VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
‘They know she was murdered'
Grandmother raises B.C. prostitute's children
Friday, July 25, 2003
GUELPH - Twelve-year-old Jeanie de Vries, who only 30 seconds ago was bouncing on a backyard trampoline, comes sliding on sock feet into the living room, electrified with the curious thrill of a sunshower.
CREDIT: Peter J. Thompson, National Post
Pat de Vries holds a family photo that includes her slain daughter, Sarah
"It's raining!" she giggles to her grandmother. "But sun!"
Pat de Vries ignores the girl in loving exasperation, and gets back to the matter at hand. A book has just been published that tells the life story of Jeanie's mother -- Ms. de Vries' adopted daughter, Sarah -- who worked as a prostitute in Vancouver, vanished in 1998, and whose DNA was later discovered on Robert (Willy) Pickton's pig farm.
Jeanie's memories of her mother are sketchy, and her younger brother Ben, 7, has none. Once the book hits the stores, this improbable family of the white grandmother, the black/Indian/white/Mexican children, and Jean Little, the blind author of children's books who is also Ms. de Vries' sister, will gather on a bed upstairs to read the book aloud.
It was written by Ms. de Vries' other adopted daughter, Maggie de Vries, so the two women know many of the stories: the adoption by Ms. de Vries and her former husband, a professor, the summers with Ms. Little in Muskoka, the divorce, Sarah's first missteps with stealing, the drugs, the running away for weeks, the arrests, the prostitution, and then that awful phone call about a DNA match.
Sarah de Vries
But the children have a lot yet to learn about their mother's tragic slide from a loving home to Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, and how that brought them here, to the company of two old women in a century-old clapboard house on the corner of two leafy streets in Guelph.
Sadly, a lot of what they now know of their mother is of how her life ended, a painful knowledge gained from careful conversations with their grandmother, and controlled access to some of the documentaries that have been aired about the dozens of murders in which Mr. Pickton is suspected.
"They know she was murdered," Ms. de Vries says, her voice confident with nothing to hide, even though "they" are in the next room. But with children, she says, understanding takes longer to convey.
"It's very hard to know what they know," she says, her voice competing to be heard in this house that buzzes with the chatter of two parrots, three dogs and the talking computer Ms. Little uses to write.
"You tell it to them, and you think you know ... but a year later you get a question. They're at a different age and stage and they need to know it from a different angle, or they need to know some little thing, or they get a mixed up idea about something," she says.
Ben, for instance, answers questions about his mother from his many friends with one word: "Dead." But he does not yet have any real concept of a prostitute.
Ms. Little, the author and Order of Canada member, thinks it will be helpful to read the book aloud and together, just like they recently finished reading the new Harry Potter novel.
She says the story of the boy magician bears some resemblances to Ben and Jeanie's lives. Harry Potter also lost his parents, and not just as a tool to further the plotline of the child hero, she says. Their deaths torment Harry, colour all aspects of his life, and lead him to fight his most important battles with a unique sort of loneliness.
Ben fights those same battles, Ms. Little said, and has taken to asking about murders, murderers, and the victims he hears about, most recently Holly Jones.
Just the other night he asked his great aunt: "Do you know anyone who has been murdered?"
"Of course, I had to tell him," Ms. Little says. "Yes, your mother."
- - -
"All these faces looking up at me. I'll just turn it over," Ms. de Vries says, flipping over a newspaper with photos of the 15 women whose murders Mr. Pickton is charged with. Sarah de Vries is not among them, but would have been had she been named in the original indictment.
Ms. de Vries follows the case, but the legal wrangling and judicial details are sometimes too much for her to bother with.
"I don't have any need to know the gory details," she says. "My imagination is bad enough."
It is an imagination built with gory details.
In 1991, she got a call from a hospital saying her 21-year-old daughter, who had been working the streets since her teens and whom she had not seen in months, was in labour. By the time she arrived, Jeanie had been born at a healthy eight pounds, but battling her mother's addiction to heroin and cocaine.
"Sarah left [the hospital] to go and get her drugs," Ms. de Vries says, leaving infant Jeanie with her. She never adopted the child, but took legal control as a grandmother and oversaw the long, painful and dangerous process of weaning a newborn off drugs. Doctors put morphine in her bottled milk to prevent the shock of withdrawal from causing serious harm.
"It's a horrible process to watch," she says.
Jeanie's father was a sometimes boyfriend and drug partner, and the last Ms. de Vries heard, he was rumoured to be sleeping on benches in a Vancouver Park.
Soon after Jeanie's birth, Sarah was in jail again, and things only got worse. In 1996, a trick turned ugly, ended in rape, and Sarah was pregnant again. She decided to carry the child to term, but could not even look at him after delivery, afraid he would look like the rapist.
The reality was far worse; malnourished, premature, addicted to drugs, and with blood containing antibodies to HIV and hepatitis C, little Ben had every odd stacked against him.
By great fortune, he has neither of the diseases, and it is only attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for which he needs treatment.
"I had another one, eh?" Sarah said when her mother came to the hospital.
Ben came to join his sister, so Ms. de Vries is now a mother to her grandchildren, and a woman with a dire message.
"I want it to be clear to Canada that this could happen to anybody, that I'm not an abusive, down-and-out person. Sarah had a lot of things going for her, but somehow something wasn't," she said, "This can happen to any young woman who gets into trouble and looks for money where she shouldn't."
- - -
Last night, Ben de Vries passed his test at swimming lessons and earned his level three.
His sister has already rocketed through the ranks and is about to start bronze cross. She is shy and slightly surly, with a streak of the no-nonsense independence that Ms. de Vries said characterized her late mother.
The doorbell rang at the house yesterday; a courier had arrived with books from the University of Guelph, where Ms. Little is an adjunct faculty member.
Jeanie went to the door and took the massive box in her arms, so I asked if she needed any help.
"I've got it," she says.
"Are you sure?"
"I've got it," and there is no arguing.
She takes it into Jean, who is working on a short biography to go along with an award for which she is nominated. She is thinking of writing her third autobiography, since two others dealt with times in her life that now seem so distant.
"I had such a calm life before Pat moved in and the children," Ms. Little said. After Jeanie was born, "We kept saying Sarah will never have another one, but she fooled us."
This new autobiography, if it is to tell the story of the children and how they came to this little house in an Ontario university town, will have a sad beginning and an unwritten conclusion.
"It's an awful story, isn't it?" Ms. Little says, and returns to her work.
Next week, the National Post will run excerpts from Maggie de Vries' memoir Missing Sarah as a special series in the Life section.; firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2003 National Post
Updated: January 01, 2007