ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Truths of Foreign Exchange, (How I Became a Mother)

Updated on March 15, 2016

The Start of Our Family

The author and the love of her life.
The author and the love of her life. | Source

Many people seem to think that because I’ve never had children of my own, that I don’t know what it is to be a mother. Well have I got news for them. Just because I have not carried a child for nine months (something I’ve always wanted to experience, by the way), and just because I have not raised a child through all 18 years, does not mean that I do not know motherhood. I’ve experienced the joys, the sorrows, the sicknesses, the boy problems, the girl problems, the friend problems, the drama, the “I hate you”, and the “I love you” that come with motherhood. I’ve baked the cookies, bought the fundraisers, filled the stockings, hidden the Easter baskets, and tended the wounds that come with motherhood. I’ve hosted the parties, attended the sports, met the teachers, met the parents, heard the gossip, warned of dangers, given advice, and in the end prayed that they’d be okay. I don’t know what it is like to be a mother? On the contrary, having had a hand in “raising” five teenagers ranging in age from 16 to 18, I can proudly state, “I AM a mom.”


In 1981 I met the love of my life, however I did not date him until 1985 after breaking up with the person who turned out not to be the love of my life. Fourteen months later I married that young love, Tony. I’d had it all figured out. Prior to our engagement I had wanted ten children. Prior to our marriage Tony agreed to 2 or 3. Many years and one miscarriage later we realized that we would probably be forever childless. That is until I saw a notice in our church bulletin that two Swedish boys needed a host family.


We had just moved from our home state of Kentucky to a tiny rural community in Indiana. We didn’t know many people yet, especially since I was still commuting back and forth from Louisville every weekend as my job was still there. As I read the bulletin to my husband on our way home from church that morning, I half-jokingly blurted out that we should do it. To my surprise Tony took me up on it. After contacting the local representative we arranged to attend a host family picnic where we would observe both of the boys as they interacted with the other exchange students and the other host families. I felt a little guilty; it felt almost like deciding between the last two puppies of a litter, and feeling sorry for the puppy that is left behind. Regardless, we made our choice on the way home from the picnic. I headed back to Louisville the next morning while Tony made arrangements to welcome our “first born.”

Our Oldest: Jan

Jan having a bit of fun on Christmas Day, standing behind Tony and his sister, Kathy.
Jan having a bit of fun on Christmas Day, standing behind Tony and his sister, Kathy. | Source
Jan (the tallest boy) received a high school diploma from our local school.
Jan (the tallest boy) received a high school diploma from our local school. | Source
Jan spends time with Smokey just before leaving for the airport to return to Sweden.
Jan spends time with Smokey just before leaving for the airport to return to Sweden. | Source
Tony, Donna, and Jan at the airport just before Jan returns to Sweden.
Tony, Donna, and Jan at the airport just before Jan returns to Sweden. | Source

From motherless to an 18-year old in 0.1 second

When I returned home from my busy work week as a business manager, I was greeted by the dog, the cat, Tony, and 18 year-old Jan from Sweden. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of many tug-at-my-heart and lump-in-my-throat moments that I mistakenly had believed only a true parent could have. Jan (pronounced Yon in Sweden, but he went by John here) was a brilliant student who enjoyed meeting people. He was equally at home discussing politics and history, as he was discussing literature and science. Jan was serious, funny, head-strong, and caring.

Most women have 9 months to plan for motherhood; I didn’t even have 9 days. But we had the space, a bed, and plenty of love to share; the rest would come in time. That first weekend back from Louisville, I was a mom. A few months later I began a job nearby and therefore fully became a member of my own family. I enjoyed cooking for my small family of three, taking Jan shopping for school supplies, discussing current events, and sharing family dinner-time conversations in which we learned about one another’s day. A true family. But like any true family, there are moments that you would rather forget. One of those moments happened when Jan would not take “not now” for an answer, and eventually was sent to his room. When he refused to go to his room, going downstairs toward the television and computer instead, he was ushered back up the stairs and into his room by Tony. Jan then claimed, “You can’t lock me in my room, I am an international exchange student.” We can laugh about it now, but at the time we had to explain to him that in the United States children are sent to their rooms to think about what they have done wrong, and to give the parents a bit of breathing room to also think about what has happened. I, for one, was so hurt by how he had treated me that I actually couldn’t wait until June arrived so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. We grounded Jan from using the computer for a week. In March, when it came time to put him on a bus to the airport so that he could go on a west coast trip with the exchange program, I cried. I worried about him the entire time he was gone, and I came to dread the day in June when he would leave us to return to Sweden. Good and bad, we had become a true family.

Just like any real family we shared many special times. My family, as well as Tony’s, had immediately taken to him. I loved the fact that I had a “son” who would sit down like a cousin to my three nephews at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. In addition, we took some camping trips with friends, celebrated every holiday in true American style, and tried to provide Jan with a real teen-age American experience. One of our friends even took him to Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Jan was an excellent student and made many friends. He had a small role in the school play and regularly was invited to do things with his friends. His school year culminated in Jan attending the prom and graduating, actually receiving a diploma. Both events brought tears to my eyes, and made me so proud of the way this young man conducted himself. Yes, I realize that we had had our share of problems, but compared to many teenagers, Jan was a saint. I thanked God that I was, for at least a year of Jan’s life, able to be his mom. Yes, I realized that he had a real mom and dad; that is what makes it even more amazing. Those two wonderful people, who wanted their son to have every advantage, allowed their only child to travel across the world and become part of our family. When Jan would call home every other Sunday he would tell his parents about things he had done or seen, and even of any troubles we had had. Without fail, his father would reason with him, and one day even called me and apologized for how Jan had treated me. On our side, when I would hear Jan raise his voice to his parents or say things that he should not have said (yes, even in a foreign language one can usually tell if it is a bad word), we would discuss it with Jan and remind him that his parents had given of themselves to allow him this opportunity. In either case, Jan would apologize to whichever set of parents with which he had argued. Two sets of parents, hmmm…sounds like a modern family to me.

Eventually it was time for Jan to leave. The weeks leading up to that moment were agony for Tony and me. Jan had become such a huge part of our lives that it did not seem possible that he would not be a part of us any longer. I knew that no longer would I be knocking on his door at six o’clock in the morning to wake him for school. No longer would I keep Nutella in stock because he loved it. No longer would the downstairs’ television be constantly on C-SPAN because Jan truly enjoyed keeping up with the Clinton scandal to see the wheels of justice turn. On Jan’s last morning at home even Smokey, our cat, knew that something was going on and tried to get in the way of the packing progress.

We saw Jan off at the gate, as that was before 9-11, with hugs and kisses. We watched the plane taxi away and fell silent as we slowly walked through the airport. My heart was breaking; it felt as if a huge empty spot took over a place in my chest. Yes, it hurts tremendously when they leave, but like I said, it’s just like any real family.


Jan (center) poses with his friend, Zany, and Tony in Chicago when he returned for a visit in 2002
Jan (center) poses with his friend, Zany, and Tony in Chicago when he returned for a visit in 2002 | Source

Jan’s Return

Jan did return to the United States in July of 2002, for a coast to coast trip with a friend. We were able to meet up with him for the 3rd of July happenings in Chicago. It felt so good to spend time with him. After the fireworks, walking down the middle of the Chicago streets with people stretched across from building to building and as far ahead and back as the eye could see, we joined in as a chant roared forward from the rear, “U.S.A. U.S.A.” The next day we said goodbye to Jan once again. It wasn’t any easier than the first time.


Things don’t always work out

Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. In July of 2001 we decided to host a girl from Germany. Without going into many details, she had to be sent back to Germany. Let is suffice to say that she was probably too immature to be so far from home. Additionally, the exchange program had a recommended time frame that students were required to go without contact with their home country so that the students could adjust to their new country and host family. It was definitely a problem when one day her father called her over twenty times, at all hours of the day and night.

We decided that we just wouldn’t have another exchange student. But the program we hosted through at the time would not leave us alone. They finally talked us into taking a boy, Mark, from Hungary. Mark was the captain of his water polo team in Hungary. No schools in our part of Indiana offered that, so my husband drove Mark two hours round trip several days per week, to join a YMCA so that Mark could at least swim laps. Mark also played on our local soccer league, and got involved in the school musical. We borrowed a piano from our local coordinator because Mark loved to play piano, especially boogie-woogie; he was very good at it.

In the meantime the terrorist attacks of September 11 happened. I called the school that morning to check on Mark, and then I went to the school to look in on him while he was in a class. I just wanted to make sure that he was okay. Had I been in his shoes, a student in a foreign land being attacked, I would have been a basket case. He was fine. I guess like many moms, I worry a bit too much. Several days later Tony and I tried to lighten things up after the nationwide moment of silence. Returning to our little town from a nice dinner in Bloomington, we stopped by the local grocery store. Mark opted to wait in the car but asked that we purchase some more marshmallows—he absolutely loved those things and went through a bag of them in a day or two. Once inside the store I told Tony that we would get the sticky treats, but that we were going to play a joke on Mark, and for him to just keep a straight face and go along with it. He agreed.

Back in the car I kept the plastic bags of groceries up front with me. I broke the bad news to Mark that we were unable to get his marshmallows because the store had run out. He responded that that was okay, and that we could get some later in the week. When I explained that they would not be getting anymore in, and that we would not even be able to get them at Wal-Mart, he asked why not. “Because they come from Afghanistan, and we cannot do anymore business with them since the terrorist attacks,” I said matter-of-factly. He fell for it. Tony had a hard time keeping a straight face, but managed it somehow. Mark was extremely disappointed, that is until we got home and I pulled the marshmallows out of the bag. We all had a good laugh at a time when we desperately needed it.

A month later we took Mark to Colorado for fall break. Mark loved to shop and basically wore me out on a shopping tour while Tony was at a conference. I had never seen a young man shop so much! Once Tony was finished with business, the three of us went up Pike’s Peak, hiked around Bear Lake in Estes Park, and even took a ride up in a tethered balloon in Boulder. We had a beautiful trip and really bonded.

Problems came about though when some things came to our attention about the people with whom Mark was associating. Because Mark was being negatively influenced by those people,m a choice needed to be made. His choice was to leave.

We were devastated. This happened on the last day of school before Christmas. We had spent hundreds of dollars on his gifts, many of which could not be returned, and planned a variety of holiday activities. It destroyed Christmas for us, and made me embarrassed to go out into the community, lest someone think that we had done something wrong. But, it did make me more aware of how I used to judge other families based upon what know-nothing gossips had told me. It also made us decide that we would never host again.


Vini - Our Middle Child

Donna, Vini, and Tony
Donna, Vini, and Tony | Source
Our third boy, Vini from Brazil, celebrating Christmas at my parents' home.
Our third boy, Vini from Brazil, celebrating Christmas at my parents' home. | Source
Vini, Donna, and Johnny pose in front of the U. S. Capitol.
Vini, Donna, and Johnny pose in front of the U. S. Capitol. | Source
Johnny, Donna, and Vini in front of The White House.
Johnny, Donna, and Vini in front of The White House. | Source
Vini (with two of my nephews) at Easter Vigil Mass the night my father became Catholic.
Vini (with two of my nephews) at Easter Vigil Mass the night my father became Catholic. | Source

Six Years Can Change Your Mind

Eventually we moved to another part of Indiana to be closer to my teaching job. While attending a school open house I met a woman representing another exchange program who asked if we would be interested in hosting again. Of course I told her no. Then I hurried home and talked to Tony about it. We chose a boy, and had three months to prepare for him. We redid the bed linens, curtains, wall art, and knick knacks in an African savanna theme—my husband’s idea to make it more manly.

Along came sixteen year-old Vini from Brazil. Vini was a character, able to imitate any old or new song like the artist who performed it; he loved The Beatles. When he showered he automatically broke into a favorite song every time – “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. Even though it got on my nerves after the umpteenth time, I couldn’t help smiling when I heard him. Coming from Brazil one might think that Vini would have been a star soccer player, but he really didn’t play soccer much at all. He wanted to try out for football, but he was not very motivated to get into shape for it. He did however join the wrestling team. He was not a star athlete at that either, but he enjoyed it. We were blessed to have a top coach at his school who not only cared about wrestling, but truly cared about the kids. He even presented Vini with a plaque at the season’s-end banquet. Vini also went out for the track team. Again, he wasn’t great at it by any means, but he enjoyed it.

Through both sports Tony worked with Vini on exercise and diet. When he left here he was in much better physical shape than he had been when he arrived. Tony and I both worked with Vini on his homework, sometimes very late into the evening. We also had a lot of heart-to-heart talks. Vini’s mom struggled with him being so far away from her, and for so long. For the first few months she constantly attempted to have too much contact with him, even though the program representatives had spoken to her about it. I couldn’t really blame her; I would not be able to send my child so far from home for that long. I admire any parent who can do that. But Vini was constantly upset by this and I often had to plead with him to call home on the weekends when I knew she was expecting his call. I think it just upset him to hear her begging him to come back home all the time.

Vini was a great help to me. I had wanted to pull off a huge 50th birthday surprise party for Tony.I could not have done it without Vini. On the day of the party, just hours before guests were to arrive the garbage disposal stopped up and there was a sink full of filthy water. Vini called from a wrestling tournament to see if I was doing okay. When I told him what had happened, he said he would be right home. As it turned out, my neighbor helped out with the sink, but Vini started taking charge of other things that needed to be done. When the guests began to arrive he greeted them at the door, helped them with their coats, got them something to drink, and stood as a lookout for Tony. My “son” and I did pull off a huge surprise party. We certainly felt like a family.

Not long after that, in the middle of the night, we experienced a strong earthquake. Tony and I woke pretty disoriented by it. I ran to look out the window to see if perhaps a huge truck was going down our quiet street. Not seeing anything, I immediately knew what was going on, told Tony to get up (he ran to the window then), and tried to turn on the lights. The power was out. I found my way down the dark hallway, calling Vini’s name. He answered. I reassured him and told him I was opening his door, to come toward my voice. I took Vini by the hand and led him down the stairs. I opened the front door and we stood in the doorway. At least I thought that was the right thing to do, we haven’t been in too many earthquakes in Southern Indiana, and none this magnitude. Tony came downstairs and proceeded to go outside to look around. I cautioned him that you aren’t supposed to go outside because of power lines, to which he reminded me that we have underground utilities. Oops. Eventually we went back to bed, but I worried about Vini for the following week, every time we had an aftershock.

We enjoyed having Vini with us, and took him on a spring break trip to Washington, D.C. We also took our “little brother” from Big Brothers/Big Sisters. We really felt like a family then, with two boys in the backseat and stops along the way. It reminded me of my childhood and the many car trips to Tennessee and Florida I took with my family. While in D.C. the boys were taken in by all of the history and science. Being the only female on the trip, I was clearly outnumbered on many decisions of things to see and places to go. And I never knew when the three of them were going to do something to embarrass me out in public, a task in which they excelled. The trip was not without its occasional argument as Vini was a teenage boy who sometimes needed to be reminded that he was in a strange land and that certain precautions needed to be learned in case we were separated. He didn’t really care much for that and would let us know it. But at night when I would go in and check on both of the boys asleep, and see their clothes tossed around the room, I would quietly thank God for all of the “mom moments” He had given me.

Just like with Jan, we went through preparations for prom. When the night finally arrived I couldn’t believe how grown up my sixteen year-old Vini seemed. We picked up his date, dropped them off at a nice restaurant, and returned for them later. We took them home to freshen up, and then delivered them to the prom, and later the post-prom. They both had a good time, although from the sounds of it Vini danced a lot more than his date. They came home to spend the night, in different rooms of course. Early the next morning I prepared a special breakfast of French toast with syrup, bacon, juice, and coffee for the four of us, before taking his prom date home.

Vini turned 17 just a month before he returned to Brazil. A few weeks later we gave him a going away party. Once again, we knew it was time to return to a normal, childless life, but it still hurt. When we took him to the airport in Louisville we had to stay behind the security line this time. Being the true family that we’d become, it was very difficult to walk away from the security check-in area. Once again, my heart was breaking.


Our First Girl: Ana

Ana, from the Republic of Georgia, was our first daughter. She returned a year later for a 6-week visit in which we took her to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.
Ana, from the Republic of Georgia, was our first daughter. She returned a year later for a 6-week visit in which we took her to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. | Source
Johnny, Tony and Ana in front of the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool
Johnny, Tony and Ana in front of the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool | Source
Ana, Tony, and Johnny
Ana, Tony, and Johnny | Source
Ana with the author's father, husband, and nephews. Exchange students often become a big part of the extended family.
Ana with the author's father, husband, and nephews. Exchange students often become a big part of the extended family. | Source
Ana poses with "Dad" before the prom.
Ana poses with "Dad" before the prom. | Source
The tearful time always comes. Ana leaving us the first time.
The tearful time always comes. Ana leaving us the first time. | Source
Tony and Ana celebrate Strassenfest.
Tony and Ana celebrate Strassenfest. | Source

Daddy’s Little Girl

A year after Vini left, his exchange program called us again. We immediately said yes to them. However, this time we really wanted a girl. We did the usual combing through applications, looking at favorite activities, grades, hobbies, family life, and the letter to the host parents. We listed pros and cons of each, but we kept returning to one particular application because everything about her touched our hearts. We redid the bedroom in pink and green, including a floral print and a metal wall art piece of butterflies. Once again I rearranged the linen closet in the extra bathroom and emptied out drawers I had been using for storage. I even went to K-Mart and purchased new pink and green towel sets. It was obvious that we were going to dote on this one.

And so it was that 17 year-old Ana from the Republic of Georgia joined our family in August. Ana was quiet, serious, funny, talkative, studious, and precious. She enjoyed helping me in the kitchen, and didn’t mind that I stuck her with peeling potatoes many times, which was a job I typically detested. She also enjoyed helping Tony build things or work around the yard. Ana took a photography class at school and soon learned that she had a true gift for taking photos. One of her photos, of an old railroad bridge, sits displayed in our guest room. Ana was an excellent student, but it did take her a couple of months to feel comfortable in some of her classes because she wasn’t used to the speed with which the teachers spoke. I remember that I sat up with her until midnight many times working on American History or literature. Eventually things got easier for her, and homework time was not as difficult.

Just as I was with my own mother, Ana and I did not always see things eye to eye. When she thought that she should be able to speak to her best friend, who was also in the United States, once a week and in their native tongue, I disagreed with her. I did give in but required that they speak in English. However, when the program representative found out she got upset and said that they should not talk more than twice a month and that those calls were to be considered her two calls home. We also had some issues about the time she was to be in bed each night. I was persuaded to give in on that until Ana woke up late for school one day. Then we reverted back to the original rules. Was it always that hard for my mom?

At times I felt like Ana absolutely hated me, but on Thanksgiving weekend I think it changed. Ana was going to help put up the Christmas decorations that weekend. I always listen to Christmas movies on The Hallmark Channel while I move around the house unpacking boxes and putting out every last angel, tree, and snowman. Ana was not feeling well, although she helped some by unwrapping ornaments and helping Tony with lights. I could tell that she was really feeling bad so I covered her up on the couch, went and bought a new thermometer, and took care of her the way my mother would have taken care of me. I hated to see her sick, but I really liked taking care of her. I think she realized then exactly how much we loved her.

The holidays turned out to be amazing. We shared our family traditions with her, she prepared a Georgian dessert (that took weeks of hanging to dry) for us, and we caught her up on a variety of American Christmas favorites including The Grinch, or as she says, “Greench.” We even watched White Christmas, and then took her to see a Broadway version of it in Louisville. After a beautiful Christmas, we then took her and a friend to Chicago for several days. Ana loved the museums, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. But most of all, I think, she loved taking pictures of all the new sites in Chicago. As we walked to dinner at Rainforest Café, she kept stopping to take pictures of all of the tall buildings. It snowed a lot while we were there which didn’t even seem to bother her. Our holidays ended with our typical quiet evening at home on New Year’s Eve, which she made very memorable with her tooting cardboard horn and girlish laughter. I had closed out another year with a true family.

The spring semester went by very quickly, but was interrupted by our spring break trip. Johnny joined us as we took Ana on a trip to Washington, D.C., once again driving. This time however, we stopped along the way to stretch our legs quite a bit, and get coffee. One particular time found us stopped in the small town of Weston, West Virginia. When we returned to the car just moments later it would not start. We spent a week in Weston, West Virginia that day. After a four-hour long fiasco with AAA and the local tow-truck, Tony and Johnny left with the tow operator to head to a dealership in the next town. By the time they returned, Ana and I had already closed down the Chinese restaurant, walked around inside a grocery store, and parked ourselves on a park bench outside of the store. It became dark, was getting chilly, and we were both very tired. I told Ana that she could lay her head in my lap and go to sleep if she wished. She did. She fell asleep immediately, there in my lap with my hand resting on her arm. I guarded her as people entering and exiting the store continued to eye us. I now knew how it felt to protect a child.

Eventually we got a hotel room in the next town, and the next morning we rented a mini-van and continued on our way. D.C. was a wonderful experience for Ana, and she especially loved the Museum of Art. She and Johnny also seemed to bond, seeming more like brother and sister on that trip than two strangers. We all laughed and carried on, and some of us took turns hiding or doing mean things to the teddy bear that had traveled with Ana from her country of Georgia.

We went through the prom experience once again, but this was the first time that we were parents of the girl. That is a whole new ballgame! Tony took Ana shopping for her dress, and actually found the most perfect dress for her the first time out. It was a beautiful wine-colored, floor length dress with spaghetti straps. It was extremely feminine, and complimented her skin tone and long dark hair. I took her to my hairstylist the morning of the prom to have her hair done, and later that day we picked up her date. Her date was a French exchange student who lived an hour away with his host family. The two had met a couple of times at exchange events, and had e-mailed one another. We picked him up, dropped them off to eat at a nice restaurant while we went to Cracker Barrel, and then picked them up a bit later. We drove the hour back home, let them freshen up, and then dropped them off at the prom. They returned home to change, and were promptly delivered to the post prom. Evidently at that point he seemed to pay attention to many girls. That’s when you find out who your real friends are, I’m afraid.

We picked them up from the post prom and the young man stayed the night in the guest room. I don’t think I slept a wink that night, just listening for footsteps and doors. The next morning I prepared my usual day-after-prom breakfast, and then Tony and Ana saw the young man home. When they returned, Tony and Ana shared with me what post prom had really been like. All I have to say is that it’s a good thing I didn’t know this while he was still under my roof. I am her mom after all.

We gave Ana a going away Luau, complete with shark steaks and tiki lights. Then the day came to take her to the airport. Tony had actually sewn a special fringed blanket for her, which she carried on top of her backpack. (Yes, he can sew. I can’t.) It killed us to say good-bye to her that day. I wanted to run through the security gate at Louisville and tell them that I had to see her onto the plane myself, that she was too young and too foreign to go it alone. With tears streaming down our faces we continued to stand there and wave to her every time she stopped and turned to wave to us, reminding us of the Energizer Bunny. She wouldn’t quit. To this day it still breaks my heart when I think about it. When we left, having both cars with us, Tony went to work and I went to teach my students. Had it not been for my teen-age students, I don’t know if I would have gotten through the day. But when we got home that evening, we were both miserable without our girl.


Ana’s Return

Within a year after Ana left we were already planning a return trip so that we could take her to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. She came back and spent two months with us. When we picked her up at the Indianapolis airport we hugged her, and never wanted to let go. Gabby and Holly, our dog and cat respectively, remembered her immediately and, Gabby in particular, seemed excited to welcome her home. We had a magnificent trip seeing shows, walking the strip, hiking, shopping, and laughing. But we knew that things would be changing soon as we were expecting an addition to our little family.


Our Baby: Anna-Sophia

Our little family welcoming its newest member, Anna-Sophia from Germany, at the small airport in Evansville, Indiana.
Our little family welcoming its newest member, Anna-Sophia from Germany, at the small airport in Evansville, Indiana. | Source
The girls prepared a special Georgian dinner, and then cleaned up the kitchen for Mom. This is the life!
The girls prepared a special Georgian dinner, and then cleaned up the kitchen for Mom. This is the life! | Source
Anna-Sophia with one of her American "cousins" and her "pappaw."
Anna-Sophia with one of her American "cousins" and her "pappaw." | Source
Anna-Sophia celebrated her 17th birthday (in October) with a party complete with pumpkin carving and hot-tubbing.
Anna-Sophia celebrated her 17th birthday (in October) with a party complete with pumpkin carving and hot-tubbing. | Source
Thanksgiving at the Bryan house.
Thanksgiving at the Bryan house. | Source
Anna-Sophia experienced her first Halloween, Thanksgiving, and decorating for Christmas in American fashion. She also put her talent for the flute to work by playing in two Christmas concerts for my chorus.
Anna-Sophia experienced her first Halloween, Thanksgiving, and decorating for Christmas in American fashion. She also put her talent for the flute to work by playing in two Christmas concerts for my chorus. | Source
"Dad" and Anna-Sophia in front of the White House.
"Dad" and Anna-Sophia in front of the White House. | Source
Anna-Sophia has fun with "Mom" at Churchill Downs.
Anna-Sophia has fun with "Mom" at Churchill Downs. | Source

A Whole New Experience

Not long after we returned from our trip, 16 year-old Anna-Sophia of Germany joined our ranks. Our “wild child”, Anna-Sophia was one to continually push the envelope, which in turn caused us to pull in the reigns a little tighter. Our rules didn’t go over very well with her which caused much turmoil in our household for many months. She didn’t understand why she could not stay out through the night, or go where she pleased at whatever time she pleased. Many things had changed since we had hosted Jan. When he first arrived cell phones were a fairly new thing. It was unheard of for an exchange student to have one. Instead, calling plans were arranged with the host family. We locked in a great international plan back then which we still carry. Skype wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at that time. The Internet and e-mail were used by students to keep in touch with their families on a limited basis in-between bi-weekly phone calls. The exchange programs not only supported this infrequent contact, but required it. This aided in the exchange student’s experience to fit in with their new family, and with new friends. However, Anna-Sophia’s exchange generation is very different. They want to have constant access to their friends and families through Facebook, Skype, e-mail, and cell phones. As I said, there was much turmoil. In other words, we were like a normal family with a teen-ager.

Ana was with us for about six weeks while Anna-Sophia settled in. It felt very natural and comforting to come home from work and have the two of them hanging around, helping in the kitchen, or talking about something in their day. It was such a delightful sound to hear two giggling girls down the hallway acting like sisters. Ana would tell me later that she was trying to help Anna-Sophia understand why our rules were the way they were, and that she hadn’t liked them at first either but was later grateful for them. Ana helped to soften the transition, but still when we all tearfully saw Ana off at the airport, Anna-Sophia’s tears were not just tears that she would miss Ana. They were tears of what lay ahead.

We’ve always stressed to our kids that if they truly immerse themselves in their new home and family, and speak English, they will have their first English-speaking dream by mid-October. I wasn’t so sure that was going to happen with Anna-Sophia however. Because we live in a very German community with well-meaning older adults who want to practice their German, Anna-Sophia was repeatedly being spoken to in German. Add to that that the local German club hosts an exchange program with a sister city in Germany. There were seven or eight other German exchange students in the school at the same time. The school provided them with a bank of lockers together, and they would congregate there throughout the day speaking in German, of course. They were reminded, I was told, that they were to speak only in English, but most of the students continued to speak in German. We stressed to Anna-Sophia the importance of speaking in English, which she understood. Her understanding of that led to a morning in mid-October when she excitedly announced to me that she had dreamt for the first time in English. I don’t know which of us was more excited.

In December, after a bright and beautiful Christmas, we treated Anna-Sophia to a trip to Chicago. She brought along another German girl that she had met at school and they’d become the best of friends. The two laughed constantly and enjoyed every sight, museum, restaurant, and chance to shop. Even pictures of the four of us standing in the freezing cold night, waiting for a table at Gino’s, bring back warm memories. We returned home in time for New Year’s Eve and rang in 2012 with a game, Times Square, a midnight toast (hers was juice), and tooting horns. Once again, we had a family of our own for the holidays.

Anna-Sophia loved fashion, and while living here was attempting to create a new style for herself. Everywhere we went she’d find clothing, jewelry, and make-up to support that new style. The worst, however, were the shoes. We could not walk past a shoe department, and once spent 45 minutes there. When it came time to pack at the end of the year, she actually left clothing and souvenirs behind because she had so many new shoes.

Anna-Sophia was involved in several extra-curricular activities through school. She had a part in two school plays, helped as a manager on the volleyball team, and played flute in the symphonic band. I remember how proud I was of her as she stood on the stage waving her wand in “Shrek”, and when she earned a spot in the state flute competition. I recall the Saturday that she and I drove three and a half hours to Indianapolis for the competition. She did not do as well as she had hoped, but I was so overwhelmed with pride that I took her to celebrate at The Cheesecake Factory. That was followed by shopping and the long ride back home. It was a day in which we definitely bonded as mom and daughter. It is one of those days I wish I could re-live .

Then there were the boys, and the eventual prom date. Many boys showed an interest in Anna-Sophia, but she was very picky. Tony and I didn’t mind that one bit. When it came time for talk about the prom, I have to admit, I was excited for her that she went with a boy that she definitely liked. However, we weren’t overly thrilled with the choice. Anna-Sophia was a beauty in an ice-blue floor-length gown that enhanced her skin’s glow and dishwater blonde hair. Reportedly, she had a great time at the prom. However, we worked at the post-prom and not once did we see the two of them together. He opted instead to ignore her and hang out with his buddies. What is wrong with these guys?

When it came time for her going-away party, we allowed Anna-Sophia to invite whomever she wanted. I almost reneged on that when prom boy showed up on the list. All I can say is that I treated the young man (and I use the term loosely) politely that day. After all, I am a mom and we do what we need to do. But even now when I see him my skin bristles.

Of course the time came to say good-bye. This time I felt so totally alone since Tony left on the first plane with her. That plane would take them both to Atlanta where they would say goodbye and hop onto different planes traveling in different directions. As I left the airport in tears that day, I couldn’t help think that just nine months earlier I’d had a family of four.


Not a Real Mom?

My mom used to always say that we were each her favorite child. She would go on to explain that my brother was her favorite because he was her first-born. My sister was her favorite because she was the first girl, and I was her favorite because I was her baby. I thought I understood it then. But after hosting foreign exchange students and experiencing the ups and downs, believe me, I understand it much better now. After all, I am a mom.


Want to Host and Exchange Student?

Would you like to host an exchange student?

See results

Exchange Students Love to Share Their Country's Foods

Our delicious Georgian meal prepared by Ana and Anna-Sophia.  As parents of exchange students we've enjoyed foods from many lands.
Our delicious Georgian meal prepared by Ana and Anna-Sophia. As parents of exchange students we've enjoyed foods from many lands. | Source

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • wetnosedogs profile image

      wetnosedogs 4 years ago from Alabama

      A wonderful read and you have such great memories of such great people. And you are a Mom and a superb Mom you are!

    • Donna Kay Bryan profile image
      Author

      Donna Kay Bryan 4 years ago

      Thank you so much for that! It is so nice to be validated.

      These "kids" are great people, and I'm glad that came across. I find myself missing them very much -- most especially this time of year. Thank God for e-mail, Facebook, and Skype! lol

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      God bless you Donna! What an incredible story. Yes, you are a mother, and one I am proud to know as a friend. If you are ever in Washington State I insist you come visit me so I can give you a hug and meet you in person. Bravo to you for caring so deeply about these kids.

    • Donna Kay Bryan profile image
      Author

      Donna Kay Bryan 4 years ago

      Well God bless you right back Bill! You have put a huge smile on my face and warmed my heart. I would be honored to hug and meet you, and of course meet Bev, if I ever get out that way.

      It isn't hard to care about these kids. They just sort of get into your heart and tug at it. :) The real "bravo" goes to their parents who actually share them with us for a year. I couldn't imagine letting my child go to a far-off country to live with, and be cared for by, strangers. Ha! As it is I worry about them when I send them back! lol

      Thanks again, Bill, for making this "mom" smile!

    Click to Rate This Article