Thursday, December 24, 2009

My first Christmas memories

Picture a little girl, about 6 years old, supposedly.  It's hard to believe that can be accurate, since she is so small stepping off the plane that has just brought her from Korea to New York's bustling airport (Kennedy or LaGuardia?  I'm not sure)

Two people are waiting for her--both Caucasian.  One is a plump middle-aged woman, with curly brown hair in a styled hairdo--freshened up at the salon she visits every week.  The other is a tall thin man, and the little girl has to crane her neck to see his face.  They both embrace her, taking her from the greeter who relieved the chaperone that flew across the Pacific Ocean with her to bring her to her new family.  This will be the last time for a while that she will be able to speak to anyone, as she does not yet understand any English words.  The small bag that was packed for her by the orphanage was lost somewhere along the flight.  All she has is the clothing she is wearing, which include rubber shoes (kudus) that are too big, held on her feet by rubber bands.  She is clutching the papers she drew on to occupy her during the flight.  The lines make no sense to her new parents, since they are the beginnings of hangul, Korean writing.  No loops or curves are visible as you would see in Roman letters.

She is not even wearing a winter coat, and it is February in New York.  There is snow outside.  The parents bundle her up with their own jackets, and head home--it will be a 90 minute drive at least..  Traffic can be bad.  They stop at a store to buy her a warm coat.  The first one they have her try on is much too large--her hands are lost inside the sleeves.  When they gesture to her to take it off (they speak no Korean, she speaks no English), she wraps her arms tightly around herself and shakes her head "No."   It might be the first new coat she's ever touched.  They buy another coat in a smaller size, along with the much-too-large coat she refused to take off, and get back in the car.

On the way home, they stop to visit a close friend, who has followed the adoption saga from its early days, when the couple had miscarriage after miscarriage.  Aunt Mary, as she will become known, remembers when the thought of adopting from Korea first germinated in the mother's mind.  It was during a time of despair, after breast cancer had ravaged her body, and hopes for a baby with her husband were dashed again and again.  One baby was lost on her husband's birthday.

They had looked into adoption, but the mother's cancer and the father's lifelong history of diabetes made them unpopular applicants.  One agency was cruel enough to hint they shouldn't adopt a baby, since they would not live long enough to raise it.

Just as she was starting to think God was telling them to be satisfied with the two sons from her first marriage, she saw a table somewhere advertising international adoption.  Hope grew again.  Her husband, and her teenage sons were supportive.  They filled in the paperwork, underwent more home studies, and waited for a match.  They had requested an infant.

The day the papers arrived, the photo looked like a newborn--no hair on her head at all.  Reading further, they realized the dossier was not for a baby, but a 5-year old girl!  Her eyes were downcast, and no smile in any of the photos.  Despite the age mismatch, the mother decided this child must be her daughter.  She had lost her father in the hospital only that morning, and this was a sign that this child would help fill the empty space in her heart.

Aunt Mary knew about all that.  And she remembered when this child was supposed to arrive at Thanksgiving.  But something happened with the paperwork, so she was delayed a few weeks to December.  Then she was going to be home by Christmas.  Only the girl got sick--caught the measles, or chicken pox or something that should have been prevented with immunizations as a baby.  Anyway, she was finally here, months after she had been expected.

The 3 walked into the house, took off their coats, and shared the warm glow of family, friends, and love.  When it was time to leave, the girl panicked.  She thought she was finally home, and now these 2 people who had taken her from the airport were holding her coat out to her--they were taking her back to the airport!  She was so upset, she screamed, cried, flailed around, refusing to put on the coat she had earlier refused to take off in the store.  There was no common language to explain to her that she was not being sent back to Korea.

When they finally got her in the car, they drove to their real home.  There was a giant dog that greeted them noisily, frightening the girl into the living room...where she saw something very odd.  There was a tree in the house, decorated with lights and other objects, and a pile of presents underneath.

At the encouragement of her new parents, she picked out one small box and opened it.  Inside was a bracelet, gold in color, with a small chain and clasp.  She put it on right away, and looked longingly at the other presents.  Apparently these would be opened the next day.  It was time for bed.

Even though I arrived from Korea in February, my parents kept the tree up until I finally came home.  Fortunately, it was an artificial tree, so there was no fire hazard.  While I don't remember much of the trip "home", I do remember the dog, and the tree quite vividly.  I still have that bracelet.  This was my first Christmas in the US--possibly my first ever.


  1. Oh, God, I am crying now. Thank you for such a beautifully written tale of your life. Wow. Pure beauty.

  2. I read this on Kimchi Mamas...this is so beautiful. Christmas is about loving deeply and unconditionally. Your story captures Christmas well.

  3. really nicely written...great details...a very special Christmas tale! Thank you.

  4. Thank you. Having known you for 33 years, I have never heard that story in it's entirety. They were so proud of you, and we are all so lucky to call you family. What Korea lost, my family gained...but I am glad that you never lost Korea. I love hearing the stories and your pride in your heritage and blending it with your family's heritage.


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