For years, news stories accompanied by photos of happy children enjoying a vacation in the suburbs — away from the hot, mean streets of New York City — made me want to be a Fresh Air Fund host family. When my husband Bob and I finally bought a townhouse on a cul-de-sac in Valhalla, I called the Fresh Air Fund and received a host application for the summer of ‘99.
Bob, the father of three grown children from a previous marriage, supported my plan, but cautioned me that full-time parenthood was a lot harder than I thought. I dismissed his warning.
After several phone calls and an exchange of paperwork, a Fund volunteer came to meet us. “You’re unusual,” she said. “Childless couples don't often ask to be host families.”
"I've been involved in the lives of my nieces and nephews," I countered, "and I work with children in my professional life as an arts provider."
"It's not your ability to do this that I'm talking about," she said, "it's your willingness. For people who already have children, one more child is no big deal. For you, it will be a major life change." I disagreed. "You requested a girl between nine and ten," she said. "Are there children in your neighborhood for her to play with?"
"She'll have a full-time playmate," I answered. "My 10 year old adopted niece will be here too."
Our interviewer smiled. "All your references said the kid who got you would be very lucky. I agree."
I met Nana of the dancing eyes and Cleopatra-like braids at the Scarsdale station in July. She was a skinny nine-year-old with a broad smile and an infectious giggle. Harlem was her home but she’d been born in Guinea, South Africa, so I greeted her in French.
"You speak French?" she asked. "Un peu," I answered.
"I prefer to speak English," she said. "Do you live far from here?"
Five minutes into the visit, my preconceived notions had been blown away. Nana may have been away from home for the first time, but she was not intimidated by the situation; her self-assuredness glowed. In the car, she offered me bubble gum from her backpack. I accepted. When we reached home, Nana immediately removed her sandals and ran around our grassy front yard. "I can't do that in the park near our apartment," she said. "There's too much glass in it."
Nana and my niece Lauryn quickly became friends. Days after their arrival, I learned what every parent knows: life revolves around the children. Cooking, laundry, shampoos, and driving to new places of interest consumed my energy. I missed my quiet life. We visited the Maritime Museum and Stew Leonard's, selected books at the Greenburgh Library, spent a day at Playland, watched 4th of July fireworks from a blanket at Kensico Plaza. They played in our backyard sprinkler, dead-headed the pansies and petunias on the patio, and had great fun washing my car. Both girls learned to swim at the Mt. Pleasant Town Pool and we took lot of pictures. I missed my orderly life.
Each day while I did snippets of office work, they read and kept a journal. Lauryn was a serene, well-mannered child. Nana, on the other hand, was like the Energizer bunny — she even thrashed about in her sleep! She bounced in and out of her chair during meals, and spilled food on herself, the table and the floor. We gently urged her to sit down during meals, and to use a fork instead of her fingers to eat. Later, she confided that they couldn't sit down for meals at her house because there were too many people to fit at the kitchen table. Guilt silenced my feelings of superiority.
Nana was a quick-study in the fine art of table manners. At a Fund-sponsored picnic near the end of her visit, nana wiped her lips with a napkin, patted her still spotless Tee-shirt and beamed as she dumped her empty plate in the garbage.
While we were out one day, my cleaning lady came and restored order to the house.
"You pay somebody to clean your house?" Nana, said. "Wow! I want to be a cleaning lady when I grow up!"
Appalled, I said, "No, you want a good job, so you can have a cleaning lady." Then I introduced her to successful women I knew: schoolteachers, the Town's Comptroller, the director of the library... "You can be just like them when you grow up," I said.
Each night after reading to them and kissing them goodnight, I collapsed on the sofa beside my husband. "You don't have to plan every minute of every day," he said. "Parents don't."
"I'm not a parent," I countered, "And they're only here two weeks. I want them to see what the world has to offer."
The day they went home, I admitted to Bob that it had been the hardest two weeks of my life.
"But, they'll never forget what you taught them," he said.
I wonder what Nana will be like when she comes to visit us next summer. I’m ready for some fresh air.