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Foreign Exchange becomes Heart Exchange

July 18, 2012


I Didn’t Want Her. Then I Didn’t Want to Return Her.
by Crystal Kupper
Salem Author
Crystal’s Cliffnotes

I opened the dishwasher, saw the clean bowl (backwards, of course) and swallowed another lump in my throat, willing myself not to cry again. I had to empty the dishwasher and wasn’t happy about it.But not for the reason you might think. That backwards bowl had been placed there by Celia, the de facto Spanish Dishwasher Princess for the past year. And now, she was gone.

As I grabbed each cup and plate, my mind drifted back to last summer — a beautiful August evening spent with friends “I’m afraid of her,” I confessed to my friend Kori. “I didn’t understand teenage girls when I was one!” “Her” was a 15-year-old stranger from Madrid, Spain who was at that very moment flying to live with us for a year.  And I was terrified. Getting an exchange student had not been my idea. Like anything out of the ordinary in my life, it was all Nick from the beginning. “Pray about it, please?” he had asked when a friend tried to sell us on hosting. No way, I said. The wife gets all the work of an exchange student, and have you forgotten we have an infant? “Then we can say no,” he assured me. “Just pray about it.”

And so I agreed, convinced God would be on my fatigued side. For 2 weeks, I waited expectantly for a no…but never got one. “Okay, Lord,” I huffed. “You’re going to have to send us the perfect kid. And did you know my mom thinks this is a terrible idea and tried to talk me out of it?”

We looked at a few hundred applications, picked out a Slovakian girl who listed her top 3 hobbies as looking after small children, cleaning houses and baking cakes, and waited. No dice. Some other lucky housewife had snagged her over the weekend.

I took that as a sign — SEE?! This is not meant to be! But then we looked again. And Celia Martinez Rivera, a young Spaniard with a genuine smile, caught our eye.

She had one older brother (quite cute, actually) only a few years younger than us. She was Catholic and got excellent grades. She loved tennis and was in love with Rapha Nadal. Her mother was an international flight attendant, her father a businessman. She wanted a family with little kids even though she knew nothing about them.Gulp.

We said yes to parenting a girl who was born when we were 11. We didn’t know it at the time, but we also said yes to more joy than we could ever imagine.

She arrived in the middle of the night. In my bed already, I heard them walk in, heard Nick show her the room we had worked hard to convert from an office into a teenage girl’s oasis (though no Justin Bieber posters; I just couldn’t go there). And I felt irritated that she was already causing us to lose sleep, already inconveniencing us.

If I had only seen myself on July 1, 2012, once again with Celia at the airport, this time a mess not from the inconvenience, but the heartache.

It felt strange having this new person around, awkward even. Yet as time passed, she began to figure out where the extra toilet paper was, that Jude did not like being separated from his pacifier and that sweet spot on Klaus’ leg where he prefers to be scratched.

Celia taught us things — about Madrid, about Europe, about Catholicism and private all-girls’ schools with uniforms and soccer-crazed fans filling up gigantic stadiums and the difference between Mexican Spanish and “real” Spanish.

And so we taught her as well — where food comes from, how to make brownies from scratch, what a cow looks like (well, in her defense, that mix-up only occurred once), how to make jam, how to change a diaper, the rules to American football, the pure genius of West Side Story and Nacho Libre.

Along the way, Celia surprised us, enthusiastically singing (off-key, unfortunately) to the oldies station and quoting lines from American movies. And we in turn surprised her — she had been told we were 30 and couldn’t imagine having such young parents (at the airport, she caught a glimpse of Nick and thought it surely must have been her host brother). She also thought we would be fat, because Europeans assume all Americans are fat. (I was quite happy to shatter that stereotype).We quickly learned the many facets of Celia’s personality; she could be loud, then quiet; happy, then irritated; hard-working, then ready to sleep in. And she figured out we were the exact opposites…and then exactly the same, too.

We showed her the many joys of living in Oregon: the mighty Pacific hugging 101, the mountains, the snow, the quirky small towns and even quirkier cities (I’m looking at you, Eugene and Portland). And the rain. I don’t think Celia will ever forget the rain.

And week by week, we started becoming a family. Jude’s first word, thanks to Celia’s prodding, was “gracias.” I adjusted my meals to feed 3 adults, always making sure there were no raspberries (Celia is allergic). Nick honed his “scare away young men at all costs” techniques, practicing every chance he got…and he got plenty. I started looking forward to 3:45 p.m. every day, waiting for the moment when she would burst through the door.

When her grandma died, she instead burst into tears. I awkwardly rubbed her back, stroked her hair and prayed in English as she cried in Spanish. And for the hundredth time, I didn’t know what to do with this woman-child whose parents were half a world away, trusting their baby to complete strangers.

I learned that day to get used to it.

We attended her basketball games and tennis matches, laughing at the awkward glances from strangers who assumed we were her biological parents. We took our family Christmas photo with her in it, feeling strangely like “The Blind Side: European Edition.”

And unexpectedly, she became ours. Jack began introducing her as his big sister, thanking God for “Klaus and Butler, and Celia and Jude” in his nightly prayers (always in that order). She frequently called me and Nick mom and dad, mostly in public to freak people out. Without thinking, I started telling new friends I had 3 children.

This 3rd child brought unanticipated fun. Used to Thomas the Train and Mighty Machines, I gingerly stepped into this foreign world of homecoming dress shopping, makeup, nail polish and teenage texting acronyms. My usual routine of preschool now meshed with high school….and I loved it.

It wasn’t perfect. She sometimes was late for curfew, snapped at Nick (though it was deserved most of the time!) and fought with Jack over pathetically small issues. She was, in short, one of us.

Over evenings of Say Yes to the Dress and Murder She Wrote, we talked — about boys, God, family, school, sports and life. She asked questions, I tried to answer. It was weird. It was different. It was wonderful.

Evidence of her year here is everywhere — in the flowers from her goodbye BBQ still going strong, in the flecks of her Del Sol nail polish still on my nails, in the way Jude peers into her room looking for her and Jack asking for her to come back and breaking my heart.

And despite fantasies of her parents not wanting her after a few weeks and returning her to us, I know that stage of our life is over. I wish it wasn’t, of course, but I have to look at our time with her as a gift.

When Celia recites all 8 of her last names to new friends the world over, we hope she tacks on Kupper, too.

  
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Julie Nolta July 21, 2012

Loved your story. 🙂

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