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Ghosts of the Orphanage

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

My Earth Mother

Leah looks through the photo album of her adoption.
photo by Steve Schapiro

Becky says Leah seems hungry for any details about her birth family. She recalls a conversation she had with Leah to help her visualize the woman who gave her away. "Well, I can tell you a couple things," Becky told her. "We know she has black hair and dark brown eyes like you."

"How do you know that?" Leah demanded with shock.

When Leah was much younger, Becky says she had an endearing way of calling her birth mother "my earth mother." Once when Leah got angry with Becky, she said, "I think only of my earth mother!" Becky said, "That's good. I'm glad you think about her." But when Leah tried to push it too far, and suggested her earth mother would have given her more cookies, Becky did some quick thinking. "Oh no," Becky told her. "All mothers take an oath to never let their children have four cookies. I'm sure she took the same oath."

Revisiting the Orphanage

American RadioWorks gave the Helgesens an audio recorder so they could record their trip to China in May 2004. The family took turns recording their impressions and brought the recorder out to jade markets and along on car rides. The emotional high point was the visit to Leah's orphanage.

That morning, Leah recorded an entry, saying she was nervous, but what her hopes were for the day: "I hope I get some memories, of anything, even scary ones, because I want to remember what happened to me when I was younger. And I wish that Mr. Ping has some news about my scars on my legs and my foot. And if he does that'd be great, because I've been wondering about the scar on my leg, my foot, and my head, for like, years to come. And I'm always going to try and remember. And I know I'm not going to find my birth mother, but if I do, and you're out there, hi. "

Becky tucked the recorder into her purse, and recorded the official speech from the orphanage director welcoming the family and praising Leah as a strong and healthy girl and complimenting the Helgesens on their harmonious family.

Leah on her 2004 visit to the Xiangtan orphanage where she spent almost the first four years of her life.
Courtesy of the Helgesen family

Becky and Tom were not allowed into the part of the building where the children live, but Leah was allowed full run of the place, and for a time, her brother Nate was allowed to accompany her.

Leah, who had no memory of her time in the orphanage, was thrilled that several of the caregivers remembered her. "Liguo!" they exclaimed, calling her by her Chinese name. Leah explained that she didn't speak Chinese, but was able to use a few words to explain that she was there with her mother, father and brother. Leah's parents say they have never seen her smile as broadly as when the orphanage workers recognized her and were glad to see her.

As Leah proceeded into the rooms that housed the children, she walked into a room of crying babies. The babies stopped crying, waiting to see what Leah would do. "I wanted to pick one of them up, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to, so I first stayed there. I patted their heads to assure them to be okay," she said.

Back in their hotel room, Leah's family processed the day. In all of their minds, it was a great success. The orphanage had made a big to-do about Leah's visit, taking the family to lunch and proclaiming that she was always welcome there. On the tape, Leah says proudly, "It's like I have two homes."

"That's right," Becky agrees, "Two homes."

Then, in good brotherly form, Nate reaches for the microphone. "I want to say something. What really solidified the fact that they really did remember Leah, for me, was when her caregiver for two years remembered that Leah was very stubborn when she was a little girl and that she used to beat up other kids!"

"Cut what Nate just said!" yells Leah and the machine clicks off.

Becky records a post-script to the entry. They were able to learn a little bit more about Leah's scars. The orphanage doctor looked at the scar on Leah's head and the burns on her leg.

"He shrugged and said he couldn't remember, certainly didn't remember anything about the head," Becky says. "He said she had probably just tripped on something and fallen on the ground. The head injury was obviously very serious and was not caused by tripping over something and falling, so either he doesn't remember which is very likely after all these years and all these kids, or it's something they didn't feel like talking about."

The burns, however, did have a likely cause. The doctor told the family that when Leah was a baby, the orphanage had started using water bottles filled with boiling water to keep the children warm at night. Sometimes the bottles leaked, causing burns consistent with Leah's injuries. Although the information wasn't perfect, Becky says. "At least it's something. And that's more than we had before."

Next: 13th Birthday in China

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