Together again: adopted by America, sisters lives come full circle, Cathy Zimmerman/ The Daily News| Posted: Saturday, December 11, 2010 8:45 p.m.
All they had in common was being abandoned in Korea in the 1950s and landing in the same American family in rural Oregon.
One was cuddly, one aloof.
One turned out tiny, the other fulsome.
The first arrival fell into the arms of the new family, the second fended them off.
Yet few sisters grow as close as Holly Keyser and Lotus Kindred have become.
Raised in Oregon and now Longview residents, Holly and Lotus were among the first wave of Korean orphans who became Americans because of Harry Holt, who founded the Holt Adoption program.
After seeing movie clips of Amerasian children mistreated in Korea, Holt went to his Bible and asked God for guidance, Holly explained.
“He opened to the verse, ‘As far as the East is from the West, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ ” It was all the sign Holt needed.
His pact with God changed the lives of nearly 40,000 children over the years, including Holly and Lotus.
“She was my birthday present,” said Holly, who came in the United States two years before Lotus.
When her feisty new sibling arrived at the Portland airport, “I bonded immediately. It took Lotus longer.”
But bond they did.
After picking beans and being teens and getting married and raising families, the two recently talked their respective husbands, John Keyser and David Kindred, into buying a huge, one-story house together and living in tandem.
“They were talking about retiring,” said Lotus, who lived in Astoria. “My sister and I thought, ‘Should we live close together and share meals?'”
“We really didn’t think we could talk our husbands into living together,” Holly said.
Then they found the house. It had all the room the men had specified, plus the circular driveway John had stipulated.
On three acres in West Longview, the Kindreds and Keysers have a deck and pool, separate master suites, and a big dining room and kitchen area with two living rooms opening off opposite sides.
They’re not assigned the way you’d think.
“They guys are in here, and we have our living room over here,” said Holly.
“We go back and forth,” said John, who shares a huge shop on the property with David, who’s also a handyman.
“It amazes me how close they are,” John said of his wife and sister-in-law, “when you see a lot of siblings that are not.”
In the end, what Holly and Lotus share is a story.
Their journeys had danger and sadness and a fork in the road where they met, two tough little girls who somehow made it home.
‘How would I survive?’
Holly did not end up in an orphanage until she was 6.
“My mother was a prostitute,” she said. “That was her work. I remember her as being gentle, quiet and kind. She was never mean.”
They were always hungry, and because Holly was of mixed race, she faced insults on the street and physical abuse at school.
Left alone for hours at a time, she’d fall asleep waiting for her mother to come home. “I would be delighted to wake up and find her next to me.”
One morning, her mother didn’t show.
“I was very frightened,” Holly said. “How would I survive? I hated to leave the little house we lived in. It hurt so much that I told myself to stop thinking about her. When I would start, I would say to myself ‘STOP! If you think about her you’ll die.’ ”
After several days, the child was discovered and taken to an orphanage. Five months later, Holly was adopted through the Holt Agency, one of the first wave of children to leave Korea after the war in 1956.
Holly would realize later that her mother was a heroin addict, and was probably arrested.
Her new parents, Ruth and Edwin Doughty, had no children, and they showered her with love and nurturing. The family lived briefly in Wisconsin and then moved to Cottage Grove, Ore.
As for the coping mechanism that blocked her grief and pain, “it was not so good when I was an adult,” Holly said. “I had to go through hard experiences before I learned how to take care of feelings that needed to be taken care of.”
‘Different backgrounds, all of us’
When Lotus and Holly describe their beginnings, they tease each other and laugh through their gruesome litanies.
“I was in an orphanage since I was a baby,” Lotus said. By the time she was 3 or 4 she was scrubbing floors and scrabbling for food in town dumps.
“I learned how to knit my own socks at the age of 5,” she said. “We ate marrow, snails from the river, pine tree shoots. We’d catch bees and suck them. I had worms in my stomach and lice in my hair.”
Her weirdest memory is of being flown to Los Angeles to act in the 1959 movie “Battle Hymn” with Rock Hudson. “I was like, 4 or 5. They put us in raggedy clothes, and we pretended to be rescued. It was based on a true story.”
Not the orphans’ true story, however. After the filmmakers fed them — Lotus hid food anyplace on her clothing she could — they flew them back to Korea and deposited them back in the orphanage.
When Lotus arrived in Portland, Holly remembers how their parents used kerosene to kill the lice, how her new little sister hid food in closets and drawers.
Lotus remembers Holly.
“She was so excited to see me. She wanted to hug me and smother me. I was not interested.”
The women burst out laughing remembering how Lotus cried every day for a solid month.
“I wailed,” Lotus said, sputtering.
“You bellowed!” Holly crowed.
“You were spoiled,” Lotus mock-accused. “You had nice clothes, you were lavished with love. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to being alone. I took care of myself.”
“I had a fun streak,” said Holly. “You had a stubborn streak.”
Soon Lotus was trailing her big sister everywhere, earning the nickname “Me Too.” By the time she got to the U.S., Holly had forgotten how to speak Korean, so the younger girl was lost among a word blizzard that meant nothing.
Today, they don’t speak or understand Korean. They can sing a couple of folk songs, “but we don’t know what the words mean.”
The women’s raucous reminiscences slowed and they got quiet.
“We all have different backgrounds,” Holly said. “All of us.”
‘Grateful, grateful, grateful’
Two more Korean daughters would join the Doughtys. Cherry, who arrived two years after Lotus, became a beloved sister. She died from cancer at the age of 55, living with Holly and John near the end of her life.
And Penny Lee, who came later on a student visa as a 19-year-old and now lives in Los Angeles.
Lotus has three children, including twins, and was a stay-at-home mother. Holly, who has two children, worked as a family advocate in the Lower Columbia Head Start program.
“That was such a healing job for me,” Holly said. “I was able to give to families here what I wished I could have had in Korea.”
Both women returned to Korea on “Motherland Tours.”
“They were like celebrations,” Lotus said. Adoptees from all over the world attended the conferences and shared their stories, she said. “Some (biological) parents came and tried to find their children.”
John and Holly, through a program at Calvary Community Church, also have traveled to Thailand to work at the church’s Ban San Faan, a home for children in Chang Mai.
John is the chairman of the board for Ban San Faan and the Keysers sponsor one of the 28 children supported by Calvary members.
“It’s part of our giving back,” he said, “helping children who are just like Lotus and Holly.”
How do the sisters feel about their lives as American?
“Grateful, grateful, grateful,” said Holly.
“It gave us everything,” agreed Lotus. “We would not have survived.”