Please bear with me on this wordy, wandering entry. I need to try and jot down some of these thoughts—so I can always remember this dear chapter in our lives.
Just for a moment of months, we had a 15 year old daughter. Our darling Lesya from Ukraine is firmly planted in our hearts and it has been our fortune and privilege to have had her in our home from January through May. I could not have designed a more delightful daughter. Our home was very different from her original host family where she spent her first (unhappy) five months of the school year. I am so sad that she could not have been with us from the very beginning—but we certainly made up for lost time!
I think the snap decision to host a foreign exchange student was made easy, in that I knew and was fond of Lesya while she worked on my costume crew for “Cats”. When I heard that there was an emergency request for another host family for her, I called Don at work-who agreed immediately, talked at length with the caseworker, filled out on-line paperwork—and poof! The next day, we had an instant daughter! The case worker said that when Lesya found out that Don and I were to be her new host parents, she broke down and wept in happiness.
These photos are an evolution of Lesya’s "look" from the beginning of her stay here in the US, and when she went back to Ukraine. (Apparently her family and friends were shocked at the change…ooopps!)
And yes. We totally spoiled her. But we just couldn’t help ourselves– as Lesya was delighted with every tiny nothing thing we gave her. She found particular joy in American movies and a few Netflix TV series such as “Project Runway”, “My So-Called Life” and “Glee”. She loves that she learned how to make nachos, popcorn, quesadillas, sautéed “weggies” (veggies) and Chocolate “Muss” (mousse) pie. She also–with the help of her mom in Ukraine on skype– made THE most delicious Borsht soup, and later, some hysterically disastrous Easter Bread called Paska. Due to some disconnect in the very complex and traditional recipe, the Paska ended up as a bunny-shaped, rock-hard stepping stone in the garden. (The sharp-beaked birds eventually managed to peck it to pieces!)
We loved having Lesya’s friends, Olena and Nika—also from Ukraine, over here for several weekends and over-nights. None of the girls knew each other before they came to the US with the PAX program, but they formed a wonderful bond while they were here. They all had other friendships within their different schools around town, but we loved to accommodate them getting together. Nika (below left) is quietly brilliant and soulful, and Olena (same photo center) is sunny and positive–and usually thrilled with everything and everyone around her. Don and I adored all three of them.
They thanked us that we “let” them speak to each other in their native Russian or Ukraine, as doing so in the past had made their other host families uncomfortable. (????!! Pfffttt!) I loved their animation and laughter when they got together—and often they would fill me in on the subject of their chatter. I was happy just to hear and see their joy at being able to comfortably express themselves in their own language.
One night when the girls were all together, Nika and Olena were saying wistfully that they missed real mashed potatoes—and that boxed mashed potatoes at their host families homes were “a confusion”. Astonished, I peeled a bag of North Dakota reds and whipped up big buttery, creamy pot of mashed potatoes for them, which they ate slowly with moans of delight.
(I am a pretty good potato masher, even if I do say so myself! I credit techniques passed down from our dad, the Master Masher!)
Most of the other host families we met at PAX gatherings were truly wonderful. Somehow our Ukrainian girls got very difficult host family situations.The girls did their best to talk respectfully and kindly of their host families—even Lesya was very careful–but as they began to know and trust us, Don and I were often aghast at hearing about the incidents, attitudes, expectations, and religious proselytizing (which included ridiculing the girls personal beliefs) within their particular host families here in town. Olena’s host family (the father is a well-known politician) was particularly neglectful and often downright offensive. “I think I am Ukraine trophy to show”. said Olena sadly. And so the girls came over here as often as they could, calling it their “real home” for relaxation and comfort. I loved seeing them snuggled together on our big couch like a pile of puppies—and we laughed that our house had become a Ukrainian Rescue.
Lesya practically lived in my art studio. She loved making jewelry and working on drawings or paintings. We often spent quiet or chatty hours together in here. “This is my heaven room!” she sighed happily. She designed her fairy prom dress and we worked on it together. We cut up and combined two dresses (the total cost was $6.99) and she made her own earrings.
The arts are not included in Lesya’s native school curriculum, and art/music/theatre classes can be taken only after school or on weekends. She was thrilled to have all kinds of painting, pottery, and photography as electives here in the states. Lesya has an astonishing academic brain and made all A’s and B’s (“B’s not so good” she said.) during the school year here. Her grades excelled–even at our house, where grades are rated a little lower on the Big-Picture-Important-Things-In-Life scale! She was placed here as an 11th grader, even though she had just turned 15 at the beginning of the school year. She is fluent in four languages, and is currently learning Czech—as she is planning to go to college in Prague. Lesya could discuss Dostoevsky, the philosopies of Trotsky and the art of Hundertwasser with Don with stunningly adult understanding—and yet she was a typical teenage girl.
Mornings were NOT her best time. Don, a total morning person, was routinely drinking coffee and reading his Kindle two hours before Lesya woke up for school. His brain is usually churning like white water at that time of day, and Lesya often could not abide his wide awake exuberance. Finally, on one morning drive to school with Don, an exasperated Lesya held up her hand in a stop gesture and declared “This is a morning for silence.” This only delighted Don—who is never one to take teenage girl behavior personally. He lovingly called her his “hissing samovar” (a Russian tea kettle) and she eloquently rolled her eyes. (see below)
By afternoon, she was a little sweeter—and yet I often called her my little “snapdragon”. We had our own exchanges:
“Kari, can I get a tattoo please?” she asked.
“Afraid not…” I answered.
“Just a little one?” she pleaded.
“Absolutely not.” I laughed.
She tried one more time, “But why?”
“Because we want to visit St. Petersburg next year, and we want your parents to let you come and stay with us. They would never trust us again if we let you get a tattoo. And here in town, you have to be 18.” I said.
She sighed, “Yes, you are right.”
A beat passed. “How about to get my nose pierced?”
I threw a pillow at her.
And so our delicious days went…hours of talk while sipping her ever-present cups of peach or lavender tea, or painting Chloe’s toenails banana yellow, shopping trips to Plato’s Closet, (she went home to Ukraine with 27 very cool pairs of shoes in her carry-on, including a pair of Converse All-Stars that she got
to design online.)
Taking her to get a good haircut was a fun event for Lesya–as she had always worn long hair and bangs. She went for a slightly shorter and styled cut at first, and then grew quite bold and got a short, sassy, spikey cut that we dyed bright auburn. (much to her family’s chagrin in Ukrain–but her mother forgave me…) We made trips to "Ben and Jerry’s" for her favorite coconut ice cream, lunches at "Noodles", movie time, art studio time, and just lovely, lovely time.
And because Lesya was a total joy, I was an utter wreck at the airport when we at last had to say goodbye in May. The case worker set the return flights so that all three girls could fly home to Ukraine together—which was really wonderful. Don took the day off so we could drive Lesya to the airport, and we took Olena with us as well –(because it was “just too early in the morning for her host family to have to get up and get her to Denver for a flight". (I won’t write down in words what I thought of this famous “Upstanding Family Values Family” upon hearing that.) But it was our gain after all—as they dropped Olena off at our house the night before. When the front door shut, Olena threw her arms wide and said “Yes! Now I am with my REAL family!”
Because the girls were underage, we were able to go through airport security with them, and wait with them at the gate for their flight. Too soon, we were sobbing goodbyes, and our red-haired girl was gone…back to her homeland and real family. Our last glimpse was her hand in the air above the heads of other passengers signing "I love you".
<span style="font-size: 12pt”>Don and I drove home…bereft, yet blessed to have a daughter (or three) in our lives.
Above: (left) Don and Lesya ran a 5k in Estes Park. Lesya won in her age group. Don did not in his. 🙂 (center) Lesya loved this whimsical sculpture garden. (right) Lesya with two girlfriends –also on my costume crew.
Above: (left) Lesya with another school friend (right) Exhausted puppies in our back seat on the way home from a fun day in Denver.
Above: Me and my girl.