exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in



Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)

Author: GABRIELLE GLASER - The Oregonian

Summary: A couple's family sprang from 1960s idealism and their hope for a better world

The world over, there are children in the margins: orphaned, abandoned and neglected, their hopes slim, their outlooks skewed by hardship and hate.

In the 1970s in Waldport, Ed and Mary Miyakawa created a family out of such "hard-to-place" children. They adopted a Korean infant, a biracial boy from Portland, two siblings from Saigon whose lives were shattered by the Vietnam War, a black foster child from Cincinnati and, finally, a girl from a Calcutta children's prison whose mother had sold her into slavery.

Their dream -- creating a multiracial family that would augur a better world -- came true. But today, the Miyakawas stand as a reminder of an idealistic era whose time seems long past.

Last year, more than 22,000 foreign-born children were adopted by American families. Most often, they are babies who have not endured years of trauma.

The Miyakawa kids climbed trees, played on the beach, learned to play the violin, and drew plenty of attention, both good and bad. Mary made tie-dyed T-shirts proclaiming the wearers as a "Rainbow Family." The children integrated Waldport schools in one fell swoop, and surely had the most interesting assortment of meals, from dal to pho, of any home on the coast.

But there were individual struggles, and many wounds, with countries, mothers, fathers and hopes each child had left behind.

The children, now in their 30s, remember events in varying detail. Some see the past with piercing clarity. Others recall little beyond the chaos of eight different gene pools under one roof.

Sometimes, it took sheer will simply to manage. Mary credits the combination of her Scandinavian roots with Ed's Japanese heritage as a powerfully stubborn force.

But even their partnership had challenges, as Mary, 66, found strength through faith as a Jehovah's Witness, while Ed, a lifelong agnostic, remained one.

Sometimes, Ed says, idealism trumped reality. "I wouldn't change anything, but some days I wondered where we were headed."

He endured with what he calls "hippie pragmatism." The hippie, now a 70-year-old Rotarian, also smoked a fair share of pot. "If we'd have known how big and scary it was going to be," Ed says, "we'd have been too frightened to go through with it."

Some days, Mary's knees shook as she wondered how to cope. "I learned to pray," she says simply.

Early lessons in racism

To understand how this family came together, one must understand the events of 1942, when Ed and his prosperous Japanese-born parents were interned in the Japanese American "relocation" camp at Tule Lake in north central California.

Father Jun, a Sacramento merchant and Harvard graduate, signed a loyalty oath to the United States, and the Miyakawas left the camp in 1943. They moved to Boulder, Colo., as guests of kind strangers, while Jun re-established himself.

But life as the town's only Japanese family in wartime was not so easy. One day, as Ed and his sister walked down the street, a boy called out, "Dirty Jap!"

"What did you say?" Ed asked him. "Dirty Jap," the boy repeated.

Ed slugged the boy, and a fight was on, drawing even adult onlookers. One remarked: "Would you look at that! Just like real life, with the Americans fighting the Japs!" No one intervened.

At 10, Ed realized: Adults could be kind, like his sponsors, or they could help perpetuate injustice. "By that age, I had a good idea of the human condition," he says.

They turn to adoption

Mary Chell set her mind beyond her Minnesota hometown when her father told her that money the family had for college would go to educate her brother. "That shot me out of the cannon," she says. "I was going to prove that I could do it."

She won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota and another for her master's degree in social work at Berkeley. In the hopeful days of the 1960s, she worked throughout the Bay Area with needy children.

Ed, who served in the Navy during the Korean War, was studying to become an architect. The two met as dorm counselors, fell in love and married. They settled in Berkeley, where Ed took a job in a firm.

The Watts riots in Los Angeles and the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago made the couple long for open space. The Northwest beckoned, and they settled in Waldport.

They tried to have children, in vain. "Our great sorrow was that we never conceived our Eurasian love baby," says Mary. Through it all, Ed worked on a novel based on the internment camps. He called it "Tule Lake."

The two turned to adoption, inspired in part by Harry and Bertha Holt, the Eugene couple who in the mid-1950s had adopted eight Korean war orphans, and founded an adoption agency. In 1969, through

Holt International Children's Services

, Ed and Mary adopted Kimiko, a Korean-born girl. They were overjoyed.

Soon, they began to meet with other adoptive families whose lives had been similarly transformed by their additions. In 1971, the family adopted a biracial boy from Portland. Mary named him Isaac, Hebrew for "one who laughs."

Night after night, he cried out in his sleep. Mary rushed to his crib, only to find him grinning, arms outstretched. She simply couldn't resist. "The reward was too great not to," she says. They spent an hour each night, just laughing.

Isaac and Ed did not share such affection, at least at first. One day, Ed looked down at the baby as he played on the floor. Isaac looked up, brows knit in bewilderment. "Who are you?" his face seemed to say. Ed realized that he had not yet touched him. "What was wrong with me?" he asked himself. "Did I have some kind of racial hang-up?" He reached out to pick Isaac up.

"My white wife had no hang-ups whatsoever," he concluded. "I was the person I was because of racism, and yet I was capable of it in my own household."

Soon, Isaac and Ed became inseparable, and the foursome was happy. "The world was at war in all possible ways, with protests at home and Vietnam across the ocean," Mary says. "Our only compensation was to live in a way that was the opposite of what was going on in the world."

The Miyakawas were so galvanized by their experiences that they helped to found


, a McMinnville adoption agency. Its focus, at first, was the plight of Vietnamese children whose lives were shattered by war. Interest in such children reached an apex in 1975, the year President Ford mandated the transport to the United States of 70,000 youngsters in "Operation Babylift."

Two were to head to Waldport.

"Airplane babies" from Vietnam

Huong Komanecky, 39, and her brother, Mahn Miyakawa, 38, saw the Vietnam War up close. One day, Mahn saw a rocket explode a bus in front of him. An old woman fell from the crater it left, her brain splattering the boulevard.

As a son, highly valued in the culture, Mahn lived with his grandmother. Huong lived with her mother, often on the street, and was left in the care of younger siblings. Details are murky. "My mother would disappear for weeks on end," Huong says. Still, as Saigon was falling, news of the Babylift reached their mother, and she left Huong, Mahn and a baby half-brother at an orphanage.

On April 4, 1975, the siblings boarded a cargo jet for one of the first official U.S.-bound flights. Somehow, there had been a mix-up with the children's paperwork, and their escort took them off the plane. Hours later, there was an explosion near the rear doors of the plane. Pilots turned back to the airport but the plane crashed short of the runway, killing 144 of the 300 children aboard.

Eventually, the siblings were brought to Colorado, where their documents were processed. Infants and toddlers were quickly adopted. As older children, Mahn and Huong were more "difficult to place." The Miyakawas, who did not know about the baby, were expecting to adopt a sibling pair that loosely matched the ages of Kimi and Isaac.

Huong stood watch over the baby, who had no identification and could not speak for himself. Since his birth, she had cared for him like her own son. Authorities tried to separate them, but she insisted that they stay together. "All the babies look alike," they told her. "How do you know who he is?"

She created such a scene, she says, officials removed her and Mahn from the building. When they returned, their brother was gone. They never saw him again.

Once in Waldport, the pair wondered who Ed, Mary and their new siblings were. "Wouldn't they just abandon us, like our mom had?" Huong thought.

Mahn was shocked by what his new family looked like. "In Vietnam, there is a lot of racism," he says. Suddenly, he had a half-black relative. "I had never seen curly hair," he says. "And they're telling me, 'He's your brother.' "

Ed was even more mystifying, with a full black beard, and hugs. "That beard was scary," Mahn says.

At first, Huong stayed by Mary's side. For three months, Mary took her along to work.

One day when Huong was 10, she crawled in Mary's lap. In halting English, she asked: "Isaac and Kimi -- airplane babies, or tummy babies?"

"Airplane babies," Mary replied.

Months later, Huong dreamed that she was flying to Vietnam with Mary. She saw herself stepping off a ramp, her mother below, Mary a few steps behind her. She froze, not knowing what to do.

When she recounted the dream, Mary told her: "You have two mothers, two countries, two families. I'm your mama's helper. I'm just an auntie, helping you here."

That way, Mary says, "She didn't have to make a choice. It seemed to help her settle in."

But the path to settlement was not easy. "I was so torn up," Huong recalls. "I was so, so angry. I passed so many years just yelling."

Ed was overwhelmed. "We had no idea how terrible some of their experiences had been," he says. They turned to other adoptive parents for support.

Somehow, the improbable family thrived. As Mahn and Huong learned English, Kimi emerged as a translator for a language only the children shared.

Ed read aloud at night, from "The Hobbit," "Watership Down" and what he called his Bible: Sports Illustrated.

It was all fitting into Mary's vision. In her family, she saw Pete Seeger's song, "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread":

"I'd weave the bravery/Of women giving birth/ In it I would weave the innocence/ Of children over all the Earth . . ."

Under her roof, the children were healing. "We were like a rock polisher, smoothing out each other's edges," she says.

Ed, though, didn't always share her optimism. He worked long hours at his drafting table and struggled to finish his book. He got stoned regularly, to deal with the stress. "You've got to quit, man," he told himself.

He and Mary took up running. Mary usually stopped after three miles. Some days, Ed just kept on going.

"New kids were fun"

In 1976, Mary learned of Keith, a 7-year-old African American boy who had been in and out of Ohio foster homes. The other children welcomed him. "New kids were fun," says Isaac.

Keith told the social worker who traveled with him that he wanted to stay. But he didn't trust that the new family would want to keep him. One day, he tested his luck by throwing rocks at a passing pickup. The driver roared into the driveway, yelling. "Sorry," Ed called out. "We just adopted this boy yesterday." The man, perplexed, took one look at the range of faces and backed out without a word.

To put order to the chaos, Mary and Ed instituted chores. Ed divided the lawn into six equal sections, and demonstrated his technique for removing dandelions by the root. Mary taught domestic skills. One day, she summoned Keith for a sewing lesson. His hands shook so hard he couldn't hold the needle.

"You can do it," Mary coaxed.

"I don't want to," he said.

Finally, he told her why. One of his previous foster mothers had made him read out loud. Keith, later diagnosed with dyslexia, often misread words. Each time he did, the woman jabbed him with a long needle, to teach him a lesson. "Oh, Keith," Mary said. "I would never do that."

Privileges included television, but only if the children ran a mile for each hour they wanted to watch.

Ed yelled more than Mary, who expressed anger quietly. But one day, even she got mad at Keith and Isaac, who had done a shoddy job of sweeping the garage. Isaac used a curse word. Mary took the broom and chased him around the garage. Keith laughed so hard she took after him, too.

Behind bars with other street girls

"Tule Lake" was finally published, in 1979, and the family traveled throughout the West Coast in a yellow Dodge van to publicize it (to learn more, go to www.tulelakenovel.com). As much as they could be with five teenagers, things were on an even keel.

But friends in the adoption field had another plan. Kanka, a girl in India, loomed in the family's consciousness. Her picture hung on the refrigerator. At a family meeting, they decided: "Just one more."

Kanka Hanson, was 5, she thinks, when her mother sold her to another family in which she was to care for a little boy.

One day, his mother sent her out for milk. She bought it, but could not find her way home. The houses all looked the same.

She begged on the streets for days, and was finally taken to an "orphanage" where she was locked behind bars with other street girls. Rats ran freely, as did human waste. One day, a friend died of tuberculosis.

Everyone knew about the lucky ones, taken away by a foreign woman. "I hoped it would be me," Kanka says. One day, it was.

She was told that she would join a family far away. "I didn't know there were airplanes in the sky," she says. "I didn't know there was such a thing as a country, or even the world." She was 12.

At first, it was difficult to trust. But Mary and Ed -- "my real parents," she calls them -- knew how to care for their brood. "My parents helped us all."

Now a wife, a mother of two and a child care provider, she looks back without anger. She forgives her mother, a poor woman with few options. "I can't be angry with someone I don't see," she says.

She does, however, wonder about the boy she was sold to care for. "I still wish I could find the street," she says. "How sad he must have been, to think I left him."

Because she was lost, she thinks, she was found. "I tell myself, 'Kanka, how your luck changed to become part of this family.' "

Keith, now 35, agreed. In 1987, he played high school basketball and was on his team's starting lineup. He bounded out when his name was called. Someone in the stands shouted, "But he doesn't look Japanese!"

After the game, he raced through the house, looking for Ed. It was after midnight, and Ed was parked at his drafting table. "Dad!" Keith shouted. "I'm a Miyakawa!"

Now an operations manager at a construction services company, he is proud of the mantle. "They raised us not to be victims. We're not."

The other children look back on their lives with nothing so much as awe. Like all brothers and sisters, they finish one another's sentences.

The group now includes five spouses and four grandchildren, and they gather for birthdays and camping trips. Family counseling in the 1980s helped heal childhood traumas -- so much so, they can now laugh about their early days.

Kimi Griffith, 36, tells the truth about jogging to earn television rights: Sometimes, she says, the group just ran until they were out of their parents' sight, waited a while, then came back home.

As a wife and mother to 3-year-old Megan, she asks herself: "How my parents pulled it off, I'll never know. Who could do that, except them?"

Huong, a wife, student and mother of 8-year-old Marisa, winces remembering the "Rainbow Family" T-shirts. "For teenagers?" she asks. But then she adds, "My parents gave me a second chance at life."

In 2000, she went to Vietnam with Mahn, who was on sabbatical from his job at Intel. Their birth mother was shocked to find them alive. They also saw their father, who tried to show affection by holding Mahn's hand. Mahn pulled away. "He's not my dad," he says simply. "Ed is."

Isaac, 32, a Washington architect, recalls a household that oscillated between structure and strain. "It was stressful, with all those backgrounds thrust onto each other, and my dad working 24/7.

"Our parents gave up their lives to raise us," he says. "They taught us survival, even if we did pull the tops off the dandelions."

As they shuttle between grandchildren, the beach and a condo in Charbonneau, Ed and Mary have little time for reflection. "It's just our lives," says Mary. "We don't think they are so interesting."

But Ed, the agnostic, sees it differently. "It is," he says, "a miracle."

Gabrielle Glaser: 503-221-8271; gabrielleglaser@news.oregonian.com

2004 Dec 26