jaguar1 Some opening remarks

I often picture my father in his two-door Jaguar, one hand draped outside the window, holding a cigarette. This would have been in the second half of the 1950s—he quit smoking in 1960, when he was 45. He still has the car, along with his tortoiseshell glasses. He’s quite elegant, even with the wrinkles. An early taste for bespoke suits continues. Despite his age, despite having made a ton of money, or perhaps because of it, he still drives himself to the station three days a week, down from five, rides into Penn Station, and makes his way to his desk.

That desk is the one he had made from the teak crates he shipped from Singapore in 1953. The walls, too, attest to his past—a childhood in Hanoi, student days in Paris and London, wartime service in Malaya, a trader’s life in Singapore, the decades in New York, and all the travel back-and-forth to Asia when China and Indochina opened up.

Despite that focus, my father is a Europhile—having spent his formative years on that continent and in its colonies. At my age, I’m lucky that he’s still alive. When your father dies, turning that corner must bring the wall of your own life into view. That, at any rate, is what my father notes in his journal. He was just 37 when his own father died, age 76. “Borrowed time” is how he’s described every birthday he’s had since 1991. So far, he owes someone 17 years.

When he turned 90, my father invited me to lunch. “I’m not really immortal,” he said, adding that when he looked back at the totality of his life, it seemed like a story worth telling. “Yet, having lived most of it, it’s hard for me to know where to begin. And I would be tempted to leave things out. You know—you don’t want to hurt people, and yet there they were, smack bang in the middle of your life, or vice versa.” In short, he needed someone to get the broad outline from conversations and then read the letters and the journals, all of which he’d somehow managed to keep despite the war, the moves, and my mother. Apparently, that was me.

I should say a few things about my family. Although born in Hanoi, my father was of Chinese descent, the son of a wealthy merchant who traded with France and China. My mother was Vietnamese, but they first met in Paris. According to the family legend, he knew immediately that they would marry. Despite provocations on both sides, they still are.

My mother is more or less the opposite of my father, who is happiest at his desk or in intimate company. My mother likes to socialize. She also enjoys sticking her nose in everyone’s business except my father’s. That’s their pact—each asks no questions of the other. Roughly once a day, they talk about topics of mutual interest. For every trip they take together, there are five or six they make alone. Yet they discuss every potential destination. “You should go,” he tells her.

He’s been saying that all their married life, beginning in 1940 when he presciently sent her to New York to spend the war out of the line of fire. Neither of them wasted much time being lonely, but my sister—born in 1942—was the more tangible evidence of this. My father loved her the instant he learned of her existence. Her father, a Japanese expatriate, is still with us, living in New York. Decades later, my mother still has herself driven to the city to be with him.

“We aren’t very alike,” my father commented at lunch. “For some reason, marriage throws you together with another whose differences become clearer as you grow older. Yet you have these ties—family, property, and the ease of long familiarity.” Then there was the war and their years of separation. “I was in the jungle, out of reach. There was literally no way for her to know what would happen. In a situation like that, you have to be very tactful when you reenter the world you left. And besides, I had my own life to consider.”

Our lunch opened the door to my father’s private papers. There are letters, personal poems, and the diaries he’s kept since he was a student. The letters are voluminous. When motivated, he’ll write five or six times a day. The diaries are difficult to read, written in his tiny script. They sometimes overlap the letters, but mostly they comment on things that the letters address in the moment, creating a kind of double reflection.

When will you retire? When people ask this of my father, he always smiles. “When there’s no more reason to head into town” is what he thinks.

(To be continued.)

Photo of 1955 Jaguar XK-140 from Phil Seed’s Virtual Car Museum (

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)



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