One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing what goes and knowing what stays. And often, it isn’t you that makes the decision. And often you get irritated – as I do – but eventually you realize that the editor made the write decision in regard to the flow of the narrative.
I really enjoyed interviewing Evelyn, and was disappointed to have her section cut from my latest article. So here is her story.
Brooke’s parents were Buddhist, as were most from her region. Yet considering all the assistance shown by the local Christian churches in the refugee camp, they began attending mass. Brooke converted when she was nine, and eventually, so did all her siblings. Her parents had no objection.
She remembers her first Christmas that winter in New Jersey. She found it very strange to have a tree indoors. There were pictures of a large man in a red suit everywhere.
“I thought it was completely bizarre,” she reflects. “Until one day when someone burst into our house and just starting handing us presents. That changed my opinion quickly.”
Her Catholic conversion can be attributed to Evelyn and Frank Zember. Before long, Evelyn and Frank were called Grandmother and Grandfather.
“They did so much for us,” said Brooke. “We didn’t know how to drive. We had no clothes. We had nothing. They did everything for us. They didn’t have to do anything to help, but they did.”
The Zembers volunteered often before, during and after the Vietnam War. They never had children of their own, but they had that parental instinct. They spent countless hours at their Catholic Church in New Jersey and become responsible for helping to rescue over 50 families from Vietnam.
“You’re put on this earth for a reason,” she says. “You better make it count.”
Evelyn, “70ish” as she puts it, struts around painfully in her assisted living home in good spirits, looking for ladies to gab with or the shuffle of a card game.
“Poker, spades, pinochle. You name it, I play it,” she says with a wink, offering a challenge.
Her room is a mini-recreation of the house that her and husband lived in for years in Rhode Island and New Jersey. Frank passed away two years ago, and her bad back didn’t allow her to live by herself any longer. Her old furniture and favorite items from her house surround her, making her feel secure.
She speaks of her husband in the highest regard. Frank taught in the same school system for over 50 years. He was a loving husband that did everything his wife asked and then some. He rang bells outside the Salvation Army in the harsh winter when Evelyn asked him to. When she would volunteer on Christmas Eve for a prevention help line, Frank would show up, despite his previous plans.
A few years ago, her town of Watchung, New Jersey recognized her efforts and named her the Watchung Woman of Year. An award that she modestly feels was unnecessary.
“I didn’t make any sacrifice in life,” she says. “Actually, I was the one being rewarded.”
Evelyn’s philanthropy began before she even met her husband. Growing up in Rhode Island, she converted to Catholicism and volunteered to live in Alaska in the early 1970s, helping Eskimo children and adults. There Evelyn met an Australian woman who she reconnected with a few years later that told her she was gathering items for abandoned babies in Vietnam. And there it was, as Evelyn puts it.
“I knew what I had to do next.”
By 1975, after fundraising and promoting adoption, she and her new love Frank were off to Saigon. There they escorted sixteen babies to childcare centers in the United States and Canada. Five adults and sixteen crying babies. For Evelyn, it wasn’t even a challenge.
“It’s not hard when everyone wants to hold a precious baby,” she says. “I set up a diaper station, and my husband Frank just kept shipping them down to me.”
Evelyn wasn’t satisfied once she returned. More needed to be done. She began giving speeches at churches and community centers. She began lining up jobs for refugees. She found apartments, furnishings and clothes. She took them to job interviews and English as a second language classes. She would wait with them at the DMV while they were processed their Social Security Numbers.
“It’s not like adopting a child,” she said. “It’s more than that. You have to manage the entire family. And before you know it, they become your family.”
She hears from nearly every family she sponsored. Some call her mother, grandmother, aunt or sister. They call often and visit her. They send pictures of their children and grandchildren, which essentially, are Evelyn’s children and grandchildren too.
“I’ve never been bored one day in my life,” she said, shrugging off the suggestion that her days of adventure are over. “I’m a blessed woman. I have a large family to keep me occupied.”
She remembers meeting Brooke for the first time and bonding with her. She can’t calm herself down when she talks of how proud she is of her.
“Brooke’s a gentle soul and a wonderful person. She wrote a beautiful poem for my husband and read it at his funeral,” said Evelyn. “She’s one in a million. I love her to pieces.”
Her cousin Hahn and her family had been sponsored by the Zembers as well. To be able to see her cousin and family again was a dream for Brooke. But only after a year of waking her children in the harsh New Jersey winter, Brooke’s mom pleaded to move to a warmer climate, and her husband obliged. He had family in Florida, and before long, the Luu family was on a plane again. Yet Brooke never forgot about the family that allowed her to come to the United States and how much she owed them. She travels to New Jersey every year to visit and talks to her often.
“I’ve tried to learn from her all I can,” said Brooke. “She’s taught me a lot about being a good woman. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but seeing her makes me be a better person.”
Every holiday, Brooke and her siblings receive a card with money in it for the holidays. It’s not about the amount, it’s “for luck,” as Grandma Evelyn always writes. She has never forgotten a single birthday.