Dress By Gram. Curls By Mom.

Nikkole DeMars

St. Catherine University, Minnesota, USA

Throughout the course of my life, I never imagined that I would be the type of person to think that I was on a personal journey or transformation. You know, one of those corny opportunities for growth, change and self-acceptance that you see in posts on social media, or in the latest self-help book. It all seemed too superficial and cliché for me, and I certainly never considered my life to be some personal evolution; but unbeknownst to me, I was indeed on a quest for something that kept nudging at me with occasional whispers starting in my angsty teenage years. There was indeed something I needed to resolve within myself. 

The story that I was told was that I was left on the front steps of an orphanage in Seoul, Korea by a woman who simply could not care for me. There were no additional details that followed that single phrase by my adoptive parents, but I never questioned whether that actually happened or not. Mostly because I was grateful for them choosing me, and I never wanted them to feel like they were not enough. I never wanted to be that “child of adoption” that wanted to look for their biological parents, or visit their birth place, but when I look back now, I guess I was always looking for clues that would lead me to understand who I really am.

Nature vs. Nurture

I was fortunate to grow up with a dad that was constantly creating a forum for fostering curiosity with my brother and I. Early on in my childhood I can recall him facilitating an environment for me to ask anything, and there was never a limit on how many questions I might ask. One of the repeated philosophical conversations that we would embark on in my teen years and into my twenties, was around the concept of nature versus nurture, and what has a more powerful impact on an individual.

Each time we engaged in this conversation, I always came up short on the nature side of things, and we would end up talking more about my brother, who is my parents biological child. I could definitely see the impacts of nature when we talked about it in terms of him and my parents.  Honestly, I loved this debate because it allowed me to really examine the qualities within myself that were like my mother and father, and that gave me personal permission to feel deeply included in my family experience. 

I have ingrained in me this incredible sense of appreciation and zest for life, I am a loud talker, a loud laugher, but I am also most comfortable in the content quiet and processing of my own thoughts and emotions. In my family, I am the “go to” person, the connector, and most times the life of the party. I have a high sense of value for fun, and a great appreciation for loved ones, friends and family. My dad also possesses all of these same qualities, and these shared qualities have given me comfort throughout my formative years and beyond. I really like being like him.

The Poop Diaries

There were many times during my childhood that I found myself quietly looking for clues as to what my short-lived life was like in Seoul (8 months to be exact). At the time. I really didn’t understand why that was important, but I wanted clues; hints beyond the one phrase of “I was left on the front steps of an orphanage in Seoul, Korea by a woman who simply could not care for me.”

Recently, my dad was cleaning out some old papers that he had in storage and mailed me a package that contained some things that he thought I might be interested in. To my surprise and quiet delight there was a small book in the package that was weathered and worn, and it looked to be some kind of small, thin journal from the orphanage in Korea. I wasn’t exactly sure what information would be contained in this small booklet, but I felt as though it must have something tangible for me to understand more about my experience there. As I surgically turned each page, thinking the next would bring out some juicy indications about my infant life, I quickly realized this was a daily journal that documented my eating habits and my bowel movements. That was not a leading indicator of anything juicy, other than proof that I was regular! 

Although this was not the artifact that I was hoping for, it has proven to be a little something to hold onto. It was a sign that I was cared for, and someone was thoughtful enough to pass it along to my parents as a record of my health. It still feels like a treasure today, and I am grateful that my dad saved it all of these years. 


Going to the doctor’s office and being asked to complete the standard medical history questionnaire has always been a complicated experience for me. When you don’t have any details of your medical history, these questionnaires are both easy and complex. The easy part is when you just write a giant “N/A – Adopted” over the whole page. The complex part is related to the emotions that bubble to the surface when the doctor enters the room, reviews your chart and responds to your response. I have had a variety of different comments from doctors. Everything from complete silence upon review of my “completed” form, to “I’m sorry”, to “Are you sure you don’t know anything about your history?”

I have never pitied myself, and was not raised to feel sorry for myself as a child of adoption so the one response that has always stood out to me is when someone responds to your sharing of adoption with “I’m sorry.” My family never treated me like an underdog or a less fortunate child so it was (and still is) shocking to me when someone looks at me through that lens. 

Do you Want to See My Sister?

Another important tale that has been shared with me, starting when I was very young, is about the anticipation that my brother had regarding my arrival. He is three years older than me, and the story goes that once he heard that he was going to have a baby sister and that I was going to fly on a big airplane from far away with many other babies, he started asking anyone that he would encounter, “Do you want to see my sister?” Along with those words, he would reach into his front pockets and hold an invisible version of me cupped in his hands. 

My brother and I are polar opposites at the surface in every regard. I am talkative and outspoken; he is quiet and thoughtful. I tend to be attention seeking, and he is introverted. I have a big personality, and he is reserved and more measured. I could list many dichotomies between the two of us, but the one main commonality that we do share is unconditional love and deep respect for each other. I have always felt that the relationship with my brother was built out of pure love, long before we ever met. He carried that invisible version of me around in his pocket knowing that we were going to share something unexplainable and uniquely special between us. 

We shared all of the ups and downs that siblings share, and I could go on and on with funny and impactful stories about our relationship. Like the time I shoved an ice cream cone in his face just to get a reaction, or when he kicked out my front tooth with his moon boot, or when he offered me a couch to sleep on, and the encouragement to start my life anew after my divorce. I have always felt like my brother has treated me like a special treasure, even before we met.

Love and Kisses from Gram

She was the precise definition of glamour. Her clothes were classic, her home was stunning, her makeup and hair were perfection. In my eyes as a child, and still to this day, she was a mix between Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Martha Stewart. All beverages were served on a serving tray with tasteful accoutrements, and her vanity was chock full of the most beautiful lipsticks and eyeshadows, and glittering beautiful things. She even smelled glamorous.  

When it came to the most important day of my childhood, my naturalization ceremony to officially become a U.S. Citizen, it was an obvious choice, that Gram would make me a special dress for my big day. If it is possible to “steal the show” at a naturalization ceremony, I certainly did that day. I paraded down the aisle in my dress by Gram, and my perfectly coiffed curls by mom, gripping and waving my personal sized American flag and blowing kisses to the onlookers and other new citizens. 

I have come to realize that I feel like this little girl every single day of my life and that quest for understanding who I really am comes down to the people that have loved me, prioritized me and cared for me. In all of my efforts to seek my true self, I have come to recognize that you build your true self through everyday life, relationships, experiences, loss and traumas. The one through line in my life is the importance of human connection with those you love, and the acceptance that I am built by these people and experiences that have guided me along the way. Dress by Gram, curls by mom, always.