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everything I never told you

Over the weekend I retrieved from the basement boxes of sentimental family photos I've been carting around for much of my adult life and began the task of sorting through and organizing them. Some of the pictures are in albums and others are loosely jumbled together in no particular order, many of which have no helpful dates or timestamps (note to future self: always date your photographs). I'm looking for visual cues while on this search, things tangible which tell stories and shake loose memory and emotion. This is a slow process of reorganization, pulling together all the pieces to now look at them through this new lens of deeper truth, even if much of that truth is still unknown. There is so much that I do know, and the memories of this life that have fully been mine are my anchor.

As I touch each photo, each document, each feeling, one thing I am realizing is that what I'm uncovering is not just my own singular story, it's a shared narrative with no beginning or end. It's a family story, a generational story, a cultural and historical story as well. It's the micro and the macro, always layered together, and I'm seeing how we are individual lives inextricably linked by the intersections of context and time.

To understand one's own story is to also learn and understand the stories of those around us and those who we came through. What they experienced are clues, in part, to what was passed down as our own. So I find myself longing for and searching for these as well... stories before me, of my mother and father's, my grandparent's, my ancestors and predecessors both by blood and kin. I want to know them, to share them, to catalogue them before time runs out and they disintegrate and disappear.

This old photo is one I uncovered in the stacks. I have no idea how I ended up with it, but I am so glad that I did. It's of my paternal grandfather, my Papa, Leslie Leo Miller, who my youngest carries in his middle name. He's at a dinner hosted by an orphanage in Busan near where he was stationed during the Korean War, the very war which most certainly was the catalyst to the adoption boom out of Korea in 1955. I wasn't even born, yet important pieces of my story and history are right here in this photo. It makes me wonder who these little girls are and if they too have looked for their birth families, and what the story was around this dinner. The complexity of American occupation in Korea is, to this day, still an ongoing controversy as a huge number of abandoned single mothers and mixed-race orphans were the result of the many US soldiers occupying the country for so long. War only serves to tear apart countries and families.

I loved my Papa and was close to him for much of my life until he made a peaceful yet pointed exit on Christmas morning in the year 2000. I never had the opportunity to talk to him about his time in Korea. I wish I had been brave enough to ask. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me, if I reminded him of such a difficult time in his life. I only always felt great waves of pride and love as his granddaughter as he pulled quarters from my ear, allowed me to play at his desk with his label maker, swam with us kids in the pool and always made me sunny side eggs and bacon for breakfast whenever I would sleep over. He did this even on the morning my Nana finally succumbed to cancer, in between loads of her laundry and hugs filled with tears. We shared a lot of life and I treasure every moment, even the hard ones, as they all only speak to the presense of so much love.

It's how I imagine my dad must have felt towards his grandparents, having been close to them while growing up and having a father far away at war. He was born while Papa was stationed in Korea and didn't meet his dad until he was 2. Being raised in part by his grandparents is why my brother and I carry their names. Our legacy is a part of theirs - we are forever connected through history, context, story and time. 

So I am mining for everything I can find to help capture what we might otherwise lose from one generation to the next, hoping to create and preserve a narrative that my boys can more fully comprehend, yet one that I know will never be totally complete. What I know for sure, is that I don't want to have regret over being too afraid to look or ask. I want them to know where they come from, not just by way of country or genetics, but through meaning and connection to the love from which they were born, as documented through stories that began long before I was here.

Today I will search for a notary so that I might send a formal records request to the local agency who handled my adoption. I've already initiated online requests to the head international agency, and to translation services here in Boston hoping to get two pages of my records written in Korean deciphered. The processes of these things is notoriously slow going, and as we are in day 39 of our stay-at-home during 'unprecedented times', I am sure the waiting will be fierce. Luckily I have nothing but time.

Photos and words and memories are helping to anchor me to this moment. Seems like as good a place as any to rest my heart, here, fully alive in this in-between place.

* Title of this blog post is borrowed from the book by Celeste Ng. Such a good read if you haven't read it already.


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