VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Born May 12, 1969, Sarah de Vries was adopted by Maggie de Vries' parents in April, 1970. She became the youngest in a family of four children. In April, 1998, Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. On Aug. 6, 2002, she was identified through DNA in a police search of Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam property. In a new book, Maggie de Vries remembers her bright, funny, complicated sister. This is the first of three excerpts.
Once, when I was 15, I ran away from home. I don't remember what precipitated it, just that I was hurt, angry and desperate. I felt powerless. The only thing that I had the power to do was leave. So I did. I remember that it was dark outside. I ran down the hill, up to Second Avenue [in Vancouver] and down a lane onto a large property surrounded by woods.
Where could I go after that? My sense of powerlessness grew as I realized that the only place I could go was home. I don't think I was gone for more than half an hour.
Peter, my brother, ran away that same night. He did better than I did. He had the foresight to take his bike and ride to a friend's house, where few questions were asked, where he could stay overnight without a parental call being made to check into the situation. Peter called home in the morning and returned home that day.
When we talked about our experiences, Peter and I agreed that the tie to home was so strong that staying away seemed inconceivable. We knew where we belonged even when we were desperate to belong anywhere else but there. Sarah's tie to home was not as strong as ours, I think. She did come home over and over again for the next six years, until she was 19, but always she struggled and always she left.
That January, 1983, before she ran away for the first time, Sarah wrote me another letter that she did not finish. Dad forwarded it to me later on, when he found it in her room.
How are you? I am fine.
I heard that I will be staying with you while Dad is in Holland. I have a humanities exam on metaphors and alliteration, Mennonites, Chinese, Japanese, Doukhobors, narrative, descriptive, expository writing, fragments and run-ons, spelling rules, consonants with prefixes and suffixes, migration, immigrants, immigration, writing a news story with a lead sentence. I pray I pass. I can't wait till you come out here. I have Cecil for French. He is really nice. I don't really like Marcie, James or Lynda. I don't really know why I hate them, but I do. I went to see Tootsie. It is really funny and he really looks like a lady. In science we had to dissect a cow's eye. It was interesting, yet gross. At U-Hill everybody tries to be like a Valley girl. I myself hate it. It sounds so funny, but like the song. "Valley Girl." Liz, Christine and I were talking and we started saying, "Freak me with a spoon" and "Gag me green." It is supposed to be "Gag me with a spoon" and "Freak me green."
I'm in a drama class at Carnarvon School every Wednesday. It's really good. It goes for six weeks and teaches you to act the person or character you have to be with your whole body and actions and face expressions.
She wrote me another letter on Feb. 23, 1983, three days before she ran away:
I have not written a letter to you for a long time. I feel quite guilty about it too. I can't wait until May because I will be able to stay with you. We have a lot of catching up to do. I can hardly believe that you will be here in two months. Guess what? I might be taking Jazz lessons. I am already taking acting lessons. I'm getting worried about turning 14 in May. I want to know if you thought it is a good age to be. I'm doing fine in school, but I'm not too sure about math. I'm passing everything else. I've got good news, B+ in French. Probably C- to C+ for science, C- to C+ for P.E., C- to C+ in Hum I, C- to C+ in Fine Arts. We have not got our report cards yet, but when I do I will write and tell what my marks are for grade 8. I saw Tootsie. It is a super, great, wonderful movie. You must go see it and tell me what you think of it. Then you must go see Gandhi. It is a super wonderful movie too. I saw the play Taming of the Shrew. It was done in a play where all the characters in it were punk (puke) but it was really funny ... Mark [one of her brothers] and I fight more now. Peter [her other brother] and I just don't talk unless we are arguing with each other. We are having chili for dinner tonight. Did you hear about the Marilyn Monroe doll that costs $600 up to $2,000? Have you ever heard the song Industrial Disease yet? Well, I have to go now because my class is over.
Love you all the time, so never forget that I love you.
Love, Sarah de Vries
P.S. See you in April, love me (Sarah)
P.P.S. Did you have a good Valentine's Day? You will always be my valentine.
I Love You Ya Ya Ya and with a love like me you know you should be glad.
Love you always Maggie.
Did I answer her letter? Did I tell her what it was like for me to be 14? Did I put aside time for her when I came back to Vancouver that April? Now, as I read her letter, I think that maybe it was good that I wasn't in Vancouver through many of those years, because I didn't become one of the people she had trouble with. I was removed from her day-to-day life, so she could have something of a clean slate when she wrote to me. But whatever I did or did not do back then (and I don't remember much), I feel her now, reaching out to me through these letters. And I am unable to reach back to her, unable to change one single thing.
Note: Part one of a three-part series.; Excerpted from Missing Sarah by
Maggie de Vries. Printed with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).; Tomorrow:
Maggie's visits to Sarah's house.
Kittens and needles
Born May 12, 1969, Sarah de Vries was adopted by Maggie de Vries' parents in April, 1970. She became the youngest in a family of four children. In April, 1998, Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. On Aug. 6, 2002, she was identified through DNA in a police search of Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam property. In a new book, Maggie de Vries remembers her bright, funny, complicated sister. This is the second of three excerpts. At this point in the book, Sarah is living with a man named Charlie (not his real name) in a rented house on Princess Street in Vancouver.
Idreaded my visits to Sarah's house. On each occasion, I stored my emotions away as carefully as I could, but still, as I drove closer, my body would tense, my gut would twist. I would anticipate. I brought gifts and photos, a store of anecdotes: a plan to fill the time.
I made a point of going early in the afternoon, when less desperation and hopelessness was evident on the streets. I looked away from the people who stumbled, who yelled obscenities, from the women with bare, scarred legs and shaking bodies standing on corners trying to make a few dollars for their next fix. I drove down Main Street one block north of Hastings and turned left, passing Oppenheimer Park. When I came to the Union Gospel Mission, I had reached Princess Street, where I turned left again. There was Sarah's house, a little grey bungalow, one of two, a matched set. Sarah lived in the one on the right.
I parked the car, walked around the back of the house, climbed the six steps or so to the back door and hesitated, listening, trying to get a sense of what might be going on inside. When I was ready, I knocked loudly.
"Who's there?" a voice would shout, usually Charlie's.
"It's Maggie, Sarah's sister," I would shout back through the door.
A minute or so later, the door would open and I would be ushered in. The kitchen was always a shambles. Dishes and pots would be piled high, evidence of cooking without the cleaning up. Pudding was a regular dish in that house -- instant pudding that you mix with hot milk but don't have to cook. Sarah knew that she needed nourishment, but often didn't have the stomach for much in the way of "real food." She loved instant chocolate pudding mixed with Dream Whip -- long-standing heroin addicts eat sugar endlessly. And Sarah liked to crunch on ice, again feeding a craving.
While Sarah contributed plenty to the disorder in the house, she always wanted to make it a home as well. I was told that she sometimes put up signs in the kitchen. "Wash your dishes," one said. "This is not a flophouse," said another. A long-time friend of Sarah's who was also a john, Ken, says that once someone brought a big roast of beef to the house and traded it for drugs. Sarah cooked that roast, the word spread, and people flocked to the back door for a taste. "She was a good cook," Ken says. "But she cooked like she kept house. She would be in her glory while she was doing it, oblivious to the grease flying around." She showed Ken how to rid the drippings of some of the fat when getting ready to make gravy. She would put ice cubes in the drippings and the fat would congeal around the ice. I don't know where she learned that.
The TV was always on in the living room when I was there. The floor in the house had been stripped several years earlier and then re-covered with nailed-down pieces of linoleum. Sarah would show me the latest improvements every time I came: walls painted, a new couch . . . Once she had cleaned and organized her room. All her clothes were hanging up. She had put pictures on the walls, put her makeup and jewellery in order. Such order was rare for her.
Sometimes there were kittens.
Also needles. Sarah would warn me to watch where I sat and stepped. She was protective. She told me to hang on to my purse if others were present. People came and went in the same way I did, shouting through the back door before being granted or denied entry. I might share the couch with a person on the nod from a recent fix. Other times, people would be gathered in friendly chatter; I would be drawn in, included. Once, Sarah searched a woman before she left, sure that the woman was stealing from her. When I visited at Christmastime, decorations would be up, a tree in the corner, and several times I took away wrapped gifts.
Sometimes, Sarah and I would be the only ones there. I liked that the best.
We would sit and try to talk to one another. I would bring photos if I could, stories at least. If Charlie was there, Sarah would call out to his room at the back of the house to pass on the stories about [their daughter] Jeanie. He loved the stories too. From what I could tell, neither of them knew how to relate to real, live, in-the-flesh children, although I have a photo of Charlie holding a day-old Jeanie so tenderly that I can hardly bear to look.
Dreaded though those visits were, I treasured the time together. I missed seeing Sarah at family gatherings and hearing from Mum that she had called to wish Mum a happy birthday or Mother's Day. I needed the contact.
A difficult topic: Why was his mother out on the street in the middle of the night?
Born May 12, 1969, Sarah de Vries was adopted by Maggie de Vries' parents in April, 1970. She became the youngest in a family of four children. In April, 1998, Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. On Aug. 6, 2002, she was identified through DNA in a police search of Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam property. In a new book, Maggie de Vries remembers her bright, funny, complicated sister. This is the final of three excerpts.
On July 25, the police announced that they were adding nine more names to the list of missing. That brought the list from fifty-four to sixty-three. Ten days after that, they told me that they had found Sarah's DNA at the site. It seemed as if I couldn't take a breath without a new development taking place. It still feels that way sometimes.
I finished teaching my course, worked on this book, went to work in Victoria for a week, and then [Sarah's daughter] Jeanie, then nearing twelve years old, came for her yearly visit. We had a wonderful time, especially the four days that we spent on Hornby Island with Uli, the husband of Amanda who died the same summer that Sarah disappeared, and her children.
Three of them are adults now and the youngest is well into his teens. They are brown like Jeanie and their mother is dead like Jeanie's is. Jeanie remembers them a little from when she was small and she thinks they are wonderful. (She is right.) We spent our days on the beach in Big Tribune Bay, hours in the water, digging in the sand, finding sand dollars, eating ice cream cones, enjoying ourselves. It was good to be together.
While Jeanie was in Vancouver, she brought up a difficult topic. Mum does not want Jeanie or Ben [Sarah's son] to hear for the first time about the ways in which Sarah's body may have been disposed of, about pigs or wood-chippers, from other children, so she addressed the subject honestly with them when they asked her what had happened to Sarah's body. She believes, and I do too, that when children ask questions, they want true answers and will let the adult know through further questions how much they are able to absorb. She also believes, and she told them this, that our bodies are like our clothes; once we die, they become extraneous, so in a sense what happens to them is unimportant. She did not go on to say that the true horror lies in what happened to Sarah before she died.
Jeanie's words to me were "Grammy says that Sarah's body was chopped up and fed to pigs." I knew that Mum had suggested that as a possibility, but the statement left me reeling.
"No, she didn't,"I replied. "She said that that was a possibility." We talked about it a little more, but since I can't assimilate that information myself, I don't think that I was as much help to Jeanie as I would want to be.
On Jeanie's last full day in Vancouver, I interviewed her for this book. It was hard to talk in such a formal way, with a tape deck running and me asking questions, rather than Jeanie bringing up what she wanted to. She buried her face in couch cushions and some of her answers seemed different from what she had said earlier. But she did bring up the pigs again and the machine that cuts up wood.
She put both those in context, explaining that that's why they have to sift through the soil. And that's why Mum told her and Ben those things. Because they asked. Because they want to know why there are no bodies, why the police are turning over the soil looking for small things rather than for whole bodies.
Apparently Ben also asked why Sarah was out on the street in the middle of the night. I don't know what Mum said to that. She did not try to explain sex work to a six-year-old.
- - -
This poem was written for Sarah by her aunt, the children's writer Jean Little, shortly after Sarah was adopted. Sarah's middle name was Jean (from her aunt) and her daughter, Jeanie, is named after her.
What can I give you, Sarah,
Yes, there will be times, Sarah,
Here is a subtler gift, Sarah,
I give you just my name
Let this be our gift to each other,
Updated: September 16, 2014