Chickens in the Outhouse

 

Most people don’t know this, but there are two countries named “Austria”. Or at least in my mind there are. One is the place I came to after graduating from college and it was filled with highly educated professional people who were well-informed on social, cultural, economic, political and international issues. The second Austria was the one I spent two months in as an AFS student at the age of 17. It was a rural village of 108 people in about 15 houses, wedged between a military training base and the Iron Curtain. 99% of its inhabitants left school after the 8th Grade to become full-time farmers, butchers, seamstresses, mechanics, etc. before going on to intermarry. The time elapsed between my arrivals in these two Austrias was either only 5 years or an entire century. Take your pick.

It’s this earlier place that has been on my mind for a while now. After realizing that I was already starting to write this post in my head, I decided to skip ahead a few childhood journals in my “Cringe-worthy” series and read the one I wrote during that last high school summer and my first experience abroad.

It was a trip.

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Shortly before I left, the long-awaited information package from the exchange program arrived. I ripped it open and intensively skimmed through the pages. The first surprise was that my host sisters were 2 and 3 years old, my host mother and father were only 22 and 26 respectively. Then I read that host grandpa was in his 50s and host grandma (“owner of the farm, practical head of the family”) was in her 70s. Hmmm? Oh yeah, and they were all farmers. Their daily life description consisted of work, watching TV and occasional day trips to relatives. The qualities they were looking for in the exchange student were “able to adapt, uncomplicated, not demanding any luxory (sic)”.

To be honest, there wasn’t much in these few lines to increase my excitement. I was the youngest child in my family with no experience of younger siblings. My baby-sitting jobs mostly had me watching TV downstairs from sleeping kids. I was also a city girl. With the exception of some horseback riding lessons, my exposure to country living was minimal. I’m fairly sure my only face to face encounters with farm animals up to that point had happened in the meat sections of supermarkets. I had almost no references to help me understand what I was heading toward. Despite all the hints in the information package, visions of the Sound of Music continued to happily dance in my head and my only real worry was whether I would be able to find a curling iron once I got there. I boarded a plane.

 

Epic Start

My first journal entry, the morning after arriving, was mostly about homesickness and . . . “feeling out of place”, but that first evening is one of the moments I can still remember distinctly 40 years later. I entered the kitchen and was led through the family bedroom to what would be “my room” for the next two months. That was it. The entire living space for the five of us when we weren’t sleeping was that kitchen. I remember then having to go to the bathroom and making the classic German language mistake of asking where the “Badezimmer” was. (In Austrian houses, the “bathroom” is for bathing and the toilet usually has its own separate room.) I was led back to a second room off the kitchen in which stood an old bathtub, a sink, a washing machine, and this thing. I stared at it and thought “What IS that?? It can’t be . . . ? . . .”. Then I noticed the electrical cord. My host mother, Edna, was clearly amused at me contemplating the laundry spinner and then led me back through the kitchen, out the door into the courtyard and on to the outhouse. As I wrote in my journal, “I almost cried when I saw [it].” There was a pile of old newspapers in there for wiping, but then Edna handed me a roll of toilet paper. She said it was just for me and asked me to keep it hidden and in my room. If her daughters saw it, they would demand to have some too.

My second biggest journal complaint was about the dinner they served me: “hot milk, bread and butter”. Little did I know then that it would be not only my dinner, but also my breakfast, every day for the next two months (except when pig lard was substituted for the butter). Food and the outhouse would become two of the recurring themes of the summer. It’s strange to see now that many of the others also showed up in that first journal entry. On my first full day, Edna showed me around the village, pointing out the Milk House and the “Club 3000” — an old chicken house that the village teenagers had transformed into a little disco. Later she took me to the nearby “city” (where I bought a curling iron). Most importantly, she gave me my first job.

 

“I did a new job today.”                

Bringing the full milk cans to the milk house, bringing back the emptied ones, and washing them out became my daily task for the summer. But each day brought other types of farm work to try out as well. I worked in the stalls and helped with harvests. I cut grass with a scythe and emptied wagonloads of hay into the cellar with a pitchfork. I hoed and chopped and raked and drove a tractor. I stripped bark from logs and stacked bales of straw. I hung up laundry. Lots of laundry. And I broke tools, lots of them, among other things.

  

“Chickens are the most disgusting creatures.”       

I didn’t mind most of the jobs (though I did write that “shoveling manure is revolting”). It was nice to have something to do and all these activities were new to me. There was one big exception. One day Oma signaled to me by way of crooking her up-turned finger that I should follow her. As we walked toward the chopping block, she scooped up a chicken with one hand and then picked up an axe with the other. WHACK! She handed me the upside-down flapping headless thing and said “Pluck!” Trying hard not to gag, I daintily pulled one feather out and then the next before Edna came and saved me. In under a minute, that bird was nude.

My objection to this particular job had nothing to do with sympathy for the dead bird. In fact, one of the funniest things for me to read in this journal was how much I hated chickens.

 

“little monsters”         

There were two other little creatures that I complained about almost as much as chickens – my two host-sisters.  There are stories in there of them taking food away from me, hitting me with an umbrella, calling me stupid . . . the list continues. Edna left me pretty much on my own when it came to dealing with them, which I found even more exasperating. But as the summer progressed, occasional nice moments with them pop up. Near the end I write about how each day began with them running into my room at 8 am to wake me up . . .

 

“going out”

The fact that my host sisters were so young was not such a problem in the end because, it turned out, there were a lot of other teenagers in the village to meet and party with. On my second day there, it was already arranged that a neighbor girl would come and get me: Destination Club 3000. Basically, every teenager in the village was there that night (I wonder why). It was the beginning of what would become an issue over the summer: me “going out”.  I did it a lot.

As I got to know the kids, I started to understand all the interrelationships in the village as well as the external perspective of my living situation and my host family. The biggest revelation, though, had – of course! – to do with plumbing.

 

Drama

 Me being 17 years old and . . . well, . . . me (“never met a boy I couldn’t get a crush on”), there ensued a series of somewhat sorry flirtations that set the village tongues a-wagging. The first was the village butcher/bad boy and I liked him till he went skinny-dipping right in front of all of us. (“I was so shocked!” I declared dramatically in my journal on Day 9.) I moved on to Crush Number Two, whose two most attractive qualities, if I am honest, were his driver’s license and old piece of clunk car. That one lasted about three weeks – until the car died, quickly followed by my interest. The third (potential) crush never went anywhere, because he was a cousin to my host family and much too smart to get himself entangled. The fact that he already had two girlfriends (and I, at least according to the locals, had two boyfriends) might also have had something to do with it.

The funny thing is that, even with my tentative command of German, I wrote often about how much easier it was to talk to these boys than to my (reserved) boyfriend back home. I realized even way back then that the pre-determined ending date of these relationships freed me to just be myself. Still, once a letter finally arrived from said boyfriend, he became my new crush for the final two weeks of the summer.

 

Gossip Generator

Despite the fact these flirtations included almost no physical contact, village gossipers had a field day with my exploits and corrupting influence on the local youth. I unintentionally fanned the flames by becoming close to the one girl in the village (the sister of Crush #2) who was attending high school and spoke excellent English. As I eventually found out, their two (much younger) siblings were born well after the death of their father, and that it was my host Opa who had been spending a lot of time there “helping the young widow out”.  After learning that village open secret, I understood some of the dynamics in my own household better, not to mention why my own host Oma was the biggest gossip generator of them all.

 

“Oma is a killer.”

Oma made it clear to me in a myriad of ways that 1) she didn’t approve of my being there, 2) so I should at least work, and 3) even though I was working, she didn`t approve of me or my work. My journal is filled with episodes where she demonstrated her feelings. She told me repeatedly how bad my cooking was. She yelled at me when I used the phone or the wrong pan. She turned off the lights on leaving a room, even if I was still sitting there. I eventually learned not to take her seriously, but for a few exceptions. The first was the way she promoted rivalry between her two granddaughters, always praising one of them and criticizing the other. Or making only one bottle of milk and letting them fight over it. The second unforgivable transgression was when I was finally let in on the big secret – and I’m not talking about her husband’s affair and love children. No, this was something much worse. It turned out that over in her rooms in a different tract of the farmhouse, there was a perfectly modern bathroom with a flush toilet. No one else in the family was allowed to use it. Scandalous!

The third transgression that I just couldn’t get over was when she complained and gossiped about Edna – saying she was lazy and never worked when that was all she did from morning to night! Unfortunately, my host father, Lou (Edna’s husband and Oma’s son) was not much help. I think he had learned to stay clear of the fray.

 

 

 

“I had a long talk with Edna today and I’m feeling much better.”

 One of the strangest surprises on rereading my journal 40 years later, was how important my friendship with Edna became for the entire experience. She and I would talk a lot while we were working together, and her kindness and openness always helped. She made me feel better about going out with the village kids by telling me that their previous AFS student never went anywhere and that it was a much bigger problem. (“I just cause family strife and break a lot of tools.”)  Apparently, homesickness got the best of my predecessor and she ended up leaving early. Edna also accepted my close friendship with the one girl in the village most likely to cause conflict in the host family (and Edna was the one to explain the whole sordid history to me). When she saw that I didn’t like a particular type of work (like shovelling manure or plucking chickens), she never asked me to do it again. When one of the ridiculous rumors about me reached my ears, Edna and I could laugh about it together. She admitted that she also had to deal with gossip and that she had trouble getting along with Oma too; she advised me to do what she did: just tune her out. The bond between us grew slowly and consistently throughout the summer. One time, she told me about a crime show she had seen the night before – it was about a woman who murdered her mother-in-law. Our eyes met and we both tried hard to hide our smiles because Oma was sitting nearby.

I eventually realized why I was there. It was not only to supply some companionship, but also to serve as a new target for Oma, taking the heat off of Edna for a while. I fulfilled that second purpose exceptionally well. As the date of my departure approached, she began to get weepy at random moments. I understood the full palette of emotions behind those tears.

Near the very end of my stay, I finally succeeded in merging my two circles. I persuaded Edna and Lou to come with me to the Club 3000 for what I guess now was my farewell party. In one of my favorite pictures of them, they are sitting in the club, Lou’s arm is around her and he is kissing her cheek. Her laughing face is positively beaming.

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I have gone back to visit the village and my host family twice over the years: once during my Junior Year Abroad in Germany and again, 15 years later with my husband. I was surprised to see that almost everything looked exactly the same, right down to the wallpaper in the kitchen. (My husband was even more surprised that there were people in Austria who still lived like this.) There were a few new additions, though, like a porcelain seat in the outhouse and two more daughters. If I remember right, Oma had passed away and my closest girlfriend had married the family’s cousin. (I suppose those two events weren’t entirely unrelated.) We had a really nice visit.

Despite the brief intersection of these two worlds, I still have trouble – even to this day – merging the two Austrias in my head. But I am beginning to suspect that has less to do with their differences than with my own psychology. . . .

 

Two Worlds

. . . . because my biggest discoveries in reading this old journal were about me. I recognized the quirks and qualities in my 17-year-old self that would lead me to become a lifelong traveler, the most obvious of which were my roving eye and my roving heart. But it went deeper. I felt free to be myself in foreign environments. I saw the benefits of relationships with pre-determined expiration dates. I found it easy to lead a dual life – to handle the cognitive dissonance that allowed me to write “I love this place!” and follow it with something like “In just two days I will be able to say I am going home in a week!” At 17 I could already allow myself to feel Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (wanderlust) at the same time which somehow freed me to live in the moment. They struck a compromise and coexisted peacefully side-by-side within me. “I live in two worlds” is a statement I have made many times, in many different contexts. It’s a feeling I have carried with me my entire life. It has allowed me to leave places and people, knowing simultaneously that I may never see them again and that they will always be there. It has given me my somewhat harsh ability to silently say, “Goodbye and have a nice life! What’s next?”

 

(Silent) Home (Horror) Movies

 

I have been getting some of our VCR tapes digitalized before they start decomposing and/or give up the ghost completely. One of those tapes was home movies from my childhood and I stayed up till about 3 am a few nights ago watching them.

Some of the films were classics – like one of our childhood Christmas shows, my ballet performance with dramatic final pose, or the King of the Raft battles during one of our many summer trips up north. Other films were only vaguely familiar to me – maybe those were the ones that tended to be left out on the occasions when my dad hauled out the projector and turned our living room into a movie theater. As we five kids tossed pillows on the floor and jockeyed for a comfortable spot with a good view, Dad stuck a reel of film on one of the arms of the projector, threaded the tape through the machine and on to the empty receiving reel. The lights were dimmed and then came that clackety-clack sound of the projector in motion, the humming of its fan, the initial ornery and dusty smell of an appliance that has not been used in a while being forced back into deployment.

As the youngest of five kids, I had to sit through a whole lot of scenes starring my elder siblings before I was born. It did not escape me that the number of films (or photographs) of each child was inversely proportional to the order of his/her birth (Child One has the most, Child Five the least.) But, to make up for this disadvantage, I also noticed that, in contrast to the black and white childhood of my brothers and sisters, at least mine was in color!  The films were also all silent, which turned out to be another advantage. We kids were free to talk and comment and reminisce and argue as the images danced in front of and past us. In that way, I was initiated into all the chapters of our family legend that pre-dated my membership.

 

While watching all these old movies again a few days ago, I started pausing and making screenshots of memorable moments. The resulting pictures turned out to have such an eerie quality to them – I guess because the images had been reincarnated over and over again. From camera to developed film reel, from film to video cassette (Thanks, Mom!), from video cassette to digital video, from digital video to image file . . .

And now . . . some of those images are about to be launched into the internetsphere with a mere click of a “Publish” button. They will blast off in a gazillion different directions, but only very few will eventually collide with physical entity capable of decoding them. Your laptop or computer screen, for instance. (Yes, Reader, I am talking to you!)

So here they are – a few captured specters of the binarily transcribed, inversely imprinted, silent visual reproductions of moments that have become – via this long insane string of coincidences – some of my earliest memories. It really is no wonder that they seem so ghostly!

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A Barn Yarn

 

“I’m stuck!” I told my sister on the phone. “No one wants to read about my morbid obsession with the American pwesident or my current workplace  . . . curiosities. I can’t write about anything in my private life because it is all OPS. And I can’t just keep writing about chickens.”
“Keep writing about chickens! Do!” she answered.  “I love it when you write about chickens.”
Thanks, Sis. Once again.

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I jumped on the chicken bandwagon a bit too late.

Had I been in on our poultry project from the start, I would have encouraged the husband to build our hen house in the style of a traditional Wisconsin barn. The kind I passed on weekends as we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house each Sunday. Or the ones we saw on our way Up North for vacation each summer – those yearly six or seven hour drives, first through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin farmland and then into the Big Woods with its 15.000 little lakes. A cottage on shores of one of these was our usual destination – our own temporary “Little House”. Within an hour of arrival, I was in the water and basically stayed there for most of the day, every day. Any time not in the water was spent on nature hikes and/or steeped in fantasies of being Wisconsin’s most famous pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I devoured her books (repeatedly!) as a child. She was my link to the 19th century version of myself.

My husband has his own link to his 19th century self and it is much more impressive. His great great grandfather was a famous writer and poet who grew up modestly in a remote mountainous region of Styria. The childhood home of this man, Peter Rosegger, is now a museum. My husband visited this place many times in his childhood and I imagine he also fantasized there about being a 19th century “Forest Farmer Boy”. In any case, he clearly had some other image in his mind as he built our chicken coop. Something more Austrian.

 

Last week he announced that he was going to paint our hen house and started suggesting colors. It was at this point, that I finally got involved in the construction project. Blue?? Who’s ever heard of a BLUE barn?!? Honestly! Anyway, here is the result:

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P.S. Thanks Sis, too, for the compliments on the coop via WhatsApp. As for your curiosity about what it looks like on the inside, I have to disappoint. Chickens are crappy decorators. Literally.

 

The Path of Totality

 

With all of America being in Solar Eclipse Fever, I was reminded of my own past luck to find myself in “the path of totality” for one of these. Austria, August 11th, 1999. My husband (of ten years at the time) and I decided to throw a garden party for the occasion.

It took me a while to locate these pictures in my many photo albums. I had started with the 2001 book because I was convinced that my elder daughter was a baby in attendance; I could picture the buggy standing in the shade and her sleeping peacefully inside. But it turns out that I must have conflated this party with my husband’s 40th birthday bash two years later – the one with the “End of the World” theme. I found those pictures in a later album and there was a baby in a buggy with shades on, it just wasn’t ours. And he had the sunglasses because of eye troubles, not because of an eclipse. While looking through those pictures, I couldn’t find the crazy invitation we had made for this party and started getting suspicious again . . .

More foraging through photo albums revealed that my memory was conflating this second party with his 50th Birthday Bash (also a garden party). That was the one that coincided with some religious prophecy about the coming of Judgment Day – May 21st, 2011. Our invitations for that party read:

(That party was a really good time!)

Now, after all sorts of rummaging through albums and the recesses of my brain, I have it all straightened out. So back to the Solar Eclipse Party . . .

We had a perfect cloudless day and as you can see, being in the shadow of the moon really makes day turn into night. The later pictures in the album show bright sunshine again. This being the days before digital cameras and the internet, I didn’t get a good shot of the ring, but I did look at it for a few seconds with my own eyes.

    

As I look at these pictures, the ugliness of our house and general lack of foliage in our garden at that time strikes me. It is also strange to realize my elder daughter wouldn’t be born until a full year later, and that, at this time, I had no idea we would even be adopting a child. Then I look at all the people in attendance and see her two godfathers. I see the two couples who I later helped with the paperwork so that they could secretly  get married in Las Vegas. One of these two also later asked for our advice about adopting and now are deliriously happy with their permanent foster daughter. I see another woman who would become my daughter’s singing teacher. She and her husband together celebrated their “100th” birthday just two days ago and I was in attendance. My daughter sang there. I see pictures of babies who will be graduating from high school this year, young kids who are now done with university. And of all these people, I see only a handful that I have lost contact with.

I had no idea at the time that these people would stay a big part of my life over the next two decades and most likely beyond. That they would be the same crowd pictured at that 40th bash and the 50th ten years later, and presumably the 60th just a few years from now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t see the eclipse today because I was a third of the way around the world from the path of totality. Instead I took a jog down Memory Lane and then livestreamed NASA coverage via NPR. And because the experience wasn’t exactly action packed, I played some Solitaire at the same time while trying to get my head around time differences and where the sun was compared to here and why the moon path went from west to east:

  

 

I was lucky to get these screenshots  – right after the second one, my crappy wifi broke down and the stream was interrupted.

I got up and went out onto my porch just in time to catch the sunset. Ten seconds earlier I had been tracking the sun’s path over Oregon en route to my family and friends in Wisconsin. And here it was, by me, the way it always is.

Things suddenly reset and were back to normal. To the way they should be. There was a feeling. And I want to remember it.

I’ve Missed You

I should probably start by apologizing for being unsupportive and absent to my blog bff’s (whom I love dearly and truly!) I could then follow it up with my reasons for neglecting you, which would really be excuses, which would then negate the sincerity of the original apology.

One of those excuses could be that I have been busy meeting up with old high school friends – another set of people that I have been absent from, neglectful of, unsupportive to, uncommunicative with, etc. etc. – and that for more than 37 years now (“Go Raiders! Yeay, Class of 1980!!”) And yet, every two years when I come home to Milwaukee, we somehow manage to meet up.

In the first few minutes of our biannual reunions, we peer intensely at one another to assess the advancement of our own aging process. This gets confusing because the one or the other looks exactly the same despite laugh wrinkles around the eyes and graying hair. Each time, we also suddenly panic about all the details we really should know but don’t, or have forgotten. (You had six siblings?! Did I ever know that? You lived in California?! Did I know that? You were an English major too?! Did I know that?) Slowly but surely, the skeletal frames of life highlights spanning the past 37 years are reconstructed. Marriages, kids, professional moves, travels, parental concerns . . .  We all silently vow to commit these facts to memory in preparation for the next reunion, but know somewhere inside that two years from now, the same conversations and surprises will happen again.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because with old friends, like old habits, once you pick them up again, you simply take off from where you left off. You tell and retell the same old stories that somehow seem familiar and new at the same time. Meanwhile, long neglected, dusty old details of your life as a teenager resurface in your mind. Names of classmates you have not had a second thought about in decades are suddenly accessible. You start sorting these names into categories like “popular” or “cool” or “dweeb” or “wild” – all with the understanding that it is your 16 year old selves doing the sorting because you gave up on this kind of immature labeling long ago. At the same time, it becomes clear to you why exactly these people and not ones with newly re-remembered names and labels are here around the table. You realize how much you share with these people and that it goes deep.

And you laugh a lot.

And you make plans for a longer, cooler reunion in 2019. Before saying goodbye and returning to your current life, you take pictures.

And then you post one of them on your blog.

And you say, “I’ve missed you.”

 

On the Mend – (Reunions – Chapter 13)

 

(Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)

 

Our pediatrician of almost 17 years retired recently. My first thought was to feel sorry for all the soon-to-be new parents around here. Dr. P had provided my daughters – and us (!) – with excellent care and even became something of a friend.

The first time I met him was in his own home on a Sunday. We were about to leave for Ethiopia where Mitzi was waiting for her hopelessly inexperienced new parents. Dr. P had done some research before our arrival and, over breakfast, he gave us all sorts of advice, answered our questions and wrote out prescriptions for medications that might be needed, depending on Mitzi’s state of health. Even more important, though, is that he calmed us down. That was his specialty after decades of dealing with slightly hysterical, young parent-hypochondriacs. We left his house feeling that things would be alright. And they were.

In our second adoption of Lily, our first action on returning home was a trip to Dr. P’s office – and once again, it was a specially arranged appointment outside of his normal practicing hours. He observed Lily as we told him about our trip and how she was recovering from the measles. He did a few quick reflex tests and some physical examination. He checked her responses to different stimuli.

“How old did you say she is?” he asked.

We explained how we had been asked to decide on her birthdate based on pictures and information from police reports. (Which, by the way, is a very strange thing to have to do!) Our guess at the time was that she was about five months old, so we suggested May 5th (the birthday of a dear childhood friend). The answer came back that it was too early, and were we okay with June 2nd? A month later, the trip to Ethiopia behind us, we told Dr. P that she was now five months old. He looked intensely at Lily and tried a few more things.

“This child is much older than 5 months,” he said. “In fact, I’d say she is somewhere between 3 to 6 months older.”

I stared at my new 9 pound baby and tried to imagine her as 11 months old – it didn’t seem possible.

Then Dr. P explained that her motor skills and intellectual capabilities were way beyond what a 5 month old would normally have. He seemed very convinced.

Over the years, I have come halfway around to his opinion. I had learned earlier that the miraculous infant brain will protect its own development by slowing bodily growth if need be while devoting all nutritional resources to itself. So, undernourished babies will often remain very small even as they develop mentally. A specialist once told me that once regular good nutrition is restored, it can still take up to three years before the child catches up to his/her genetically pre-determined height and weight. On the other hand, I have also read that evolution has led to faster infant development in poorer countries. It is said that a two year old Ethiopian child – if abandoned – can survive on its own, finding food and shelter of some sort in the streets. I don’t know if that is true, but it is absolutely unimaginable that an Austrian child of two could do such a thing. And Lily comes from a particularly poor part of Ethiopia where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years. It would make sense that people there, over the centuries, would develop faster and reach reproductive age earlier.

Questions. Questions.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter if Lily was born in January or March or June, but I can’t help wondering how it must feel not to know this about oneself? What we do know of her story is extremely low on facts, filled out somewhat by oral reports. The rest is supposition. There is a police report which says she was found “under the cactus tree in A….” The problem here is that “A….” is such a huge area. It is the equivalent of saying something like “under the maple tree in Delaware.” We heard secondhand that she got her name from the policeman who went to get her and took her to the nearest orphanage. The way Lily moved when I held her made me believe that she had been breastfed – so possibly her birth mother fed and cared for her for a while until the day she no longer could. Lily’s delighted reactions to older men with white hair – in stark contrast to the reserve she showed to other people – made me think that there might have been a kind and affectionate grandpa in her earliest months. And finally, it is absolutely clear to us that whoever her biological parents were, they had beauty and intelligence and music in their genes.

These are the things (we think) we know. They are the elements of Lily’s story. In a way, hers is not so different to anyone else’s. Memory is a strange thing – blogging has taught me that. When we tell our own stories, facts tend to get intertwined with rumors, family legends, myths, guesses and details which have morphed over time. And from things others have told me, I believe we all have gaps – little mysteries about ourselves that we may never solve. There’s the woman who spent her childhood fearing she was actually adopted. Another who found out that her father had an entire second wife and family in another town – leading her to meeting her half-siblings for the first time in her thirties. I, myself, often wondered whether I was a planned fifth child or an accidental one. I doubt there is a person on this planet who can truly answer the three most basic existential questions: who am I? where did I come from? and why am I here?

Questions. Questions.

Dr. P may have instigated a mystery that we will never solve, but he did give Lily great care – and a lot of it! There were a lot of after-effects from her bouts of the measles and scabies – an ear infection, stomach troubles, a respiratory infection, rashes, the Epstein-Barr virus . . . It seemed like I was hauling her to Dr. P every week with something new. I spent many an hour worrying in his overcrowded waiting room and often felt that he was hectic and rushing when our turn finally came. I even briefly considered finding a different pediatrician with more time and fewer patients. But then, during a classically speedy appointment, I blurted out how guilty I felt that Lily was sick once again. He stopped what he was doing, sat down, and talked slowly and calmly, taking his time.

“Just look at her and how well she is developing! You may not see it, but she keeps growing and filling out and getting stronger. Her skin has cleared up and started to glow. Each time you come here, it’s like I’m seeing a different baby.”

My guilt subsided and loyalty was restored.

Once we had gotten through all these follow-up illnesses, Lily turned into an eerily healthy child. Her immune system had been massively kick-started, I guess. And now, many years later, with Lily’s 15th birthday just around the corner, those old worries and feelings of helplessness or guilt have faded from memory. Couples adopting internationally are often more worried than biological parents about what illnesses their future children might have. But in some ways, helping my daughters back to good health – seeing how quickly they responded to loving care and how fully they recovered – has become a special and enriching part of my adoption experiences. Thanks, as well, to a little help from a friend.

 

 

 

The back story:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily
Part 12 – Running On Empty

 

Fritz the Sheep

My elder daughter broached the subject of when she should start her Driver’s Ed course. Boy, was that a mistake. Not only did it bring back my own memories of Austrian Driving School, but she was really jumping the gun here!

“You know I am going to be 18 next summer,” she said.

“No you’re not.”

Moooomm!

“You are NOT! At least not if I have anything to say about it!”

We quickly agreed that this license thing was a topic she should take up with her Papa.

 

18! My first baby is going to be 18 next year! And the way time has sped up since we’ve had her – this is going to feel like . . . next month!

I suddenly remembered a box of little treasures I kept upstairs in my closet, because I’d had a vague plan of giving it to her on her 18th birthday. I dragged it out and found the blanket she was wrapped in when I first held her, the first baby bottle we used, her baptism presents and dress, her first stuffed animal . . .

And then I found these:

During the adoption process, I was teaching the third of a four year course and had developed a close relationship with a lot of my students. They were aware of my situation and even a little emotionally involved. When we came home with Mitzi, a lot of them visited us with presents in hand.  That is how this little stuffed sheep – whom we named Fritz – became Mitzi’s Velveteen Rabbit for a while. Two other students later presented me with the book “Fritz the Sheep”. They had drawn all the pictures and written the text themselves. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful and good at gift-giving! (I’m not one of them.) I adored this book from the start and displayed it prominently in my house. Unfortunately, it suffered a little water damage once when a wild thunderstorm blew open the porch door and caused some minor flooding. And Fritz himself is also looking a bit forlorn. But both still qualify as priceless. So I’ve decided to share them.

Here’s the (translated summary of the) story:

Fritz the Sheep lives in a nice place outside a small village, but for some reason, he is a little sad and a little lonely. He decides to take a walkabout.

 

He meets Lisa the Cow and tells her about his travels. Lisa doesn’t really understand why he isn’t satisfied.

 

Fritz meets Pino the Woodpecker. (Let it be known here that “Pino” was the nickname of one of the authors.) Pino tells Fritz that what he is really looking for is happiness and tries to teach him to fly. It doesn’t work out well.

 

As Fritz wanders away, Pino decides he could still help. He brings Fritz to a birdhouse where they meet Gina the Cat. (Let it be known that our Cat One was named Gina.) Gina is nasty and makes fun of Fritz at first, but after Pino flatters her, she decides to help. And, deep down, she is wise and has a good heart.

 

Gina leads them to a house, telling Fritz that she spends a lot of time there.  (Just like our house at the time, there is a rocking chair on the front porch, a basketball stand and a blue car.) Fritz asks why they are there. Gina tells him to figure it out for himself and takes off.

 

Fritz is greeted by a barking gray woolly sheepdog named Whitney. (Long-time blog readers will know her as “Dog Two” – and if they look closely down the hallway, they will see “The Nemesis”.) Whitney makes it clear to Fritz that no one can come in here – unless, of course, they have a reason to . . . then it’s okay.

 

Fritz saunters into the house and then goes out to the terrace where he finds me reading to Mitzi – who doesn’t look at all sleepy. He has an idea.

 

Fritz starts jumping over the fence again and again until Maria gets tired and falls asleep. This makes Fritz happy and he decides to stay with this family till the end of his days.

 

(The End)

 

So, the plan was to give these things to Mitzi on her 18th birthday – that is what a thoughtful and great gift-giver would do. (Did I mention I am not one of them?) But I suddenly find myself having a little trouble with the thought of letting precious things go. Maybe she will just have to wait a bit longer – like . . . say . . . until she has her own first child (assuming that happens).

Serves her right for growing up so fast.