I'm not going to write about fiction today. I'm going to write about a person who was larger than life. I'm going to write about my mother-in-law, Pranee Prasartkaew.
She passed away a few hours ago. She had many things wrong with her physically, and she had fallen last week, hit her head, and gone into a coma. But courage sometimes transcends the physical. She lives in Nontaburi, Thailand, a suburb of Bangkok. We live in rural Alaska, yet somehow she held on until Noi, my wife, arrived. She stayed with her mom, sleeping fitfully on a stone bench in the hospital, throughout the night, then came back to our home here in Thailand -- her home, actually. Several hours later, the hospital called. Due to construction, our taxi went the wrong way. Noi arrived, held her mother's hand and told me later that a couple of very strong heartbeats occurred. Then she was gone.
According to tradition, husbands are not supposed to like their mothers-in-law. I think it's a myth, a game everyone enjoys playing. Secretly, I think men are glad that a woman raised a great daughter who became the man's wife.
So let me tell you about this woman who raised the great daughter who became this man's wife. I don't know the whole story, only pieces --
Pranee grew up as a farm girl in southern Thailand. She only went through the third grade. I don't think she ever learned to read and write very well. At about age nineteen she was forced into marriage with a man who in romance novels would certainly be a villain. It's my understanding that he later murdered one of her relatives, and ended up in prison.
But that was after she took their child, my wife's half-sister, and ran away to Bangkok to hide. She found work as the cook and housekeeper with an American family, and (I have been told) so loved the people that her secret wish was that she eventually would have an American son-in-law. But that of course is getting ahead of the story.
She wanted to have a bakery. She needed a loan, and she had no education, no collateral, and no experience. But she was street-smart. In fact, in many ways she's one of the smartest people I've ever met.
She knew that Thai people love American culture. Looking around, she realized that the only American-style baked goods being sold were American sheet cakes, which wealthy Thais would buy three times a year: for the husband's birthday, the family anniversary, and the king's birthday. (Thailand, incidentally, has a king who truly is one of the great monarchs of all time.)
She went back to the bank. "What if," she asked, "someone were to bake American-style cupcakes? Wouldn't the poor buy them three times a year, and the rich buy them all the time?"
Within three years she went from earning about 75 cents a day, plus room and board, to earning about $750 per day -- and this was in the late '50s or early '60s. She had 50 employees and was baking 30,000 cupcakes a day.
An amazing story. An amazing woman.