“My Second Home” by Annabel Taylor

Written by plumtree

Topics: 2021-22 School Year

We are living through a historical moment. The pandemic has brought out both the best and worst of us. Covid-19 is the sort of thing that my own future children will be learning in their history classes. And I’ll be recounting the events along with them, recalling the memories of me questioning things, pouring over the immensity of what’s happening to me, my community and my entire world. But I’ll also remember the best parts.

But that’s in the future. And I have no clue what the future holds. All I know is that today is a milestone in my 12 years of life. I’m going to the house of my Ong and Ba. Ong is grandfather and Ba is grandmother in Vietnamese. 

Funny how that must sound, a milestone being able to go to your grandparents’ house. But I haven’t been in 6 months, 6 months of communicating through calls and missing Ong’s hearty laugh and Ba’s beautiful smile. And they only live a neighborhood away.

We go through the side of the house, through the close-to-falling-over gate and the porch door. Ba comes to see us, her beautiful smile hidden behind a mask. But she’s still there. Before I can say hello to Ba, she says “Annabel! Sebastien!” She leans in to hug us, then she remembers. How I wish I can hug her. So she just smiles, and I know because her eyes crinkle in the way they always do. 

Today is the Autumn Moon Festival, or Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese. It’s my favorite holiday, after the lunar new year or Tet. Ba has strung fish lanterns on the wall, and there is that oh-so-familiar smell of Ba’s cooking wafting from the kitchen.

Ong and Ba have set up our dinner so that we sit in the screen porch and they sit in the adjacent kitchen. It’s not the usual Tet Trung Thu, especially since there are three empty seats for my little cousin Emilia, who is more like my sister, my Auntie Olympia, and Uncle Brandon. But they’re in California. 

Ong is in the kitchen, reading a book. I say hello, and almost squeal at the sight of everything. It’s like vertigo. The good kind. 

There’s the delicious smell of pho simmering in a hot pot and bo luc lac (Vietnamese cubed steak) sizzling in a skillet over the stove, and fresh spring rolls displayed on bamboo platters on the kitchen island. Every pot of beef broth, every bowl of coconut oc (baked snails) was made with the love of my favorite chef. My Ba. 

“The food will be ready in a minute,” Ba says, stirring the noodles. “Go and play while it’s cooking.”

My brother Sebbie, Mommy and Daddy are still in the screen porch, listening to Ong and Ba’s favorite jazz music. So I take Ba’s advice and travel through the little brick house that is my second home. 

First is the living room. It’s my happy place, a room that keeps my most cherished memories alive, with the great big piano that Sebbie likes to play on and the majestic statue of Buddha on an antique chest. I take a few minutes to pray. Because that’s just what we feel most at peace doing – a lot, these days. Ong and Ba are still visiting the outdoor courtyard of the pagoda to pray from a safe distance, and we are praying in front of our Buddha shrine at home. I pray for happiness, health and peace for everyone I love.

As I pray, I clutch my Buddha necklace, a delicate golden chain around my neck with a little golden Buddha figure that Ong and Ba gave me for my birthday when I turned four. Another charm dangles from my fingers- a golden heart, gifted by Mommy some years ago. The chain of the necklace has needed to be replaced time and time again, but the Buddha has stayed with me everyday since I was 4. Everyone in our family has a Buddha necklace. Many of my friends ask me why I wear it everyday. The answer is simple – I feel safe with Buddha everywhere I go. 

Outside the big bay window, I see the flowers and veggies that Ba has planted along the driveway. She has always had a green thumb, and can make anything imaginable grow and grow and grow. Outside, the golden sun is fading. Fading, fading, fading. I watch it set every day from my window at home, and now I watch it from Ong and Ba’s window. It reminds me that, yes, the universe is continuing, the world is still at work, even in times like these. 

This big window is always where we put out Ong and Ba’s fake Christmas tree that has been around since Mommy was a little girl. It’s a tradition – Ong and Ba always forget to put it up, so on Christmas Eve, Daddy gets it from the attic and I decorate it with Ba’s porcelain ornaments, coming in the form of beloved little bears and adorable angels. Then we open presents and eat more of Ba’s wonderful cooking.

I flip through Ong’s books, the covers made of leather with the titles embossed in beautiful gold fonts. They are his treasures. Written in French, Vietnamese, and English. I take a look at the ones that I’ve always loved best, like the Picasso and Matisse art books. That is something Ong and I share- a love for beautiful things. When this pandemic is over, I’d like to go to an antique store with him, and search for books and knick knacks that fill our hearts with joy. I turn around to see Ong standing in the doorway. 

“There’s something I think you’d like,” he says. He pulls out a little brown book from the shelf and begins to flip through the pages. The pages reveal oil paintings of Japan’s greatest villages. 

“I got it in the 60’s when I went to Japan with my mother for a business school internship. We saw many great things, and this is a very special book that I added to my book collection. That’s a very special book, Annabel. I’d like you to have it.”

My mouth drops open. Ong wants me to have one of his books? He hoards them like treasures! It’s too good to be true. “Ong, no, you keep it.” 

“I insist,” he remarks, and pushes the book into my arms. He leaves before I can argue. I smile to myself. I love it in this house. 

Dinner is almost ready, so I quickly go upstairs. First to Auntie’s old room where I hunt through her dresser, full of hair clips, makeup and earrings. I always like to rummage through Auntie’s stuff – something new always seems to show up. This time I find a cute stationery box. 

And then I go to Mommy’s old room. She moved here from the Philippines in her teens, and I have always had a special connection with her room. There, as always, in a little wicker basket, were all of Mommy’s stuffed animals – Pink Teddy, Aviator Bear, Pink Panther and Mrs. Chicken. Mommy’s cherished collection of Little Golden Books sits on her bookshelf, waiting to be read again. 

In the den, I flip through some weathered homemade scrapbooks of family pictures, so old that the pages are yellow and crinkly. Mommy had put them together for Ong and Ba before she left for college. I have fun looking at pictures of Mommy and Auntie at my age, on vacation with their cousins, who I know as my aunts and uncles. I also stumble upon pictures of my great grandfather (or Cu in Vietnamese), in front of his beloved pharmaceutical lab, which was among the top 10 largest in Vietnam. I know each picture by heart, living through my mother’s life through dusty polaroids. 

On the mantle in the landing is a display of framed vintage photos, an array of history. Ones of Mommy and Auntie with their cousins all together, one of Ong and Ba in Paris in the 70’s, when Ba had just graduated from pharmacy school and Ong from business school. There are new pictures, too – of Sebbie and me, and of my little cousin Emilia, who is almost three years old. “Grandchildren bring magic to life,” is etched on the gallery frame.

I hear Ba calling from the kitchen. It’s time for our Tet Trung Thu feast. The table welcomes me with delicious aromas of spicy and mild, salty and sweet. Ba always knows how to flavor food just right, and create beautiful dishes garnished with traditional Vietnamese herbs, like cilantro and mint. 

I don’t wait to eat. 

Before I know it, I’m feasting on dishes upon dishes of delicious pho, bo luc lac, summer rolls and cabbage. My family and I are laughing about something or another. Ong and Ba are 12 feet away, but we’re all eating together. I can feel their presence. 

This feels so good, after so many months of stretching to see Ong and Ba through our window, dropping off food from the Vietnamese market for Mommy. But now we are together. Really together. 

I close my eyes for a moment. I experience the wonder of our voices, mingling over the smells of foods that I have yearned to taste, with the company that I have yearned to be with. A faint ringing comes from Ba’s tablet. Auntie calls through FaceTime. We pick up right away. In front of the screen is sweet Emilia, happily singing and dancing. 

“Emilia!” I cry. She’s my cousin, but really, like I said, she’s more like my little sister. It’s almost been a year since I saw her in person. “Hi Mimi! Happy Tet Trung Thu! Are you having a parade?” 

In her toddler voice, Emilia says “Happppppppyyyyyyyy Tet Tung Toooooo!” 

I smile at her. Auntie says “Emilia is having a lantern parade!” 

Indeed she is –  she is carrying two light up animal lanterns. Ong and Ba eagerly come over to see their other granddaughter, giggling and chatting through the screen. Everyone’s faces light up, all of us together alas.

Soon, it feels like old times. And then I know it’s all going to be better. Not today, not tomorrow. But one day, I can feel it. We have each other to lean on. We always have, we always will. I sit on Mommy’s lap. “Can we come back to Ong and Ba’s? All the time?” 

She smiles and hugs me tight. “I sure hope so Annabel, I really do.” 

Soon, Emilia has to take her bath. Before she hangs up, and to culminate the evening, I exclaim “I love you!” to Emilia, to Ong, to Ba, to Mommy, to Daddy, to Sebbie, and to the entire beautiful house that is my second home. 


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