Becky Benson was 4 years old, and dangling above the South China Sea.
Her father, Phuong Tran, was desperately trying to get his entire family onto a ship in order to escape the Vietnam war.
He stood on one ship with Benson’s three sisters. His wife Thanh Nguyen stood on a different ship with his 3-year-old son Phuoc Tran.
Becky Benson was dangling over the crashing waves as Tran tried to pass her to his wife while the ships drifted apart. Benson tried to hold onto her mother, but she slipped away, and the little girl ended up staying behind with her father and sisters.
This was 1975 and American forces were pulling out of the Vietnam War. Saigon had fallen. Benson’s father had been an ally of the Americans and knew he would be targeted by the communist forces.
That was the last Benson saw of her brother and mother until May 2017.
What none of them realized at the time was that it was the wrong ship.
The one carrying Benson’s mother and brother was actually staying in Vietnam. Benson, her father, and three older sisters (Tina Sheetz, Mindy Moon, Cigi Tran) would be heading to Guam, which is American territory.
When Phuong Tran and his daughters docked, they flew to San Diego next, where they spent two months at a refugee camp.
Then they met Phyllis and Dick Gereau, who offered to be their US sponsors and sheltered the family.
From 1980 to 1985, Benson’s parents wrote letters to each other, until correspondence suddenly stopped.
The sisters found out that their father’s brother had written that his wife had remarried, but this was not true.
Mindy Moon said their uncle had been angry that they made it to America while he did not, and so lied. Their father, angry that his wife supposedly lied, forbid his daughters from mentioning her again.
But the thought of her always stayed with them.
They talked about her with each other, even though they could not ask their father about her.
Then in 2006, a foreign exchange student came to stay with Benson, and the student was fluent in Vietnamese.
Cigi Tran finally persuaded their father to give her her mother’s address, and with the student’s help, the sisters were able to write their mother and brother a letter.
They waited, and got a reply.
The two halves of the family were reconnected once again. They began to connect on Skype calls, and it was the first time they had seen each others’ faces in decades.
“She was always smiling,” said Benson.
“She was always smiling,” Benson told Associated Press. “And my brother, he smiles all the time, and he looks just like my dad. My mom says he has the same demeanor and moves like my dad,” Benson told Associated Press.
And through the calls, Benson’s father finally realized his brother had lied to him.
Phuoc Tran, Benson’s brother, sent photos of his children to their grandfather before the call, and Sheetz said her father clutched them all night, looking from the pictures to the computer screen to figure out and remember who was who.
“I even asked him, ‘Papa, you’re not gonna cry?’ He said, ‘I’ll cry when I go to sleep,'” Sheetz said.
Phuong Tran passed away from cancer in 2011, and never met his wife and son in person again.
But late last year, Cigi Tran’s daughter became pregnant. Katyna Tran wanted her baby to meet her grandmother.
The sisters rallied, and were able to get their mother a one-year visa to America.
They met on May 6 when they picked her up at the airport.
“She saw the four of us, our faces right there, and she just glowed and then smiled, and then we all cried,” Benson said.
The estranged family fit together in a bittersweet way. Their mother had missed the girls growing up, and wanted to make up for lost time.
She brought a hand-carved rocking chair for the expecting Katyna, and brought each of her daughters a handmade Vietnamese dress.
Benson said she didn’t know any of their sizes, but the dresses fit anyway. Sheetz said her mother wanted her to sit on her lap, like she was a 6-year-old again.
“She has an ending to her story. And so do we now,” Sheetz said.