Monday, November 07, 2022

True crime: A Maine treasure long missing

 I don't talk a whole lot about my own history and life on this blog, but this story draws on it in a number of ways.  I left home when I was 16 years old.  I went to high school, worked a job, and had an apartment of my own (having lied about my age on the lease).  Relationships with my parents were frayed, to say the least.  At one point my dad decided to try to find a way to spend time with me, and also share a useful and enjoyable experience with me, and enrolled us together in a cooking course through Portland Adult Education.  He had taken a course with the teacher before, and thought she was great.  Her name was Tot Harriman.

Photo by David A. Rogers in the Portland Press Herald 4/30/95 issue
Tot, born in Vietnam and now long-married to a U.S. veteran, wanted to share her cooking skills and her enjoyment of food with her other American neighbors here in the Portland area.  And my dad was right -- she was terrific.  Her personality was indomitable, sparkling, and very like a fireball at peak moments.  She was a great teacher, pragmatic, nonjudgmental, and straightforward.  We all learned a lot of useful and memorable techniques, mostly for stir-fry cooking, but towards the end of class she threw in some other more challenging menu items that gave us an idea of what else could be possible.

I still use her simple technique for cooking perfect rice today, and her teaching informed my stir-fry techniques that I use on a regular basis as well.  The course was back in the late 1980s, and Tot's instructions echo in my head whenever I do any of these things.  I see her strong hands at work cutting, her finger measuring the depth of water over rice in the pot, and showing us the best way to use different ingredients at each point in the cooking process, and how to serve a plate so it looks appealing. 

It was with great sorrow and shock that I saw an article in the newspaper back in 2001 reporting that Tot was missing.  She had vanished during a househunting roadtrip in Texas, where she moved after raising her children in Maine.  To think of that tiny powerhouse of a woman, perpetually giving to everyone around her, being subject to whatever tragedy had happened so many miles away, broke my heart.  Every so often I would check up on the case, but despite her family continuing to post online seeking leads, all that remained was a big question mark.

In the last couple of years (her first episode dropped in Dec 2020), Kristen Seavey has been working hard on her true crime podcast, Murder She Told, which focuses on mostly Maine and New England cases.  Her journalism is clear, compassionate, and seeks the truth, especially in cases where families are left still asking questions.  I thought maybe if I suggested Tot's case to her, she might someday do an episode about this woman who left such a mark on my life.

To my endless gratitude, that really did happen this autumn.  You can listen to the two part coverage of Tot's case here, and see lots of photos from her amazing life, too:

Part 1 -

Part 2 -

I had always known Tot had lived an astonishing life.  Anyone who made it alive out of the Vietnam War to come to America had; I knew this in part because I went to elementary school with some kids who had made it out too.  My father had also hinted that her life story was remarkable, but beyond a few brief mentions, Tot's history was never the focus of her class talks.  Here is where Kristen steps in.  

Through Kristen's research and through interviews with Chien Si, Tot's son, she illuminates Tot's life, first in Vietnam, and then through her risky escape to the United States, her adopted home.  Tot lives again in these moments as we listen, and we hear how much she did, how many people's lives she touched, and how her family loved her.  How her disappearance has left a hole in their lives.

As you listen to these episodes, Tot will live again, and be remembered.  And maybe, someday, if the right person comes forward, her family will finally find out what happened to her.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Tot Harriman, please contact the League City PD (TX) at (281)332-2566.

Thank you Tot, for teaching me.  And thank you Kristen!!!

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