Passing the Torch: Part Two

In 2011, Holt adoptee and adoptive father Lawrence Vallandigham reflected on how his experience of growing up adopted might influence how he parents his son. Four years later, Lawrence, whose son is now 6, discusses how his perceptions have changed over time.

By Lawrence Gordon Vallandigham, Mountain View, California

Divining nature from nurture is a parent’s lifetime Gordian knot. Ask any parent with a history of family adoption to attribute character, predilections and quirks, and that’s when stories become confusing. It’s not like we can simply point to Daddy’s or Mommy’s side of the family – though we jokingly do.

This is our evolving story with our son, Gordon.

In 2011, my wife and I shared our adoption journey from our decision to adopt through the first two years of our son’s new life. I closed the article with rhetorical flourish about ways my being an adult adoptee might influence parenting attitudes and behaviors for raising Gordon:

(2011 story excerpt):  As an adult Holt adoptee, I occasionally wonder how it informs my approach to fatherhood. Will my experiences be relevant to Gordon? Should I be more intuitive about identity issues? Of this I am certain: just as I was lovingly raised, Gordon will always know of his beginnings – not as a reason for solicitous gratitude, but to understand the richness of family and the blessings of life.

Little did I think I’d be asked for a follow-up perspective four years later. Upon discussing with my wife the proposition to write another article, we believe our story might resonate with others in this unique community who have chosen love through adoption.

Gordon and I are Holt adoptees. Ms. Molly Holt, daughter to Holt founders Harry and Bertha Holt, is a part of our lives in the truest sense. We have met her in Korea, she held us when we were infants, and she signed my adoption papers more than 40 years ago. When in Seoul to receive Gordon in 2009, we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Molly, learning from her experiences and gaining insight into what it means to be an orphan in Korea, then and now. It is a curious thing to know that what initially connects Gordon and me is not a genealogy but a ministry.

First lesson… what was I thinking?

It’s wonderfully comical reflecting upon some of our first concerns and fears, both as new parents and as new parents of an adopted child. Sparing my wife any embarrassment, I’ll share that when we returned to the United States with Gordon, one of my concerns was how to minimize for him any difficulty learning the sounds and speech of his new home – he was 9 months old. And like so often along the parenting journey, our children prove us wrong in all the best ways.

In retrospect, I laugh at my angst, particularly acknowledging that when I joined my family, I was more than 2 years old, understood and spoke Korean, and experienced no such challenge learning English. In fact, my parents love to remind me that I was a non-stop talker, and they have the early recordings to prove it – much to my chagrin and to my wife’s pure delight.

Medical Questionnaire: Is there a family history of…?

As an infant in Korea, I contracted tuberculosis along with a number of other maladies, which contributed to a number of times when I was expected to die. My known health history caused one family to opt for another child. Today, those illnesses serve as nothing more than anecdotes of my story because since that age, I have enjoyed superbly good health. However, the scar of TB remains in X-rays, reminding me of my unknown genetics and unknown birth family health history.

Our first Easter with Gordon did not fill the memory book with pictures of egg hunts and chocolate bunnies because we were worryingly nursing him back to health through a frightfully high fever. While we may intervene occasionally to keep him fit and shield him from risky behaviors, the scarier truth lurks beneath the knowledge that we are helpless and unable to know for what he should be prepared in his health-future. Thankfully, he is physically robust and is as active as any 6-year-old boy, but there is never an emotionally satisfying answer we can provide to health history questionnaires. These questions fall into the category of our life’s boxes to which we will be forever blind.

TBall 14Mar2015 (2)

“Mommy’s Japanese. I’m Korean. Daddy, you’re Asian.”

I was raised in a Caucasian household with traditional post-World War II family values and sensibilities. The fact I was adopted was plainly evident though never pivotal in our family, special but not differentiated as a point of distraction. Of course, my adoption history made me unique but it did not define me because the focus in our house was not ethnicity or skin color but integrity.

My U.S.-born wife is ethnically Japanese. Her childhood was filled with family gatherings reinforcing traditional Japanese culture, though thoroughly modern and infused with American ideals. She brought to me awareness and appreciation for the richness of cultural connection.

What does it mean to be Korean-born living in America? Living in the San Francisco Bay Area (a tapestry of world cultures), it simply meant that my wife and I added Korean cuisine to our repertoire of dining experiences. We didn’t actively seek connection with the Korean community, but benefit because there is one. We didn’t actively seek ethnic Korean friends, but have many through church and social circles. This question remains a challenge for us, and increasingly for me as I become more aware of a cultural heritage untapped and under-explored.

In small ways, we explore the Korean language, arts and culture with Gordon. I tell myself that the limitation to these efforts is imposed by our busy 21st century lives, but deep down, I know it’s more about my lack of familiarity. Were it not for my wife, Gordon’s exposure to Korean culture would be limited to Korean BBQ and the immensely satisfying bibimbap on a frosty winter night. Being an otherwise reasonably intelligent guy, my occasionally exposed pockets of ignorance amuse and shake me.

Q: “Gordon, where are your underwear?”

A: “I don’t know. I’m having too much fun to remember!”

I remember my first day. I remember the searing heat of that late August afternoon. I remember looking out the back window of the family Chevy Nova as it pulled away from the airport. I remember not understanding the new language spoken to me in soothing tones. And I remember not having any particular feelings about the confusing events forever changing my life’s trajectory.

My first deeply emotional memory formed a few weeks later with my father, poolside in our backyard. I accidentally knocked over a container of diluted pool chlorine and splashed my feet and legs. Before I could cry or whimper, and without a spoken word, he lifted me, dipped me into the pool and with the other arm, wrapped me in a sun-warmed towel as he drew me into his embrace. In that moment, I knew I was safe, I was loved and I had a father.

Our earliest yearning for Gordon was to provide him with a transcendent confidence that he was secure in the love of his new family. We cannot point to a single moment or event in his life where this crystallized, but know that we are every bit a family, covalently bonded and inseparable. In time, Judy and I are eager to hear him share his earliest memories. We like to believe that he possesses this now. At least, he is infinitely confident inviting all of his church friends to play at our house. Connecting the dots between our desire for him and my childhood experience, I believe that becoming a family doesn’t happen all at once but through the thickening cords of time.

“Food and drink taste better when we receive them with a spirit of gratitude.” A few minutes later, Gordon said his Jamba Juice tasted the same, even with a bad attitude.

We grapple every day with the challenge to exemplify a genuine appreciation for and acknowledgment of the blessings we have. For me, this is a core value attitude. Adopted children have a real basis to contemplate a life that never was and raising our son in Silicon Valley presents teachable moments with incredible poignancy given the ever-present conspicuous displays of material wealth around us. This is a delicate balancing act – to prepare a spirit, heart and mind to express gratitude without becoming manic about it. Admittedly, our responsibility to instill a healthy humility with compassion is not different from other parents. Yet, given our knowledge about the challenging future for orphans in Korea, then and now, I marvel at the blessed life we have versus what humble-orphanage-beginnings suggested should have been.

Admittedly, there are more ways my adoption experience shaped my parenting attitudes and who I am today. For me, the history of my adoption was never a consciously central element of my identity, and deciphering the discrete ways it contributed to who I am is like trying to divide ice from a mountain of snow. What I do know is the family histories Judy and I brought to our marriage strengthen us, and we were supremely fortunate to have had parental role models worth emulating.

One day, Gordon will understand the sleepless nights, the tears of joy and tears of doubt, the hyperventilating exhilaration, and earnest prayers all parents know. Today, there is not a more joyful sound than the unbridled laughter of our son and no greater fear than we should somehow be responsible for silencing it. We pray for the wisdom to recognize what is important and true so that Gordon will grow fearlessly, limited only by challenges left untested. He is growing in the security of our family love and is enthusiastically embracing the confidence acquired through real accomplishments and discoveries. Perhaps, one day, he too will look back and be okay with adoption.

Dedicated in loving memory of my father, Gordon Everett Vallandigham, October 1923 – January 2015.

Read Lawrence’s 2011 story, “Passing the Torch:  When a Holt Adoptee Adopts.”

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