I’ve written about surprises before—how parents of teens are often faced with “surprise” dilemmas, constantly having to make judgment calls about things they’ve never experienced before. The first few days with our 16-year-old foreign exchange student, Cleo, have been filled with surprises, too—only the good kind. Gifts? Yes, she brought us French chocolates and perfume and all sorts of goodies (our gift basket to her paled in comparison!) but I’m talking about even more good surprises.
First, there are the kind that make you want to run to a journal and record every new experience, just like with a baby. Like her first time at our house, first time to eat a bagel, first trip to the grocery store with us…
Wednesday, Aug. 18- Went grocery shopping with Cleo and Emmie. Emmie’s been chattering up a storm with her and did so even more in getting ready for our trip to the store, trying to make a list and asking her what she wanted. (Later I found notes where Emmie had been on Google translator looking up the French words for “oatmeal”, “cinnamon rolls”, and “waffles”.) So when we got there, I let them take a cart and I took one and we met up later. I figured Emmie and Cleo would come back with a cart full of food, but there were only a few items in it when I found them. They were on the magazine aisle, Emmie with a PopStar magazine in hand, reading Cleo a quiz. “What after-school snack fits your personality type?” was the burning Quiz Question, the answer only to be determined after answering several more questions. I’m sure Cleo was totally confused, but maybe Emmie’s nonstop chatter is great “English immersion.” Funny to see where certain foods were placed after we returned from the store and Emmie and Cleo unloaded the grocery bags…
We get excited when we realize the many more “firsts” coming up that she’s going to get to experience with us—like holidays, football games, meeting the relatives… “Mom, Cleo’s going to get to see the State Fair!” Emmie blurted out the other day, with a huge smile on her face, interrupting herself mid-sentence as she was talking about one of her favorite subjects, roller coasters.
Surprises also happen with how you see yourself, your family, and your world, when a total stranger comes to live with you. Hosting someone who’s never been to the U.S., let alone Texas (a unique “planet” all by itself, you know) means that you’re the ultimate tour guide—so it’s only natural, as Cleo experiences everything, for me to wonder how it might seem to her. I never realized before how big and gleaming the high school is on the inside, or how they play nonstop rap music in athletic clothing stores, or how badly my refrigerator shelves need cleaning, or how I much I inflect Midwest into my speech, like saying “bolth” for the word “both”… no one said a word to me about any of these things…I’m just noticing stuff differently.
And then there are the surprises that make you catch your breath.
In the days leading up to this week, we’d all been looking forward to Cleo’s arrival, but Allison’s enthusiasm was sometimes a little lacking. She would get annoyed when the preparations cut into “her” time. Like when Andy and I had to attend an AFS orientation meeting and she had to arrange for someone else to take her to church youth group. Or when Emmie and I cleaned the house like maniacs the day after we got home from our road trip, and all Allison wanted to do was sleep. She’d get so annoyed and so vocal about things, I was sad that she wasn’t more “into” our impending family change…so you can imagine how pleased I was when, on the day of Cleo’s arrival, Allison took a great interest in helping to get Cleo’s room ready. We’d already converted our upstairs game room into a bedroom, thanks to the leftovers from Emmie and Allison’s big bedroom switch this summer, but Allison came up with all sorts of ways to make it more comfortable for Cleo. She found an unused crystal candy dish tucked away in one of our kitchen cabinets, filled it with Werther’s caramels, and placed it on top of the bookcase. Next to the candy dish, she put a cute “Fossil” blank notebook that had belonged to her, and a pen. She added a colorful clock to the bedside table, and a few past issues of “Seventeen” magazine. She accompanied me on a trip to Target and we had fun coming up with toiletries to fill a bath caddy. We bought a pack of lime green clothes hangers for the closet pole Andy had installed on one side of the room, a matching closet mirror, a box of pop-up tissues…later in the day when I arrived at the house with Cleo for the “grand entrance”, we saw that Allison had made a welcome sign and put it on our wooden butler’s tray– and if anyone remembers my post about the antique butler, you’ll know what a big deal that was for Allison to do that. But what really pleased me was that, looking into the kitchen, I saw she’d scrubbed and cleaned off the kitchen table– as I’d asked her to do, but she’d gone a step further— there were five placemats and five chairs at the table instead of the usual four.
And I don’t know if it was that gesture, or the fact that Cleo voluntarily sets the table before every meal (with knives and forks even when we ate soup and grilled cheese ), but ever since Cleo has arrived, we’re sitting down and eating together more than we used to. Like at lunch, when in the past we’d usually fix whatever we want and take it to wherever we want (me at the computer, Emmie in the kitchen or in front of the TV, Allison who knows where, if she even chooses to eat lunch)– this week, we’ve eaten lunch together every day. And on Thursday night, the one night we were all home for dinner and I cooked a great meal (Indian– Chicken Tikka Masala!), I expected Allison wouldn’t join us, since now that she’s a vegetarian and the rest of us aren’t, she usually cooks her own food at dinner, at her own time. She did cook her own food that night, but brought it to the table, alongside the rest of us. The table for five. I like the sound of that.