Greetings! It has been such a long, long time since I last wrote in this memoir. Suffice to say that huge portions of life got in the way during much of 2021, and it was a very difficult year. The good news is I’m back in the writer’s chair once again. Words and memories, like unruly hedgehogs scratching at the door, are eagerly nuzzling, nipping, and nudging to be let out and run free.
As I write these words, I’m savoring my favorite spot in all the world—a terrace in Ghirardelli Square overlooking the bay and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. It’s early March, and not a cloud floats in the baby-blue western sky. Only a slight breeze is blowing, and it’s a balmy 70 degrees—unreal for this time of year in this chilly maritime city. For me, this is a place of profound reckoning, joy, and healing.
Speaking of healing, I’m also recovering from a breakthrough bout of Covid but thankfully, I’m doing just fine. A sense of deep gratefulness is settling in. Hedgehogs, it’s time to continue our journey. Let’s go…
— Mi Ae
When I was in my 20s, my father once asked me, teasingly, where I was in the 1960s. I utterly shocked myself by uncharacteristically replying wittily, “I was an egg, of course.” He and I both laughed huge and long.
My given birthdate was January 28, 1970. I say “given” because as far as I know, I was not born in a hospital or in any place where any sort of paperwork or documentation heralded my arrival. My hometown is Pusan, a metropolitan port city in the southeastern part of the country. Now known as Busan, it is the second-largest city in South Korea after Seoul and renowned for its mountains, beaches, and Buddhist temples.
The day was probably a very cold one, given the time of year. Legend has it that I was dropped off at a police station, as was the case for thousands of babies at the time in post-war Korea who were born to mothers who could not afford to care for them or would be severely ostracized for having children out of wedlock. I ended up in an orphanage in Seoul under the care of the Holt International Children’s Services, having been named Shin Mi Ae (the surname comes first in Korean) and photographed with a placard stating my name and estimated birthdate.
Nearly 6,000 miles away in California, my parents were corresponding with the Holt agency on when a girl baby might become available for adoption. They had started the process about two years prior, and understandably, they were anxious for an actual child to arrive. I was one of the 1,932 children to be adopted out of my birth country that year.
My parents were as American-heartland as they come, both from small towns—my mother from central Wisconsin and my father near Lincoln, Nebraska. My mother, whose maiden name was Dewar, was quite proud of her English-Scottish heritage, while my father’s family had German and Swedish roots (Lipe and Schoenleber).
Born Nancy Ellen Dewar in 1939, my mother was the only child of Ada Mills and Duncan Dewar. Ada married Duncan when she was just 19 but could not tolerate her husband’s alcoholism and divorced him when my mother was only five years old. It was something that was just not done by a very young woman living in a painfully small Wisconsin town in the 1940s.
Fiery and strong-willed even as a child, Nancy grew up to be a striking, petite, doe-eyed girl who was a classic overachiever—editor of her high school newspaper, class valedictorian, a star performer in drama, a champion on the debate team, and an anorexic. She was a promising, college-bound young woman when she began classes at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but then she abruptly dropped out to marry my father in 1959, much to her mother’s lifelong disappointment.
My father, born Duane Henry Lipe in 1933, was the youngest of three children of a farmer. He was a blonde, blue-eyed cherub who won a prize at the state fair for being the Most Beautiful Baby. Expected to carry on the farm along with his older brother, my dad grew into a quiet, introverted, and deeply spiritual adolescent who decided instead to enter the ministry. Later he attended seminary in Switzerland, the only time in his life when he ever traveled outside the United States. Upon his return to America, my father became a Methodist pastor and was eventually assigned three tiny country churches in rural Wisconsin. And this is where he met my mother—at a church ice skating party.
Fifty-some years later, my dad told me that his first impression of her that fateful evening was that she was psychotic. Exactly why I don’t know, but his interest in psychology was already budding. Perhaps even then, he sensed in her a fascinating project to work on. But there was no doubt that she was gorgeous, vivacious, and capable of cranking up a charm that was as irresistible and vital as a roaring wood stove on an icy Wisconsin night.
Thus began a chaotic courtship that led to 39 years of a tumultuous marriage, a journey that neither of them could have imagined. No doubt, it turned out to be more than either of them ever bargained for.