My husband and I have talked for years about hosting someone from another country. I have fond memories of my parents doing this when I was a kid. First it was a smoking, Parisian, male (after my mom requested a non-smoking, non-Parisian, female) who fascinated me with his accent and his long romantic draws on his cigarettes. I remember my mom taking such joy in showing Christophe the city, cooking for him and talking culture, art and politics late into the night. She cared for him like a mom, really. He lived with us for a month. Then came his cousin (a non-smoking, non-Parisian, female) who lived with us for a year. She was a dancer with the longest hair I’d ever seen. Every morning she wrapped it carefully into a perfect ballerina bun. She functioned as a big sister to me and someone to blame when I was in a pinch. They both became a part of our family. Recently Christophe’s daughter came to the States and split her stay between my parents’ home and ours. She loved ice cream and pizza and Great America. Just like her dad.
So when my neighbor started hosting a soccer coach from England, I noticed. I saw him take their little girl out to the soccer field, I heard them playing on the jungle gym in the yard. I was intrigued and I inquired as to how this all came to be. My neighbor gave me the contact information for the person who was placing the coaches with host families. I called her on a Friday afternoon, spoke to her on a Saturday morning, and early Sunday, we were told our coach would be arriving momentarily with bag in hand. I cleaned the house before he arrived, wanting to make a good impression representing our entire country to the English. Plus, normally, my house is a complete dump. My mom called while I was tidying. I told her what we were doing and I offered that it was a kind of homage to her and my childhood—wanting to recreate those nice feelings I had as a kid with the people who came into our home as strangers and left as family. We exchanged some memories from that time and then she wished me luck at keeping the house clean for the long term.
When our guest arrived, I apologized for my wet hand that he wanted to shake. “I’ve just washed them.” I said. “It’s OK.” He said. “My hands are wet too – I’m nervous.” Five minutes later he had one kid on his back while wearing a top hat. Nothing in my house is subtle or slow and this guy jumped right in the fray. The kids were thrilled immediately – fresh meat. But the cementing of their affection came later that night when, (while spiking his hair up into a faux-hawk to fit in with the boys trio of mohawks) Steve remarked (quite accurately) that our dog Rufus seemed to really enjoy playing with his own “jiggly-bits.” In no time, Steve was just another part of the crazy brood. I’m not saying there weren’t things to get used to – no one has EVER called my cooking, “brilliant” and I had no idea there was a man alive who owned as many shoes as Imelda Marcos (although I doubt she exclusively purchased Converse), but our most major adjustment was simply setting an extra spot at the dinner table and curbing the marching around the house in our skivvies.
Steve stayed in many different homes during his stay in America. Each stop brought him into a different family of personalities, food, culture and tradition. He spoke about all of his adventures – the wonderful, the odd and the not so great - with the same level of appreciation. He explained that he was just so thankful to have people open to including him in their lives. Nonetheless, we were pretty surprised when Steve asked to attend High Holiday services with us. We of course said yes. He then went on to have Rosh Hashanah dinner with our family and extended family, fasted on Yom Kipper, stood in our Sukkah and shook the lulov while smelling the etrog and attended my grandfather’s funeral. My husband became seriously concerned that Steve might think we were trying to convert him. “No,” he said. “I want to experience everything. That’s why I’m here.”
I never anticipated a stranger could fill a spot in our family that we didn’t even know we had room for. Life is pretty full with 4 kids, 2 dogs and all the joy and chaos that goes along with that. But there was plenty of room for a bloke with an open heart and an open mind. He embraced our liberal, vegetarian house with enthusiam. (A meat eater willing to eat tofu every other day? That has got to be some kind of special guy.) And while Steve didn’t smoke and wasn’t from Paris, I had a very similar experience to my mom’s time with Christophe years ago. I took a similar motherly joy in showing Steve the city, cooking for him, talking politics (it was a presidential election year after all!) and… well, I skipped the art talk and replaced it with introducing him to my most favorite series ever - “Six Feet Under.” He said yes to every opportunity/invitation/inclusion we offered him in the three months he was here.
Steve is missed. The first couple of days after he flew back to England, my middle son walked around the house wearing the clothes he had left behind, styled his hair like Steve’s (with Steve’s hair gel) and wore his leftover deodorant he excavated from Steve’s bathroom garbage can. My oldest sleeps with Steve’s soccer jersey. My youngest boy wants to Skype with him every day so he can show him the various art projects he’s brought home. The wee one just pouts, “I miss Steeeeevvvve.” And you know what? I couldn’t be happier that they miss him. To watch your children embrace the opportunity to be open, to connect, to miss people when they leave and to discover family in a stranger is such a gift for them. What snuck up on me, was how 30 years later, it was still such a gift for me as well.