Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Am I Wrong

The sun has beat upon Texas for months.  Last Wednesday, I awoke to the sound of raindrops on my windowpane, like kisses from heaven.  Little Man, Holden rushes into our bedroom at 6:30 a.m.  "Holden!  It's raining!" I smile into the darkness.

"What?  What you say, Mama?" he responds.

"Let me show you," and I scoop him up into my arms.  I unlock and step out the front door.  We stand on the porch, sheltered from the drops.  The parched, Texas ground sips the water falling from the sky.  He squints into the early morning light and listens - I see his memory racing towards something familiar.  His eyes widen, smile stretches, and face glows.  "Mama!" he whispers, "It's a beautiful day in America!"

The move was hardest on Holden. Cosette, at five years old, misses her friends terribly, but she understands the move.  She remembered my parents, our friends, our visits to Texas. She's sad about leaving the Netherlands, and can express it. We talk about our memories of Europe. We appreciate the happy things in Texas. Holden, who was three months when we moved to the Netherlands and three years when we moved back, didn't know what had happened.  All he knew was that we moved him away from his entire life – his home, his friends, his school, his teachers, his museums, his grocery store, his parks, and his playgrounds.  For the boy who resists change in his daily routine, this was a very bad thing.  Our first month back, we were housed in a corporate apartment while we fixed up our house and waited for our furniture to arrive from the Netherlands. We were used to staying in apartments in Europe during our travels – and I did our best to make it fun. I had never been a full-time Mom in America (much less with three kids), and after V went back to work in Dallas on the third week – I tried to imitate our daily routine in the Netherlands as best I could.  We took walks – in the sun and in the snow. We listened to Dutch SkyRadio on an iPhone app and had dance parties.  The majority of our toys were in the sea shipment still in transit, so I went to the Dollar Store and bought workbooks, puzzles, and art supplies.  But by day three of being full-time-mom-of-3-in-Corporate-Apartment-in-America, I could tell I was dealing with a completely different challenge than. . . all of the above.  Holden had become the most difficult version of himself – a screaming, angry, mess. Before 9:00 a.m.,  I called my husband with tears brimming at my eyes – "Let's call the local preschool. I hope if he's enrolled in school, he'll calm down – it won't be the same, but maybe it will help."  Meanwhile, that afternoon, I held him before nap time. He was inconsolable, a loose cannon in the apartment, ready to explode.  I rocked him and sighed. There are few words you can utter to a three year old that stick. But I had to try. "Holden, I know you're upset. I know you're sad. You miss your friends, our old house, your school, our Jumbo, and the museums. But I want you to know – that we're all the same.  Our family is still here – me, you, Daddy, Cosette, Baby Brecht, Tyler, & Dash – we're all here.  And we're together.  And that's what's important." His three-year-old eyes looked at me and blinked. I stare back.  For a silent moment, he seems to understand.  He too, takes a deep breath, and the tension in his body collapses. I lower him into his travel crib, and shut the door quietly.

Two days later, our family tours the preschool. It's in the church I grew up in, just a mile from our house. The director is warm and friendly. I explain our background and how we've just moved back from overseas.  As we explore the details of the school, I become increasingly confused until I begin to feel like an expat in my own country. Before we left for the Netherlands, Cosette was enrolled in daycare while I worked full-time – so I know about the importance of labeling, making your own bottles, and the strict security procedures.  But preschool in America was unfamiliar territory.  In the Netherlands – I signed one permission slip upon registration that stated – you can take Holden wherever you like.  I'd pick him up from school and they would have been to the market, the local farm, or the playground.  It was easy – the teachers loaded the children in strollers and walked all over town. The school provided all snacks, lunches, and diapers.  I'd pick him up everyday and talk to his teachers - "Ja! Hij slaapt goed, ate goed!" There were no boo-boo grams or documentation about his BMs.  And I was really okay with this.

As we go through the tour, the director tells me I need to provide a nap mat.  "A what?" I ask her. "A nap mat." she repeats.  I've never heard of such a thing, much less owned one.
"Okay – sounds great.  I'm sorry, but where could I get one?" I ask.

"Oh, anywhere, really." she replies.

Accustomed to specific stores carrying specific inventory, I press further. "No really – where can I find this thing?"

"Target – or perhaps Buy Buy Baby."  Okay.  This is helpful.  I purchase one the next day.  And a lunchbox.

A few days later, we drop Holden off for his first day of American Preschool.  I've signed about thirty forms, given a blood sample (not really, but. . . ) and have his labeled change of clothes, nap mat, and have packed his lunch.  Everything goes in a separate bin, and he walks into his classroom with a fearless attitude.  I'm nervous, but proud. I mean – we've lived overseas! American preschool at a church I've attended for 30 years should be cake.  Then I get a phone call.

"Ms. Bennekers?" she says.  "Yes?"

"I'm so sorry to bother you, but I noticed that you sent Holden to school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."  My eyes blink.  Where in the world is she going with this? Cosette's teachers in the Netherlands questioned the peanut butter and jelly sandwich but what's more American than this?

"I'm afraid I forgot to mention this during the tour – but we're a peanut-free and nut-free school," she explains.

I cock my head into the phone.  I'm really confused. "I'm sorry. What did you say?" I respond.

"I'm not sure if you encountered this in the Netherlands. . . ." she takes the acknowledgement approach, "but here we're a peanut-free school," she repeats.
My mind is dancing over peanut knowledge gained over the past three years. . . FB posts about peanut-free Halloween candy? And that's really about it.  Are they afraid Holden is going to share his sandwich?  That's terribly unlikely.

She reads my mind, "I don't believe anyone in his class is allergic, but the peanut allergy could be triggered via the air."

Now I'm stunned. "Really?  In The AIR?" I exclaim with a mix of disbelief and amazement.
"Oh yes," she retorts.  "I think you'll find a lot of schools around here will have similar policies. . . "

I feel like I'm completely out of date.  Not only have I stumbled upon an advanced strain of allergy intolerance, but I've also learned that the Great American PB&J has become offensive.  I press end call and shrug.

The next few weeks, I continue to embarrass myself at his preschool.  After living in a biking culture for three years, my kids are still learning about parking lots and I'm still learning how to corral three kids to and from the car. We pick Holden up from school – baby in the stroller and Cosette holding onto the side.  I sign him out, and he takes off down the hallway.  Another Mom opens the glass doors. Holden squeezes past her daughter, through the door, and shoots down the sidewalk, towards the parking lot. I panic. I race after him, screaming his name, while pushing the stroller as Cosette runs to keep up.  Holden barrels towards the road when he takes a sudden turn down the adjacent sidewalk.  The Mom stands stunned, probably amazed at the speed of my child and at the volume of my shrill voice shouting his name.  I grab Holden and tell him (for the 400th time in three weeks) about the importance of parking lots and staying with me.  The other Mom, still mortified at the scene before her and her role as the tipping point, shakes her head and repeats a stream of apologies.  With my head and heart fluttering, I try my best to console her, "Don't worry – he's used to being yelled at!"  Nice. Real. Nice.   

Throughout the following months, I realized Holden had created his own defense mechanism.  When he'd talk about his old school he'd say, the name of it, "Far away." or "Eiffel Tower. Far away."  He'd still ask me if we could go to our friends' houses or the museums. But it was less frequent.  Far. Away.

After a summer off, Holden recently started preschool again. "Mama – I so nervous for school," he'd say. But once we arrived – he didn't want to leave.  I attended the back-to-school-night and all the rules and regulations and suggestions for efficiency and convenience made my head spin – but like Holden, I was happy to start a new year, with a few familiar faces.

Last night, before we ate dinner, the kids suggested we pray before we ate, just like Holden does at his new preschool. We held hands together and recited "God is great, God is good. . . " After we concluded, Holden's eyes sparkled.  "Okay. Now we sing, Smakelijk eten!" - the song he sang at his old Dutch school before him and his classmates ate a meal.  Together as a family, we sang the Dutch song. Pleased with our rendition, Holden picked up his fork and smiled, "Smakelijk eten allemaal!"

P.S. Holden's favorite song is Am I Wrong. . . and for anyone who's ever met Holden, you know how appropriate that is.  
Am I wrong
For thinking out the box from where I stay?
Am I wrong
For saying that I choose another way?
I ain't trying to do what everybody else doin'
Just 'cause everybody doin' what they all do
If one thing I know, I'll fall but I'll grow
I'm walking down this road of mine, this road that I call home
So am I wrong?
For thinking that we could be something for real?
Now am I wrong?
For trying to reach the things that I can't see?
But that's just how I feel,
That's just how I feel
That's just how I feel
Trying to reach the things that I can't see (see, see, see)
If you tell me I'm wrong, wrong
I don't wanna be right, right
If you tell me I'm wrong, wrong
I don't wanna be right
If you tell me I'm wrong, wrong
I don't wanna be right, right
If you tell me I'm wrong, wrong
I don't wanna be right

Friday, September 4, 2015

It's Been a Long Day Without You, My Friend

June 2014  - The sun is shining on a bright Dutch day. The North Sea wind teases the leaves of the school courtyard. Summer beacons. I feel happy and hopeful. Not only for the warm, long summer days that stretch ahead, but also because this is the last day I will be picking my daughter up from this school. We've found another school across town that she'll be attending in the fall.

The new school was recommended by a friend and we called for a tour. My husband and I weaved through the small playground, smiling at the line of bicycles and tricycles set out for recess. After ringing the doorbell, the principal met us with an outstretched hand, led us to the conference room, and offered us a 'koffie'. Her smile was warm, her short cropped brown hair matched her crisp suit.  Professional and attentive, she answered each question with concern and understanding.  This time I knew the questions to ask – "Do your teachers speak English?  Okay, but would they mind speaking English to me?  How large are the class sizes? I read on-line you have English classes, do you find the other children are responsive to these lessons? What is the division of the age groups? Are the four-year-olds separated or are they in a class with five and six-year-olds?"  I nodded with each answer and felt a sense of relief spread across my shoulders.  She was saying all the right things. Despite the trek across town, pregnant or with a newborn, I knew that I wanted our last few months to be enjoyable and worrying about my oldest daughter's safety at school was not okay.  We met the welcoming teachers, saw the children sitting and working in their stations, and felt the overall calm in the school.  This school was perfect.  We turned in our paperwork for the new school immediately.  And in an awkward, but not unpleasant meeting, we gave notice to her current school that we wouldn't be returning in the fall.
As restless as the trees, I shift from one foot to the other on the paved courtyard. I stare at the kindergarten door - willing it to open. I stand, guarding my treasures - my son asleep in the bike, one hand on my handlebars, the other on my bulging belly.  For a split second, I wonder if I am doing the right thing.  My daughter had only been at this school a few months, was it really right to yank her out just to start all over for a few months before we moved back to the States?  Was I giving it a fair chance?  The door opens and our eyes meet. My smile catapults to the ground.  She's wobbling, supported by her teacher with two huge band-aids covering her tiny knees.  "What now?" are my final words.  "She fell on the playground," is the explanation I receive.  "They pushed me!" my baby says to me.  And any doubt, any hesitation, evaporates.  I load her into my bike, and we ride home. Not looking back.

August 2014 -  Baby Girl's first day of Kindergarten at her new Dutch school. Just like first days of school around the world, there's shuffling, rushing, loading, excitement, stress, and anxiousness.  The entire family loads into the car – I'm about two months away from my due date.  I could bike – but when the car is available, the American in me, is going to choose the more comfortable option.  It takes us about twenty minutes to traverse the city via vehicle, even though it is only a two mile distance.  Weaving through the city centre takes time – stopping for bicycles, pedestrians, and lights.  Unlike America, drive-thru drop-offs are unheard of since biking and walking is the primary mode of transportation.  Even parking lots in the Netherlands are rare, and her school is no exception.  After fruitlessly searching for parking along the street in the adjoining neighborhood, my daughter and I jump out of the car armed with promises to meet up with V and Holden in a bit.  Hand in hand, Cosette and I follow the sounds radiating from the courtyard.  Teachers are singing into microphones while students, parents, and faculty crowd.  "Celebrate good times, come on!" blares from speakers.  Baby Girl nestles her head into my belly and I lean down to hug her, balancing my weight carefully to keep from falling over.  "You're going to do great.  I'm so proud of you." I reassure her.  The Principal spots us among the crowd and welcomes us.  I run into a friend from book club.  She tells us how much she loves the school.  I feel comforted.  In my small expat world, running into anyone I know, ever, is cause for celebration.  I take it as a good sign.  The music stops.  Announcements are made. Doors open.  My husband and son catch up just in time.  As a family, we head to her classroom with many other anxious parents.  We find her seat in the circle, already labeled with her name.  The teacher is calm - she looks at her students with sense of pride.  After allowing the parents to linger, she encourages the parents to go to the window and wave.  We give Cosette a hug and then file out to wave at the window.  Lots of kisses are blown.  A few tears (from parents and children alike) spill over and then we file back into the school for a reception of coffee.  Another Mom speaks to me.  "I'm so sorry. Spreek jij Engels?" I smile.  "Oh. You speak English?" she asks.  "Yes. Sorry?!" and although at this instant – she knows I'm an outsider, she's still friendly.  She has twin girls, who turned four over the summer.  As a mother, this is her very first day of kindergarten.  It's the same.  Parents lovingly saying goodbye to their children.  It's universal feeling of excitement and loss.

Throughout the year Cosette befriends many of the students.  I respect and adore her teachers.  I see my daughter blossom.  She's happy.  She looks forward to going to school everyday. With two other children and the trek across town - it's not always easy to get her there on time.  Every day I hope I'm able to find a close parking spot.  Everyday, I unload two (or eventually, three) of my children and walk her to and from her class - sometimes in the rain and many times in the cold.  I'm not always punctual, but I'm trying.  Her teachers seem to understand.  "Mama – I speak English to the teachers, but Dutch to the children" my daughter explains.  After the pressure to Only Speak Dutch at her last school, everyone seems OK with this arrangement.  I'm relieved.  She brings home pages and pages of artwork. She talks about her friends at school.  The 'class teddy bear' is a weekend guest, with instructions to let him sleep in her bed.  The American-In-Me puts Mr. Flip and all of his clothes through a wash and spin cycle first.

Days before I give birth, V has a work conflict and he needs the car.  I bike across town to pick up my daughter.  I'm proud and happy of my four-mile round-trip bike ride, five days before my due date.  As I lock up my bright green bicycle, I've caught the attention of a few other Moms.  The mother of the twins starts chatting.  I tell her my father is coming from Texas to help me when the baby comes.  "Oh, Texas?  You're American!" she says.  "That's a long way from here."  We may not know many things about each other, and I still find it interesting that Europeans sometimes can't differentiate between American and British accents, but I'm happy for the conversation.  During pick-up time, I usually stand off to the side of the hallway, waiting for Cosette.  The other Moms chat to each other in Dutch.  I remain quiet, excluded. But unlike a Middle School social, it's not cruel.  We smile and nod.  I know these women.  There's a shorter Mom with a red jacket that's pregnant, too.  There's a taller Mom with a purple jacket.  There's a blonde Mom with a slick black jacket.  We're all Moms that care about our children.  I'm an outsider.  Maybe I'd be an outsider in America, too – and there's a comfort in knowing that I'm labeled as an expat.

December 2014 - Rain drops flash in the line of headlights snaking their way along the winding canal.  "Ugh!  I should have known this would take forever!" I grip the steering wheel, focus my energies on willing the line of cars to move forward.  I'm unaccustomed to driving across town at this hour of night.  Cosette chirps from the backseat, "What's the matter Mama?!"

"Nothing honey, I just don't want you to be late for your first Christmas pageant," I glance in the rearview mirror with a smile.  The ancient gate of the city glows in the floodlighting on our right as we sit at the red light.  I breathe a deep sigh. Only a few more months in this beautiful city.  My son and baby are sick at home with my husband.  Forced with a 'divide-and-conquer' logistical decision, my daughter had originally picked my husband to attend her Christmas program, but she changed her mind last minute.  I was so excited.  For a full-time Mom, it's rare to leave the house and more than that, I welcomed the excuse to dress up for the occasion.  My heels alternate between pressing the accelerator and tapping the brakes.  We park in the neighborhood and high-tail it in our skirts to the church nearest to her school.  They must have been taking bets in the teachers lounge about the Late American, as the staff weren't surprised to see us rushing through the doors.  Instead, they smile and usher us to where we needed to be.  With program in hand, I grab the first seat I see, while Cosette is wisked away to the front of the sanctuary.  For the next hour, I am treated to a reenactment of the story of the birth of Jesus, in Dutch.  Joseph, Mary, Wise men, Angels, Shepherds – the whole bit.  As I sit there, by myself, armed with program and my iPhone Google translate, the reality of the moment overwhelms me.  My daughter's first Christmas pageant is in the Netherlands, in Dutch. And although the songs sound a bit different, the story is the same.  It is imperfectly perfect and beautifully simple.  Not only are we celebrating the birth of Christ in her public school, but also in a style refreshingly not Pinterest-worthy.  I watch angels in sheets and wire halos enter and exit the stage, sing along with my best Dutch accent, and laugh as hard as the other parents at the out-of-tune, but passionate solos.  Near the end of the program, the 4-year olds were about to take the stage.  A bit lost in the moment (or perhaps, unable to read the program), the mother in the red jacket brought me back to reality. She is racing from the back of the sanctuary to the front, to get a better view.  "Kome! Kome!" she motions to me to follow her.  Wedged between the other smiling Dutch mothers on the front row, we watch as our babies sang a memorable and enthusiastic version of "Kling klokje klingelingeling!"  Bells ring, children smile, and tears fill my eyes as I watch Cosette and her classmates celebrate and sing.  As the sanctuary erupts in applause, I long for everything to last longer.  We are saying goodbye to these people, this school, this city, and this country in just a few months.  I want more.  I want to hang on to this moment forever.  The pageant concludes and everyone meanders out of the sanctuary.  "Dag! Fijne avond!" my daughter and her friends chime.  I smile and nod a silent goodbye to the mothers.

August 2015  - For seven sweet, but long months, we've been waiting.  Waiting for American kindergarten to begin.  I did my best to fill our days with the American advantages – we've had countless visits to the library (the selection of books in English made both of our heads spin), trips to the Perot Natural history museum, visits with the grandparents and great-grandma, etc.  On the weekends, we've introduced the kids to baseball, ballet, and road trips through the beautiful State of Texas. They've grown to appreciate unlimited bowls of chips and salsa, sunscreen, and outdoor swimming pools. Everyday, Cosette tells me how much she misses her friends in the Netherlands.  Occasionally, we count the days until she starts school again.  We visit playgrounds and I wonder – where are all the people.  In the Netherlands, I rarely spoke to other people at the playground or at the store, but I was always around other people.  It's funny – on gorgeous days here in Texas, we go for a walk to the playground or to the neighborhood pool – and we're the only ones there.  It's isolating in two different ways.

The first day of school arrives. Again. But this time, it's American Kindergarten. I'm nervous in a whole entire different realm – mostly because I've been through it before – the competition, the rules, the pressure to conform.  The moment is special though – my brother went to the same elementary school Cosette is enrolled.  My mom comes with us to her granddaughter's first day of school and bakes her cookies for afterwards.  There are rules and papers and newsletters but at least I can read them without the use of Google translate.  I love and hate it, all at the same time.

The first day, we walk Cosette into her class, hang her backpack in her locker, and sit her down at her desk.  Her chair is decorated with her name.  For as excited as she was about starting school, she's become very quiet and shy. I put my arm around her and whisper into her ear – "The good news is. . . they all speak English?" and her eyes dart around the room.  "But Mama, I had that one friend in the Netherlands that spoke English. . . " and her voice trails off.  Halfway across the world, I know that today is the first day of school at her old school in the Netherlands.  My heart breaks a little as I imagine her friends going into their new class, the excitement they'd feel after seeing each other after the summer break.  "I know, honey, I miss my friends, too - but you'll do great."  I help her with her crayons, say goodbye, and meet the other parents in the cafeteria for the "Cheers and Tears" kindergarten parents breakfast.

In the cafeteria, I see a questionably familiar face.  It's hazy, but I know I know her. . . wait. . . our mental rolodexes are spinning.. . I have a flashback to Senior English AP class nearly 20 years ago.  "Hi, I'm Celeste!" and she tells me her name, which I already know.  We embrace.  I have a friend.  I have a friend!  A real friend from high school in my daughter's cafeteria.  Her son is starting Kindergarten too – and we're both thrilled to see each other after all these years.  I can't help but think, so this is the advantage of being back where we started.  To run into familiar friends in unfamiliar places. To go through a new adventure with someone who already knows me.

I meet my daughter at the front of the school in the afternoon.  She has a large smile on her face.  "Did you make a friend today?"  I ask my daughter.  And she says yes!  Yes I did.  I tell her I did too.  And we walk towards our parked car, hand in hand.

It's been a long day without you, my friend
And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again
We've come a long way from where we began
Oh, I'll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again