This is a story about Helen and Jean, sisters by adoption, and their remarkable stories of wartime sacrifice, acceptance, and love.
Miss Wilhelmina Kalsbeek, the sisters’ adoptive mother, wrote Helen’s and Jean’s early stories in 1945 for a missionary newsletter. Some information for this article is from this first-hand account. I also spoke with Helen and Jean over a pot of tea at my dining room table. Throughout this article, I use the names, Helen and Jean, names given to them by their adoptive mother. These daughters have no record of their birth names.
Jean was born in 1937, a year before the Japanese invasion of China. After her birth, she was cared for by a wet nurse. Jean’s father was working away from home and her mother was very frightened to be living alone with an infant. When rumors emerged that the Japanese were quickly moving into the area, most of the young women fled the village. When a man urged Jean’s mother to flee with him, she felt that doing so was a lesser evil than falling into the hands of the brutal Japanese soldiers.
When the wet nurse heard that Jean’s mother had left, she took the baby to the child’s maternal grandmother. The seventy-five-year-old woman protested that the child was not her responsibility but the wet nurse said that she, like the mother, also wished to avoid the enemy and could not be burdened with the child.
The grandmother heard that her daughter had fled to Kuling, a Chinese village many miles away. Knowing she would lose her possessions, her home and, perhaps, her life to the enemy anyway, she decided to leave everything and make the trip with her granddaughter to try to find her daughter. Besides being elderly, the grandmother had tiny feet which had once been bound. Despite these encumbrances, the grandmother eventually reached the village of Kuling after walking for ten days.
When she arrived in the village, she asked everyone she met if they had seen her daughter but no one had heard of her. She spent one more night outdoors in a yard that turned out to be the yard of Miss Kalsbeek’s mission. The next morning, Miss Kalsbeek and Ruby Liu, another missionary, found the old grandmother dead with the baby frantically sucking her breast. The missionaries took the baby to the hospital but, because she constantly cried, the ladies were asked to take her home with them.
Miss Kalsbeek wrote, This baby was the ugliest child we had ever seen! She had a big lopsided head and was covered in boils and sores. Her disposition was just as ugly. The only time she didn’t cry was when she had a mouth full of food. We fed her nine times that first day as she was starving. She even wailed in her sleep. The day came when we thought we could no longer continue. We had other work to do and we were extremely tired and nervous. We prayed more than usual that day, asking for guidance. That night when we put the baby to bed, something unusual happened. She went to sleep and didn’t cry. In fact, she slept like a perfectly normal child and from that day on she started to grow fatter, prettier, and sweeter. Apparently the Lord wanted us to keep her. She has been ours ever since.
As it turned out, taking care of little Jean was preparation for the arrival of Helen, the next, even greater, challenge. When Helen was forty days old, her parents sent her to her future in-laws. In the Chinese tradition of arranged marriages, Helen was engaged before she was born. Her parents apparently rationalized that this baby would end up with her in-laws eventually so why not deliver her to them immediately so they could escape the Japanese invasion.
Read the second part of this story next week in Coastal Breeze News .