Triple plum blessing
Sunday, October 2, 2005
By LINDY WASHBURN
The story of Nora, Alice and Anna Youtz of Tenafly begins on a bridge in Qinzhou, a Chinese city of a million people so far south it is almost in Vietnam. On May 25 last year, three tiny morsels wrapped in baby blankets were found by a passer-by who reported them to the district police station. Police officer Gan Xiang-ming picked them up and took them to the city welfare office.
Pinned to the front of each tiny bundle was a bookmark-sized red ribbon, covered with neat black calligraphy. Here, the ribbons said, are the eighth, ninth and 10th daughters of the Chen clan. They were "three treasures of the womb," in the exact translation of the Chinese term for triplets.
"We unfortunately are unable to take care of them," each note said with formality. "We leave this child here, in hopes that an honorable person will raise her to adulthood."
The sisters were delivered to the capital of the Guangxi Autonomous Region four days later, to an orphanage jointly funded by the Chinese government and a Hong Kong philanthropy. There they were named after the plum tree, whose beautiful blossoms appear in winter, a poetic symbol of survival.
Enchanting Plum was the first.
Gracious Plum was the second.
And Graceful Plum was the third.
Four weeks later, an American family visited the orphanage.
David Youtz, a China specialist for Morgan Stanley, the investment banking company, and his wife, Mary Child, a former book editor for Cambridge University Press, had decided that it was time to show 9-year-old Sophie Youtz a little about her origins. Nine years earlier, the couple - then residents of Hong Kong - had adopted her as a 6-month-old from the same orphanage. They'd maintained contact with the home, a well-staffed and loving place that has sent more than 1,000 Chinese children to adoptive families abroad.
As the family toured the play rooms with the orphanage founder, she spoke excitedly of the new arrivals.
"I have something very special to show you," she said, leading them to a crib where the three babies lay in a row, crosswise. "We hope we can find a way to keep them together.'' The little peanuts lay side by side, with their dandelion puffs of black hair.
The spark of an idea flashed in Child's mind.
Fifteen months later, the Youtz-Child family, along with a grandfather and an aunt, returned - this time to adopt the Plum sisters in what may be the only international triplet adoption the Chinese government has ever permitted.
The identical toddlers, distinguishable by the different-colored scrunchies that tie up their fountain ponytails, came to their home in Tenafly on Aug. 28.
It's been sleepless nights and non-stop rice cooking ever since. "We joined Costco" said Youtz, to make it easier to buy bulk diapers and wet wipes.
They bought a minivan, reassigned the upstairs bedrooms and assembled three car seats, three highchairs and three cribs. The equipment was put together with the help of friends and neighbors in Tenafly, as well as members of the metropolitan chapter of Families With Children From China, of which Youtz is president. Just last week, a three-child stroller arrived from distant relatives.
Family members have cycled through to help out for a few days at a time.
A new rice cooker is in use around the clock, preparing the congee, or watery rice porridge that the girls were used to eating in the orphanage. Youtz and Child speak Chinese, so they can use the phrases and names to which the girls are accustomed. "Lao Da!" says Youtz, calling Nora by her nickname of "Old Big." "Ni qu nar? (Where are you going?)"
Nora pauses in her effort to escape the family room via the gate to the kitchen. The first-born and largest, she's the boss. When her middle sister, Alice - called Lao Er, or "Old Second" - starts to cry, Nora finds a pacifier and pushes it into her mouth. When it's time to go outside, she gathers all three pairs of shoes. Anna, the most vocal, is Lao San, or "Old Third."
A long, difficult road
International adoption of Chinese twins is uncommon, so the adoption of Chinese triplets was quite an event. "We have not ever placed triplets from China before," said Paige McCoy Smith, vice president of the Gladney Center for Adoption, which arranged the adoption and issued a news release. The center has placed 600 Chinese girls with families since 1994.
At the White Swan Hotel in the city of Guangzhou, where parents of adopted children stay while processing their paperwork with the American Consulate, the triplets caused a sensation.
More than 45,000 Chinese children have been adopted in the United States since the Chinese government began facilitating it in 1993, with an estimated 7,000 such families in the New York area. Ninety-five percent of them are girls.
All adoptions from China are arranged through the China Center for Adoption Affairs in Beijing, which refers a child for adoption after determining that the parents' application is acceptable. Prospective parents are not allowed to request specific children; the Chinese government matches the children with their adoptive families.
In this case, said Youtz, "we kept being told it was not possible." With subtlety and politeness, the couple mentioned their visit to the orphanage and their interest in the triplets in their correspondence with the center. Then they began the months-long process of assembling their dossier: birth, marriage and financial certificates, fingerprints, FBI clearance, family assessment.
On July 1, word finally arrived via e-mail.
"You have a match," the adoption agency told them. It was the triplets.
Sophie and her mother had agreed that Child would go to tell Sophie the news wherever she was. They'd arranged a signal: three fingers for triplets. So Child drove to Sophie's summer camp, and called to her from the sidelines of the soccer field. She held up three fingers! Sophie jumped up and down. Together, they drove into New York to meet Youtz and their case worker, Gongzhan Wu, who had managed the adoption effort as head of the Gladney Center's China program.
Now Sophie is sharing her parents with her three sisters. The tots smile at the loud honking of a squeeze-horn and like to look at picture books. But sometimes Sophie tires of the baby noise and retreats to her room to read by herself.
Youtz also has returned to work and to his regular sessions with a Chinese tutor. Last week, he and the tutor spent their lesson translating the red ribbons that had been pinned to the triplets' blankets.
Written in an arcane style, they appeared to have been penned by a village scribe, rather than the babies' parents. The birth date was expressed using a lunar, farming calendar. The last four characters on the ribbons had never been completely understood. On Wednesday night, when they parsed out their meaning, Youtz felt a chill.
Aside from asking that each girl be raised to adulthood, the notes also requested that the honorable people who raised each one "seek to bring back the child to meet her relatives."
Someplace in a village in rural Guangxi Autonomous Region, there is a Chen clan where a woman once gave birth to healthy girl triplets. And someday, said Youtz, he expects that his new family will find them.
Meanwhile, there is so much to learn. "Zou, zou," says Child, taking Alice's hands. "Walk, walk." Alice lurches along with the halting steps of a toddler. The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, said a Chinese philosopher.
And so the journey of the Youtz sisters begins.