A multiracial family tells its story

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One of Pamela Purdy's favorite memories is the letter she received from a Vietnam veteran who had just read her book, ``Beyond the Babylift: A Story of an Adoption.'' He wrote: ``I never would have thought a thing would have come out of that war that was good.''

What came to Mrs. Purdy and her husband, David, one spring day in 1975 was a five-year-old half-Vietnamese, half-black dynamo named Hoang. Till that point, the youngster's life had been a struggle to survive in a conflict-torn country. But any apprehensions about joining a strange new family vanished at the first glimpse of an airport escalator.

Hoang, together with the three other Purdy children, raced up and down the contraption a half dozen times. When he plopped into the family car, Hoang clicked on the radio, top volume.

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``Oh boy, do we have an active one!'' murmured David Purdy.

That was 13 years ago. Today Hoang is Hoang-Stephen (Stephen to friends and family), a handsome, sturdily built freshman at Bridgewater State College south of Boston.

The journey toward early adulthood hasn't been easy for Stephen or his parents. There were anxieties left over from a turgid first five years in Vietnam, wrestlings with what Mrs. Purdy terms his ``hyperactivity,'' and the dark intrusion of racism.

As he sits at the dining room table in the Purdys' red-brick parish house discussing his life, Stephen still exudes youthful energy. It's a peaceful home. Photos of the children decked out for school plays and other events fill one wall. Mrs. Purdy's pastel portraits of each son and daughter line another. Out the back door and a few steps up the street stands Winchester's Crawford Memorial United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Mr. Purdy is minister.

Stephen's memories of his early years in the United States are, understandably, a bit hazy. But his parents vividly fill in details. Mrs. Purdy's book, recently published by Abingdon Press, chronicles the most memorable of the incidents, trials, and breakthroughs that have filled their lives.

Stephen does, however, recall ``always being in the slower group'' at school because of his poor grounding in English - to say nothing of a notoriously short attention span. Like most of us, he can remember a few teachers who took a special interest in him. (``It takes a lot of parents to raise a child,'' his mother comments.) And he enthusiastically describes his discovery of organized sports through Pop Warner football.

But it's the more immediate things that spark Stephen's conversation: the just-ended football season at Bridgewater State, his final high school year at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania (complete with white glove room inspections and mandatory study halls), and thoughts about a career. Stephen has his eye on sportscasting, or perhaps becoming a pilot.

Such dreams could have seemed impossible all those years ago when he first joined the Purdy household, then in the southern Massachusetts town of Middleboro.

``Adoption of an older child is likely to be hard under any circumstances,'' says Freda De Pillis of Children's Aid and Family Services in Northampton, Mass., who helped arrange the Purdys' adoption. ``With an overseas child you have the added problem of a different culture and different language - and in [Stephen's] case, the turmoil of war.''

But the Purdys, Mrs. De Pillis adds, were ``extraordinarily tenacious.''

Pamela and David Purdy, by their own description, were white, middle-class liberals who wanted to do more than wave placards to show their commitment to racial equality. ``In the early '70s ... integration was the word, so why not integrate the family?'' asks Mrs. Purdy, recalling their thinking at the time.

Before Stephen joined the family, the Purdys had already adopted another son, Ronald, a black American child. And they had two daughters by birth, Kristen and Jessica.

As Mrs. Purdy colorfully describes in her book, the newest arrival took the family by storm. He could switch from adorable to incorrigible in an instant. Remnants of Vietnamese street life surfaced unpredictably - as when Stephen earnestly asked a visiting adult, ``Beer? ... one dolla?''

There were ``a lot of angry explosions,'' says Mrs. Purdy, but ``you don't take them personally. The anger may seem to be directed at you, but it's misdirected.

``You have to play it day by day, hour by hour. There's no ironclad way to raise a child. We had to raise them all differently.''

The Purdys learned to deal with, and even appreciate at times, Stephen's irrepressible liveliness. More difficult has been the racial animosity directed at their sons.

There was the time, for instance, when Ron was playing on the sidewalk in front of a friend's house. An older man walked by and remarked angrily, ``What are you doing here? You don't belong here.'' Or the time when Stephen, then 10, was beaten by a white teen-ager in a store just down the street from the Purdys' house. Onlookers did nothing to stop it.

``As white parents of nonwhite kids you have to confront racism whenever you find it,'' says Mr. Purdy.

And he has done that quite literally. He sought out and talked to a man who called Stephen and Ron ``niggers'' when he happened on them in a restaurant bathroom. And the Purdys finally sorted things out with the local police after an overzealous plainclothesman chased Stephen through his own neighborhood, thinking the teen-age boy looked suspicious because of his skin color.

Until they adopted the boys, ``I don't think we ever realized that black people live with this daily, that it's something that goes on and on,'' says Mrs. Purdy. She adds, however, that the communities they've lived in have included ``many wonderful, supportive nonracist people as well.''

Despite trying times, or maybe because of them, the Purdys have clearly shaped themselves into a very close family. ``I think we're the kind of family that talks a lot. We insisted on a dinnertime when we sit down together,'' says Mrs. Purdy.

And what's Stephen's comment on the people who adopted him, bringing him to suburban American from half a world away?

``They both would do anything for us kids,'' he says quietly. ``It's just the way they are. They'd do anything for us kids and I'd do anything for them.''

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