Technically, 16-year-old Judy wasn't our exchange student; she had come to the States from Austria to spend a year with another family who had a daughter who was a student at my children's high school, Bishop Hartley.
But the fit between Judy and her host family was, unfortunately, not a good one.
Judy, who also attended Bishop Hartley, was on the field hockey team with Maria and Claire, and I remember one evening around the middle of October my girls saying they wished Judy could come and live with us instead of the family she was with.
"But there's no way that can happen," I told them. "She came over to live with the other family. Her host family went to all the trouble and expense and filled out all the paperwork to get her over here. I'm sure an exchange student can't just switch families"
A few nights later I got a call at around 10:00 at night from the man who was the local liason for the exchange student organization that Judy had come over with. He happened also to be a teacher at Bishop Hartley so we knew each other. He told me that Judy's host family wanted her gone. Immediately. He had just talked to her and she'd asked him to call Maria and Claire's family. Maria had assured her that we'd take her.
"Did you tell Judy that she could live with you?" he asked me.
I told him I'd never even spoken to Judy, I only knew about her situation from my daughters.
The man then asked me if I'd be willing to take Judy in for the rest of the school year starting tomorrow. Otherwise she'd be on a plane tomorrow for Austria.
I asked the man if I could call him back in five minutes.
I remember that Tom was standing over the kitchen sink finishing up the dishes. I asked him if we should take in this exchange student who wasn't working out with her host family.
He shrugged. "I guess we could," he said.
That was the extent of our conversation on the decision.
Less than five minutes had passed before I called Judy's liason back to tell him that we'd take her in.
And that's how we got our exchange student.
The next morning while we were all rushing around in the usual getting-out- the- door-to-school routine I made the announcement that today after school Judy was coming to live with us. You'd have thought that the day had magically turned into Christmas eve morning, so suddenly high was the level of happy anticipation.
And though I was glad that my children were ready to welcome Judy with open arms, I knew that their Christmas-morning delight was just that: temporary excitement over something new. I knew that soon enough the honeymoon-glow would wear off and, for better or worse, we'd all start being ourselves and either get along or not.
I made the decision then and there that we would all get along, no matter what. I decided that if I was taking this child into our family then she'd be part of our family, her warts, our warts, everybody's warts and all.
I wondered if maybe it didn't work out with Judy's host family because they were expecting a shiny new toy instead of a possibly home-sick teen-age girl trying to adjust to living among strangers in a foreign country where she was still learning the language. Judy's situation resonated with me, having myself been a young foreigner living in France once upon a time.
Anyway, there was a lot to do before Judy arrived, and I had only the length of a school day to get it all done.
First on the list was figuring out sleeping arrangements without rocking the boat too much for the others. We have a four-bedroom house and at that time Maria and Claire had the master bedroom, Theresa and Tommy had their own rooms and Tom and I slept in (and still sleep in) the left-over room. It was agreed over breakfast that Claire would move out of the master bedroom and into Theresa's room and Judy would move into the master bedroom with Maria. Tommy would stay in his room. Which left only the problem of where Theresa would sleep. As Tommy had a bunk bed he agreed that she could sleep in his room. For all other purposes she would share her old room with Claire. As it turned out Theresa decided that what she actually wanted to do was have a bedroll and pillow that she could move from room to room and sleep on the floor of whose ever room she felt like sleeping in that night. That actually was a very Theresa thing to do, she being my child who always marched to her own drummer:
I spent that day running around cleaning the house and bathrooms (I figured I could give the illusion of being a good housekeeper for at least the first day) then running out to the Kroger's for food for a nice dinner (I remember that I decided to make soup, a good comfort food), then off to K-Mart for more pillows, blankets, and some more storage units for the extra stuff we'd now have. While doing all this running around I worked on composing a plan of action for making the coming year work. I came up with the following:
1. As long as Judy lived with us she would be my child and I would treat her no differently and do no less for her than I would for any of my other children.
2. Our home would be her home in every sense and I'd insist that she help herself as she would in her own home.
4. I would never talk to the other children about Judy as if she were not their sister, nor to anyone else as if she were not my child.
5. I would not attempt to engineer my own children's relationship with Judy nor her's with them. I would not require or expect them to be friends. Only siblings.
6. Everything else I would, like Indiana Jones, make up as I went along.
So, house cleaned, soup cooking. my plan in place in my mind and ready for implementation, I waited to meet my new daughter and for our new family configuration to begin.
To Be Continued...