EUGENE, Ore. — One of Becky Benson’s earliest memories is of her father dangling her over the South China Sea on the coast of Vietnam in a moment of desperate hope. She was 4.
Her father, Phuong Tran, and her mother, Thanh Nguyen, and her three sisters and little brother were trying to flee the chaos of 1975 Vietnam. Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese after 20 years of war; the last of the American forces were pulling out of the country.
Phuong Tran had been an ally of the Americans, and he knew he and his family would be targeted for retribution.
The family was among tens of thousands of refugees, and the historic crisis was for them a simple struggle to all be on the same ship, bound for America.
Phuong Tran was attempting to pass each of his children from the ship he was aboard, over the rail to the ship where his wife was standing a few feet away with their 3-year-old son, Phuoc Tran. As the 4-year-old dangled between the two craft over a stretch of water, the ships shifted apart.
“I remember seeing the water crashing up on the ships, and I remember hanging, and I was like, holding on,” said Benson, now 46 and a Eugene area resident. “I’m still terrified of water.”
That was the last time, until last month, that Benson and her three older sisters — Tina Sheetz, Mindy Moon and Cigi Tran — were within sight or reach of their mother and little brother. Tina was 6, Mindy was 8 and Cigi was 10.
It was the first in a series of misfortunes that kept the family separated for more than 40 years.
The second was a big misunderstanding: The ship carrying their mother and little brother was staying in Vietnam. The ship that Phuong Tran and his four daughters had boarded was headed to Guam, an American territory.
Thanh Nguyen and her son were left behind in Vietnam.
Until last month, just before Mother’s Day, 78-year-old Thanh Nguyen had not seen her daughters in 42 years. Now they have reunited in Eugene for a year-long visit. All four sisters live in Lane County.
Barriers of language, culture, time and distance contributed to the persistence of their separation, as well as to the process of their reunion.
Bridging the events of so many years takes time, but the family wanted to share its story as a testimony to the endurance of love between mothers and daughters.
Three of Thanh Nguyen’s daughters — Benson, Moon and Sheetz — recently crowded around a small picnic table at the Les Schwab Sports Park in Springfield to tell their story. Cigi Tran could not attend the gathering that day.
Each daughter speaks a little Vietnamese. Their mother speaks no English. With patience — and help from Google Translate — the women are learning to understand each other again.
“We’re just grateful that we have our mommy with us,” Moon, 49, said.
GETTING OUT OF VIETNAM
The sisters were born in Quang-Tri, a province at the north tip of what was then South Vietnam.
Phuong Tran had just started nursing school when he enlisted in the army in the early 1970s. Sheetz said her father never talked much about why he joined or his military experiences. But she knows he was helping the American troops. And because of his nursing school experience — brief though it was — he was assigned to insert intravenous lines in the wounded in the field.
After the war was lost, Phuong Tran focused on getting himself, his family and his parents to America.
He partially succeeded. After his ship landed in Guam, he and his daughters flew to San Diego, then spent two months at a refugee camp set up in the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego.
They left the camp after meeting Phyllis and Dick Gereau, who offered to be their U.S. sponsors. The Gereaus sheltered the family for six months. They helped Phuong Tran get a job as a dishwasher and enroll in English classes. The Tran sisters keep in touch with the Gereaus to this day.
Back in Vietnam, Nguyen had lost touch with her husband and daughters. Two years after they were separated, she visited her in-laws’ village to obtain her husband’s new address. The couple wrote back and forth from about 1980 to 1985. But Nguyen and Tran stopped corresponding after her husband’s brother told Phuong Tran that his wife had remarried in Vietnam and was keeping the information from him.
“We found out later that was not true, but by then, my dad was already upset, and he remarried,” Moon said.
Why the lie?
“(His brother) was angry and bitter that my dad made it to America and that he didn’t, and he wanted my dad to help him come to the States,” Moon said.
Phuong Tran believed his brother and forbid his daughters from ever mentioning their mother.
Although they had lost touch, the sisters never stopped thinking about their nuclear family.
Cigi Tran eventually persuaded her father to give her Nguyen’s address. In 2006, an exchange student who was fluent in Vietnamese who was staying with Benson helped her write a letter to her mother and brother.
The two halves of the family started exchanging letters, then began to connect via Skype calls.
Seeing each other’s faces changed everything.
“She was always smiling,” Benson said of the calls. “And my brother, he smiles all the time, and he looks just like my dad. My mom says he has the same demeanor and moves like my dad.”
Despite assurances from his son and daughters, it wasn’t until 2008 when Phuong Tran finally spoke to his former wife via Skype, and accepted the truth about their estrangement.
“That night he was finally like, ‘Oh, it was all lies; it was all lies,’?” Sheetz said.
Phuoc Tran sent photos of his children to their grandfather before the call, and Sheetz said her father clutched them all night, looking from the pictures to the computer screen to figure out and remember who was who.
“I even asked him, ‘Papa, you’re not gonna cry?’ He said, ‘I’ll cry when I go to sleep,’?” Sheetz said.
Phuong died of cancer in 2011 at 71. Although he never saw Nguyen and his son again in person, he was grateful to reconnect.
In late 2016, Cigi Tran’s daughter, Katyna Tran, became pregnant. She wanted her grandmother to meet her baby, and the idea of bringing Nguyen to America gained momentum; a one-year visa was secured.
The sisters picked their mother up from Portland International Airport on May 6.
“She saw the four of us, our faces right there, and she just glowed and then smiled, and then we all cried,” Benson said.
Nguyen brought two gigantic cardboard boxes for her luggage. Inside were the parts to a meticulously hand-carved wooden rocking chair that her son — a woodworker — had made for Katyna Tran.
Sheetz said her mother seemed to want to recapture some of what she’d missed in not seeing her girls grow up.
“She kept making me sit on her lap like I was that 6-year-old girl or something,” Sheetz said.
Nguyen brought each of her daughters a handmade Vietnamese dress. She didn’t know their sizes, but all the dresses fit them perfectly.
On Mother’s Day, the daughters wore the dresses, and Thanh cooked them all a large, elaborate meal.
The sisters have brought their mother to their father’s grave in Eugene a few times. Whenever she goes, she cleans his headstone and the area around it, in the Vietnamese tradition.
“They don’t do just headstones; they do a whole monument,” Benson said. “It shows they honor the dead.”
And the Tran daughters discovered that separation, time and distance did not erode their love for one another.
They are looking forward to spending this year together; Nguyen said she can’t wait to help Katyna care for her newborn baby, due later this summer.
“So the nice thing is, she has a happy ending,” Sheetz said. “That’s how we see it; she has an ending to her story. And so do we now.”
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com