Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fish out of water .....

I'd lived my entire life in cities; first San Francisco, then a small city in the Midwest.  My uncle, however, lived in a New England suburb.  Despite its size (pop. ~15,000), it was far more cosmopolitan than the city where I'd been living (pop. ~600,000).  Its location, approximately one hour outside New York City, meant that many of its residents worked in "the city" and, in fact, many were (and still are) at least semi-famous:  novelists, actors, politicians.  One of my classmates-to-be was a child model and had, by 6th grade, already appeared in several magazines.

It was vastly different from what I was used to.

A gentle reminder to adoptive parents:  when you add an older child to your family, remember that s/he has lived and experienced a life different from yours.  Don't assume that assimilation will be either simple or easy.  Try to be understanding and compromise when you can.

My grandparents had had a solidly Midwestern lifestyle and values.  Our house was modest -- just two bedrooms on a small lot; meals were simple -- meat and vegetables; entertainment was the occasional movie; I walked to school (a small K-6 facility).

My uncle and his wife, on the other hand, were what we would today term "Yuppies".  He was an attorney; she, trained as a pharmacist, but at the time a stay-at-home parent.  When they moved to this town, they purchased a colonial-era house.  It had three stories -- kitchen, dining room, bathroom and small TV room on the first floor, master bedroom, master bath and living room on the second floor, two bedrooms and one bathroom on the top level.  It had two glassed-in porches and two flagstone patios, and it sat on a full acre of land.  It was my uncle's pride and joy.

Meals were sometimes what I'd call "normal," but there were also foods I'd never seen before:  calves brains, cauliflower, leg of lamb, tongue, broccoli, smelt, blue cheese salad dressing.  My grandparents ate toast -- my uncle ate English muffins.  My grandparents ate Wonder Bread -- my uncle ate Pepperidge Farm.  My grandparents ate store brand ice milk (yes, ice milk) -- my uncle ate Breyer'spremium all-natural ice cream.

"Culture shock" would be putting it mildly.

Of course, I started school almost immediately, and on my first day, my uncle's wife exhibited the first of only two kindness towards me that I can remember -- she stood with me at the end of the street as I waited for the school bus.  I'd never ridden one before and was, to be honest, terrified.

(A side note:  at the end of the first day, I couldn't remember my bus number.  I thought I would be able to recognize either the bus driver or another student who rode that route, but I didn't.  I paced back and forth along the row of buses, becoming ever more panicked until, suddenly, all the doors closed and the buses pulled away.  I went back into the school, used the office phone to call my uncle's wife, and tearfully told her what had happened.  She was furious.  She came to get me, but let me know that it was a great inconvenience for her to do so.  Rest assured that I never missed the bus home again.)

When I arrived, the school district was experiencing growing pains, and grade levels were being shuffled between schools.  There were a half-dozen elementary schools, housing grades K-5, while grades 6-9 were in the Junior High School building.  The next year, 6th graders would be moved back to the elementary buildings, and when the town completed a new high school a couple years later, the 9th graders would move there and the Junior High would hold only 7th and 8th graders.  At the time, though, I went from being one of the oldest students in an elementary school to being a member of the youngest class in a junior high school.

That first day, I found myself surrounded by boys and girls who'd been in class together for the first two months of the school year and, in many cases, had known each other since Kindergarten.  They were, on the whole, much more sophisticated than I was.  I quickly learned that I talked funny (I said "warsh" instead of "wash" and referred to carbonated beverages as "pop" rather than "soda".)   I joined a Girl Scout troop and, on the day of the first meeting, I excitedly wore my uniform to school -- just as I'd done prior to moving there.  The other girls laughed at me, because it was "so childish" (this was, remember, 6th grade) to do that.  I was embarrassed, time and again.

I also found myself having to explain my arrival.  After all, my uncle and his wife had lived in town for several years; their other children had gone through (or were still in) the school system.  Now here I was, carrying the same last name (that didn't belong to any other family in town), and people were curious.  I would, many times, have to say that I had come to live with relatives because my mother had died.

Although some people expressed their sympathy, I brushed off their concern.  I said things like "it's OK" and "we weren't really that close", because I was too young and too emotionally immature to know how to handle my grief.  Counseling would have helped but, as I've said, my uncle didn't believe in that -- I was left trying to heal myself, by myself.