You Will Not Believe This Story

As some of you might know, I’ve been doing a play called Year of the Rabbit at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA for the past couple months. The experience has been more rewarding professionally and personally than I could’ve possibly imagined. After I share the following story, you’ll probably agree that no one could have imagined it.

One Saturday last month, a man approached me after a performance with kind words to say about the show. His name was Rob, and he said the play made him recall his time in Vietnam in the army during the war.

“Oh, my grandfather worked with the army as a translator,” I said.

“What was his name?” Rob asked.

I told him. His eyes went wide. “No. You…you’re joking. You’re his granddaughter?”

My breath caught and I started shaking. “What are you saying?”

“I knew your grandfather.”

I repeated my ong ngoai‘s name a couple times to make sure Rob heard me correctly, and that we were talking about the same man. Rob said he had worked with him from 1968 to ’69. They’d started a school together to teach English. Rob shared stories with specific details about my grandfather and called him “an honorable man.”

I was openly crying at this point, but still found the situation almost impossible to believe. Ong Ngoai passed away fifteen years ago so it wasn’t as if I could ask him. Then Rob said he would return with photos.

I called my mother when I got home that night even though it was near 1 a.m. her time. She was amazed but said she’d wait for photographic evidence because she didn’t want to be disappointed.

Two weeks later, Rob, who lives on the East Coast and was only visiting L.A., came back to the theater. As he approached, I braced myself for the possibility that he’d show me photos of a stranger, that somehow this was all a case of mistaken identity.

But he proceeded to share images of my handsome ong ngoai, which Rob had taken 43 years ago with his Nikon. Not only had I never seen my grandfather that young, I don’t have any pre-1975 photos of him at all. My family had to leave almost everything behind when we left Vietnam. Rob had ordered a set of 5×7 prints and one 8×10 for us. Again, my tear ducts unleashed.

Rob said, “There’s more.”

“How can there be more? This is already too much.”

He handed me a bag with a carefully wrapped present inside. I untied the ribbon slowly, trying to breathe. Inside was a small statue of a goddess, looking almost as good as new.

“Your grandfather gave that to me when I left Vietnam. He picked it out himself. I think you and your family should have it now.”

“I…but…can’t…he gave it to you so it belongs to you,” I managed to say.

“No, I think he’d want you to have it.”

I don’t have words to describe how I felt in that moment. Even when my mind had reassembled itself after being completely blown, I didn’t know how to thank Rob properly. He said our encounter provided him with closure since he’d long wondered what had happened to my grandfather.

I went home and emailed the photos to my mother. She declared herself in a state of disbelief. How to make sense of the fact that never-before-seen pictures of her father were delivered by a stranger?

And then she saw the image of the statue. She sent me back a photo of a similar statue she’s had in her house for fifteen years. She had brought it home from my grandfather’s place when he died, but didn’t know how old it was or where it came from. My sister took to Google and discovered the two are apparently companion pieces. We assume Ong Ngoai had bought the pair around the same time, and now they can be reunited.

I’m not sure I’ve fully processed all this yet. So many things had to fall into place before Rob and I could cross paths that September evening. A gift went from my grandfather’s hands to Rob’s, from Vietnam to America, then traveled from the East Coast to the West to make its way back to my family more than forty years later. What are the chances of that? What were the odds of a girl from Saigon ending up in a play in Los Angeles that led to her meeting a friend of her grandfather’s from back home and so long ago?

One of the themes in Year of the Rabbit is how people are connected to each other through time and space, but they often don’t recognize those connections. Characters have seemingly random encounters with each other, not knowing the other person is not really a stranger but someone who could have a profound effect on their lives. (Did I mention I play a character who coincidentally—or maybe not—has my grandmother’s name?)

Rob said he almost didn’t say anything to me that first night; I was chatting with friends who had come see the show. We could’ve been like some of the people in the play, but luckily this isn’t a case of life imitating art.

It’s a story of life being more spectacular than fiction.

Me and Rob

Ong Ngoai, photo by Rob circa 1969

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31 Comments

  • Reply
    Christine
    October 16, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Truly a gift in so many ways for so many people! Thank you to Rob for waiting to speak with you and then following up. I’m happy and tearful, and he wasn’t even my grandfather! 🙂 An amazing and magical meeting.

  • Reply
    Janet Rudolph
    October 16, 2012 at 6:02 am

    What an amazing story… right out of the play. How lucky that the stars aligned…and how wonderful for your family.

  • Reply
    sabrina ogden
    October 16, 2012 at 7:22 am

    So wonderful… still crying. Moments from the past are what we long for. I don’t have the words to express my thoughts, but I’m so thankful that Rob decided to speak with you that night. So amazing!

  • Reply
    jenn aka the picky girl
    October 16, 2012 at 7:28 am

    So so special. I’m so glad I got to hear the second half of the story after you’d emailed the first. Unbelievable, but in so many ways, as your play discusses, we are connected. Sometimes inexplicably but always, always for a purpose. Thank you for sharing the story.

  • Reply
    Holly West
    October 16, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, Elyse. I’m lucky to have lots of photos of my family going back to the early 1900s. Not something to be taken for granted.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      October 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm

      You are very lucky. I don’t even have my own baby pictures.

  • Reply
    Sus
    October 16, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Girl….that is an amazing story! I love it! The magic of being in the right place at the right time doing what you should be doing.
    xoxo

  • Reply
    Thomas Pluck
    October 16, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Wow, what a wonderful and touching story. Your grandfather must have been a great person to inspire this from someone he knew forty years ago.

  • Reply
    Robin Spano
    October 16, 2012 at 7:42 am

    God, Elyse, this is awesome. What a beautiful story.

  • Reply
    Jen Forbus
    October 16, 2012 at 7:57 am

    What a wonderful story! I think I’m going to experience this day much differently now. And I’m very happy for you, my friend! xoxo

  • Reply
    Jann
    October 16, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Still crying. Thanks to you and Rob for reaffirming the positive thing that can happen. Wow.

  • Reply
    Elizabeth A. White
    October 16, 2012 at 8:53 am

    It truly is a small world, and people who are kind make lasting impressions, as your grandfather obviously was and did. So happy for you to have made this connection.

  • Reply
    SuziQoregon
    October 16, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Amazing – thanks for sharing the story.

  • Reply
    Linda Rodriguez
    October 16, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Amazing! Brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad that this happened for you and your family–and for Rob, who probably did need that closure.

  • Reply
    Eric Beetner
    October 16, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Fantastic story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    October 16, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Thank you so much, everyone, for reading and commenting. I’m filled to the brim to see you also think this story is magical and amazing and all the other good words.

    Tommy and Elizabeth—Yes, my grandfather was special. Rob said it’s hard to forget someone like him. It’s astounding to think that my grandfather’s actions affected how Rob treated me when we met. Everything we do now and how we are to others could have long-term ramifications we may not even live to see. That’s huge.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    October 16, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    What a moving story, more so because it’s true. Oh, girl, if this moved me to tears I can only imagine at your own emotions. Your grandfather must have been a very special and wise man indeed.

  • Reply
    bermudaonion(Kathy)
    October 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    What a fabulous story. I cried as I read it so I can just imagine how you felt. It sounds like your grandfather touched a lot of people.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    October 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Naomi and Kathy—I was a mess. I still had on makeup from the show and my mascara wasn’t waterproof so it wasn’t pretty but I didn’t care one bit.

  • Reply
    Brett Battles
    October 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    One of the best stories ever. And more moving than can be put in words. Simply, wow!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      October 16, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      And you were there to see it unfold!

      • Reply
        Brett Battles
        October 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm

        Yes, I was, and I still can’t believe what I witnessed! It was amazing and emotional and breathtaking. I had a front row seat, and I’m so glad I did.

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    October 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Oh, Elyse ~ I’m so happy you and Rob have met. Whether it’s called luck, serendipity or something truly divine, forces of goodness conspired to bring it about. Your grandfather must have been a very special person, and how beautiful and kind of Rob to give you those mementos. {It would have been infinitely worth the post-show raccoon eyes…} Thank you for sharing such a touching moment.

  • Reply
    Paulette
    October 16, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    This is such a touching story…a parallel of the connections in the play. Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad that John and I were able to see your spectacular performance. We talked nonstop on the way home about his experiences in Vietnam and now I am going to share this story with him (as soon as I stop crying).

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      October 16, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      The friends I referred to in the post, with whom I was chatting? That was you and John and Brett! I met Rob after you left.

      I’m so glad you came out, too. And isn’t it surreal how this resembles something from the play? I was thoroughly gobsmacked.

  • Reply
    Travis Richardson
    October 16, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Such an amazing story, Elyse. One in a million. But I think it also says a lot about you putting yourself out into the world and how that generated this moment. 🙂

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      October 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      So nice of you to say, Travis, but I don’t know if I can take credit for bringing about any of this. I think something much bigger than I was responsible.

  • Reply
    Lainie
    October 18, 2012 at 4:40 am

    This story will stay with me for a long time. Made me cry. So happy for you to have such a beautiful encounter. Life has a funny way…. xox

  • Reply
    Tea Time with Marce
    October 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    That was an amazing story, I got teary eyed. Such a gift, the world is far smaller than we realise.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    stacybuckeye
    October 27, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I had tears in my eyes reading this, Elyse. What a beautiful story and gift. It’s like your grandfather talking to you all from beyond. And what an amazing man Rob is for sharing the photos and gift with you.

  • Reply
    Rachel
    November 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Elyse, this is an incredible story! I am so glad you share these moments! And I’m so happy this happened for you and your family. What an amazing event.

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