I guess there's a bit of a child still in me as I love stories, and I still enjoy having stories told to me. As a child, I was told stories about how my mother's great-grandmother lost her husband and in a pursuit to provide for her children, packed a wagon, tied the cow to the back and then lead her family from Florida to Texas, on foot, to a better life. These are the stories that not only bring our ancestors to life, but inspire us along our life journey.
Maybe it was the spirit and story of my great-great-grandmother that gave me the determination to find another way to be a mother when all seemed lost. Rather than completely give up, my husband and I chose to host exchange students from all over the world. Opening up our home to children from other cultures was fascinating and quite often, difficult.
In 1997 we opened our home to a spirited and brilliant young Italian. As we all do, he came with his own life baggage. He lost his father to leukemia when he was 6 years old, and then 2 years later, he lost his grandfather. He lived with his mother and grandmother who loved him dearly, but also spoiled him.
Just a few weeks after he came to live with us, I came home one evening and found that he had gone to bed quite early. The next morning, he came downstairs and told me that he did not feel well. I asked if he had a headache, a stomachache? No, he replied, his body just ached. I told him that I saw that he had gone to bed quite early. When I said this, I saw a little spark in his eyes, like, "oh great, she is going to believe my story." I then asked him if he had finished his homework. "Well...no." Now I knew why he wanted to stay home, so I told him that he had better get upstairs and finish his homework as he would be going to school. When I left for my morning walk, I saw the light on under his bedroom door. That afternoon when he returned from school, I could see that he was feeling a little embarrassed about our morning exchange. I told him that I had decided to call the drama teacher and recommend him for the school play as he was quite the actor. He smiled, I smiled, and so began our year long journey.
He loved playing games of strategy, and in fact had taught himself to speak and read English in order for he and his friends to play Dungeons and Dragons. At the time, the books were only published in English. He also enjoyed another game of strategy that included characters that he painted. He told me that the competition was not only about how well you played the game, but how well you painted the characters. His were incredible.
My husband's nephew enjoyed wood carving and had carved a wonderful Santa for me. It was just a carved figure with no paint. I loved it, but when I saw how beautifully our exchange student painted his characters, I asked if he would paint the Santa as a birthday present for me. He agreed.
When my birthday rolled around, he had completely forgotten. He felt so bad and ended up staying up most of the night to paint the Santa.
When I awoke the next morning, the Santa was waiting for me. The attention to detail was amazing!
This Santa became my most treasured Christmas ornament.
Over the years, our student and I have grown closer. I have been honored to be consulted on life decisions, and I have been so very proud of the decisions he has made.
When he and his girlfriend's relationship became serious, he brought her to visit us as he wanted very much for us to be a part of their relationship, and for their relationship to have our blessing. When they decided to marry, he and she brought her parents and his mother to meet us and join us all as a family.
My favorite picture from their wedding.
Three months ago, a new addition to the family came into the world, a precious little baby girl. I wanted to send a gift, but what? It's easy enough to purchase something, knit a blanket, or make a quilt, but I wanted something that held more meaning. Then I remembered the Santa.
The Santa is so much more than a figurine. It holds countless stories. So I emailed our exchange student and told him that this is what I would like to give the baby and have it be a part of her Christmas until she decides to pass it on to one of her children. Our student called and told me that he felt the gift to be too much as he knows how much I love the Santa. But I told him that I love him more :)
As we talked, he told me of how he's feeling a little overwhelmed with life, work and a new baby. I told him that this is really quite normal. We talked about his upcoming birthday and I apologized for having lost count of the years. He told me that he is 37, and then asked how old I was when he came to live with us. I was 37. There was a pause in the conversation and he then asked, "how did you do it? At 37, how did you deal so well with a determined, and sometimes difficult Italian boy?" I told him that he needs to remember some of the fights we also had :) But in the end, we survived and we became friends.
What a gift that conversation was to me. As a parent, or just being in a parental role, it's easy to look back and see your mistakes.
My favorite picture of the baby. Here she is surrounded by love and story.
The Santa is on his way to Italy where I hope that each year when he is taken out for the Christmas celebration, there will be time to pause and a father to share his story as this Santa is about so much more than just Christmas. It's about;
*Why he came to America
*His experience of being an exchange student
*His story of learning to speak English
*About falling in love for the first time
*His love for games of strategy
*His American family
And the list goes on and on.
As this holiday season begins, I hope that my story will inspire you to share your stories with your family. What you have experienced is about so much more than just a story, it's about inspiration for generations to come.