It would be funny
It would be funny my older siblings would say.
There were six of us. Three Korean adoptees and three White children. Three boys and three girls. The first born my oldest sister was babysitting all of us as she did sometimes. She is six years my senior, so the pecking order went girl 12, girl,11, boy 9, boy 7, girl 6, boy 5. My youngest brother was five? And perhaps not a year since his re-homing as he came to us from a family in Texas. They had adopted him and decided they could not keep him. My adoptive mother would say they abandoned him, and he was found on the street. I am not sure of the veracity of this story. Recently, during the Pandemic I took to calling my Adoptive father regularly. I decided I would ask him questions about his life, about our history. I recall with great regret not having asked his mother, my grandmother, Catherine Herzel, about her extra-ordinary life born in the early 1900’s, as the daughter of a solicitor, the loss of her mother at a young age, attending college, being the wife of a Lutheran Minister and a published writer. I grew up too late to know to ask her and unfortunately, at this stage my Adoptive father’s memory is elusive. He did not remember when I asked about the day I came to the US, but he did remember getting my brother. He recalled that he flew down to Texas and brought a red truck with him. He recalled the kindness of the social worker from Holt and her subsequent follow up, but that is all he remembered.
It would be funny my older siblings would say and so we told him, “They are sending you back.” I have a vivid picture of him standing in a jacket with a suitcase that we packed. He is five, sobbing, with streams of tears rolling down his face holding his suitcase. I hear the sound of his crying, a pattern so familiar. He is standing at the front door in the living room. It is nighttime and there is only darkness shining through the great bay window of my parent’s suburban ranch. We are around the corner in the bedroom laughing gleefully like little goblins. Periodically one of us goes and peeks to check on him and report back. One of us may have encouraged him to stay there. “Wait…wait at the door. They are coming.” And so, he waited, and cried and waited. When did it end? When did we tell him? I know we did, though we let him believe it was true. They were coming his other family. The one that rejected him, the one that only he truly knew, truly remembered. What a great joke we thought. We had you so fooled we would say. “Wasn’t it funny?”
And we would repeat this story later when we were older, gathered around my parent’s Thanksgiving table, their Seder table, their Shabbat table. It was one of our canon. One of the series of stories, our oral history. Gems of memory couched in metaphor. Like legends that tell the times of terrible dragons that terrorized villages and bold knights that slayed them and saved the day. Except in this story we were the dragons. No one was slayed. No one was saved. It was all a cruel joke and we all played and paid. But in this story no one paid more than my brother.
But why this story? This story, so brutal that it’s brutality registers so profoundly as I retell it here and as I retold it to my sons. I know my brother would tell it looking for reparations as the justified victim. And for that I am truly sorry my dear brother. There was a time when I was the dragon and did not care who I burned. We were all dragons and villagers at one time or another, because that is how it worked in our Family. The power we sought and wielded as children was what little fire we could steal from the greater Dragon when she was not there. As we grew older at least sometimes we became allies. We learned it was safer that way. We were at times horrible children, ignorant and cruel, but mostly hungry. Hungry for love and if not love then power. As adults I am thankful to say we are no longer like that to each other or to other people and some of us are kinder than most.
Since the start of the Pandemic I have been diving headfirst into the deep waters of Adoption stories. Connecting with fellow Korean Adoptees, drawing portraits, listening to the narratives of survival, trauma, triumph, sorrow, abuse, and love. I have listened to stories like my own and like my brother’s. I have shared my stories with my husband and my sons. As a mother imparting these stories has a two-fold purpose. I want my sons, now 15 and 16 to understand my history and I want them to learn from it. And as I reflect and reframe, I learn new things from them too.
As a mother, I was careful with my love and worked hard to treat my sons fairly and encouraged the love and friendship they share. I do not claim perfection. There were enough revolts and claims of injustice and I can only say that I have tried my best and apologized regardless. My sons 18 months apart, have never been as cruel or as hungry as I was and for that I am just grateful. I have told them when they are older and in therapy I will be here to listen and hopefully make amends. In the meantime, I remain open to doing the best I can and changing if I need to.
What is most remarkable about the telling of this story is that sitting around my Adoptive mother’s table, I never heard this, “That was a terrible cruel thing to do to your brother.” “You should be ashamed. You should be sorry.”
A reasonable person may ask, “Now why would you tell a Dragon a story like this?”
I love you M. I am so sorry.