Searching for Dad in the Fun House of Memory

How do you fill in the blanks of your past when a parent was barely there? Claudia Valentino searches from Brooklyn to Vietnam for some truth about her father, and herself.

By Claudia Valentino
Coney Island, Steeplechase park, barrel
The Steeplechase-The Barrel. By Andrew Herman, 1939
Photograph: Museum of the City of New York, gift of the Federal Art Project

My mother and I returned to the States and settled in California. Before long she took me on a Kerouac-ian odyssey back and forth across the country, sweeping through the South as well. We encountered convicts and rattlesnake zoos and caught giant catfish. We woke up one morning in the middle of a field surrounded by what I thought were dinosaurs. My mother explained that they were oil rigs.

In New York, we dropped in to see my father’s “people,” as she called them. As soon as we left, my father’s sister began custody proceedings. Perhaps my mother’s desire to wander outstripped her desire to be my mother. After some initial resistance, she agreed to let me go. I moved in with my aunt and her husband in Brooklyn, and my uncle quickly became my hero. My mother visited once. I never saw her again.

I did see my father, but his visits were rare. He’d return once every few years, for some unspecified period of time. Then, without warning, he would begin to pack. I’d ask where he was going, then get my globe and calculate the time difference. For days after he left, I’d be intent on keeping some portion of my attention focused on what he might be doing on the other side of the world, but after a week or so of this sort of double existence, I’d have to let it go. I’d be exhausted.

When I was 15, my uncle died suddenly. It was 1968, and the evening news carried a mélange of intergenerational conflict and war footage from Vietnam. As I watched the war coverage each night, all I wanted was to see whether I might recognize anyone. Maybe I’d spot my nanny, or our cook, or our driver, all of whom had been like family to me. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I actually saw one of them, bloodied and fleeing.

Here in America, primal scream therapy was in vogue, and families were whacking one another in counseling sessions with foam bats. (The bats had a name, as I recall: batakas.) This was considered very cool, but I found it frightening. I had not, as yet, become “game.” And that worried me.

In the 1980s, after working for decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, my father returned to the United States for good. His health began to fail soon after, and I chose, quite consciously, to take care of him—first at his home, then in my own—until he finally entered a hospice.

I visited him every evening after work. He was, at least, comfortable, and I would pull up a chair beside his bed. We returned, at the last, to sitting together in the dark. We lived those final months as though we’d always seen each other every day. And it became as though we had.

My father died in 1991, and soon after, I made arrangements to return to Vietnam. I brought a tiny padded album containing a few snapshots of my family and our household staff, hoping to find the places where I’d had my photo taken all those years before. The Vietnamese government insisted that tourists travel in groups and with -government-selected guides. Our trip began in Hanoi, and we threaded our way down to Saigon by boat, by plane and, finally, in a dilapidated Russian school bus. As we drew closer to Saigon, I quietly asked one of the guides, Tuan, if he could help me. He wasn’t really permitted to speak with any of us alone, but he was enormously sympathetic to me and offered to ask around to see if anyone remembered my family. As we approached the city, he took my album along with him and agreed to meet me in two days, when he came back on duty with our group.

I was astounded at how much Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) had changed yet how utterly familiar I found the sounds and smells and even the light—so familiar it hurt. I realized that I had become a woman who collected compasses and maps, as though always keeping an eye trained, at least partially, on some other place. I realized that I had lived for years with a sense of having been in exile.

First Published May 31, 2011

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