SEARCHING FOR SEOUL 13 (A Chapter from my new book- IOWA-)
Welcome to the neighborhood, Hana, Sara, and David! Congratulations, Floyd and Mary!
In the picture, three neighbor kids, freckled, blond and Velcro-sneakered, stand beneath the sign they’ve taped to our new mom and dad’s garage door. Beneath this photo, is one of the three of us; transplants with similar blunt haircuts and coordinating seersucker outfits, sitting in the back of a brown Crown Victoria Station Wagon (later we dubbed her, Miss Vicky). The back seat has been turned down to create a kind of playpen in the rear of the car so that the three of us can sit together. There are toys everywhere. In the photo, I’m pressing a plastic phone the size of my head to my ear, my little brother looks caught, in the lens of the camera and my sister sits, holding a doll in her lap.
Looking at the photos now, I think we look a little stunned, as though we’re suspending our belief, terrified that we could wake-up at any moment to discover that all this--the toys, the smiling, teary adults--are a figment of our imaginations. But when we awake the next morning, the three of us stretched-out on mom and dad’s king-sized bed, it is all still true.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the little town of Sioux Center, Iowa welcomed us with open arms. Our new mom and dad were well-connected within their community, well loved. My mom was a speech-language pathologist for the district and my dad owned a butcher shop in town with his brothers. As a couple, they were in their late thirties and had been trying to have kids the old-fashioned way for years. When they adopted the three of us, they thought that window had passed. My younger brother Stephen was born just three years later. Mom says it’s a miracle he learned to do anything for himself when he was a kid because Sara and I wouldn’t let him do anything without us.
When I was younger, friends would ask me if I felt like I was treated differently than Stephen because I was adopted. With pride and loyalty, I would always say, “no.” Of course, I wasn’t treated differently. First, admitting to that would be like saying I was less in some way, that I was some sort of charity case, and I can honestly say that I have never felt as though I was. I found the question insulting: to me and to the people who had taken me in.
The message my adoptive parents gave me from day one was, you are special. You were chosen to be in our family. We love you as though we gave birth to you. No one gets to choose the family they are born into, but we had the privilege of choosing you to become a part of ours. God trusted us to take care of you.
And the message that went along with it--when we were discussing right and wrong decisions, good and bad, better or worse, was that choices have consequences, choices are powerful. I can’t tell you how many times my parents gave us these words. If there could be a theme branded over those early years of my life after adoption, it would be just that. I was a choice. Love is a choice.
The community of Sioux Center told us that we were wanted too. Many of those early childhood photos of me and my siblings are taken at parties showering us all with gifts and love. There’s my sister (her face, usually contorted in some sort of goofy expression), her tongue hanging out like a happy puppy, about to open a gift. There’s a photo of my brother grinning on a horsey swing, an older neighbor boy pushing him forward, balloons and congratulatory signs posted in the background. There’s the shower at mom and dad’s church, where my dad was a deacon and my mom, a Sunday school teacher. More presents, more happy faces.
In Sioux Center, I felt as though we were celebrities. Everyone knew about Floyd and Mary’s adoption, everyone seemed to know us. There were three biological siblings, adopted all at once into the same family, and everyone wanted to help, to be a part of our remarkable story.
We must have looked foreign in the sea of light-haired and light-eyed Midwesterners and we didn’t speak any English when we first came. We ate with chopsticks. But did I realize that we looked different from our family and friends? We were well-loved and whole-heartedly embraced. My siblings and I were big fish in a small pond and wore the cloak of love and favor wherever we went.
Visiting Grandma Toots and Grandpa Marv just a three-hour drive away again affirmed how special we were, how wanted and how loved. Everyone in Hamburg, Iowa knew Mary Lynn, knew about the long-awaited kids, respected and loved my grandparents who had a lot invested in the little town. My grandpa’s soda fountain and drugstore were at the heart of Hamburg and many of the buildings along its Main Street were his as well. We spent golden summers there; slurped malts from grandpa’s soda fountain, hung at the pool, picked berries at the local farms, rode ponies with a neighbor, spent happy hours at the little library--did science experiments with Grandma in the kitchen. We truly had it all.
If it sounds as though I think of my early years post-adoption through rose-tinted lenses, it’s because I do. I know that I had a childhood that some might envy. When asked about my childhood, what happened in Korea wasn’t first to my lips. What I spoke about first was a mom and dad who read stories to us before bedtime, our heads wet from a warm bath, our feet in onesie pajamas our Grandma Nell made us. I talk about riding my bike on dusty dirt roads that stretched-on forever, the setting sun and my rumbling stomach my only reminder to come home.
I lived in a wonderful world of make-believe; playing out my stories with the trunk full of costumes mom’s missionary friend in Africa had sent us--reading good books with a flashlight under the covers--but then I wasn’t trying to escape, I was acting out the adventures I saw myself taking when I got big. Because mom and dad said I was special and I could be anything I wanted. Even later, when I would feel hopeless, or alone, I never truly, in my heart of hearts believed otherwise.
But one day, our whole little world got stretched and invaded until I didn’t recognize it anymore. My dad sold his butcher shop and he began living someplace called A-no-ka, up north as he began a new job, working for someone else. Our beloved house with the willowy birch trees and delicately flowered wallpaper were sold, and we were living in a friend’s basement, waiting for our new lives to start.