Girl Meets Family: Getting to Know You

Our shuttle from the airport to our hotel smells faintly of body odor but is nearly empty. The orphan children's flight arrived at 6:30 p.m.; it's now somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00 – I've lost track. The few other shuttle passengers – a college-age man in a Georgetown sweatshirt, a businessman, a woman I assume to be a housewife simply because she looks so tired – throw sidelong glances at us. We are a curious pair, this Russian teenager and I. I think I look to young to be her mother, but realize I may just be fooling myself. My grin is pasted on. I look a bit too cheerful, a bit too hopeful, but my awareness of this fact somehow doesn't change it.

I try a few Russian words and Olga laughs, then we are silent again. I point at the stick figure family on the smudged welcome poster I gave her at the airport.

"Ya," I say, pointing to the green stick figure with a skirt. What to call myself, what to have Olga call me? I decide to let her choose. "Ya. I. Mama. Shari." I point back to myself. "Either one. You decide." I shrug.

Olga stares at me, and I point again. "Ohn," I say, pointing to the blue figure, then at a photo of our family taped to the poster. "He's Craig. Papa." She nods, I think impatiently.

"Yes," she says. I know, her face tells me. Our family sent a letter of introduction and a photo to her via the hosting organization some weeks back, so what I'm telling her isn't entirely new.

I point out the children: "Will." "Macky." "Eugenia." Olga nods, but right now she's more interested in me. She watches me expectantly, but I don't know what it is that she wants.

Every few minutes, I pat Olga's hand or shoulder in what I hope is a reassuring way. But this intimacy feels premature, forced, and after a while I stop. I'm neither mother nor camp counselor to her.

I decide to begin by trying to be her friend.

* * * *

Back at the hotel, I unpack the things I've brought for her: the pink nightgown (modest, but not too babyish, I hope), the toothbrush, the clothes. She does not remark about anything. But when I break out the deck of Uno cards, she grins. "Ahhhh!" she says, reaching for them.

"Are you tired?" I ask. I fold my hands as in prayer, press them to my cheek, feign sleep. I know that Olga hasn't slept in well over 24 hours. Neither have I.

Olga blinks at me. I try again, this time adding a snore. "You know? Sleep? You. Tired?" You. Tarzan? is how the words sound to my ears. Ridiculous. I blush.

Olga shakes her head and stares at me.

"Really?" I say. "You must be tired!" But she's insistent, repeats the gesture. No. Not me. Not tired. I look at her. She looks back. What now?

If she were my six-year-old, I would insist. I would give her the mom look, hand her the nightgown, and, if she didn't comply, pull it over her head, myself. But Olga is a grown girl, almost an adult, with fully formed opinions about what she wants. She's a stranger. I'm her host mother. But how much of my agenda can I realistically impose?

"Okay," I say. "Uno it is. But just a few rounds."

Olga claps her hands and deals the cards. As the first hand unfolds, she slaps a "Draw 2" card on me whenever possible. I resolve to let her win, but when her competitive streak reveals itself – immediately – I find myself playing just to survive. When Olga puts a "+4 Wild Card" on mine, she does a little seated dance, punching the air, grinning at my predicament. I've never been a very competitive game player. I tend to throw lifelines to people who are losing; I don't like it when people tease me, try to make me squirm. When I was a little girl, I cried whenever my brother gloated after beating me at chess or Monopoly or Risk. He was five years older than me, five years smarter. I cried a lot.

When it's my turn to deal, I do the bridge shuffle, and Olga's eyes open wide. I'm pleased to have impressed her, feel some measure of control returning.

After a few more hands, I use my pocket dictionary to help explain that we really need to go to bed. "Samolyot," I say. "Airplane. Very early. Tomorrow. Zavtra. Yes?"

Olga nods and takes the toothbrush and nightgown into the bathroom. While she's changing, I reach for my cell phone.


Honey! I'm so glad you called!" My husband's familiar voice soothes my nerves. "How's it going?"

"She's great," I say. "Beautiful. Really wonderful." I pause.

"But I think this is going to be harder than I thought."

* * * *

In our van, on the way back from the airport, our children clamor for Olga's attention.

"Olga…Olga!" the boys cry from the back seat. "I'm Will!" and "I'm Macky!" Sitting next to Olga, Eugenia watches our guest intently.

Olga smiles politely at them, then turns and faces front. They toss out endless questions that she doesn't answer. The kids shout even louder, as if they think the problem is that she's partly deaf.

"Mama?" Will says finally. "Why isn't Olga talking to us?"

"She doesn't understand you, honey. Olga speaks Russian, remember? She doesn't understand English. Just like sissy, when she first came here from Russia – she didn't speak English then either."

"Oh." But my boys don't yet fully grasp the concept of different languages. One day, after the Spanish teacher's visit to his preschool classroom, Macky told me from his car seat: "Mama? I can say 'dog' in Spanish!"

"That's wonderful, sweetie," I said, and waited. After several moments I looked in the rearview mirror and said. "Macky? Umm…so how do you say 'dog' in Spanish?"

Mac stared at me, dumbfounded. "Dog. In. Spanish…" he said slowly, as speaking to an idiot.

Even if my boys did understand the finer nuances of foreign language, they were too young at the time of Eugenia's adoption to remember it all now. They were just shy of a year old when we brought Eugenia home from western Siberia. And if my little girl remembers what it was like not to speak English when she got here, what it was like to be a foreigner in a strange land, she's not saying.

* * * *

In the days that follow, Olga is constantly at my heels. She tries to anticipate every move, and whenever I reach for something, grabs it, indicating that she wants to do the task for me. Simple things, like opening a can of corn, become a team effort. As soon as dinner is cooked, Olga scoops the dishes into the sink and reaches for the antibacterial Palmolive and sponge, even before we have stopped to eat.

"No, no," I say, laying a hand on her arm. "You don't have to do that now. Later. Later is fine." She looks skeptical.

This Velcro-like relationship is an unexpected challenge. As an introverted mother of three small children, often my only time along during the day is when I'm cooking or cleaning. The kitchen is my domain, not because I'm naturally domestic in any way, but because by the time dinner is on the stove, it's a question of my kids getting out of the kitchen or watching the last of Mama's patience drain away as swiftly as dishwater from the sink.

With Olga shadowing me, giving me that constant "What's next?" look, I find it impossible to get the battery-recharging alone time I need. But she's so eager to help it's hard to believe she's a teenager at all. She scrubs pots and peels potatoes with the same gusto she brought to Uno, and there's no denying that it's a relief, a gift, to have a child in the house who doesn't just add to my work load, but actually relieves it.

She's less reliable, though, when it comes to my kids, and this has me worried from the start. On her first day, Olga begins to forge connections with the children through roughhousing. When she chases them, she doesn't hold back, as Craig and I do, doesn't give them a chance to get away. Recognizing the difference, the kids run faster, scream louder. They're having fun in general, but the quizzical looks on their faces show they're not entirely sure. Several times the kids fall and scrape their knees or elbows, or noses.

At one point, I walk into the living room and find both of my three-year-old boys perched on the fireplace mantel, crying for Olga to let them down. I see her laugh at them, and I swing into action. But before I can take more than a couple steps, she is already there, sweeping them into her arms, lifting them down.

"This," I say sternly, looking into her eyes, "is not okay."

"Okay. Yes, I know," Olga says in a thick accent. She smiles cheerfully to show me she understands. But I'm shaken. Was she being playful? Or cruel? How can I trust my children with a 14-year-old who doesn't know better than not to put them on the mantle as a joke?

I've been anticipating Olga's arrival for weeks, wondering what she'll be like, how we'll all get along. I was eager for answers. But now that she's here, it seems that the questions are just beginning.

column added on 2007-01-08 :: ::

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Shari MacDonald Strong

Shari MacDonald Strong is a senior editor and "Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance" columnist for Literary Mama. Her essay, "On Wanting a Girl," appears in the anthology It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and she has been published in a number of publications, including Geez magazine. She is the editor of the anthology The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers on the Intersection of Motherhood and Politics (Seal Press, May 2008). She writes a blog from her home in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, photojournalist Craig Strong, and their children: grade-schooler Eugenia, born in Russia, and preschool sons Will and Mac, born via gestational surrogacy.

Read more of Shari's Girl Meets Family column.

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