch on the left, where she will set up camp. Peter then heads to the kitchen to join James, my husband, who for hours has been preparing dinner for the tribe. Jake, Madeline, and baby Marie follow into the living room claiming the couch on the right. In the center of the room is a large wooden coffee table. The table is filed with appetizers, of which everyone will fill up on before the meal is ready. It is no surprise, our family always says we will not eat so much before dinner, but it’s impossible, and it is now tradition. As everyone settles in, my daughter Scarlet and son Enzo storm down the stairs, through the entry, through the dining room, and into the living room.
“Nona!”, they shout in unison, jumping into Liz’s arms.
Our home, like most Italian’s homes permeates with garlic. James is in the kitchen cooking with wine, and even sparing some for the Bolognese. He has prepared Buccatini, a thick straw like spaghetti. It is one of my favorites because when you add the sauce, it marinates in the hollows of the pasta and makes the best leftovers. There are always leftovers. James of course, has prepared for an army and yet today we only have 9 people, 8 not counting baby Marie. We are always making too much food. He has also made meatballs, they are good. Not as good as my dad’s. My dad blends pork, beef and several other ingredients he refuses to divulge. I told him he needs to spend more time in the kitchen when my dad is cooking so he can improve his meatball skills. The garlic bread is on the counter waiting for the oven. Apparently, I have hovered over his food long enough and James kicks me out of the kitchen.
The kids retreat with Madeline upstairs to play or make a huge mess that I will have to clean up later. Who am I kidding, next week I’ll clean- if I’m lucky. James, Jake and Peter join Liz in the living room while the sauce ripens. Liz has made herself at home and tunes the TV to tennis. Peter, and I, secretly cringe inside and exchange quick glances opening our eyes widely to one another, signaling our mutual thoughts; NO, NOT TENNIS. No one has the gusto to change the channel or voice our displeasure, for now. The night is still young.
“The lights. Are too bright!”, Liz exclaims.
“The lights need to be. Off. It’s too. Bright”, she repeats.
Peter slowly slumps up and off the couch, rolling his eyes as he walks toward the wall by the entry of the dining room. He passes in front of the TV just long enough to irritate Liz. Peter begins searching through the switching. James and I for unknown reasons, let the two of them fend for themselves in the light switch extravaganza and don’t break eye contact from our conversation.
“No Peter. It is the lights. Above the TV. Too bright. Peter! Turn them off”, Liz directs him.
“I’m trying to find them Elizabeth, give me a minute already”, Peter responds.
“Peter. The lights. Are too bright. And affecting. My double vision.”
“Elizabeth, give me a minute.”
Jake and James leave me alone and return to monitor the sauce and top off their glass. Here I am in the living room with WW17.
James asks his brother, with a sense of sadness in his tone. “Have you seen grandma lately?”
“Yes, I went to see her at the nursing home last week. She wasn’t having a good day,” Jake says.
“She’s having less and less good days. But she remembered me this past visit. I brought the kids with me this time and it just brightened up her day. She couldn’t believe that Scarlet was 4 and Enzo was 18 months already”. James said with a little cheer.
“They are growing up so fast.”
I sneak back into the kitchen; it’s time to serve dinner. In a moment of silence we realized that we didn’t hear the banter; it stopped. It makes for the perfect time to begin corralling the family to the dinner table. For some reason, it is always takes entirely too long to do so. It should be no surprise that we eat in the dining room and the names are placed ever so nicely in front of a table setting. Madeline returns downstairs and leaves the kids to play quietly upstairs, for now.
“Time for dinner.”, James declares impatiently.
Madeline and Jake are the first to sit at the table. Peter begins helping Liz up. Liz swings her hips toward the edge of the couch, places her feet on the floor, and with the strength in her left side, she pushes herself unevenly upright. She grasps each handle bar on the wheel chair as Peter firmly holds it in place to prevent her from rolling forward.
“I am up,” she announces with accomplishment.
Peter hovers as she shuffles across the wood floor with her sandals clapping with each step, pushing the chair into the dining room.
“Hurry up Elizabeth”, Peter projects with an exaggerated tone.
“Where am I sitting?”, Liz asks
“In the empty chair”, James projects with a blank stare.
James spent hours preparing dinner, he didn’t gorge on any appetizer, he is what we call “Hangry James”. Hangry James is no fun to be around. Liz finds the strength to slap James’s arm as she successfully finds her seat and lowers herself into the chair, trying not to send the wheelchair flying out from under her.
“Everything looks and smells delicious”, Madeline interjects loudly to create a distraction from the tension.
James begins with Grace and we bow our heads.
“Bless us, O Lord. Bless our food & our drink. Bless the hearts and hands that provide the same. Thank You for this day. Thank You for a roof over our heads, and more than enough food to eat. Thank You for the family You have given to us, for family and friends who have gathered together to eat this meal. Open our hearts to your love. We ask your blessing through Christ your son. Amen.”
Liz’s eyes begin to fill with tears and she says with a sob.
“There are so many people that don’t have food. They are not fortunate. And some people don’t have families”, She says with numerous pauses.
“Enough Elizabeth, always crying about something”, Peter says.
“I wish my mother could have joined us for dinner”, Liz cries out, tears running down her face and her words barely making it out of her mouth. She is struggling to speak, struggling to pronounce her words.
“Elizabeth, not this again”, Peter says, “You’re so sensitive”.
Liz pours just a little more wine in her small cup and responds to Peter.
“What. She’s my mom and I worry about her. She’s going to die.”
James interrupts with his realism, “She’s 94 mom, yes, she is going to die, we all will one day.”
Elizabeth interrupts with a loud cry, her shoulders shaking and tears continue to flow down her face. Madeline and Jake are sitting to my left, staring down at their food, pushing it around on the plate. I return to look down as well. This is a conversation; one of many, in which I don’t want to be involved in.
James continues, “Grandma has had a good long life”.
Liz interjects, “Grandma has had a rough life”. She mutters as she fights through her shaky voice. “She followed my dad around the world, from Southern California to Japan. Then to Vietnam where we almost died, many times.”
“We know mom”, Jake confirms.
“You were in Vietnam too?”, Madeline inquisitively asks.
“Can we eat?”, James asks rudely.
“Yes!” Liz says, “Eat. Vietnam, yes I lived in Vietnam when I was 6 or 5.”
Both Madeline and I have been in the Del Guercio family for an average of 8 years. We have heard bits and pieces of stories from Liz’s childhood. Dinner is usually the only time it comes up, Nona Juice helps. Unfortunately both our husbands have heard the stories so many times over the years, therefore, the stories end briefly; with a lot of unanswered questions. We are both intrigued.
Liz continues the story, “We lived in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. My father, Jake and James’s grandfather, worked as a subcontracted Engineer for the United States Government and was hired to work there to lay lines down for communication. In 1962, we left Japan and moved to Saigon, Vietnam. We lived there around the time the Viet Cong took over the city, we left in our boat 1968”. The terrorism of Viet Cong was strong in South Vietnam, especially in the riverside and countryside, slowly it was moving towards the city and the Consulate.
“You were in a boat during the war?” I asked in amazement.
James, Jake and Peter exchange looks and return to enjoying the dinner. “Pass the garlic bread?” Peter grumps.
Liz answers me, ignoring the glances, “I know I’m stubborn, but I hate BOATS. I hate BOATS. You couldn’t pay me to go on a boat again. I hate cruise ships. No boats! I’m afraid of boats. There are dangerous storms. I was abused on boats. At times, I was afraid I was going to fall off. People just don’t realize how dangerous boats are. In an instant, they turn bad. That’s why I hate boats, very true. When I was 5, I built a boat. A fifty-footer, a big BOAT, 50 whole feet. It was 1965, or maybe it was 1963. I was 5. As I said we were living in Saigon, Vietnam and far from Southern California.”
“So a cruise is out of the question?” I interrupt with a smart remark.
“No cruises. No BOATS!” Liz shouts.
“What kind of boat?” Madeline asks.
“It was 50 feet. It was our house, so not too small. But it wasn’t a home. We had a kitchen, beds, and a toilet. It had a large deck on top, with two sails, one in the front, and one in the back. We had a ladder on the side to get on to a small dingie to go to shore. It was made out of teak wood, a sturdy wood, expensive here, cheap there. I built the boat with my father.”
“And you lived on this boat, in the water, during the war? What do you mean you built the boat?”, Madeline asked for confirmation.
“Yes, we lived on the boat. We were in a Marina off the Saigon River. Saigon was the capital back then. Now it’s called Ho Chi. From the deck of the boat you could see the entire Marina. The view from one side was the city and the other sides where the river ran, was nothing but jungle”, Pam shares. “We first moved to the country, 30 minutes outside
the city, every day I would get up with my father and go to work to build the boat. He would tell me what to tell the workers. My parents worked a lot, we had maids and cooks. They were gone a lot, and my maid was my old friend. I learned Vietnamese really quickly.”
I ask barely able to eat my food, I just want to hear more about this boat and how a child at 5 lived on a boat. “Wasn’t it dangerous to be in a boat, in a Marina during the war?”
Liz cries, “My parents were selfish.”
“Wine anyone?” James interjects.
“My parents would go out every night and leave me with my maid on the boat, all alone in the dark. “
“Elizabeth, why are you crying again?” Peter asks.
Liz sips from the glass, and pauses for a few moments.
“My parents would go out every night, they would row to shore with the dingie. My maid and I would watch them row the small boat to shore. We could see the city and the lights from the boat. Not far from our boat was a floating restaurant. That’s what my parents called it. It was THE place to go. All the military big wigs would go eat. My parents would get all dressed up and row out there for dinner.”
“Did you ever go to the restaurant?” I asked.
“Yes, I ate there a few times, but not at night, it was for grownups.” She replies.
James and Peter begin clearing the table, removing the overwhelming amount of silverware from the table. Jake is distracted by his phone; it is probably something work related. He’s always working. The kids, who have been surprisingly quiet through dinner, retreat upstairs with Peter to clean up. Leaving James to finish the rest of the clean-up, he’s been dismissive during the conversations so he continues to go back forth between the dining room table and kitchen sink.
“One particular night my parents go out to dinner. I remember my mom was wearing the beautiful black and white polka dot dress, her hair was done perfectly. It always was. My dad was in a black suit and looked so handsome. They were going to dinner at the floating restaurant. Like many nights before, my maid and I, played on the deck and watched as my parents rowed to the shore of the Mariana toward the floating restaurant. We were looking at the stars for hours.”
“What else could a child do? Were you not afraid to be on the deck? Wasn’t a war going on?” Madeline asks with the questions just pouring out.
“Mom and her stories”, James interjects again.
“JAMES!”, Liz says with a stern voice.
“MOM!”, James replies.
“That night the floating restaurant. It blew up.”, she states.
“WHAT!”, Madeline and I both shout, stunned, we sit frozen in our seats, hands clenched to our sets, waiting for more information.
“Yes, Fern, my maid and I were looking at the stars and all of a sudden we hear a loud noise, we saw a huge flash of light fill the sky, and quickly after felt the heat from the fire blow past us. The stars disappeared and the entire sky began to fill with black smoke. The restaurant was on fire.”
“What happened next” Madeline and I ask as if our minds are now united.
“Fern and I get into the other dingie and paddle toward the restaurant.” Liz says with fear in her eyes.
“We went to look for my parents. We got to shore within a few minutes. The smoke filled the air. The restaurant was still floating, but was on fire. Men were running everywhere to escape the boat. People started fighting their way back in and piling bodies on the sidewalk. The police stopped me, but because I spoke Vietnamese, I told them my parents were in there and I needed to find them. They let me in the area with Fern.”
Madeline and I just stared and let her continue to talk. James starts to bring in dessert and is brewing coffee for all of us.
Liz continues, “Fern and I search through the bodies on the sidewalk, I just kept looking for the black and white polka dot dress. I think we searched for hours. We couldn’t find my parents. People were running around everywhere, some covered in blood, some with missing limbs. It was Chaos.”
Jake looks up from his phone where he was distracted for some time now. His face is white. He turns his phone to Pam to show her what is on the screen. Liz grasps the phone from his hand and just stares at it for a few moments. She places his phone on the table and puts both hands on her face. She begins to sob uncontrollably. Madeline and I get up from the table and quickly go to her.
“What, what is wrong?” Madeline asks.
James returns from the kitchen and sets down the coffee and stands next to Jake. “I leave from a minute and you’re a mess”, he comments.
Jake picks up the phone and hands it to James. James now looks in shock. I start to get annoyed and I know Madeline is as well.
“Can someone tell us what is going on”, I demand.
“She’s not crazy”, James replies.
“It’s real”, Jake states with certainty.
“What are you talking about”, Madeline asks.
“The restaurant, the floating restaurant”, James says
“It happened, it’s a real restaurant, It was bombed in 1972” Jakecontinues, he finally shows Morgan and I the phone, it’s a picture of a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, it reads “2 Saigon Bombs Kills 38 in Floating Restaurant”. The picture shows a map of the Marina in relation to the city.
Madeline and I look at each other again, we want to know what happened to her parents. We believed her story. I can’t believe her sons who have heard this story so many times, didn’t believe it to be true.
Liz looks up with tears in her eyes, barely getting words out, “he found it”.
“I’m not crazy”, Liz confirms.
“The Chicago Tribune printed on June 26th 1965 that the site of the explosion was My Canh, a floating restaurant in the Saigon River, at 8:15pm the blast from the shore was felt from 2 blocks away”, Jordon reads the archived article from his phone.
“My Chan”, Liz repeats in a cold whisper, “I haven’t heard those words in 50 years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We all sit still in the moment. Waiting for Liz to continue, to say something. Not sure of what emotion will follow- we wait. Liz takes a sip of wine, we all take a sip of wine in support. Jake lifts up his phone, glances at everyone for a silent confirmation to continue reading another article on Old Asia Hands.
“The restaurant was a ruin, both decks a smoking, smoldering mass of broken bulwarks and smashed tables. An American woman, mutilated in her torn clothing, responded
weakly to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation administered by a U.S. military policeman. A Vietnamese man waved the body of a young child at photographers. He seemed insane with grief. The broken causeway leading to the restaurant was piled high with bodies. American medics were rushing from body to body shouting: ‘Is he an American? Is he? Find the Americans, find the Americans.’ Some of the wounded stacked along the pavements died as they waited. Thirty minutes after the blast, many were still pleading for help” , Jake reads.
“After hours of searching through those bodies, we had to return home, we rowed back to the boat in the marina. I cried myself to sleep. I can’t believe you found it, the restaurant.”, She pauses again.
“Two hours later my mom and dad returned home drunk. They forgot to make a reservation to the restaurant that night and were turned away. They went to another restaurant in the city.” She said with relief.
The rest of the evening was spent closely with the family talking about Vietnam, The boat, and Liz’s great adventures. We enjoy dessert and coffee. A few hours later, everyone returned home and the house was quiet yet again.
“What is a Stroke?” Stroke.org, 2016, www.stroke.org/understand-stroke/what-stroke.
“June, 25th, This Day in History”. Staff, H. (2009). http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/viet-cong-blow-up-a-floating-restaurant.
“2 Saigon Bombs Kills 38 in Floating Restaurant.” Chicago Tribune, 26 June 1965, archives.chicagotribune.com/1965/06/26/page/1/article/2-Saigon-bombs-kill-38-in-floating-restaurant.
Fredericksen, Rick. “Inside Story: The Floating Restaurant Bombing.” Old Asia Hands, Jan. 1970, oldasianhands.blogspot.com/2016/03/inside-story-floating-restaurant-bombing.html.
Clark, J.R. “Diary Entry 14: Saigon, Saturday Night, 26 June 1965.” A Vietnam War Clerk’s Diary, Jan. 1970, vietnamwarclerksdiary.blogspot.com/2011/01/diary-entry-14-saigon.html.