Thanksgiving dinner had been an expensive one. That was the week I spent a record $70 on groceries.
Hours of labor were put into the meal to make it perfect --- with all the traditional treats that make the holiday so special for us Americans.
At dinner, it was just us --- my husband Ron, our three biological children, in addition to "our" four Vietnamese children.
Surprisingly, during the three months we had the children, our budget had remained intact. As life became more expensive, our budget covered it all --- stretching like a balloon when more and more air is pumped into it.
Exhausted, I collapsed on the couch that "Turkey Day,"
Then it hit me!
The next holiday was Christmas. Balloon, hold out!
Ron, as usual, was nonchalant. Christmas would be the same as any other year. We would spend it together at home. We would sow the kids just how much fun American Christmases were.
Months earlier, we had hoped to spend Christmas in California with Ron's family. Of course, this plan had to be postponed. No way we would pay airfare for nine people to the other side of the continent!
But the upcoming holiday presented a disappointment for our Vietnamese children, too. Memories of Vietnamese Christmases budded in their minds. There would be no such celebration for them this year, no matter how hard we tried.
This would be the first year without their real parents,who had been unable to get past the Viet Cong to be with their children as they made their escape to freedom during the 1975 downfall of Saigon.
With the parents in Vietnam remained four other children and a dead little girl, the baby of the family. She and her nurse were caught in the midst of V-C fire as they attempted to get back to the mother and father from the boat.
Could these and memories be bottled up, corked and hidden in the closet as fun new memories of an American Christmas took their places?
And being the pessimist of the family, I thought: "Could we afford to make this holiday perfect, too?"
Both Ron and I worked full time to meet expenses. The eldest of our Vietnamese children also worked in a nearby sewing factory for spending money and savings, which she felt was the only real security she had in the world.
We had promised that they could depend on us as long as they needed us. Yet, they had known us now for only three months, and still weren't entirely trustful of Americans.
After all, hadn't we deserted them, and let the Communists take over their country --- and split up their family?
I worried. Meanwhile Ron trudged on at full speed. Money would be provided for. We were doing the right thing, so haw could we be penalized?
He was right. Immediately things brightened.
One night at a Parish Council meeting, I mentioned that our Vietnamese children would like to spend Christmas with their married sister in Texas, but we couldn't afford to send them down there or pay their sister's way to Tennessee.
Within a week, the Women's Guild had made the trip their Christmas project. They presented us with more than $100 for the trip.
In addition, a religious Sister Eileen, who taught in the parish school, offered to drive the children there and make a retreat nearby while they spent the holidays with their sister and her family.
Praise the Lord! She was providing super!
We would be alone for Christmas! Our plans immediately changed. For the heck of it, we checked on airfare to California. Ron's mother, whom we hadn't see for years, convinced us to come on out. She had an airline credit car, whereby we could travel now and pay for it gradually up to a year later.
So we were going to California after all!
The ending was getting happier all the time!
But the worry wart in me wasn't about to turn off so easily.
Ah ha, Christmas presents --- now how could we afford to buy 'em all?
We could get by if we too it easy --- perhaps $5 to $10 on each of the kids. Nothing fancy. Just something to show we were thinking of 'em.
Think again, Lady!
Besides being optimistic, Ron were generous.
It was winter coats, sweater and pant outfits for the girls, a fancy electric train for the boy. They deserved as much as our own "flesh and blood" children.
Our balloon continued to swell, refusing to burst.
And to dismiss thoughts of money, a new conflict arose. "Sister me, she want we children to stay in Texas," Kim Oanh explained one day after reading her sister's very happy letter.
"She say, father, mother me, they want children we to live together," Kim Oanh continued.
My immediate reactions were surprise, sadness and relief.
I had grown somewhat attached to these children, but yet, care of seven children was a strain on my patience and my ability to cope.
After the initial surprise, of course, I agreed that they should indeed move in with their sister. They could comfort and help one another during this difficult time. The whole situation was perfect for everyone involved.
But Ron resisted.
"It is not good that you move in with your sister now," he told Kim Oanh.
"Ron!" I interjected.
"You should live with Americans," he explained, "So you can learn American ways.
"Your brother and sisters," he said, "go to a very good Catholic School. You have a good job. You have English lessons. In Texas, you may have none of these things."
"No, Ron," I stopped him. "You may be unfair. How do you know that perhaps they may not have it better in Texas?"
Their sister had written that there were many Vietnamese in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, even a Vietnamese priest.
"But Rachael," Ron went on, "Can't you see that there's no way their sister could give them what they have here?"
"Ron, you're unrealistic. I snapped back. "What do they have here? Meatless meals, a messy crowded house with freezing bedrooms?"
"Their sister's getting ready for them to move in. Their sponsors have even gotten them a larger apartment."
"Rachael, if these kids move in with their sister, they will speak Vietnamese all the time. Their knowledge of English will come to a standstill."
I couldn't let him get in the last word.
"All I know, Ron, is that if I were in the same situation as these kids, I would wan to be with what little bit of family I had, too."
That, however was far from being the last word on the matter. The next couple weeks proved to be traumatic for all of us.
Ron wanted the kids to continue to live with us after their visits to Texas; I thought it was right that they stay with their sister; the younger children, aged 9 through 13, were excited about living with their favorite sister, who was a "very good cook," but yet, they hated to leave their new friends here.
In the middle was 19-year-old Kim Oanh.
True, she was looking forward to seeing her older sister, but she had grown attached to Kingsport, too.
She had grown also to value her independence. She was making it. She was functioning as head of her small family.
As a child, as far as we could gather from her broken English, she had led a very sheltered pampered life.
Indeed it was a shock to her system when all of a sudden, she was forced to come out of her shell, face the outside world, make decisions.
It had been extremely hard. But now, she was almost there. Must she now bury her authoritarian role? Did she have to walk in submissions again --- this time not to her father, but to her brother-in-law?
At school, Sister Eileen, with whom Kim Oanh was extremely close, echoed Ron, although not quite so emphatically. Would the children be as well cared for in Texas as they were here?
The time came for the children's last dinner with us before their trip. We each took our turn saying grace. We Americans asked for special blessings for the children as they began their long holiday trip.
Then the Vietnamese children had their turn. We continued to let them say their prayers in their native tongue, so we could only guess what the young ones said.
But when it came to Kim Oanh, rivers of tears broke through the dam. She didn't want to leave.
"I no want to leave friends me in Kingsport," she sobbed. "You all very good to children, me. We will never forget you. But, sister me, she want very much we live with her."
She wiped her nose and eyes. "I am very sad."
Again Ron spoke.
"Kim Oanh, we will just pray to Jesus, and he will show you what to do. You have everything packed now. You leave boxes here. We will call you Christmas. Then you can tell us what Jesus say to you." (Our whole family had acquired the bad habit of speaking broken English to one another by this time.
This seemed to comfort her somewhat. That evening she went to a good-bye party some fellow workers had for her, while the younger ones went with us to a basketball game.
When we all returned home, we exchanged gifts, sang a few Christmas songs, and feasted on store-bought cookies and eggnog.
Gift-giving at Christmas time had never been a custom in Vietnam. It was during Tet, their New Year, when gifts were more frequently exchanged.
"Santa Claus left the gifts on the back step today," Ron told the kids, "because he knew you were going away tomorrow, and he didn't know where to deliver them in Texas."
No one knows just how much of that they really believed.
I do know that when they went to see Santa's arrival a month earlier, they were quite excited
"Oh," Kim Oanh had gasped when Santa emerged from the train, "He is so VERY OLD."
But Santa or not, it was still Christmas --- a time to be remembered always. Packages were opened. Pictures were taken. Would they be the last pictures we would ever take o our family of nine?"
After their tearful departure the next morning, I returned to our house, now full of a deafening quiet.
Guilt spread throughout my body. Had the kids felt my lack o enthusiasm about their possible return? I they didn't come back, I knew it would be my fault.
and then there was Ron. He had so much room within him or love. It was as natural or him as eating and drinking.
I had accused him o becoming too attached to the children. I had reasoned that it would be better to now cut those ties before it became too painful to cut them later.
A storm of guilt versus reason brewed within me.
However, there was little time to get caught up in it. Thoughts now had to be turned to our trip to California.
Our next few days as a small family were nostalgic. No one bumped into another one. There were no long lines for the one bathroom in the house. But I did miss the girls' help and the kids' laughter and excitement.
During our stay in California, the favorite topic of discussion was the Vietnamese children. I smiled inside when Ron's family suggested that maybe the children did indeed belong with their sister in Texas.
Meanwhile, the children were having a ball in Texas. Sister Eileen and another sister relished their taste of Vietnamese.
Everything seemed so perfect or all o us.
Then Christmas night we got our call through to Texas. I was afraid to hear Kim Oanh's decision. Tension quivered our voices.
"Oh, Ron and Rachael, I so glad you call," Kim Oanh squealed.
She sounded so happy. Ah-ha, a good sign that she was enjoying Texas.
But she was happy or another reason. She had made up her mind.
"Ron, Rachael," she said, "Children, me, we came back to Kingsport, live with you."
My in-laws' home exploded with excitement. Bobby and Randee, our two oldest, wheeled around in uncontrollable happiness.
After we had said our good-byes, Ron came into his sister's living room, still pointing at the bedroom phone.
Tears welled up in his eyes, and his trembling voice, half laughing, half crying, said, "They want to come back to live with us. They want to come back to Kingsport!"
Well, I had lost the battle. My only relief was that now I didn't have to eel guilty. They hadn't discovered my less-than-charitable feelings.
On my trip back home i came face-to-ace with my selfishness. I also had to ace God's will or my life.
Here I was the one who claimed to know the power o God --- that he would never burden us with anything beyond our capacity to bear.
Slowly, while seeming to float on God's marshmallow clouds, I found joy in knowing that the children still loved us, despite our small home, our frequent meatless meals, my annoying and frequent bickering.
It came on a Saturday morning. But it was a peaceful delightful invasion. It was love, with hugs, embraces, laughter, special treats, pictures and so many things to report.
The power of God was filling our home. And that power stayed through the next half year.
Today, "our" Vietnamese children live in California. They seem to be optimistic in their new environment.
Ron and i have concluded that we were good or the children, and they were good for us, as that particular time in our lives. God had pans for all of us. In his time, in his way, we would be separated. Before that time, he would provide, and he did.
Today, with just our own now five grown children, despite subsequent wage increases, we continued to pinch our pennies through the ensuing decades.
Six months later, our "Vietnamese children" moved to Memphis, where they lived with Sister Eileen's family until the three youngest graduated from high school. Our family visited them once Again, the power of God's love was there. There were sacriices being made. But at the same time, there was no charge for the joy, the closeness and joys that were products of unselfish sharing.
One comment from the youngest of the children said it all: "I am happy. Who else has 22 brothers and sisters?"
Meanwhile, our hearts are warmed as Kim Oahn repeatedly reminds us year in and year out: "Ron, Rachael, family you... we will never forget you."
The children now live on their own with their own families. The young boy, now a man, remains single and is a successful artist. Most of the rest of their family has since immigrated to the US, with one brother in Europe.