Jan's Story

She was crying when I first saw her. She was three years old.  I was twenty.  

It was evening.  I rushed in the door fresh from work anxious to see my new sister and was met by a sobbing little girl. Here she was fresh off the plane from Korea, and had ridden with my parents from the airport in Portland to our little town of The Dalles Oregon. She was thrust into a new family, into new surroundings, panicked to see a dog, and our little Jan was so tiny we didn’t know if she could stand. She kept repeating a Korean word we didn’t know that sounded like “Ummaya” which we think meant “Grandma.”

Mother was making all efforts to comfort her, and knowing she was tired from her long trip and in need of rest, Mom filled the kitchen sink with water and bubbles, and set little Jan in it. Jan reached out in joy and curiosity to the bubbles, and a smile broke out over her face that brightened the room like a crack in the cosmos.

Jan was our girl from then on.

That night Mom took her into her bed and cuddled her until morning. Mom became Jan’s haven, a place where she felt safe and adored. Jan was a joy to the family, and she and I became fast friends. She would crawl into bed with me in the mornings, wet my bed, and greet me with incredible affection. I loved her, and I loved showing her off. She liked pretty clothes and I would dress her and brush her beautiful long dark hair, and take her into town with me.

Mom said when I was at work she would wander around the house asking, “Where’s Jo?”

Regretfully I waited out the day assisting dental procedures instead of meeting the plane from Korea and experiencing the joy of watching babies being placed into eager parent’s hands. Mom said when a parent connected with their child, it was cosmic. Mom took Jan into her arms that day, and that was it, they were connected. Jan was a sister to me and to two brothers and a sister who came later. Mom got the family she longed for, and Jan got the mother she needed and with whom she wants to be buried.

Jan died last Thursday April 24, 2013.

Two months ago Jan exclaimed about her new-born grandson, “I didn’t know I could love that child so much. I love being a grandma.”

She had undergone her first round of chemo and felt good, hopeful and filled with dreams. “I want to get a little house I can play with,” she bubbled, “and entertain, and I am getting my music back. Maybe I will perform. I used to do that, and people in town still remember my piano music.”

“Go girl! Go to L.A. There people with ethnic backgrounds get top billing.” (She gave up her music long ago, a decision that will be apparent in a minute.)

And now, once again, I look at the letters Mom wrote to the Harry Holt Adoption Agency between the years of 1957, when she began the adoption process, and 1968 when she died. Jan was only thirteen years old. When I read Mom’s heart droppings, I wondered why I never knew her at that level. But then, I suppose it is easier to open one’s heart on paper, or to a casual acquaintance, than to someone close. The agency kept those letters all these years, and some years after she died they sent them to my step-dad. Jan drove the four hours from The Dalles to Eugene to give them to me. I have typed them and am ready to compile them into a book, Letters, A Mother’s Secret, a Daughter’s Secret. 

Yes there were secrets. And it happened before Mom died. The father had a fishing boat, he needed help, a daughter’s help. She was alone with him on the boat. We do not believe Mom knew that Jan’s father (my step-father) molested her. Authorities often say that a mother knows, but I’ve thought long and hard, and knowing my mother, I believe if she knew she would have done things to him I dare not say here.

Jan was the courageous one, breaking open the sexual molestation issue, confronting the step-mother and the father who molested her, and she spent years ridding her body of the injury she received from his betrayal. She was a sensitive child and to have a father turn on her hurt her deeply. These are the secrets that ought not to be buried. Expose them. Leave a legacy for Mom and Jan. We women, and the men who support us, must stick together, and must not keep a conspiracy of silence.

Jan married and had a beautiful daughter, divorced and raised her child as a single parent. She was highly efficient, even as a teenager she could clean up a kitchen before the guests had finished burping. She gave up her music in response to the father who kept volunteering her for events without asking. And she wanted her expression back, her skill, her ability to make music. She wanted her power, to dream again, to laugh that infectious laugh again.

I miss her terribly.

In my mind’s eye I asked Mom why this happened. Why did Jan die so young? I saw the image of Mom taking frail Jan into her ample loving arms, and cuddling her as she did that first day.

For years after Mom’s death, her grave had no gravestone. One year we kids went together and bought one. Jan and I had never visited it together, and so on a cold December day I drove from Eugene Oregon to The Dalles Oregon so we could visit the gravestone I had never seen. I had brought flowers, and as it had begun to snow that day Jan grabbed a broom as we exited her back door. Carrying flowers and a broom, we walked through the cemetery under a gray sky while snowflakes drifted onto our heads and collected, tiny crystal pinwheels, on our coats. We placed the flowers beside the gravestone, and gently swept aside the filmy white so we could read the words.


As we stood there talking to Mom, saying what a wonderful mother she was and how lucky we were to have had her, the gray clouds parted in a tremendous arc, revealing clear sky above. The snow stopped. We stared above in disbelief. “I feel joy,” said Jan. “So do I,” I said. Then as abruptly as they had parted the clouds closed and it began to snow again.




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