Funny the World...


GrowthWall.jpg (83556 bytes)April 15, 2000

Every family has one. It's the wall on which you measure the kids' heights. We started measuring in about 1975, two years after we moved here. The numbers are indistinct now, but it's clear that all the kids were shorter than we were in those days, and their progress from childhood to adulthood can be traced by the faint marks written on the wall.

Birthdays were the day for measuring. They'd back up to the wall, we'd put a ruler on top of their heads, make a line, measure how much they'd grown in the previous year, and add their name and the date. The wall used to be white. When the room was painted light blue, we kept the wall (which is only slightly less than a foot wide) unpainted. It is now soiled with 2 decades of kitchen fumes, hand prints, and the dirt that collects over time.

It's more than merely a wall on which we measured our children's growth. It tells the history of a very special 10 year period in our family's life.

As I look at the photo above, the name that leaps out at me is Chieko, and the date: 5/30/83. The name instantly brings to mind a shy Japanese exchange student, our first from Japan. She stayed with us three weeks and returned at Christmas time for the following three years to spend the holiday with us. She's married now, and just gave birth to her third child. Chieko loved Disney and I sent a little baby suit with a Disney character on it to her when this child was born.

Chieko was one of about 70 foreigners who shared our home over a 10 year period of time. They came from 14 different countries and stayed with us anywhere from overnight (a guy from Morocco who was passing through and called because he had our telephone number), to three years (Vince, our Malaysian son, who moved in at age 14 and lived with us until he graduated from high school. He subsequently went to the University here, married, and is now settled into his own home in town; he and his wife frequently join us for family holiday dinners). Sometimes they came two or three at a time. Chieko, for example, adopted Ndangi from Zaire as her brother. Both of them were here with Juan from Venezuela, who loved to tease Chieko because she would get so embarrassed.

Most of our adopted family members came from Brasil, starting with the first, Eduardo, who came to stay 3 weeks, but ended up staying 5 months, as he completed an intensive English course at UC Davis. (A year later 14 year old Ned would live with Eduardo and his parents in Rio de Janeiro for a year, returning fluent in Portuguese.) Sonia from Sao Paulo found herself stranded in Oakland, without money, but had our phone number because her friend Nelson had been here and gave her our phone number in case she needed help. She moved in with us, met her husband here and several years later, I was matron of honor when she returned to the US to marry him.

The wall catalogs so many memories--Juan Ignacio, the doctor from Chile; Pujol, from Sao Paulo; Felix,from Yugoslavia; Jane, from England; Faouzi, from Morocco; Maria, from Mexico. Each came and left a mark on our wall, and piece of themselves in our hearts.

Having the opportunity to experience so many different cultures in depth was very special. The kids grew up knowing the national dishes of several countries ("Oh, Mom....not feijoada again!"), could give you lectures on the fluctuating economy of Brasil, could swear in several languages and learned capoeira, the Brasilian form of martial arts. They had innate knowledge that they didn't even realize was unique. On U.N. Day, David represented Brasil and addressed his 6th grade class in Portuguese, having been coached by our two foreign visitors.

Exchange programs make this a smaller world. Our eyes were opened to so many things that we simply had no knowledge of prior to 1981. We learned of Mbutu's atrocities from people who had fled Zaire and were trying to make a new life in this country, having left family behind (shades of Elian). The Brasilians took us beyond the glitz of Ipanema Beach and into the reality of the poverty in the favelas. We were able to get first hand reports from Yugoslavia during the conflicts. I will admit that I became convinced that there was a sign on a phone booth at the airport in Rio de Janeiro which said "For a good time in the United States call....." (especially after Henrique called me from the bus station and said someone I didn't know had given him my name and could he stay overnight with us--he stayed 5 months!)

One of my favorite memories is watching David, no longer the little kid I used to plop in a newcomer's lap as an ice breaker, working along with his friend Jeff to teach Victor, from Zaire, how to speak English. They formed a close bond and we were surprised when Victor showed up on our doorstep, after an absence of many years, to attend David's funeral four years ago.

I occasionally think about painting the wall. It really is embarrassingly dirty. But then I read the names and I know that it will remain as it is as long as we are in this house. The choice: a clean wall, or a bunch of warm memories. It's a no brainer.

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created 4/15/00 by Bev Sykes