Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Christmas

Welcome to the Third Annual Kerr iChristmas eNewsletter!

I hope this blog finds you and yours healthy and happy. It was a year of ups and downs for us but let’s focus on the ups, shall we?

In April, I got the crazy notion that I was going to write a book. My good friend Arlene graciously agreed to be the subject and we’ve been working on it all this year. To facilitate this endeavor, Bo Hunkmeister, together with our relatives, got me an Apple MacBook, more affectionately known as “Lappy” for my holy day birthday. The downside is that Oprah is retiring this year so I will not have a chance to be interviewed on her show about my book. I was planning to jump up and down on the couch, yellling, “Bo Hunkmeister is a god!”

Also in April, Bo got a new motorcycle. Did you know there’s a Providence, NY? We learned this when the guys delivering the motorcycle ended up there rather than in our Providence. How they could confuse the middle of nowhere with our bustling metropolis is beyond me.

At the end of May, we had a visit from Bo’s mother Barbara and later in the summer we went to my parent's house in New York for a visit with my brother and his family from North Carolina.

What happens in New York, stays in New York

While the kids and I were toolin' around NYC with my family, Bo went on his second annual Father-Son Road Trip through the Ozark Mountains.

Oh dear. I think they bought the town.

In June, Princess Buttercup turned thirteen. After making sure I wouldn't dissolve into a self pitying puddle of tears, she and Bo took off for a day trip to Boston to celebrate. To the administrators of the Museum of Fine Arts: if you need photographic copies your entire collection, please contact us. Buttercup has 400 photos she can spare.

Amidst the business of the summer, three of my boys learned to ride bikes. We had high hopes for Gummi but why ride a bike when you can be carried around by your adoring minions?

Fall rolled around and we had a fun Thanksgiving with our family and friends. I love any holiday where we can sit around, eat good food and talk while someone else does the dishes.

Justin is still working for Newfangled Web Developers. In his spare time, he likes to ride his motorcycle and cater to the whims of his Domestic Goddess.

I am still struggling with the insatiable need to bake more than I should with excessive amounts of sugar.

Princess Buttercup, when not reading, can be found taking photos. She also had quite the vegetable garden this year.

Princess Git Er Done still excels at her violin playing, being a mommy's helper for our neighbor and doting on her brother Gummi.

W. Bear, when not walking like an Egyptian, likes to collect Legos, Pokemon, Bakugan, and cool dance moves.

Tater just got on a bike one day and within the hour was riding it up and down the street. If he's that quick a learner, I should have him start working as a programmer at Newfangled.

Baby is still working that joie de vivre we've all come to know and love.

Gummi. Well, I'm mean just look at him. What more do I need to say?

So from our family to yours, Merry Christmas and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Other Part of the Story

It has come to my attention that my previous post about my parents might lead some of you to believe some things that are not true.

My parent’s move from Japan to the US was not an attempt to run from perceived problems. The Japanese people are great people, kind and hospitable. Yet the fact is that it is a more homogeneous society than the US. While the Japanese might be too courteous to say anything directly to us, my parents feared that we kids would suffer a greater prejudice there than in the US. Add to that was the concern of providing for a growing family; my parents felt it best that my father finish his degree in order to increase his career opportunities. I think my mother in particular, showed great courage. She agreed to leave her family, friends and all that was familiar to her to live in a foreign land at a time when opportunities for communication were not as quick and easy as we take for granted now. Hers was a large sacrifice made for the benefit of her family.

It’s not like my brothers and I didn’t experience any prejudice here in the US. We were teased by neighbor kids with some pretty harsh names and even physical abuse in my brothers’ case. I remember often being teased to the point of tears. But I’m not sure I know anyone who wasn’t bullied in some form as a child. We mock and tease what we don’t know, what we fear...or what we’re envious of. It’s a tribute to my father and mother’s parenting that we rose above the bullying to be proud of our heritage and appreciative of all the cultures around us.

I also mentioned in my previous post how both my grandfathers objected to my parents’ marriage. While that may lead you to think they were bigoted, that is not true.

Let me start by saying I think the fears expressed by my grandfathers came from a genuine concern that their children did not fully appreciate the consequences of their decisions. As a parent myself, I have frequently fretted about something that was really not an issue. But my desire to protect my children is sometimes stronger than my common sense. I also think marriage is hard work and my grandfathers’ concern about cultural differences adding undue stress on an already hard job was not without some merit.

However, whatever issue they had with the marriage in the beginning was never shown to us grandchildren in word or deed in all the time we spent with them. Growing up, I never experienced anything but love and affection from my grandfathers. As a matter of fact, I was shocked when I read my grandfather’s letter to my mother because the author was not the man I knew.

It was the same with my mother’s father. I have only fond memories of visits with him in Japan. Whenever he traveled to various Rotary conventions, he asked us to go with him. I remember in particular an RV trip we took with Oji-chan and Oba-chan (Japanese for ‘grandpa’ and ‘grandma’). While at first he was not happy with the accommodations (7 people in a 30’ camper), my grandmother reported that he bragged to all his friends of his “Great Adventure in the American West.”

So while my grandfathers had concerns about the marriage and perhaps expressed them in less than charitable ways, once the marriage was made and the grandchildren started to arrive, they both embraced the new family and did what they could to support my parents. I believe it’s a testimony to the character of both men that, when faced with their prejudices, they chose to do what was right and true over what they could have justified as the ‘conventional wisdom’ of their day. Forgiveness, simple grace and mercy - while maybe not spoken, were there. Actually, ‘simple grace’ is an oxymoron because grace is never simple, is it?

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. - 2 Timothy 1:7

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Here's the story...of a lovely lady

that's my mom in the middle
My mother was born in Sapporo, Japan. I can’t tell you what year because I think she stopped aging at 40. Sapporo is on the northern-most island of Hokkaido, known for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics and more importantly, producing Sapporo Beer. My mother was the second of Chuichi and Shizuku Ogawa’s three children. For the most part, hers was an uncomplicated childhood filled with friends and family. At a time when not many of her female peers went on to higher education, my mom received an Associate’s degree in English Literature/Education from Hokusei Junior College for Women.

My father was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1933, but grew up in Staten Island, New York. After an unsuccessful year at college, he enlisted in the Army. He had a life long fondness for all things German and hoped the Army would send him there; instead they sent him to Chitose, Japan, one hour south of Sapporo.

While in Japan, a friend asked him to help with an English language club, my dad being a bonafide Yankee and all. My dad’s Army boss, hearing he was part of this club, asked my dad to invite two students to come to the boss’ house for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My dad picked the boy with the best English skills and the only girl in the class who spoke up without being spoken to first. I’ll give you a guess who that girl was. Now I wish I could say they fell in love and everything went swimmingly after that but that wouldn’t make a good story now, would it?

The fact that my mom was dating my dad did not make her father happy. He was quite concerned about having his daughter marry this big, loud American. And on the other side of the Pacific, similar concerns were voiced by my father’s father. He actually put pen to paper requesting that my mom have nothing more to do with my father. Thankfully, she did not heed this advice.

After a year or so of dating, my father returned to the US. He had fulfilled his obligation to the Army and both my parents thought a little time and distance would help them figure out if their marriage was truly meant to be. Stateside, my father returned to Staten Island and worked various jobs trying to save up money so he could return to Japan. Back in Japan, my mother’s father set about trying to find a proper Japanese boy for her to marry. Being a dutiful daughter, she would meet these boys as requested by my grandfather. Being the woman she is, she would promptly tell them she had no intention of marrying them.

After two years of this long distance romance, my mother issued the following communique to my father; come back and marry me or cut me loose. Gathering what savings he had, he bought a ticket on an “unscheduled” airline to get back to my mother. “Unscheduled” meant the plane flew when it needed to; basically, a “you’ll get there when you get there” flight. He departed the US on a Monday and arrived in Japan on Saturday with little in the way of money in his pockets. This must be genetic because family legend has it that my great-grandfather departed England and arrived in Baltimore, Maryland with only $.82. My mother said when her father came home one evening and saw that familiar pair of huge shoes in the foyer, he sighed and said to her, “I guess you were made for export.”

And so a wedding needed to be planned. And a tuxedo to be found for a 6’-1” American in a country where the average male height is 5’-8”. Thankfully, one was found as I shudder to think what he would have had to wear if they couldn’t find a tuxedo.

My parents were married at a Shinto shrine in a traditional Japanese wedding. They married again at the U.S. consulate as the U.S. government didn’t consider the Shinto ceremony to be legitimate. In 1964, while pregnant with her second child, my parents decided to move to the US. They figured America was probably a better place to raise ‘mixed’ kids than Japan. I cannot imagine the challenge it must have been for my mother to relocate to another country with a toddler and a baby on the way.

Eventually settling in Long Island, my parents raised their three kids (two boys and a Domestic Goddess) and today enjoy the pleasures of spoiling nine grandchildren and traveling the world (they’ve been to Germany at least four times).

Today is their 48th anniversary. Happy Anniversary Mom & Dad, here’s to many more chapters of a good story.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Boys will be boys....

It was supposed to be a quiet evening. Or as quiet as things can be in a house of eight. I had made my coffee, I was in my jammies, and my laptop was fired up and ready to go.

And then it happened.

Let me back up a bit. One thing Baby loves to do is play ‘Rough with the Big Dog.’ This is Baby’s code for “let’s try to beat the snot out of Dad!” Being the boy he is, Baby asks to ‘play’ this every other evening. Bo Hunkmeister, while not wanting to end up like Muhammad Ali, realizes the importance of bonding with his sons and so will periodically subject himself to a round of ‘Rough with the Big Dog.’ In his wisdom, Bo usually sets a time limit and starts the round with, “Ok, boys, what are the rules?” To which the boys sing in unison, “No weapons! No kicking! No biting!” Then the wrestling begins.

And so it was last night. From my comfy position in my recliner, I heard the obligatory recitation of the rules and then the familiar sounds of a puppy pile.

Then a thud.

Followed by crying.

In a house with four boys, this is a common sound. So I didn’t bother to move from my spot. It was when I heard Bo call out, “W Bear, wipe up that blood!” that I thought this was more than the usual fun. Sure enough, Baby had fallen backwards and whacked his head against the corner of a wall. There was lots of blood. And howling by Baby. Bo, quick on his feet, whisked Baby off to the bathtub to clean him up and assess the damage. When I arrived in the bathroom, Bo looked at me and said, “I think we’re going to need someone to look at this.” So I got dressed and off we went to the emergency room.

I was once at a seminar where a speaker said when males experience injury, there is a physiological response which increases the blood flow to the brain resulting in a sharper awareness of your surroundings. Soldiers have reported that when they are injured in battle, the pain causes a clarity of thought they had not experienced before. I believe this is what happened with Baby because we could not get him to shut up on the way to the hospital. It started with a report of exactly what went wrong at the house and devolved into a critique of the buildings on the way to the hospital.

Once at the hospital, Baby informed the nurse that, “My dad swung me into the wall.” Bless their hearts, they did not call Child Protective Services on us. After cleaning up his head and closing the wound, we went home.

When we got home, we were all hungry so we decided to have a quick bowl of cereal before going to bed. And there at the kitchen table, ten o’clock at night with four staples in his head, Baby asks Bo, “Can we play Rough with the Big Dog?” I gave up and went to bed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Going Home

Part 6: Arlene just spent a year living with a family in the American south. Little did she realize that going home required almost as much re-acclimation as going away did.

The first few months I was in Shelby, I was exceedingly homesick. Almost to the point of being depressed. I didn't make as many friends. All I wanted to do was come home and see if there was a letter for me. Especially from my boyfriend. I missed him. I remember sharing with my host family a little bit but mostly I just kept it to myself because I didn't want them to feel bad for me. In retrospect, I regretted that I was so upset those first few months because I felt like I wasted time.

Towards the second half of my year, I started socializing a lot more. I started acting more like an American teenager. I turned 18 while I was in Shelby and that made me legal to buy alcohol. So I would go to convenience stores and buy wine coolers. My friends and I would go where the school buses were, climb in one and drink. We were never caught and I don't think my host family knew. Or maybe they did but chose not to say anything. Regardless, we didn't go crazy, just mostly show up at church on Sunday with a hangover.

When I look back over my year, if I had to point to the best part of my experience, it was about the people that I met; my host family and my friends. I got to meet hundreds of people and was able to make a few really close friends. And the experiences that I had were so much fun; homecoming, the prom, band concerts, marching band competitions, going to the Biltmore Mansion in Ashville.

Leaving Shelby was hard. I had really connected with a lot of people and I had no idea if I would ever see any of them again. I spent my last few days in Shelby spending time as much time as I could with my friends.

Before we left the US, AFS took us on a two week tour of the East Coast. We made various stops on our way up to New York City. We would usually stay on college campuses but there was one stop where I stayed with an Orthodox Jewish family. While I was with them for only one night, they seemed like fun people and the father broke my stereotype of the stoic Jewish man in the black suit. But I definitely got a taste of the North-South dynamic with them. They made a few weird remarks about southerners which, while I don't remember exactly what they were, I do remember the comments being inaccurate. They also seemed very much against the white South African "regime" as they referred to it.

The tour ended in New York City on the Fourth of July. We spent the whole day there and in the evening saw the annual fireworks show. It was amazing. The next day, we departed from JFK for home.

I was depressed, depressed, depressed.  I was looking forward to seeing my family, but I wasn't ready to leave not knowing when I would see my American or AFS friends again.

I remember before I left South Africa for the US, a reporter from the Benoni City Times did an interview with me. He said he would give me like ten rand if I came back weighing the same. He said most girls who went to the United States put on a lot of weight. I came back the same weight, if not smaller. I think it was from all the marching. But when I got home, he was there, he did an interview and I got my money.

Ian, my South African boyfriend, and I were faithful to each other for the first six months that I was in America. Then we decided that was too hard to do, being so far apart.  I ended up going to the prom with somebody and then in May, before I returned to South Africa, I met the catcher of the baseball team, Brad. We spent a lovely summer together. But when I landed at Jan Smuts Airport, Ian was there. And the understanding was we would get back together, which we did.

The day I landed back home was crazy because my whole family was there. My friends had a huge "Welcome Home" banner outside of our house. It was early in the morning. When we got to my house, there was a huge breakfast of eggs, sausages and bacon. All my relatives were there. All my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. And I had an accent. I didn't realize it, but I picked up a bit of a Southern twang.

I missed my sisters like ridiculous when I was in the US. When I got home, all I wanted to do was talk with them, be with them, show them my pictures and tell them about stuff. Because my sisters and I grew up singing and playing music, I was quite excited to show them the new songs I had learned. I remember the day I got home, pretty much within an hour, I was at the piano teaching them some songs.

Re-acclimating to life in South Africa was hard because there were so few people who could relate to me. At first, I just corresponded with my other AFS friends because I had no idea how to explain to people what I had just been through. I mean I had a scrapbook and photos to show people, but my experience was more than that. And I had to be back at university very soon. I was very happy to be home and very grateful to see my family, but I now knew there was a big wide world out there. I wanted to go back to New York City.  It was like all of a sudden in my head, this big travel bug. I think I always had it, but my AFS year showed me that there was so much more to life than what was happening here and I wanted to experience that. But first, there was school work to be done.

read the whole story: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

Friday, September 10, 2010


I’ve been challenged recently to think about why I believe what I believe. Part of what convinces me that God exists are the miracles that happen in my life. Not those biblical miracles. I’m talking about more subtle, minor miracles. I make this distinction because I don’t want a biblical miracle. My pastor once said you really don’t want a miracle. This is because if you say you need a miracle, that means things have gotten so out of control, so bad that only divine intervention will save your hide. The miracles I’m talking about are those events that frequently pop up to compensate for some foolish decisions in my life. You might call them coincidences, but many of these “coincidences” have happened just at a point where I thought I was in over my head. This seem to happen a lot while I was in England.

The first time I went was in 1989. I was a sophomore in college and took part in a six week trip to England to research my family tree. I wanted to visit Bishop Thornton, a village north of Leeds, where my great-great-grandfather, John Grattan, was born. I took a bus north from London to the city of Harrogate  (home of Farrah’s Harrogate Toffee!) At the Harrogate tourist bureau, I found that there was a bed and breakfast right in Bishop Thornton proper. My masterful reasoning concluded, “How small could a town be if it has a bed and breakfast?” I called the proprietor, he assured me of accommodations and I jumped on the first bus out, filled with visions of an ancestral homecoming. The bus was not crowded and it was a pleasant ride out of the bustling city of Harrogate into the bucolic Yorkshire Dales. So bucolic in fact that the scenery became nothing more than endless hills, dales and a periodic stone wall.

Now there are those travelers who, unable to let the inner Bedouin out to indulge their wanderlust, will make hotel reservations, check bus schedules, etc., before so much as packing their bags.

To you, I say… that’s probably a smart idea.

Because in my youthful exuberance, I left Harrogate without plans on how to get back. Really. Didn’t even grab a bus schedule when I had the chance.

When the bus finally stopped, the driver opened the door and said, “Here you are!”

“What?” I asked, not seeing anything resembling a town.

“This is Bishop Thornton, you said this was your stop.”

“Oh.” I took up my bag and got off the bus. And as I stood by the side of the road looking back at the kindly driver, a wave of regret came over me. “When is the return bus coming through?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” he said, and he shut the door and drove off before I had a chance to hop back on. Note to self: next time, assure ability to return before getting off the bus.

So there I was, standing by the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. Now when I say I was in the middle of nowhere, I mean there was not another living creature as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance I saw three cottages and a small church. I had no earthly clue what to do next. There was no town in sight, no road signs, no human beings to inquire of. How was I going to get to the B&B? What if I couldn’t find the place? It was getting late. Could I walk back to Harrogate? The thought crossed my mind that I was either going to have to muster up the courage to knock on a complete stranger’s door, or spend the night sleeping in the fields. I was about to panic when I experienced what I would consider to be a miracle. As I turned around to survey my situation, right behind me was a phone booth. You know those Doctor Who shows that have the police booth drop down right in the middle of nowhere? Now I know where they got the idea from. I scrambled to the phone booth and pulled out the paper on which I had written the phone number of the B&B.

“ ‘allo?” answered the gentleman proprietor.

“Uh, yes, I called earlier about a room for tonight?”


“Um, well, I’m here.” Some times I’m struck by my brilliance.

“Oh wonderful. And where might that be?” he asked.

“Well...I’m not sure. The bus left me at this phone booth and all I can see are three cottages and a church in the distance,” I said.

“Right, I’ll be along to fetch you.”

“You know where I am?”

“Oh yes, I’m familiar with that phone box.”

Now I ask you, what are the chances of a working phone being right next to where I was just abandoned? Or the B&B owner being home and willing to come get me? Or him knowing just what phone booth I was speaking of?

I consider it a grievous sin that I can’t remember the names of the lovely couple who ran this bed and breakfast. It was an exceedingly quaint and cozy cottage. My hosts were in their sixties but still ran their farm with the B&B as a side business. Safely ensconced in their sitting room, the lady of the house made me dinner and I spent the evening by the fire with a mug of tea, petting their ottoman of a dog and answering questions about America. I explained I was from Long Island, which was parallel to the state of Connecticut. The owner asked how many bridges there were between Long Island and Connecticut. I said none that I knew of. He asked why and I said I suppose the people in Connecticut didn’t want us coming over. Given my incredible show of intelligence that day, I don’t blame them.

The next day, my host very graciously took me to the the ruins of the Catholic church in which my great-great-grandparents were married. He helped me hunt for gravestones with family names on them. Then he drove me to Fountains Abbey, the ruins of a Cistercian monastery built in 1132 (?!?) I stayed in Bishop Thornton one more night and the next morning my host took me back to the bus stop so I could return to Harrogate.

Despite my poor planning, the trip turned out to be one of my most memorable one.

Two years later I returned to England to spend my senior year studying at the University of Bath. By this time I had met and become engaged to Bo Hunkmeister and, having already graduated, he followed me to England to make sure I didn’t run off with some English plonker.

Wanting to show Bo my roots, I convinced him to travel with me back to Bishop Thornton to stay in the same B&B I had stayed in two years earlier. This time, being aware of the bus schedule, I travelled with confidence. When we got to Bishop Thornton, we met the B&B hosts, and early the next day Bo and I set off to see Fountains Abbey. Having thoroughly enjoyed our morning, we decided to take a walk. Lost in conversation as young romantics are wont to do, we paid no heed to where we were walking or how long we were gone. We let our love guide us. Lost in each other’s thoughts, each road started to look like all the rest. After while, we stopped in a pub to eat. We had a leisurely dinner until the pub owner struck up a conversation with us. We discussed where we were from and what we had done that day and then the owner said, “Where is your hotel?”

“Oh, we’re staying at a wonderful bed and breakfast in Bishop Thornton,” I replied.

“Where?” he asked.

“Bishop Thornton.”

“And did you come by car?” he asked incredulously.

“No, we walked.”

“Walked? That’s a far way to walk. So how are you getting back?”

“What do you mean? We were planning on walking back.” Remember how we let our love guide us? Love is not a good GPS device. In fact, I had no clue which direction to head back in.

“That will take you two hours or more! And it’s pitch black outside!” he said.

“Is that a problem?” Again, me being brilliant.

“The roads are narrow and have ditches or hedgerows on either side so there’s no good place to walk. On top of that, at night, it’s hard to see and the cars go really fast. It would be rather dangerous to walk all the way to Bishop Thornton tonight.”

“Oh. Can we call a cab?”

“We don’t have cabs out here.”


So yet again, Divine Intervention made up for my lack of thinking. The pub owner closed up his pub for the evening and drove us two complete idiots strangers back to our B&B.

But this was not the end of our travels.

We had made plans and reservations to travel to Ireland. Unfortunately, our departure date coincided with one of the worst snow storms England had experienced in 50 years. We did not know this until after we spent four hours on a bus traveling to the port of Holyhead. I discovered that, after four hours, there really is no difference between the smoking and non smoking section of a bus.

At Holyhead, we boarded the ferry for Ireland only to be trapped in port by the oncoming storm. After twelve turbulent hours rocking in port, the ferry captain decided not to sail. Fortified by a breakfast of fried eggs and blood sausage, we went to the train station to try and salvage our trip. We arrived just in time to catch the last train out that day as the storm started shutting down the rail system (coincidence #1). On the downside, it was the local train which stopped…every…fifteen…minutes.

Partway through the trip, we had to get off the train at a rail station that was closed. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, not having had anything since the blood sausage that morning. With the storm closing down towns, we didn’t know where we would get our next meal from and all we had between the two of us was one Snickers bar. Just as we making our last meal of it, the snack bar opened and we were able to procure a decent meal before getting back on the train (coincidence #2).

At 9:00pm, on the advice of a fellow traveler, we got off the train. What this fellow traveler helped us realize was that most B&B's will not accept visitors after a certain hour so if we hadn't gotten off then, we would have been stuck on the train all night (coincidence #3). Starving, we wandered into a pizza shop where the power had gone out but the ovens were still hot enough to make us a pizza (coincidence #4). We then found a B&B accepting visitors during the storm and right after we arrived and checked in, they lost power. The owner told us that had we arrived after the power went out, they would have had to turn us away (coincidence #5). Being unable to travel north, we decided return home but had to spend one more night in a B&B. We picked some town in Wales, the name of which invoked a “Why did you visit that shite hole?!” from a British house mate when we returned. According to him, the fact that we traveled through there looking like we did without being mugged constituted coincidence #6.

So despite setting out during a snow storm, with no itinerary or reservations, “coincidences” would happen that would smooth out what would potentially have been a train wreck of a trip. I could almost imagine an angel in heaven sighing and shaking his head as he was called on again and again to intervene. But I consider the biggest miracle of all to be this: despite this death march of a trip that could have been perceived by Bo as a nefarious plan to get him miserably lost in England, he married me and still travels with me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Breakfast in America

Part 5: Arlene had the chance to spend a year in the United States as an AFS exchange student. This proved to be quite an experience for someone growing up in a sheltered manner in South Africa. Here’s Arlene discussing her year in Shelby, North Carolina.

The big day finally arrived. My flight to the US was an early morning flight. I was happy about that because an early flight meant I could just wake up and go to the airport, no waiting around all day.

I think it was a Sunday morning when we went to the Jan Smuts Airport (today it’s the Johannesburg International Airport). My parents and sisters were there, as well as my friend Laetitia and my boyfriend Ian. My mom was crying but I don't remember being sad. My sisters looked dazed and bewildered. I don't think any of us really understood what was happening. I was just so excited. I'd never left the country, none of us had ever been on an airplane, not even locally. I started taking pictures before the airplane took off.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for a father of a seventeen year old daughter? To put her on a plane and say I'll see you in a year?  Whatever their concerns were at the time, all I ever heard from my parents was, “We're so proud of you. Go.” I only know now from stories they told me how worried they were and how much they missed me. And my sisters too. They told me later how much they cried that year. I was so caught up in the excitement and stuff that I didn't realize until I got to the US what a sacrifice my family made for me.

There were twenty of us South African exchange students on the plane. We all sat together and the moment felt exactly how I had imagined it would be. We flew from Johannesburg to Dakar, Senegal (on the west coast of Africa) to refuel and then straight to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Oddly enough, by the time we landed at JFK, I remember being very concerned with what time it was. I was starting to miss my boyfriend. I was also anxious to get to North Carolina. I guess I already considered it my home away from home.

My first few days in the States was spent in an orientation program with all the other AFS exchange students from around the world. It was like one big fat melting pot. We stayed at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, just outside of New York City. It was summertime and we took over the whole campus for the four days of orientation. I was a rather quiet person, so I stuck mostly to myself while a lot of the other kids would stay up at night talking. One evening I was lying in bed and there was a Supertramp song playing from where the other kids were partying. My boyfriend's favorite band at the time was Supertramp. I started crying my eyes out. I was so sad. Yet I never questioned my decision. I didn't want to turn back or anything, but the realization started to grow that there was a long road ahead of me.

Every day we had group meetings where they taught us about the currency and US traditions. I also remember them telling us to make sure that we girls shave our legs and armpits. On the fourth day, each of us got a piece of paper that said, at this time the next day, be at the bus which would take us to the airport. I remember it was early in the morning again when I departed for North Carolina.

I was met in Charlotte, North Carolina by my host mother, Jessi Ogburn. She was by herself because she didn't want me to feel overwhelmed meeting the whole family at once. She said she was looking forward to spending the hour drive from the airport to the house just chatting with me. That was perfect in my book because I was so nervous. I remember the luxury of air conditioning in the car, and how polite Jessi was about making sure I was cool enough. At home in South Africa, if you were hot in the car, you rolled down the windows! It was very strange sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road.

The Ogburns were wonderful people. The mom was a teacher, the dad an accountant and they had three kids; two girls and a boy. And their home! It was this beautiful old southern home with a big porch. Coming from a small three bed, one level brick ranch in Benoni, I was amazed by the Ogburn’s house. Even now, I get chills thinking about it. I had my own bedroom, my own bathroom, closets, beautiful windows and this carpet that you could bounce on.

Another difference was the way the houses looked driving down the street; rolling lawns from one home to the next. I would wonder where does one yard end and the other begin? Everyone I knew in South Africa had a fence around their property. They started as decorative fences but as the troubles grew, they became solid walls and then high walls, some with electric fencing on top. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of fences in America, just endless rolling lawns.

The Ogburns led busy lives; they were always taking lessons in this, that or the next thing. Carolyn, their oldest, was all ready at college. Katherine, their second child was gifted in a lot of areas; she was a talented pianist and very smart, and their son was involved in a lot of sports. Yet there was a definite unified family feeling with the Ogburns. They were a close knit family like mine back home.

The first thing I did that summer in Shelby was go to band camp with the high school marching band playing the tri-toms. Tri-toms are three drums that hang from a metal harness. I had already been in the pipe band at Benoni High School for four years (South African champions, by the way) playing the tenor drum so I guess I had drumming on the brain. Band camp was awesome. A lot of our practices were from three in the afternoon until six at night and it was kind of beautiful with the sunset and all. And crazy doing all this marching.

My first day of school was nerve wracking. All I had ever known in South Africa was uniforms so the idea of picking what to wear to school was stressful. And I knew nobody. My host brother was too young to be in high school. My host sister was in the grade below me so all I knew were the few people I had met in marching band camp.

Yet from the day I got there, I was like a celebrity. On my AFS application, one of the questions was if I had a nickname. I wrote down Linky (as in Lynx), but I didn't think anyone would call me that. Little did I know I was going to be introduced to Shelby High School as Linky Dickinson, and not as Arlene. "This is Linky Dickinson from Africa" they'd say. To this day, anyone I'm still in touch with from Shelby calls me Linky.

And that was another peculiar point. I had to explain a million times that South Africa was the name of my country, and not just the southern portion of the African continent. Then the kids would ask me to say something in Afrikaans. I think I spent most of the year saying, "Something."

My celebrity status never seem to wear off. Maybe because I was the only exchange student in my town. Or maybe because I wasn't from someplace more familiar like France. I was a white African. Some people told me they didn't know there were white people in Africa. 

For the most part, I didn’t have any problems with culture shock or anything like that. The southern accent took a little getting use to. Sometimes my host dad and I would just completely misunderstand each other because of our accents. American cuisine was really no trouble for me. I had ambrosia for the first time and I thought it was delicious. Breakfasts were a little unfamiliar to me. Grits, eggs, bacon and sausage would be piled high on a single plate. Not the simple eggs and bacon with the toast on the side plate like I was use to. And the syrup! People in Shelby seem to put syrup on everything. Syrup at breakfast was unheard of in South Africa. I love the fact that we had donuts though. We used to heat them up in the oven and, let me tell you, they were divine.

While AFS provided us with some pocket money, I got a few jobs babysitting to earn some extra money. This was a new concept for me. In South Africa, the maids were the babysitter. In the US, if you needed someone to look after the children, a person was hired just for that. And, more notably, the babysitters were considered a social equal and not “just the maid.”

Once a month there were AFS weekends. They would gather all the local exchange students and have some activities for us. We'd also get a chance to give presentations about ourselves and where we were from. There was a whole mix of us from many different countries. It was at these weekends that I made some really, really good friends. Some kids seemed to have trouble adjusting to their life in the US or to their host families. It seemed to me that it was more an issue of personality clashes or that the kids were more interested in parties than the cultural experience. But I came from a conservative home. I was familiar with rules and church every Sunday, respecting your parents and all that stuff, so I was quite content in my host family.

Being an exchange student, I was asked to speak in front of other groups about my country. Before I left South Africa, we were told that we would be giving presentations about ourselves and our countries. So I took photographs and made them into slides. I had huge anxieties about public speaking. I figured if I had a slide show, I could stand in the back and speak from behind the people. Despite what was going on in my country at the time, very few people asked me about politics or Apartheid. I remember at first correcting people on the pronunciation of Apartheid, but later gave up on that. Politics didn’t seem to come up; to them, I was just an interesting South African kid.

One thing that stuck in my mind about Americans was their patriotism. I’d frequently see American flags on homes, on cars and even clothing. In South Africa, there would be flags on schools and public buildings but to see one on a private home was very unusual. In the 80’s, the  South African flag started to become less a symbol of South Africa and more of a symbol of Apartheid. But Americans seemed proud of their country and not afraid to show it. At times, I was almost envious of the sense of patriotism Americans had because I just didn’t feel that way about my own country. It hurt to see what the South African government was doing to it’s own people.

Rarely did any of my peers ask me about political stuff. Some of them didn't even know what was going on. Like I mentioned before, very few even knew there were white people in South Africa, much less that there was a distinction between the English and the Afrikaner. I was mostly asked what the drinking age was in South Africa, how fast you could go on the highway, what we did for fun. Some people would approach the subject of politics but on a very superficial level. I do remember one guy, though. 

Aaron was a senior in my class. He was African-American and we became very good friends. He was the only one with whom I had real, deep conversations about what was going on in South Africa. He knew a lot about the situation and the key players in it like Mandela, Buthelezi, and deKlerk. He would ask me my opinion about events and I think he was surprised by my responses. I told him that I didn’t like how the black South Africans were being treated either. I told him that quite a lot of white South Africans were trying to do the right thing. Yet, he challenged me to take more of a stand, and conversations with him really made me think.

Nelson Mandela
Mangosuthu Buthelezi
F.W. deKlerk

Since phone calls were expensive, I hardly ever called home. Instead, my family and I exchanged a ton of letters. My parents never expressed to me if they were worried or heartbroken. They just kept me updated on family news. Anything I knew about the political situation in South Africa really came from my host parents. My host mom and dad were very well informed. They were huge newspaper readers, huge news watchers, CNN was on every morning. They were up on what was going on, and I learned from them. But they didn't push it on me. We had a lot of conversations about South Africa and what it was like growing up there. But what was shown on TV about South Africa made me angry. It was always just the riots and the bombs and the craziness and the fires. They never showed the beauty of the land itself, or how we were living or how we were trying to uplift ourselves, trying to help each other out and all of this other stuff. I used to say to the Ogburns, “I promise you, it's not like that everywhere. There are normal lives going on, business as usual.” What occurred to me in hindsight was that while we had normal lives with activities like trips to the seaside for vacation, ‘normal’ also included bomb threats, security walls, and people being oppressed.

miss the first parts? click on part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Monday, July 19, 2010


Part 4 of my posts about Arlene's life. Read part one here, part two here and part three here:

The American Field Service, or AFS, started as a volunteer ambulance service in World War I. The mission of the mostly American volunteers was to transport wounded French soldiers. After World War I, AFS sponsored 'fellowships', an exchange program between French and American university students. After World War II, the program expanded to include other countries as well as high school students. Today more than 13,000 students, teachers and young adults take part every year in exchanges of varying length in more than 50 countries. The following is Arlene’s experience with the program.

One day in 1984, some people came to Benoni High School and did a talk about the American Field Service. I'd never heard of them before and I didn't even know such things existed. I just remember hearing that there was going to be a talk and I went. The school was packed with like minded students.

The AFS representatives basically said you could go anywhere in the world. They had programs in South America, Europe, and the United States. I don't know what it was about me, but I just knew I had to do this even though no one in my family had left the country before. At first my dad said, 'Absolutely not.' So I worked my mom, who worked my dad, and I proceeded with the selection process. About 400 kids applied for the four slots available. It was very, very competitive.

I remember my mom typing my application on a typewriter. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to be an exchange student and all that. There were rounds of interviews that made up the selection process. With 400 kids applying, my first thought was that I would never make the cut. I was up against wealthier kids and smarter kids so I thought there's no way. Then I realized that AFS was actually looking for someone like me, not wealthy, not well travelled, but super keen for the experience. And with each interview I did, the thought of going overseas became more and more real.

For the last interview, the AFS representatives came to my home to do a family assessment. During this interview, my dad made three stipulations. He said, “I'll let her go if she goes to an English speaking country, the host family has to go to church every Sunday, and there has to be a piano in the house.” It was a bold thing to do on his part but it was the best thing that could have happened because I got just that.

I remember when I was told by the AFS representative that I had been selected, I went silent, almost like I knew this was going to happen. I told my friend Laetitia the good news. My mother, however, called everybody she knew. Both my parents were very proud. No one in my family had been outside of the country, let alone on an airplane. Soon after, I was informed of my placement. My host family, the Ogburns, turned out to be a family in Shelby, North Carolina who went to church every single Sunday. They had a piano in their house and their two daughters were gifted pianists. Just like my dad stipulated! Then I received a letter and a family picture from the Ogburns. I would read the letter and stare at the picture. Before I even met the family, I fell in love with them.

As the reality of the situation began to sink in, I started to get seriously excited. Unlike the US, the school year in South Africa starts in January and ends in December. As a result, I had to attend my first six months of university before my scheduled departure in July. I might have physically been at school but I wasn't at school. I was on the plane. My mid year exams? I failed them hopelessly. I think I got 40% on my psychology exam. I just was not there, I was gone.

The program was a scholarship type of thing. In addition to airfare, we were also provided pocket money so I don't recall having to come up with much. But I had a lot to do. I had to get a passport. I had to pack for an entire year. I didn't even own a suitcase. I got the biggest one I could find. Aside from my clothes, I remember packing a lot of pictures and a South African flag that AFS gave me to present to my host school.

While I couldn't wait for the day to arrive, my extended family's reaction was interesting. I remember them acting like it was strange to go overseas. A lot of people said to me, "I could never do that."  I think they were expressing their own fears of being away from their families. I just couldn't relate to that. I had no fear. I was like, 'Absolutely, bring this on!'

I really didn't know what to expect of my exchange year. Before I left, my AFS host family sent me photographs and letters. In their letters, they would describe the town that I was going to, and I was very excited that it sounded like a small town in the United States. I don't know what I expected, really. I was very into the family. They sent me a family picture and I had it by my bed and I'd stare at them for hours and hours. It was like I couldn't get enough of them.

AFS did their best to prepare us. I remember them asking me in interviews what would I do if the American girls in school told me that I needed to shave my legs or shave my underarms. Arm and leg shaving for girls was common in South Africa, but I think the AFS representatives thought we followed the European model of not shaving. I suppose you could say this was my first exposure to people doing things differently in different countries. I replied that I would do it if I needed to fit in. AFS also explained about culture shock and being home sick. They gave us quite a lot of preparation and education. 

And they told us we had to come back. I think they knew that a lot of kids at the end would not want to return to their home country so a stipulation of the program was that you had to fly home at the end of the year. Most of all, I remember my dad saying, “Just come back South African.”  It seemed strange to think I wouldn’t come back or that I would cease being South African. But then again, I had no idea of the experience I was in for.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Budding Photographer

My eldest, Princess Buttercup, got a camera for Christmas 2009, and she's been shooting pictures ever since. Good thing we live in the digital age or girlfriend would be going broke paying for all that film. It's a safe bet that she's fired off about 2,000 pictures since Christmas. That's an average of 9 pictures a day, every day.
Besides the usual daily pictures of the cat (whom she loves ) and Gummi (whom she adores), she likes to look for more unusual subjects or compositions. Here are some of my favorites:

These are chives in her garden. Her garden is one of her favorite subjects (besides Gummi and the cat).

This one she took because of the tornado shape of the cloud.

I like the dark/light thing going on here. And the plant peeking out from around the door.

I just thought this was funny. This is my friend's twins falling off some big bouncy balls.

Again, an interesting composition. Instead of shooting the hydrant straight on, she put it off to the side against a large field of green grass.

This one she calls "The Reluctant Hero." I love Gummi's expression.

In her garden again. She likes to run outside after it rains to see if there is anything interesting to shoot.

I don't know if it's my culinary sensibilities that likes this one so much. It's whipped egg whites at just the right point for folding into batter.

Another interesting composition where she doesn't just shoot the flower but shoots it against the rusty fence for a contrast.

This picture she took purposefully contrasting the marigold color to the blue sky. Clever girl, eh?

Her camera has some special effects that she likes to play with.

This was from our trip strawberry picking. We let Gummi out of the stroller and he went screaming and running down the path. You'd think we never let the kid out.

Well, thank you for letting me brag on my kid for a bit. If you want a print of any of the above, send a large iced latte and I'll see what I can do.

Friday, July 02, 2010

How Do You Do It?

When I roll with my posse*, the second most frequently asked question after, “Are they all yours?” is “How do you do it?”

In the interest of public service, I shall now answer that question. I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they ask this question, so I’m going to define it as meaning how do I feed, clothe and nurture all six children, keep the house clean and presentable, stay on top of the laundry and have my pantry fully stocked.

The answer to the question is...

I don’t.

I don’t do it all.

My house is far from perfect.
My children are wearing clean and presentable clothing only by the grace of God.
I’m perpetually four loads behind in laundry and will be until shortly before I die.
I run to the store for forgotten groceries so often that if I owned stock in Stop n Shop, I’d be fabulously wealthy by now (Real House Wives of Rhode Island? Anyone? Anyone?)

Here’s what I do to keep the authorities from knocking on my door.

1. Relax the standards
I’m not in a season of life where I can have lit candles gracing my glass coffee table. I do not have potted plants. Instead, there are toys on the floor. Two minutes after having the kids pick up the house, there are still toys on the floor. One day I will be able to walk through my living room and not step on toys; but not any time in the next few years. I’m ok with that. If you visit my house, you will have to be, too.

2. Delegate!
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I got from a fellow mom is, “If the child can take it out, then he can put it back!” If your four year old can figure out how to climb up on a dresser, find the baby powder and dump it all over his clothes, then he can do a load of wash. Seriously. I’ve had my four year old vacuum the kitchen. And you know what? Since it involves power tools, he loves it. The kids have chores that include taking out the garbage, doing the laundry, cleaning the bathroom, changing the baby, doing the dishes and cooking. So I don’t do it all. Literally. The added bonus is that these kids are learning skills and gaining self confidence that will keep them from living with me when they’re 30.

3. Say No
There’s lots of things that clamor for your attention. Volunteer opportunities, work related stuff, crafts, hobbies, activities and extracurricular stuff for the kids. The list is endless of what you can fill your time with. But we have a limited amount of hours in a day and if I fill my day with hobbies, volunteer work or lots of activities for the kids, then something else in my family life will lose out. I’m not saying to totally sacrifice your life on the altar of mothering, but some sacrifice at this time is required. So right now I blog, I bake and I knit BUT I’m not quilting, I’m not doing book clubs, I’m not involved in this ministry or that and I’m careful of how much I volunteer for.

4. Teamwork
Look at your spouse and say, “You are not the enemy.” If you invest time in your marriage, you will work as a team and many hands make light work. I treat my husband with respect and dignity and in return I get a man who does more than his fair share round these parts before and after putting in a full day at the office.

So that’s the long, preachy answer to the question, “How do you do it?”
Any others? Ask now while I still know it all....

*appear anywhere with my six kids