In Loving Memory of Our Mom Tho Ngu Nguyen Le
Our loving Mom, Tho Ngu Nguyen Le, passed away peacefully at the age of 88 at home surrounded by family on the evening of Thursday, November 2, 2023. She was admitted to the hospital on Saturday, October 21, 2023, resulting from a stroke and was unable to move her entire left side and had difficulty swallowing. She was placed in hospice care and returned home on Sunday, October 22, 2023.
She was born in China on April 12, 1935, to her father Xuong Phuoc Nguyen and her mother Thi Thi. As a child she was never given the opportunity to attend school. Instead, she helped her parents on the farm, ploughing the field with an ox and growing yams. She also helped her father fish at sea. Her main diet was watered down rice soup. Her mother could only afford one outfit for each of her children to wear during Chinese New Year. The children were so happy and felt so fortunate to have the new outfit. Eventually the clothes became worn and torn, but our mom continued to mend each hole because that was all she had to wear, and she knew that was all her parents could afford.
In 1953, our mom’s parents and six of her siblings moved from China to Cambodia. Through family and friends, she was introduced to our dad and got married at the age of 19. At that time, our dad could only afford a thin aluminum band as her wedding ring. While pregnant with her first child, she worked collecting runny sap by cutting grooves into rubber trees. In 1957, after her first born was one year old, our dad decided to migrate the family, including her parents, to Vietnam for a better chance of livelihood.
In 1962, our dad was drafted into the Vietnam war, fighting for South Vietnam supported by the United States, while our mom raised four children on her own. With no education, she used the cooking skills passed down from her parents to provide for the children. Every day before dawn, she prepared a variety of savory and sweet Vietnamese/Chinese dishes. She took over her mother’s spot on a dirt road at the local market selling her dishes. Never complaining, she continued to work selling her dishes every day until our dad returned home shortly after the end of the war on April 30, 1975. The salary from the war was used to bribe authorities to keep our dad from the line of fire and granted him occasional visits home to see the family. With only the money she saved from all the years of hard work, they were able to buy a small boat and became fishermen providing for the family. Our mom had 13 children from natural births. She worked tirelessly until it was time to give birth. Due to poverty and unpreventable circumstances, only eight children survived.
In 1978 after extensive and intricate planning, our dad and uncle (our mom’s older brother) secretly planned an escape from Vietnam for the chance at freedom. Our uncle owned a boat big enough to hold our immediate family, relatives, and close friends. February 5, 1978, the night before Chinese New Year’s Eve, our journey to freedom began. Our dad chose that day to carry out their dangerous plan so that we would not be discovered since everyone was busy preparing for the celebration. Family and friends were secretly given specific instructions on where to hide by the shore. And when to board the smaller boats which carried them to our uncle’s big boat that was docked in the distance. With the pots still cooking on the stove, she gathered her children and headed towards shore, leaving behind her beloved parents and sister with the possibility of never seeing them again.
Sadly, some family members did not make it to the big boat on time, but the journey could no longer be delayed due to the fear of getting caught. With just a handheld compass, our dad and uncle carried out their plan and ventured out for four nights and three days at sea on an unseaworthy wooden boat, approximately forty feet long and ten feet wide, filled with seventy-two family and friends sailing towards the Tengah Island of Malaysia. Fearing the crashing waves, everyone on board gathered towards the back of the boat causing the food, drinking water and lemons to fall into the sea. With what water was left, only the alternating drivers of the boat and young children were allowed to have a spoonful of water. With a sigh of relief, everyone was overjoyed to arrive safely at the Pulau Tengah refugee camp. Our dad applied to go to Australia but because he was supported by the United States while he was at war, they only allowed our family to be sponsored into the U.S.
Fortunately, our family only stayed a short four months at the camp before the Catholic Communities in Minnesota sponsored us to St. Paul on June 13, 1978. Our family of ten had to be split up amongst four different households until our Catholic sponsors were able find a home large enough to bring us all together. After about a year and living on welfare in St. Paul, our mom wanted to be closer to family. Therefore, our dad borrowed money from relatives to relocate the family to Las Vegas, Nevada. Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas, our mom got a job as a housekeeper at MGM. She was let go after the first day because she was illiterate and not able to operate the elevators to get to the rooms. Unable to work, she became a homemaker. She began her vegetable garden in her backyard, consisting of winter melon, basil, mint, ong choy, cucumbers, and a variety of different greens. She would sell basil to the Asian market and pho restaurants. With the help of a translator, she passed the citizenship test and was admitted as a citizen of the United States of America on June 1, 2007.
She endured countless hardships and heartaches throughout her life. She was faced with the death of her five-year-old daughter, Lien Le, due to malaria in Vietnam. She also dealt with the suicide of her oldest son, Quang Dong Le, May 5, 1982, at the age of 23. Finally, she suffered a broken heart of the sudden death of our dad November 17, 2004, from a heart attack.
Her beautiful loving soul, the love for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and her strong faith in God gave her the strength to live on and love life to the fullest. She adored caring for her family and raising her grandchildren, making food for the entire family, and calling everyone to come pick up their portions.
Her favorite holiday was Chinese New Year. She would prepare weeks in advance to shop for to-go containers, cooking oil, flour, sugar, sesame seeds, bamboo leaves, mung beans and all other essential ingredients to make her Chinese New Year goodies. She would spend countless hours preparing the food to give to family and friends before Chinese New Year’s Day. Family and friends would also call to place their orders, and she successfully filled them on the day as promised. She accomplished all this by eyeballing all her measurements and never using a single measuring utensil. Despite not using any tools, all her food tasted better than any restaurant could prepare.
Besides spending her time cooking, our mom has many other hobbies that kept her busy. She enjoyed playing her favorite Chinese card game “Zi Pai”. She also loved playing video poker, traveling anywhere with family and friends that invited her to come along and she loved to eat! She also loved to socialize by phoning family and friends to chit chat for hours and hours. When she was at home, the land line would be busy most of the time.
She was active in her Church and even given a key. She was involved with the fundraisings at the Vietnamese Catholic Church and helped raise donations. She contributed by making her very popular savory and sweet dishes. She was referred to as the lady that made “Bánh Cam and Bánh đúc” and everyone in the Vietnamese Church community all knew and admired her. She attended mass two times a day almost every day of the week even though she couldn’t drive. Her faith in God helped her find the goodness in people. Everyone that met our mom could sense her gentle aura that shined through her sweet smile. She greeted everyone, “Hi! How are youuuu?” Her classic response when asked back how she was doing, “I am fine fang Q!,” along with a big smile.
Our mom could hardly speak English, but she was able to understand a lot. Her first language was “shoun ban” (her native village language spoken by her parents that evolved somewhere in time during our great ancestors). She spoke Cantonese, Vietnamese, and very little broken English. When she first arrived in America, she thought “thank you” was “faun kun.” She used faun kun to express her gratitude towards people who in turn gave her a confused look but couldn’t help but smile because of her innocent sweet smile that lit up their hearts.
Her love for life and her forgiving, thoughtful, happy, generous, kind, and beautiful soul made it an honor to have her as our “May” (our mom’s native village language meaning Mom). She sacrificed so much to raise her family. We are forever grateful to be blessed with her as our mom. She was truly God’s special angel on earth.
Our mom, Tho, will always be remembered for her generosity, kindness, and pure loving heart. She would give you what she had, even if she needed it more. Her memory will live on in our hearts and all those who loved her. We will love her and miss her for eternity.
She is survived by her children My, Vinh, Mai, Ton, Dung, Dinh, and Kien, grandchildren Warren, Woodrow, David, Kenny, Christina, Lawrence, Selina and Avery, great grandchildren Penelope, Madison, and Klaus.