_ The holiday mail brought photographs — American backdrops, Indian faces, in their late teens and early 20s. And in one card, news of a baby.
My wife refers to herself as The Stork because she used to fly with children, from Delhi or Mumbai, through taxing layovers in Europe, onward to American airports, to be greeted by family reunions. She would make her deliveries, then hop the next flight home, her stork work done.
Marianne estimates that she escorted 30 children on 13 trips, sometimes with a companion, sometimes solo. Many of the families send photos and news — musical instruments, sports, graduations, weddings — and now a baby.
The children, mostly girls, had been left in bus stations or on the steps of police stations, had been placed in orphanages, given the best treatment possible, offered first to Indian couples, and also treasured by Norwegian families, American families.
We heard about the Indian children through Holt International of Eugene, Ore., which cares for children all over the world.
Our contact, our friend, Susan Soonkeum Cox, arranged for me to visit a center outside Seoul, during the 1988 Olympics, to visit a man we’ve been supporting for decades, since he was a child. Susan later asked if I’d be interested in volunteering as an escort, and I said I thought my wife would be good at that.
Marianne was more than good. Not only did she love India from her first minute, but she also became involved with an orphanage in Pune, sometimes called the Oxford of the East. She watched the skilled officials and workers, and sometimes jumped in where she thought she was needed, learning from Lata Joshi and other friends and officials there.
One judge was balking at allowing adoptions because of rumors that children were used as servants in America. Somehow Marianne got an appointment with the judge and displayed her photo album of healthy smiling children, in the bosom of America. The judge, to his credit, got the point.
The orphanage needed a new building. Somehow Marianne convinced a farmer to make some land available for a new building, which is now in use.
She could operate in India because she loved the people — Hindu and Muslim, Parsi and Jain, all the castes. She was invited to wealthy homes for lavish meals and shared modest lunches at women’s shelters in the slums. And always at the end, an armful of children, meticulously approved by Indian and American authorities. Stork time.
I don’t know how she did it, carrying multiples of children from a year old to 8-9-10 years old, with bathroom issues, food issues, language issues, children who knew they were going to a new home, but first having to go through customs, waiting rooms, cramped airplane seats, the faces of strangers. Marianne's aunt Bettina knew some flight attendants on that great airline, Pan-Am, until its lamentable collapse at the end of 1991; many of them moved over to Delta. They sometimes upgraded Marianne to business class, where she cajoled German or Scottish or American businessmen to hold a crying child while she changed another baby’s diaper.
Once she was forced to stay overnight at a Heathrow motel, with an infant and a 7-year-old. When they went down for the buffet in the morning, the older child could not believe there was that much food in the world. She sampled, she ate, she laughed out loud at her fortune.
I went with Marianne once, on a trip that began with missions to Thailand and Vietnam. Seeing India through Marianne’s eyes was an adventure. She had the cadence and she had the words and she had the body language. She was home.
Our trip back was from Mumbai through Frankfurt to JFK. I was given a healthy boy of 2 or so; we bonded in minutes, doing guy stuff — he grabbed my beard, I elbowed him gently, we wolfed down our meals, I nicknamed him Bruiser and was more than a little sorry he already had a family waiting for him in the Midwest. A French seeker, in a robe and sandals, coming back from an ashram, spelled me at times on the first leg.
Marianne’s child had a high fever. The Pan-Am attendants upgraded them, helped ice him down and keep him hydrated. On landing in New York in the middle of the night we rushed him to the hospital, where a medical SWAT team jumped in — discovering an ear infection. A few days later, he was with his new family out west. He’s in college now.
On Marianne’s last run to her beloved Pune, she and our older daughter, Laura, brought home one more child — our grand-daughter Anjali. But first there was a farewell ceremony with our friend Mrs. Joshi.
The boy in the red outfit in the photo, snuggling up with Marianne? I asked her about him the other day. Oh, she said, he was deaf. Whenever she was in Pune, she always had a child in her arms.
I’ve never found a way to tell the story of Marianne’s love of the children, her love of India. She should write a book about her 13 trips, but she says she’s an artist, not a writer. The holiday card, the news of a baby, brought it all home. The Stork is a grandmother now.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.