For my mom, on my birthday

Sept. 13, 2013

Dear Mom,

Happy birthday to me, and thank you to you.

Although “thank you” seems so inadequate. I’ve been a lucky girl all my life, and I am a million times more grateful than I am lucky. I am lucky to have been made by you and Dad and to have had you as parents. I hope the labor you endured 46 years ago today lived up to the cliché of being the kind of pain you forget. I’m sure I caused you other kinds of pain over the years, much of which I was probably oblivious to. Like ending a sentence with a preposition.

Mom and me, my baptism day.

Even though I never became a mom, I know how it must feel to send a part of you out into the world and wonder if it will be safe, if it will be loved. As I prepared to go to Costa Rica again last month, I looked back through my scrapbook, the one I assembled after my summer there in 1984. When I tell people that I spent a summer abroad in Central America at the age of 16, they say things like, “Wow, that was really brave.” At the time, as I prepared for the experience, I didn’t think bravery had anything to do with it ~ self-involvement, perhaps, but not bravery. But if doing something in the face of what at the last minute become white-knuckled terror counts as brave, then I win!

Dad (on the … donkey) in Turkey,
courtesy of the Air Force, 1963 or ’64.

It was probably brave of you and Dad to send me, and I wonder if you were as scared as I was ~ but maybe not, since Dad had traveled a good bit in the Air Force, and your family had moved several times as you grew up. I wonder if you were ever afraid when you moved from New York to Florida, or experienced culture shock?

I’ve been very lucky to have visited a lot of amazing places since my first trip out of the United States nearly 30 years ago, and that one was life-changing, so thank you for letting me have it. Thank you, and I’m sorry: For being, as I already told you, kind of an asshole that summer. As I looked through the scrapbook, I pulled out the letters you wrote to me. It’s funny how photos and mementos can jog the memory, which can be a Pandora’s box full of all kinds of crazy madeleines, to badly mix metaphors. I did not remember that I was remiss in writing to you once I’d safely arrived at my home in Puntarenas, and I apparently had also forgotten how to use a phone, in any language. In your first letter to me, dated June 28, you wrote:

My first international letter from Mom!

“Dear Les,
Hope that you have had some good experiences and we can hardly wait to hear from you. At least so far we assume that no news is good news!”

A few weeks later, I received a letter from a family friend, saying:

“I was really pleased to receive your postcard, but not half as much as your parents were to get theirs. Gerry was about to send the Marines out for you when she got word, Leslie is alive!”

Okay, okay! In my defense, as of June 28, I’d only been in Costa Rica for two days. As I told my AFS counselor in a letter I wrote to her on July 12:

“Met our families Tuesday the 26th. Mine is really great & I’m very happy w/them. … The people here are so nice. Very hospitable & patient, very warm & friendly. It’s a muy social pais. … I think I got really lucky w/my familia porque some [AFS] muchachas are really restricted — no leaving house, very little socializing, being bored at home, etc. I’ve gone to the playa, piscine, en pueblo, a picnic, en barco to una playa, & other stuff. … All I have to do as far as chores is wash my own ropas. The sun rises around 5:30 — sets at 6:30. Mom (& sister) do housework all morning — father comes home for lunch — then back to work & school.”

I’d like to think I was more help around the Valverde house than that, but it appears that I was consistent in both countries.

My Tico parents,
Arabela and Claudio.

Anyway, I hope I shared some of those early details with you. In the pre-Google era, AFS did an amazing job placing me with just the right family in just the right place at just the right time. You and Dad had a lot in common with Doña Arabela and Don Claudio. Like you, Arabela had been a schoolteacher. Like Dad, Claudio was a mechanic, a refrigerator technician. But beyond your occupations, you also shared many of the same values about family and life in general. And Western North Carolina and Puntarenas had a lot in common, too ~ natural beauty, small-town friendliness.

One of Dad’s shots from Vietnam, 1965.

In the months before I went to Costa Rica in 1984, AFS prepared me well, but I also remember Dad saying (at least I think it was Dad) that no matter where you go, people are more alike than they are different. I think that’s fundamentally true, even across very real barriers, such as language. As I learned that summer, some experiences transcend words.

I’m sorry I held back my words when I first arrived in Puntarenas and maybe even when I got back. In the early days, I probably assumed that you assumed I was fine, and I was probably nose-deep in a Spanish-English dictionary, trying to understand and be understood. But I know what it is like to worry about a beloved’s safety and well-being, and I know what sacrifice looks like.

In that first letter, you shared colorful details about your trip back home after you’d dropped me off for orientation in Miami ~ visiting Gramma and Granddaddy and David, Gram and Mark, Gap and family ~ and then getting together with friends after you got home:

“Dad and I are going out to Yesterday’s with John and Wanda tonight. It’s been a long time since we went dancing, so I’m sort of excited.”

I hope you did go out, and I hope you had fun.

Eventually I answered this letter, as you acknowledged in another typewritten note to me, this one dated July 27:

“Dear Les,
Thank goodness we finally heard from you. I was about ready to call in the CIA or take other drastic measures! Very cute all your Spanish ~ your Dad and Heather were ticked off at not being able to translate, but good old Mom came through for them.”

Good old Mom always came through, and you still do. Before I left, you’d helped me translate a letter from my Costa Rican mom-to-be, which I also still have. It pays to come from a line of hoarders ~ I mean, collectors ~ and the photos I’m using here also testify to that. We had fun parsing her words. I’m so glad I inherited your love of books and reading and research. I think most mothers are teachers by default, but your help over the years with homework (remember the Florida float?), quizzing me for spelling bees and telling me to “look it up” has served me well. You know I’m just letting you continually kick my ass at Words with Friends, right?

My Costa Rican sister, Arita, in the center,
and her friends Vanessa, right, and I forget
the name of the other one.

In Arabela’s letter, dated June 6, 1984, she introduces her family. She lists the names of their seven children and explains where they were living. At that point, she and Claudio already had a few grandchildren. She says that only their daughter Arita, who was 12, lived at home. She wrote:

“Esta es una de las razones que nos ha hecho sentir felices de tu pronto estadia aqui, pues tal vez asi se vuelve a sentir alegria en esta casa. … Ya ves, somos una gran familia y contigo pronto sera mas grande.”

Our crude but fairly accurate translation:

“One reason we’re happy you’ll be here soon is because perhaps feeling joy in this house. … It’s a big family, but you will make it bigger.”

I have no idea what sort of mark I left on the Valverdes, but I do know that I felt the special kind of unconditional love and acceptance that only comes from parents. They had hosted several exchange students before, so they were more prepared for me than I was for them. “Some students are afraid and worry about AFS and withdraw, but I will say no reason to be afraid,” Arabela said.

Arita took good care of me as well, enfolding me into her hilarious and gregarious circle of friends. I wonder if she and Heather would’ve gotten along ~ they were about the same age. Two of the envelopes in my scrapbook with your handwriting on them contain letters from Heather, and they’re hysterical. The first one begins:

Heather, hungry like the wolf? 1984 or ’85.

“Duran2 News Bulletin
You’ll never believe this. Well maybe you will. Well anyway, THE REFLEX IS NO. 1!!! Aren’t you happy. I’m so thrilled for them. Oh my god, I’m happy. You will truly die when you hear this. I’m not sure if I should tell you. I know you could just die. Nick is getting married to that girl (I can’t remember her name, but we’ll call her Slut) on Aug. 1.”

She goes on for a bit more about Duran Duran, our shared obsession at the time, and then says,

“Dad said he was going to teach me to drive, so don’t expect us to still have the Toyota.”

I’m not sure why she was thinking of driving at 13, but we each ended up wrecking the Toyota, didn’t we? At least you got your money’s worth. (That’s a whole nuther apology. Oops. Along with the phone bill I ran up the summer I lived in D.C. But I digress.) I remember being absolutely terrified when she did learn to drive ~ she was a fine driver, but I was so scared for her.

In her other letter, Heather tells me more about Duran Duran, Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie and “Meatballs II,” and she gives me long synopses of “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital.” She ends with:

“Well, I guess that’s all the gossip for now. Write back if you feel like it. Do it anyway. And puh-leese explain your letter and try to write a little neater. Amor, Heather.”

It was fun to hear from my sweet and sassy sis and to be kept current on pop culture while I was away. The local Tico kids were big fans of Top 40 music and often asked me to sing Lionel Richie songs. Their poor ears.

Matthew, Christmas 2004. Clearly,
he knew what he was in for. (And
he has let me go back to Costa Rica! Twice!)

As for unconditional love, I was lucky enough to find another version of it several years later in Matthew, but the root is the same: It’s the kind of love that feels like home, one that offers security and comfort but that is also a springboard to the world at large. I am so lucky to have had two sets of parents (and other parental figures along the way) who took better care of me than I probably appreciated at the time.

I know that I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever remember about that summer, but I’m grateful that there is still time to say now what the 16-year-old me should have said 29 years ago.

I am fine. I’ve made it, wherever “it” is. (Well, truth be told, I’m not so sure about that last part, but don’t worry.) I want for nothing. By the people who matter most to me, I am accepted for exactly who I am, even if at times I have no idea who that is. As I’ve been the recipient of so much unconditional love, I hope you and Dad know how much I hold for you in return. Since many of the people mentioned here ~ your parents, my Costa Rican mom and Gram ~ are no longer with us, I can’t tell them how much they meant to me. But I hope that I can live up to what I am trying to say here.

Mom and Dad,
Florida vacation, 1992.

In your letter of July 27, you write again with sparkling detail and humor about how summer was going back home. You went to the lake one weekend with Roy and Deb. Heather had a visit from Amy, who’d recently been to London. You were going to take Heather to the mall that day. You ask me to call you collect, if necessary, to give you the details on my return flight near the end of August. You ask if there are any cute “muchachos” to tell you about, and you say you can hardly wait to hear about my adventures.

You also wrote this:

“We had nice birthdays, especially me. Wednesday the 18th the Harrises invited us over, and surprised me with a birthday cake. Thursday, Heather’s b’day, Dad took us to Steak and Ale to celebrate and we embarrassed Heather with a little cake and serenade. Friday John & Wanda came over with a bottle of Champagne, Saturday nite we went to Bill & Barbara’s and celebrated one more time with Pina Coladas, Pizza from Domino’s and surprise birthday cupcakes. Sunday was quiet but Jeff and Charlotte called to wish us a happy one and ask after you. Monday was quiet, also Tuesday, except I finally got my birthday wish ~ your letter.”

So now, on my birthday, I send this to you. My only wish is for you to know how great a mother you are, how grateful I am to you and how much I love you.

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