My name is Tony. You have met me already, but you may not associate the toddler in northern Thailand with the owner of a string of New Jersey care homes that is me. It’s not a long story, but it did take over thirty years to develop and, though it might have happened faster, it didn’t. The other thing you need to know about me at the start is that it was I who wrote this book, though I am not its author. There is a difference, you see, between thought and action. The writing is in the thought, while the physical placement of ink on paper, of fingers on keyboard is mere transcription, though as you will appreciate I did far more than merely copy dictation.
Tony is perhaps not enough of an introduction. People feel happier if they have a surname. Well, you can have it - Appelbaum. At last that is what it says on my personal documentation, my passport, my bills and my company’s name. If I am dealing with people from our community, I usually use my mother’s name and I know, because I put all of these words on paper, that I have kept that to myself throughout. Mary Reynolds, if that is what we currently call her, never knew it, though she met my mother on many occasions, in fact close to every day and intimately for over fifteen years, though she would surely not remember any of those encounters. What she may have felt is an eternal unknown.
Appelbaum fulfils its purpose. Confusion would abound if I regularly had to use that other surname, but thankfully it remains unmentioned most of the time, because there are very few members of our community hereabouts. So, Tony Appelbaum it is.
Mary should not have survived. She should have been killed by the original trauma, but she wasn’t. She should have died during her initial hospitalisation, but she didn’t. She certainly should not have lived through, or even had to live through that journey, but she did. She should not have lived all those years. But she breathed. And not only did she breathe - on occasions with assistance, it has to be said - she even managed to recover some movement in her hands and enough speech to identify herself, though with enduring difficulty and complete misunderstanding. I say speech and movement, but, as you will see, such words may be my own extrapolation.
The title, Eileen McHugh – a life remade by Mary Reynolds, incidentally, came from me. She would never have used Mary Reynolds as the name for the writer, for she never knew that name. I chose it because that is the only name I ever called its author for the two decades or so that I knew her. Habits are hard to break. I never knew her as anything else.
Indeed, when my pop, by mistake, in a rare moment when he lost concentration, first mentioned that name, Eileen McHugh, I thought he was describing someone he knew as a child. It was my mom who, only after much prompting and even threats, admitted she recognised the name and provided a few, though minimal details. She is still afraid to talk. Mary Reynolds herself did not even recognise her own name, because she had been comatose when it was invented by those who facilitated her travel, people that certainly I and, I think also my mom, never even met. We have no idea who they were and, rest assured, we never will.
But I have still not finished my introduction. Tony, Tony Appelbaum, is my name and I am grateful for the opportunities my dad provided. I live in New Jersey, an hour or so from Manhattan - that’s all! - in leafy suburbia in a spread-out town of parking lots, malls, office complexes, open spaces, small apartment blocks and endless rows of neat houses with open plan gardens. A comfy suburbia surrounds. The town centre seems to have more churches than people and as many different denominations. None of them attract me, of course, because I am not and never have been a Christian, which rather sets me apart hereabouts, so it is something I never advertise. Over the years my separateness from the local mainstream has proved more of an advantage than a hindrance. Many questions I could never have answered have simply never been asked because, like most of my compatriots, we became part of a collective memory loss, confined to an internalised space that was kept locked, and judged best left undisturbed. If someone looks quizzically at my features when I tell them my name, all I have to say is, “My pop was a GI,” and the subject invariably changes. It’s not wholly accurate, but it captures the spirit.
As I have already said, I am in business. I own four large care homes with eighty-five residents, as many staff and many millions of turnover. I am not trying to show off, but I also have a substantial family home in its own grounds that I share with my wife, three kids and my mom, a private plane, several cars, a boat for summer weekends at the coast and a substantial investment portfolio. My mom is Hli, whom you have already met. Apart from college field work, I have never lived apart from my mom, but my pop, well he’s another story. I would say I never knew him, though I met him many times. But I owe him everything, though it was my mom who started the business, almost by default. Unfortunately, this story only makes sense if told backwards. This is where I stand today at the end of over two decades of investment and expansion after I took over ownership and management of my mom’s business.
Mom has been in this business from the start, all the time she has lived in the US. I arrived only after college, though I lived in it before then. I did a business degree and then an MBA, which is around par for my generation. It was hardly Ivy League, but then New York has more than one university and I went to two of them.
In earlier years, I attended a private school in the city, first a prep school and then the associated high, travelling in and out each day by train, like a commuter, a habit I continued throughout my college years, so I could always live at home with my mom. Pop was happier if I stayed out of the mainstream, away from people who might ask questions or get too involved with the family background. If you pay for things you can get precisely what you want. It’s a philosophy I have applied to the services we offer in our residences.
Even during my school and college years, home was pretty extensive, with more than enough room for the two of us, my pop, when he stayed over, and a separate wing for Mary, who was with us through into the nineties. That was the deal, part of the agreement that brought us here and we have had no complaints. Everything we have, everything we have become we owe to Mary. She has effectively provided for us throughout. Well, ultimately it was my pop, of course, but he always wanted Mary to have the very best care, the best money could buy, and the best my mom could provide.
When I started college, my mom assumed it would not be long before I left the fold, so she took in another resident. It started as a favour, requested by another member of our community. There are not many of us here and so it is very hard to find anyone who speaks the language. And when people get older, they find it ever harder to operate in a second language that was learned during their adult life. They tend to revert to what they absorbed as a child, especially if their short-term memory starts to fade. My mom could hardly say no. We had plenty of space and the favour in question came with a legacy that provided guaranteed funding while the old lady lived. It was an arrangement that provided a model for our future. She lived for several years with us and when she died mom felt she needed something to keep herself occupied and took in someone else to occupy the vacated space. I was in college at the time and I suggested mom register as a proper business to make sure we got the tax advantages. I spoke to my pop and he agreed. He obviously saw an opportunity to get me started in something that would sustain me after I graduated.
Money, you see, has never been a problem. We have gone up and down in the world like everyone else, but we have never lived the wrong side of privilege. With my pop’s money, we bought another property and I took over a business that has since grown steadily and profitably. Mary, who was with us from the beginning, still lived in the same facility that was set aside for her back in the seventies, a room in our original house, which now forms the smallest of my company’s four sites. Mom and I still visit regularly. There is a grave in the grounds
It was my pop who gave me a head start. Of that I am clear. I owe him literally everything. But it was not via money that he had the greatest influence on my life. Of course, I owe him my very existence, but after that he gave me a start in the English language.
But the original donation was not enough. I do remember those years when I was new to the world, the years we lived in Thailand. I do recall that my pop was what you might call ‘around’, but also that he was also away much of the time. The person who really gave me the language that has been my passport to a life was Mary Reynolds, who at the time I called Mary McHugh, who in fact was really called Eileen. Confused? Well I wasn’t. I was simply privileged. I had two moms, an Asian mom who cooked, washed, ironed for me and gave me Hmong and Thai, and an European one who taught me English, read to me, and, one-to-one, delivered what was probably the best pre-school education in history. When I arrived in the US and started school, I could speak, read and write more fluently in English than anyone else in the class, despite the Yorkshire accent. If I am totally honest, I don’t remember much of those times, but I do vividly remember the patient, caring and funny woman who educated me.
During those years in Thailand, my pop did not live with us full time. It was often only three or four days each week. But, unless he was out of the house on business, he did spend most of the day with me, and so most of the day with Mary. We were like a family of three, Mary, Don and I, while my mom worked elsewhere in the house. My pop told me years later that he had always wanted a son and it seemed that I qualified. At that time, he was just my pop and he and I communicated in English. I spoke Hmong with my mom, of course, but as soon as my pop appeared, he always insisted I speak only English to him, which I did, always practising each day what Mary had taught me. The result was always a smile and a hug, coupled with almost a celebration of my achievement, which is why I remember those days so clearly and with uncomplicated affection. And it was Mary’s teaching that gave me that bond with my pop. I also learned Thai, because there were other kids nearby.
We left our home in Chiang Mai suddenly, after the attack. On that next morning, my pop said we had to go. It was a day I can still remember in enough detail to relive it, because it is still the only time when I ever heard my mom shout in anger, but all my pop did was repeat that we had to go. There was not even time to say goodbyes.
My mom has told me the story many times. She repeats herself these days. And it’s the only part of my childhood that she is willing to relate. The rest stays blank. On that particular day, there were to be no questions and no discussion. We were leaving. We had to move, and quickly. We had nothing to pack, neither possessions nor papers, so we were ready to leave before even my pop could set the process in motion. We were ready, as instructed and we moved out of our house. I don’t know where we went in the interim, but we had to wait there a week before word came, and then things moved at breakneck speed. We travelled south and, for the first time, I saw a city. These days, if I ask, my pop explains how there was paperwork to sort out, and also Mary could not be moved immediately. We had lived for some years with dad in that wooden house in Chiang Mai. I was very small, but I still remember the garden where I played, the warm sun, the rain that fell like a dam-burst, the smell of the earth, the colour of the flowers. It was a paradise of childhood and Mary McHugh was at its centre.
Mary treated each day like a school day. My mom would do breakfast in the kitchen, but I simply could not wait to finish, so I could find out what Mary had planned. We would look at plants in the garden, draw them, paint them. She would take me for walks, pointing out objects, naming them, collecting them. And then back at home we would build castles and make-believe houses and towns from whatever we found. She would teach me the names of things and show me how to write the words. We had a game of sticky labels, where I would write the words, and she would stick them onto the wrong objects. I would then have to peel them off and reattach them, so they matched. It sounds stupid, I know, but when you find a dirty old shoe labelled ice cream and Mary looking like she was about to lick it, you can begin to imagine what fun we had. And all the time, Mary maintained her smiling, caring, reassuring manner that I later called maternal. Mary was teaching me in a way that made learning and living a constant joy.
At the time she was a young woman with lots of energy and she gave me most of it, alongside almost constant attention, so much that I wonder whether she did anything else apart from look after me during those years. My mom rarely speaks of those times. I have to admit that my mom rarely speaks at all. She has had the kind of life where today is all that matters. She says she has lived that way all her life and now has neither the energy mor the inclination to change. As for those years in Chiang Mai, her mantra is that she spent so much of her time working she can remember nothing, other than the chores she did each day. My mom does not change.
And then, suddenly again, we left Thailand. Mary was in hospital and my pop was in poor shape as well, but still mobile. We had to wait a few days to get our papers in order and it is only since I began this book that I came to realise how my pop arranged things. And then we left for Bangkok, mom and I, a few days before my pop and Mary.
For me personally it proved no problem once I had grown used to the idea. For me it was just an adventure, where I would meet more people who spoke like my pop and Mary. I was already being brought up as an American kid, albeit one who spoke Hmong much of the time and Thai to his friends, and English with a weird Yorkshire accent. Suddenly, I was heading off to the States, but I trusted my pop and I can specifically remember his taking me on one side, looking me straight in the eye and saying that in fact I was coming home. But it was still somewhere I had never been. It’s easy to confuse a child, but for a child it’s also easy to learn something new, to adapt, to change. Things were different for mom. But my pop said she shouldn’t worry. He said things would work out, that she would soon get used to things being different and that we would always be provided for. He kept his word. As for my mom, even after four decades in the States, she still speaks to me exclusively in Hmong.
It was not long before we had a routine. I went to school, mom cared for Mary, my pop came to visit each week, often more than once, and took me out for dinner every Friday in New York City to places like P J Clarke’s on Columbus Avenue, where it seemed that every table was occupied by estranged dads with their divorced children. He clearly wanted time with me away from my mom. To this day, I don’t really know why he insisted we go there, but I think he was just checking up on things, being the pop he could not be the rest of the time. He made sure I did my schoolwork, checked my books, read my teachers’ comments, made sure I was not getting into mischief. I think he also wanted time away from his own family home, wherever that was. At that time, I had no idea where he lived, but he obviously wanted time alone with me. It was his way of keeping a certain distance. I think, as well, he wanted me to get used to being with and amongst other Americans, which the confines of home could not achieve. When he drove me home, he would say a quick hello to my mom, and he would always look in on Mary, but there was never any change.
Pop was brilliant when it came to answering questions I had about my schoolwork. He was a great teacher, never just telling me something, but always sending me away equipped to find things out for myself. He was a bright guy. I never knew until just over ten years ago that he had a PhD in South-East Asian Studies from Harvard. When I learned that, things made much more sense, even became obvious. On the other hand, my pop was silent if I asked anything about that previous life in Thailand. He would just say, “Ask your mom.”
My mom, Hli, was originally from Laos. She and her family had to move. It was wartime and there really was no option. They settled in northern Thailand near people who spoke the same, or at least a similar language, but they were always outsiders there. I have a couple of pictures of my mom, taken just after they arrived in Thailand. I think they were taken by my pop, but I am not sure, and my mom says she can’t remember. But she can. She still doesn’t speak of those times. She tries hard not to remember them and now completely identifies with her American citizenship, despite the constant challenge of speaking English.
But in the photos, I see a young woman dressed in a costume I now call tribal, for some reason. It’s hard to think that very small and beautiful young woman, not smiling, looking surprised but confident, proud, even resentful of the attention, under an elaborate headdress, is the same woman with whom I have shared a house for over forty years. Her skin was surely darker then.
I try not to ask questions because they are usually only answered with a silence that can last days, but over the years I have learned enough to piece together what happened. My mom was part of a group who had collaborated with the Americans. They hadn’t fought, but they had been facilitators and informers. When the war approached, they had to move. They were refugees but were settled near to people ethnically similar to themselves and I am sure that my pop was part of the reception committee, but he has never said so in as many words. He was already in the area when mom’s family arrived, and my pop even found some work for them. At least that is how mom describes it.
Mom was perhaps eight or nine when they settled in Thailand and so was not aware of what her parents were doing when my pop recruited them to help with his projects, or perhaps they were already recruited and all my pop did was take over their management.
Their collaboration lasted a few years, I am not sure how many, and mom remains confused when it comes to calendars, dates, years. But I am now clear that her problems began when I appeared, or at least when my existence was announced. I was born in nineteen-seventy and it seemed that my very existence began a gradual breakdown of trust between my mom’s family and my pop, though the final split did not happen until some years later. Her life became difficult, largely because I existed, but the break came when my pop’s friends turned on him.
My pop - let’s call him Don Reynolds, because that’s what he called himself at the time - was already in business, if that is the correct word, in the area when my mom’s family, if that is the correct word, arrived. I think he had been there for some time, but I don’t know, and he’s not telling. I will leave the nature of his business to a collective imagination that must picture an American with a PhD in South-East Asian Studies, speaking the language, in northern Thailand, near the borders with Burma and Laos in the second half of the nineteen-sixties. It will come as no surprise that mom’s parents - unusually for the Hmong she was an only, or maybe an only surviving child - were killed before they left Laos. The people she called parents were in fact just fellow refugees At least that’s what she tells me. And that, for her, justifies her being here, now an American citizen. I don’t think she has ever admitted, even to herself, what actually happened. Perhaps she suffers from a convenient memory loss, or perhaps it was so traumatic that lack of memory is a form of self-protection.
Her foster parents were people whom I don’t remember, though mom says I did meet them. But they were obviously outsiders who had arrived new to an area where they were effectively foreigners. They had a track record. They were absorbed into supporting whatever my pop was doing and let’s admit that it was far from charity. They settled north of Chiang Rai. I suppose their continued collaboration was part of their resettlement, though I doubt they were anything less than willing participants in whatever was being organised by my pop. Clearly, the language was crucial, and the ethnicity was a bonus. In the end, however, it was probably their identity that caused their problems. They were ethnically part of the area, but their allegiance was elsewhere and thus eventually resented.
Don Reynolds, as they knew him, would often stay over with them in that early period. That, at least, my mom will admit to. Had he not stayed over, I doubt I would have existed. But my mom getting pregnant by an American, who was obviously supposed to stay a couple links further along the chain, made the relationships all too obvious. I speculate that people made it quite clear to my grandparents, who in fact were no such thing, that they were no longer welcome in the area. Mom tells me that they had been so shocked to learn that she was going to have Don’s baby, they threatened their own vengeance against him. And maybe, they eventually extracted just that. They probably disowned her, a fact she could never admit until I began researching this book.
After the end of the war, things had to change. Prior to then, the business my pop was doing was semi-official. The contact lines were clear and protected. But after the war, it was as if the systems became privatised, and suddenly there was competition. New alliances had to be forged and I suppose for a while there was confusion about exactly whom could be trusted.
Because of their history of dealing with my pop, my mom’s parents were made scapegoats by their fellows and fled for their own safety. Or perhaps my mom’s story that they were murdered is to be believed. She would have been fifteen or sixteen when I arrived and I certainly cannot remember anything about them, so they must have already made themselves scarce by the time I was three or four. All I can recall is living in town with my mom and Don. I always assumed that happened because my mom had no means of supporting herself and me if we stayed in the village. I am not sure when I realised that Don was my pop. I presume my mom told me, but I always called him Don, just Don. It’s not surprising that he wanted his family to live with him, but it still surprises me that he never let me call him pop until we got to the States. And that was the same house, of course, where I met Mary.
She did a lot to help me. My mom was always around, but it was Mary who helped with my schoolwork, helped my pop teach me English and she stepped in to defend me when I got problems from the other kids. There was a group who used to call me ‘that American kid’, or ‘half-breed’ or other things that were crude, rather than insulting. They used to threaten to beat me up, though they never did. Whether it was because I was different or whether it was still something to do with the connections my so-called grandparents had soured, I still have no idea. I was bullied and that’s what I can remember. It was Mary who took those thugs on one side and told them to stop. It was Mary who went round to their houses and shouted at their parents. My mom was always too afraid to speak up, except if things happened close to home. She never went to my school, for instance. If there was a meeting with my parents, it was Don Reynolds and Mary who went there. It didn’t happen often, because I was so young when I left Thailand, but it certainly happened. There were some people at school who thought Mary might be my mother, which made them even more confused about my identity, given what I looked like.
Mary used to play with me, play in a way that my mom did not and still does not understand. I have done enough social sciences to understand the term enculturation and it was that activity that happened by default when Mary spent time with me. I would not say that Mary almost became a mother to me, but I would also not wince disagreement if someone else said it on my behalf. She bought me presents. She taught me English when my pop wasn’t there. I took her for granted, the highest respect any person can offer.
Looking back, I am amazed how my mom coped. She was and still is thankful to be alive. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Whenever fate throws a challenge, whatever that might be, you sidestep, and when it’s passed, you get on with your life. And that is what mom has done. She does not complain. I always knew that my pop and her were not actually married - legally married, at least - and it never crossed my mind that Mary was actually my pop’s wife. Well, we now know that she was, and at the same time she was not.
We have a legal document, at least it’s legal in Thailand, stating that Don Reynolds, a US citizen with what was later acknowledged to be fake identity, and Mary McHugh, a British citizen, with a passport number I will not quote, emergency contact address Thomas and Marion McHugh of Weavers Rise, Crofton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UK were married in Thailand in May 1978. It came along with the papers that my pop obtained for her, alongside those he secured for myself and mom, after we arrived in the US, all stored in a file mom has preserved for all these years. Our status was easy. We were refugees and there were already facilities to cope with our situation. My pop used his contacts to get the processing done quickly.
Eileen Mary McHugh, however, I realised only many years later, was Don Reynolds’ problem. She was British. She was a burden, both in body and truth. Potentially, she could blow the whole business if her story came out. The easy solution was that Don Reynolds should marry her. Then she could enter as a citizen, already married to a serving member of the armed forces. Now that is what I call intelligence.
It was when I started high school that I really wanted to ask questions. Names, identities and places to live had all been variable in my childhood, but suddenly I felt my feet were firmly on the ground. I was ready to become a teenager. But the name on my school report was one I did not even recognise. I was quite happy to be called Appelbaum. I just wanted to know where it came from. And so, on one of those estranged dad nights in P J Clarke’s, over a burger and coke, I simply asked, “Why is my name Appelbaum?” Now I appreciate it’s not a line overused to the point of cliché, but my pop’s reaction was a muted sigh, as if to say, “Not that old chestnut again, my son.” And the answer was fairly simple. His name was Appelbaum. Revelation! And he had formally adopted me. Now that was a revelation. Mom knew, apparently. I didn’t. It was all to do with inheritance, which he did not expect to kick in anytime soon.
Don told me enough that night for most things to make sense. Don Reynolds was the username of Adam Appelbaum, applicable only on active service in South-East Asia. Back in the US, to protect his own, our and Don Reynolds’ identity, he simply became the person he had been before he joined up. He was married. He had met and married Sophie, who had borne him twins, girls, while they were both graduate students. He accepted a commission to work in a trade delegation in Thailand and one thing, cliché again, had led to another.
Pop was always older than he looked. He gave me copies of old photos. There were even some of his wedding photos and if you flicked through, you could see the twins grow up as if in time lapse. There were photos of him at school, with his parents, and family and with the girlfriend that was to become his wife. I have never had anything to do with any of his family, never met any of them socially, was never introduced. In fact, the first time I ever met anyone from that side was at the reading of dad’s will. Sophie died some years ago, so the two girls - they were already nearly fifty! - were the only other people invited. They were friendly at first, but soon their hostility became explicit. They were even more angry when the attorney read details. I thought they might even kill him. If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger.
I know my pop had already been estranged from his wife before he went to Vietnam. I dare say he wasn’t much of a father for the twins. I think it may even have been his joining up that caused the marital problems, especially since he was recruited in Thailand, without ever consulting Sophie, who was still at home in the US.
They went high school together in Connecticut. The Appelbaums were a large and successful Jewish family, the father a partner in a Wall Street brokerage. Pop did open up occasionally, over our burgers, in P. J. Clarke’s, but, though his manner always seemed to communicate facts, in the end he revealed little of substance. Pop mentioned family details several times, but to this day I don’t know how many brothers or sisters he had. I have seen photos of two of each, but there may have been others. I did ask, but he never gave a simple answer. He liked to keep the different parts of his life as separate as he could. His name was Adam, of that I am sure, except when he was called Don, which was all of my childhood.
He was born in 1940. The will and death certificate provided the basic information and minimal research has provided a little more. The family were New England aristocracy. Sophie, whom he eventually married, was from a similar, wealthy family, not only in the same line of business but also partners in the same brokerage. Adam and Sophie saw a lot of one another as children, went to the same high school and both were adopted by Harvard.
Sophie did law. Adam was more independently minded and did his Southeast Asian Studies. They married a year into Adam’s PhD and the twins were born a year later. There was no shortage of money, of course, but both of them seemed to behave like many privileged sorts, in that they liked to appear personally frugal, despite driving in Ferraris to and from their mansions. They took family life in their stride alongside their studies with the help of a full-time nanny and home help. They did do their own cooking. Orthodox Jews usually do. And it was clear that both Sophie and Adam were headed straight for the family business, different families, same business.
So why Southeast Asian Studies? My dad’s choice of degree always interested me. A brokerage firm always needs a supply of lawyers, so Sophie’s specialism was of direct use. Pop did eventually explain. There had been a plan. The company had planned to go into Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. And this was only the early sixties. They were really ahead of the game. The problem was that no-one had really sounded out Sophie and she got cold feet. She threw a wobbler and the project was delayed. I don’t know the details, but it is highly likely, let’s say it was in character, for it to have coincided with my dad committing an indiscretion or two. It might just have been Sophie asserting her control.
To this day I don’t know what caused their split, but I do know that a rift developed, and they separated after just three years of marriage. Pop had only just completed his doctorate and the twins were just two. That was not the last they saw of him, but he was certainly not around very often for them after then. My pop did go to Thailand and spent some time visiting other places in the region. He was still based in Bangkok when the firm decided not to open its Asian office and soon after dad joined up for service in the military. Exactly how or why it happened, he will not say. The region was, of course, at war, but he wasn’t drafted. He volunteered. It is possible that he was selected, or made an offer, perhaps one he could not refuse.
He did some active service in South Vietnam and he was wounded, though not seriously. He did need a few weeks in a military hospital in Thailand, but I believe he was there for training, because he was then recruited into a different kind of service.
And now the other end of the story, the part that began with our arrival in the States in 1978. Pop went back into the family firm, opened business in Asia, made a fortune in emerging markets, spotted new investment opportunities before others and made an even bigger fortune in dot coms. He lost most of that in the late nineties, made another killing in the noughties and lost again in the crash. Then he had a stroke and died a decade into the century.
It was at the reading of the will that I first met the twins. They knew I existed, but they had never expressed any desire to meet. I had asked my pop to let me meet them, but that had been many years before and he was reluctant, so I did not pursue. To say they were angry at what unfolded at that meeting with the attorney would be understatement.
Pop’s logic was simple. He had two families, so his estate would split down the middle, one half each. The daughters had assumed it would be three ways at least, one third for each child. Sophie had died some years before, so there was no-one else, as far as they were concerned. But my pop’s thinking was to provide support for my mom and Mary, of whom the girls probably had no knowledge. But my pop knew he could trust me. Whoever he had been living with over those decades - because it certainly had not been Sophie, my mom and certainly not Mary - was obviously provided for by some legacy of which we knew nothing. We did not even know if such a person existed. Rest assured, however, she did, and there is no need to assume it was only one. But there were certainly no more children, because he would have adopted them, just as he had done with me.
My pop was no saint. He had married Sophie and then made himself scarce, leaving behind twin daughters. Who knows what he got up to in Saigon or Bangkok? He fathered me via a fifteen-year-old called Hli, whom he never married. And crucially for Eileen McHugh’s story, he married the woman we call called Mary to facilitate a journey to the US when she was already pregnant by him.
He was a man who achieved much success, but who also cultured enemies. It was some of those enemies who broke into the house in Chiang Mai in 1978. The war was over. Whatever business he was still doing was covered by the new rules of the practice, which meant there were no rules and the older ways of doing things no longer applied. Don Reynolds had never really appreciated that, and there were already new actors, new markets and different ways of doing things.
Those new methods, that night, involved baseball bats. They did not come to my room. They did not visit my mom next door. We heard the noise, but we were too afraid to go out until well after the shots were fired and everything went quiet. The lights on the porch were on, so we could see everything immediately. There were four bodies lying between the furniture. All were shot. There was blood, a lot of blood. Mary had been in that front room and the door was ajar. Pop was slumped on the threshold. He held his left hand to his face. He was bleeding. He was trying to stand, but his left leg was at a ridiculous angle. He had a gun in his right hand. I remember his dropping it when I pulled at his arm to help him stand. I can still hear his screams.
The attackers had clearly thought that baseball bats coupled with surprise would be enough to do the job and do it quietly, at least quietly enough not to wake the neighbours. But in the dark, they had started their attack on the only person in the bed that night and they had laid in big time with their beating.
What they did not know was that their intended target, my pop, Don, as he was to them, was at the back of the house in bed with my mom. They had clearly staked out the place for a while and noticed that, most nights, Don slept at the front with Mary. But he did not do that every night, my mom saw to that. This was one of the other nights.
He had heard the commotion and waited, too long as things turned out, to be sure exactly where the noise was coming from, and indeed that it was coming from with our house. My pop took his gun from the bedside table, ran through the house and started shooting. He was taking blows, but, as he had been trained, he emptied the magazine in quick fire. He shot all four of them and then finished them off with a second clip. He had a cut on his head which would later scar, and he would lose his left eye, but the broken leg was just a hairline fracture and healed quickly.
Mary, who had been asleep in the front room, however, had taken the combined blows of all four men. She was unconscious and in a real mess. She had been beaten around the head and one of dad’s bullets had gone through an attacker and was lodged somewhere inside her. Now the occasional gunshot in Chiang Mai is hardly likely to raise alarm, but several in succession might just be a gunfight, which were not uncommon in those days, but would always attract attention. The place was crowded with police just minutes later. And, by the time they had made a call or two, they had decided they clearly knew my dad and knew him well.
It took a few weeks. There was travel, hospital, more travel, more hospital. We finished in a military hospital in the south of the country. Mom and I had no idea what was happening. We were just taken along. Pop was mending, his facial stitches removed, but still in pain. Mary McHugh was in a coma. She never did regain consciousness. She had a brain haemorrhage and the bullet had penetrated her spine. She had no movement but was alive. She was also on a British passport alongside a tourist visa that was years out of date.
Mom and I became refugees. We were processed, if that be the right word, and we joined a group of people who spoke similar languages to our own. We arrived in the US, lived in a camp for a few weeks and then were picked up by my pop, whom I still called Don, and the rest is history.
Don and Mary had a more complicated journey. Cover was needed, because of that passport. A pre-dated marriage certificate was obtained. Mary McHugh was now Mary Reynolds and that forged paper allowed her to travel as the wife of a serving US military officer, so the Thai authorities needed no further arrangements for an immigrant on an over-stayed tourist visa. Mom and I were refugees. Things would work out. But Mary’s status could have caused problems for everyone concerned.
Married to Don, she was his problem and he had already cleared the solutions. It was crucial that she should exit Thailand with paperwork completed. Any trail would then lead somewhere cold. It was only when I sifted through Marion McHugh’s box of personal effects that I realised the extent of the cover when I held what seemed to be a letter that had originated in Indonesia, sent from Medan. It was in its own packet and had been opened. Uncharacteristically, the letter was typed. No other document from Eileen in the box had even a hint of being near a typewriter and she had not tried to communicate with her mother for at least two years prior to that date, if the evidence within the box was at all comprehensive. But then this was something of its era, something a person of my age might not even recognise. It was a telegram. And that is why it was typed, and that is also why it had been opened and, presumably, read. One must assume that if letters had arrived, then Marion would have saved them, otherwise why should she have kept this one, which did not even have Eileen’s handwriting on the envelope? There were no other letters from Eileen to her parents after she left home that tumultuous afternoon in June.
Dear Mom Just a note stop Now left Thailand stop Came here on a boat that gave us a free passage stop Finding solace in Buddhism and meditation Stop Used the word us because we got married Stop Nice guy Stop American Mary
Perhaps life may have been different if Marion had tried to follow up that contact. I could see immediately that it was bogus, a convenient way of laying a false trail where you could avoid using handwriting. It was even signed Mary. It is inconceivable that Eileen would have sent a telegram to her mother and not signed it with her own name. It must have sounded distinctly odd.
But Marion McHugh did not respond, and she did nothing more than store the message in her box or wherever she kept it prior to Martin’s parents finding it. One must assume that it was her husband who demanded she ignore the message, but no-one can now be sure. In any case, if she had tried to make contact, Eileen’s medical condition would not have been any different. And, of course, by then Tom McHugh was himself terminally ill. It would have been a trying time. As for my pop, his scar did fade over the years, but it stayed completely noticeable for the rest of his life, though the glass eye and the surgery did restore much of his appearance.
He and Mary left Thailand on a military aircraft. They passed through no passport checks, filled in no forms. There were no US personnel to be seen. The officers were all Thai, but they knew what protocol to follow. Inside the aircraft there were no comfortable seats, just benches along the side, plus an area devoted to intensive medical care. Such planes had been in daily use until the end of the war, but this one probably had to be rejuvenated from retirement especially for this trip, hence the delay.
Mary was loaded into the compartment, pulled up a ramp to the rear. At this point my pop’s recollections, alongside snippets of words from Mary, herself, can provide no detail. She was unconscious, he slept. They arrived. She was isolated and treated, he went into debriefing and rehabilitation.
I would not have recognised Mary. It was my mom who told me who it was. I had not seen her since before the night of the attack. From where I was looking, those weeks later when I made my first visit to see her, I could see the bed and the equipment, but lying in it was just an anonymous bulge with wires and tubes attached.
I don’t know where we went. The trip from the camp where we were temporarily held was not long and we certainly did not travel very far. We drove for a while and then arrived at a facility, the word kept being used, where we entered through a barrier and had our papers checked several times. Eventually we were admitted to a hospital ward that had just a dozen or so beds and just one patient. It was as warm in there as the tropics we had left but had a smell of formalin that was quite unlike our garden in Chiang Mai, the last place I had seen Mary, just a few weeks before. Pop was there. He told us not to worry, that he would sort everything out.
I remember that my mom burst into tears. It was the only time in my life when I remember her showing any emotion. To this day, I am not sure why. It could have been because he was there. It could have been the disruption to our lives. It could also have been sadness at Mary’s condition. He said something to her and she started to look better. But Mary was in a coma. A machine made noises at her bedside. That was it. We went back to our camp. In a taxi.
It was a few more days before my pop came with a car and a driver. He was still wearing a patch over his eye, so he could not drive himself. But he arrived in a taxi. Now I realise that this is all important. This was not a military vehicle. We were already legal. We drove a while and then we arrived at what my pop said was our new home.
Mom could not believe the place. It was a house beyond her imaginings. She was bewildered at first, but it is amazing how quickly disbelief can become commonplace and, after a month or so, she was starting to behave as if we had lived there all our lives. Materially she became an American housewife and began to amass all the consumer trappings she could assemble. She said Don had told her not to worry about money, that he had opened a bank account for her and had made sure there would be a regular credit each month. Mom had been brought up in poor communities in Laos and Thailand, and she must have thought she had risen to some kind of material heaven.
And then Mary arrived. The bed looked the same to me, but there were fewer machines, wires and tubes. She had her own floor of the house and dad explained that was part of the deal. Mary also had twenty-four-hour nursing, not active, just basic care, with a turn for the patient whenever two nurses were on site at a shift change. Mary was never alone. And neither was my mom in her newly adopted but expected role as lead carer for this comatose patient.
We saw her whenever we wanted, but we were told not to stay more than fifteen minutes in her room. After a year, things relaxed a little when my mom started to help more and took on some of the jobs the nurses had done until then. The nurses then only visited a couple of times a day and most of the care was delivered by mom. Mary’s condition had clearly stabilised and it had become obvious that she would not recover. By the early eighties, she was having just supervisory visits once a week and my mom was doing everything else. I had already started high school and already knew my dad was actually called Adam Appelbaum. So, what’s in a name? The answer is the history of entire lives.
My mom, you see, could never really manage English without a confusing accent, just as Mary never seemed to be able to hear Hmong or Thai. She was always trying to read the letters and not hear them. This had its own effect on me because my name is Touhue, which Mary could not say. Her lips would not go round the sound, and so it came out as Tony, which she then pronounced her own way. And I have been Tony ever since.
In reverse, I suffered a similar problem, but for different reasons. Personally, I have absolutely no recollection of this, but my pop did eventually confirm that the woman I still called Mary had indeed first been introduced to me as Eileen. Apparently, I did try to say the name. My pop says they spent some weeks trying to get the pronunciation right, but that I just couldn’t do it
And it was important in our house in Chiang Mai. If I used a name, basically I had three options. In those days, I never used mom or pop, and certainly not mother or father, and certainly not in Thai, which was after all a foreign language for both of them. So, I used their names, Don, Hli and Eileen. Don poses no problems, apart from the fact that it wasn’t his name! In Hmong, Hli is a long vowel with a quiet, aspirated start. Pronounced by an American, from whom I was learning, after all, Eileen is a long vowel with a quiet start and a near silent end. At the time, all I could say was the vowel and, my pop told me, it used to cause much hilarious confusion. I would call out the name, and each time both my mom and Eileen would appear, because the names had the same sound.
“Eileen thought it was funny, and for a while so did your mom. But soon, your mom got impatient if she had to stop her work to come running to the front, only to find you had not called her. I remember Eileen saying, ‘From now on, call me Mary. It’s my middle name.’ Then she set about teaching you her new name and because the vowel was quite different, there was no more confusion. Soon, we all started calling her Mary, Mary McHugh.”
“And that became Reynolds after you married her.”
He shrugged. “That’s what it said on the paper. But that was much later. She never knew that name.” And then he gave me Eileen’s passport, which he had kept for over thirty years. It had never been officially cancelled. And so I had a name and an identity, complete with a parents’ address I could contact.
What’s in a name? That night it felt like my own identity had become part of that changed name. The woman I had always called Mary, sick, paralysed, comatose most of the time, had been a second mother to me and, until then, I had never known her name.
And two years before she died of complications associated with morbid obesity - diabetes, organ failure, necrosis - she started to show signs of eye movement and an ability to respond to sound.
I spent huge sums of money on technology, the latest sensors, state of the art interfaces, and set about trying to teach her to communicate via letters displayed on a computer screen. I needed, of course, something known to calibrate the system. It had to be something known, something definite. I wrote M-A-R-Y in giant letters on a card and held it front of her whenever I thought I could see even a hint of an opened eye. I repeated, “Look at the letters of your name. M-A-R-Y. Your name. M-A-R-Y.” And it worked, or rather it didn’t. I gave up after several months of dedicated effort when I sat by her bed day after day, repeating, “Mary, look at the M. Mary, look at the A. Can you do that. Mary try this. Mary try that.”
And one afternoon, just once, only days before she passed away and before I knew her real name, I was convinced she had responded. The cursor moved here and there. It stopped, started, stopped, started several times. I did a reset. Then the word she spelled out was E-I-L-E and that was all she ever managed. I thought they were random letters. What’s in a name?