The family she arrived to
My earliest memory of my sister was of a man coming to our house to speak with my parents. He was there to see if our home was a stable one. One where my sister would be welcomed and provided for. One where she would not only be safe, but hopefully nurtured and loved. I remember my mom essentially asking me to be on my best behavior before they arrived, but who’s to say whether or not that actually happened. I was, after all, just 6 years old.
I didn’t really understand why we were getting another sister. I had 2 already. There were 3 of us boys. I don’t think much of an effort was made to explain it, but that said, I have a six year old now and it’s remarkable the things he doesn’t hear us saying and the things he does. Maybe there was a giant family meeting. Maybe it was just the few words of encouragement to act normal when the interviewer came over to meet us.
Maya Lin (this is the name of the designer of the Vietnam Memorial and I will be using it in place of my sisters name in this post) was a teenage girl from Vietnam and we were a very big and ever growing family of white, suburban, Great Lakes style americans. We must have been quite a shock to her. Tall, pale and rembunctiously carefree. We were loud and curious, bold and kind. We were a station wagon with wood paneling kind of family who couldn’t have been more American. I can’t for the life of me, now, imagine what it was like for her to be dropped into this story as a young girl. At the time it never ocurred to me to wonder.
I was not all that welcoming. It’s just not a strength of little boys. I argued with her over the TV. A lot. To my memory my mom always sided with Maya. I was always cordial in screaming about how unfair it was and storming out of the room. I was a real charmer back then. Before long she acclimated. Never has more been swept aside in so short a time as me brushing past the acclimation process. But what can I know. She was plopped down into a new home and made a member of a new family in an instant. It was never questioned, never fretted on. Not from our side, my side at least.
Sure, my mother will tell you, if you ask, about that time, about her incredulous reaction to seeing snow fall, a thing she’d come accustomed to in no time as we lived in the 3rd snowiest city in America according to the video I watched on Facebook yesterday. It was from The Weather Channel and it meshes with my memory and the common understanding of where I’m from. She’ll tell you about how she had to have the TV to watch Soap Operas, a thing that was banned in my house for the wild disregard for moral behavior, to learn the language. My mom, and I don’t know how she figured this out, showed her these shows because all the characters spoke slowly, they over emoted, they spoke directly to the camera in close up and they repeated themselves over and over. Minus the horrid personal behavior, they were ideal for teaching the language. The other favorite was West Side Story. Musical theater courses through both sides of my family and while the appeal of this was lost on six year old me, the effect for language acquisition was also helpful. And she flat loved West Side Story. Mom would also tell you of her struggles acclimating to school and the challenge it was for her in that short time before she got the language down and made a friend or two.
I’d tell you about the new smells that as a 6 year old I thought were horrifying. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had a little boy. I had to leave the room the other day because I was eating a banana and this was just too much for Teddy to handle. In my case it was the smells of the food that I now realize I really missed out on. My palate has grown in sophistication since then and at this time when half my calories comes from cough drops and the other half comes from cold, discarded, nuggeted meats it feels like a real missed opportunity. Then there was the smell of bad overboiled hot dogs coming from the bathroom when her friend came over. It was just a home perm, a thing a thousand teenage girls that year did in my town, but none lived with us. My older brothers were yet to pull the trigger on the home perm.
Whatever her experience I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it was a fully family version of growing up. It was sadly not the ideal version of family that was taken from her. But it was a very loving one she made her way to and became a part of. And because she did I learned of the small but thriving Vietnamese community where we went to shop with her. I saw the food from all over the world I had never imagined existed so close to me. I learned the look of government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letter paper that allowed her to get what I think were censored letters from her family in Vietnam. It taught me that I could love her in all the same complicated ways we all love our individual family members. I remember being sad when we dropped her off at college and happy when she could and would come home for holidays. I remember missing her way of eating, a thing you don’t think can be different, so different before you see it. I remember feeling like something was missing when she wasn’t there and feeling like we were all home when she was.
Our whole family was growing as this all took place. We were adding new members and each of us growing as well. By the time she was done with college she had a boyfriend. A Vietnamese boyfriend. I was 16(ish) and we were now 6 Medler’s (My youngest brother was born in 84) and everyone that would be a part of our family had arrived, to one degree or another, by this point. Whether it was right after college or a few years later her boyfriend eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes.
The wedding was to be in King Of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I don’t know why, but I think they were living there at the time. She worked at a bank, I know that much, but honestly, she could have been president or a part time teller. Regardless I now look back on her asking me to be in her wedding with immense pride. It’s a real honor that she thought of me. I’m afraid at the time I was not so gracious. I said no. Yeah. I was also from a family where they respected my right to do such a thing. I’m sorry I did that. I’m incredibly thankful that they also asked my older brothers, both of whom have been and remain far more gracious in such matters.
Well, shortly before the wedding, and I mean very shortly, one of those government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letters arrived to alert Maya that her whole family was being released (had been granted visa’s.) I can’t begin to imagine how this felt for her. She hadn’t seen her mother and father and sisters and brothers since leaving. They hadn’t seen her since she was taken away. I can’t get into details I don’t know, but I know that what happened in the time between her leaving home and arriving to us was scary. She was made to leave in a moments notice and she was in a camp for some period of time. There were long periods when she was cargo on boats with no place to go, having no idea what life would hold if there was a future. She experienced and endured, as a teenage girl, innocent and surely terrified, things I know I never would have endured. But now she was here. My big sister. Annoying and loving. My honest to god sister. All the while waiting and hoping she could see her family again.
They would be arriving in a short time and once there the wedding would be in a matter of days. I remember us all, now in a minivan, making our way from Brockport New York down to Philly and checking into as few rooms as were reasonable for our large family, and getting dressed in our fancy duds. Mike and Eric in their tuxes and I in my Don Johnson whites (it was the 80’s) and my sisters in their best. My parents were old pros. They left enough time for us to woof down some happy meals and such in the parking ot of the McDonalds before heading over to the wedding, where all the food would be stuff our sensibilities hadn’t yet caught up to. I’m sure they were traditional Vietnamese wedding foods, but we weren’t really the traditional Vietnamese wedding goers. Not by a long shot. My Abraham Lincoln looking father matched old Abe in every detail, even height and frame. 6’4″ and slender, of Irish and Finnish descent. Still, we were there, her family. We weren’t in the front row, as that was for her Vietnamese family, but we were ushers and pasrticipants, those of us wise enough to recognize and accept that honor. Again, very sorry.
Anyway, there I sat, a foreigner in my homeland at a joyous celebration for my sister and her new husband. The ceremony was in Vietnamese and we knew to follow along. Our little league of nations pew at the church each weekend was one that taught us how to be attuned to ritual and cermony and this was no different. Just a different language. I remember looking back as the music started. My father and sister emerged, arm in arm. They walked down the aisle, she a bride and he her dad. It was beautiful. When they got to the first pew my father stopped, removed his arm and kissed her cheek and handed her hand to her fathers arm who took her the rest of the way and ceremonially gave her away.
I can’t imagine what this was like for her Vietnamese family. I can say that a lot of what I now see as extraordinarily meaningful was not so profound in the moment. I didn’t realize it all, what it all meant at the time. I’m discovering layers even as I write it here.
Our lives take on different meanings as they beat ever forward. Contexts and understandings change as we do. I know that my sister was meant to be a part of my family. It may not have been predestined, it may have come as the result of wretched circumstance. But in the end the love that we had, that persists to this days as we are all flung far and wide is something I’m so thankful for.