Yesterday Alina learned how to make popcorn.
This sounds trivial to us, we buy a box cheap, put it in the microwave and don’t think twice about it. She said she had only ever had popcorn once before. She told us a wonderful memory of an orphanage worker taking her on a special trip to town, and buying her a bag of popcorn. She said it was one of her favorite memories.
Alina adores a few kind orphanage workers. She says working in the kitchen to provide the children with food is the most compassionate job. She uses a high tone and huge smile when she mentions these women. Most of her fond memories surround food, which is often lacking.
Alina had never seen a coconut, been to a convenience store or had a lollipop before. This week, between violin drop off dinner prep I took her to the fruit stand, she picked out watermelon, a coconut, and got for the first time, just like in the movies, her very own lollipop. She came home, we had dinner. She took the dog for her nightly stroll, to protect her in this foreign land.
Alina has no idea that Josie is the most timid black lab squirrel chaser there ever was, she just knows that in the orphanage the dogs protect them from strangers. She knows she lovingly feeds the orphanage dog named lucky, and he keeps her safe. This dog does a better job than most adults, and he’s reliable. She has no reference, and no reason to think that Josie isn’t the same. Another example of the challenges to bring a child from a foreign land that has been completely institutionalized, and has no concept of our dangers.
When she was safely guided home by our hyper huntress, validating to her that this dog will be her protector, because she still had no reason not to believe. This illusion isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on. I know our neighborhood, I stay close enough behind that at 14 she doesn’t feel me hovering, but far enough so that she won’t be unsafe. This is a fine balance of guiding a girl that is very eager to please, overly polite, has been only loosely supervised and is extremely sensitive. I struggle to balance when to speak up and guide her because she takes everything to heart. She is not the personality that will storm off and slam her door, instead she will allow a misunderstanding to strengthen the wall she has up between her and the world. Although our struggles are different from the families with the door slamming, I still struggle with when to say something and fear keeping the wall up, versus knowing when to let it go and ignore the force feeding, barbie on full blast, and endless yogurt drinks. This is a dance, sometimes we step on each other’s toes, it doesn’t look that pretty, but we’re making it work. We have a Ukrainian orphan totally submersed into or new family of 8, things take some time to settle out, things are going about as well as you can expect. I don’t expect her to speak fluent English by August, I don’t expect anything from her, except taking the time for her to relax, and imagine her world outside of the only four walls she’s ever known.
She brought the dog in and relived her from her duties, I showed her how to make microwave popcorn. She was intently listening, willingly learning the English words to get her coveted popcorn prepared. She watched as the bag inflated, with joy and excitement in her eyes. “Popcorn!” “This side up!” “Start!” “Popcorn!”. She stood and waited the few minutes never taking her eyes off the bag. When the microwave beeped, she slowly took the bag out and danced off like she had just conquered another world, and indeed she had. She learned in one week to make decisions, try new things, regulate her sensory limits, and trust other people. She was immersed in a world that was completely new to her, while she grabbed at every firefly of familiarity she could. We found her Russian Barbie, put up note cards labeling the house in Russian, we had her meet with a friend who spoke Russian, and we let her pick dinner from a Ukrainian cookbook. Keeping as many familiar things as possible as we constantly bomb her with new experiences is important to keep her from being over stimulated and blocking any interest in new experiences. Keeping the bar low, the experiences brief, and the joy overflowing is our secret to getting through this phase of the summer.
Tonight we graduated to making popcorn on the stove top, to add another warm memory in the bank. She watched as the oil heated and the seeds started to bust open. She squealed with joy, and ran off again to eat her conquer bowl of fond memories.
She’s learning things about America. Some stories she was told are true, and some are not. Turns out not every American is rich and lives in a castle and has servants. She did learn that what one of her workers told her was true, “Only in America do miracles happen for you Alina”.
Miracles we give her in a lollipop, a bag of popcorn, a small cat purse to take home to her best friend. All around her amazing things are happening. She collected four toothbrushes, she won’t even wear her new shoes for fear of making them dirty. She keeps verifying we will call her once she’s back at the orphanage. That she might be allowed to visit at Christmas too, with this very same family. Her miracles abound in small amazing things we take for granted. Her world is changing, expanding, and writing a new path.
The struggle with this type of host child isn’t ‘easy’. The journey to plan all your words sensitively to be butchered through google translate, and the race against time to earn the trust so she knows your personality enough that you didn’t really mean to say “you smell like a fat salmon full of chocolate”. At the end of the summer when the parents who had door slammers have some justification to be relieved that the end is in sight, families like mine are the type of host families watch their hearts on the carving board as our little yellow shirts descend back into the terminal, and the only lifeline we have to make sure our babies are safe is through the internet. You should never judge my story by the chapter you walked in on. This might look easy, but putting this girl on a plane back to Ukraine is going to be like losing a family member. I don’t have any moments from this summer to date that I can say ‘phew, I’m glad that’s over’.
The only salve to my soul I can apply on August 30th will be the truth that we changed a girls WORLD. We taught her trust, and shared our culture. We learned of her world, and we found a way to trace back our red strings to each other. This isn’t an unwanted orphan, she just had to be found. If she chooses to return to Ukraine after each hosting, if she never wants to live here, none of this was for nothing. All of this had purpose, every tear we shed when the end draws near, ever moment our hearts bleed to savor the moments of knowing the sweetest underdogs there ever were. The fact that 300,000 more of this girl are in orphanages right now waiting for people to read this blog and do SOMETHING.
People will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel. This she will never forget. Her wonderful, magical, summer of miracles.
Tonight I changed a girl’s world. I taught her to make popcorn.