Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rundassa's Rules

Yes, it’s true.  I believe I can say a bridge has officially been crossed.  Well, at least a footbridge.  OK, so some crude stones have been hucked out in the stream and we’re clumsily hopping from one to the next.  But it’s progress and I’ll take it!  So there. 

Monday turned out to be quite a day.  (Do I say that about every day?)  The incident on the way home from school, with which I ended my last post, became a big deal.  It turned out that everyone was right, and everyone was wrong.  Saffron had run off and home from school alone and left Jasper carrying her coat and backpack.  But he had offended her by grabbing her by the neck of her coat after school in front of other children, when she wasn’t cooperating.  She had knocked Ruby into the wall on her way into the house, but not intentionally.  I think.  I don’t know which of my kids is telling the right story half the time, even when there isn’t a language barrier!

Saffron came in the door upset, and got moreso as she saw Jasper and Ruby telling me what happened and thought they were accusing her of things she hadn’t done.  She was sort of storming around the house, and Jasper and Ruby made it worse by trying to get involved instead of staying out of things.  (There is always some tension between them wanting Saffron to keep the house rules, and me asking them to let me be her mother.) 

As the afternoon progressed Saffron’s silent pouting turned into a full-blown tantrum.  It was the worst I’ve ever seen from her.  She was actually throwing things, and slamming doors, and yelling at people.  I couldn’t deal with it with the other kids being around and nosy, so I called a friend who had offered some babysitting for a date.  “Is your offer good for tonight?”  I asked.  Steve was working late and I had no date in mind, but knew I needed to do something serious.  I was afraid to drive the kids because Saffron was already sort of “fake” running away—walking down the block and back—so I had Jen come to my house and pick up the other three kids.  Watching them leave for a fun outing just made Saffron more upset, and things got worse.  I must say that she was still her conscientious self, being careful not to throw anything that would break—mostly just Barbies and paper—and being sure not to make too big of a mess for me.  I asked her over and over, in words she could understand, to tell me what was wrong.  I tried to get her to use the English/Amharic language book we rely on.  She wouldn’t communicate at all.  I knew I needed to do something serious.  I called my dad, who stopped by for some comfort and eventually loaded Saffron into the car for me.  I had called Simon, the translator, but been unable to reach him.  Feeling strongly that Saffron needed to talk to someone in her own language, I called the Ethiopian restaurant where Willa and I had gone to buy whadt for Steve’s work presentation, and explained my predicament.  They said to bring Saffron in any time.  So, once Dad got her in the car I headed downtown. 

In the restaurant were two parties eating dinner, one with two adopted children from Ethiopia, but the cook and host welcomed us right away.  I ordered injera and chicken whadt for Saffron, and we each had an orange crush—a pretty good substitute for Fanta or Mirinda.  Pretty soon we met Rundassa, the host, who is also the owner of the restaurant.  His sister was the one cooking.  Rundassa turned out to be an absolute gift.  I couldn’t have dreamed up a better medicine man for Saffron.  Rundassa is from Ethiopia, but came to the US via Russia for graduate school.  He is married to a white woman and has three biological kids and three kids adopted as older children from Ethiopia.  So he not only had language and culture expertise, but adoption expertise.  

As I noticed that adults did in Ethiopia, Rundassa got right down to business with Tinsae.  He talked to her about everything from school to race to how to be a better sister.  We sat there for about two hours and he came over to chat whenever he had a break from customers.  We learned that Saffron did not understand that Ethiopia was part of Africa, and thought people were demeaning her whenever they called her African.  He told her how many wonderful things it means to be African, how many Africans there are in the world, that President Obama is half African, etc.  I had him ask her if she would rather I tell people to refer to her as Ethiopian, but she said no—American.  In other words, she wants to fit in.  She doesn’t want to be called out in any way right now.  Rundassa talked to me about how he felt as the only African student in graduate school, and how sometimes you isolate yourself even if others don’t push you away. 

I told Rundassa all about the dynamics we’ve been experiencing between Ruby and Saffron.  This is very similar to what he experienced in his family, and he gave Saffron advice I wouldn’t even have thought of—or probably dared to give at this point.  He told her she is Ruby’s older sister, and must act like it.  She must be an example, and teach Ruby things, and let Ruby have her mom’s lap when she needs it because Ruby is only six and still needs her mom more.  He told her she must eat what she’s offered, and not make faces, and adamantly backed up my idea that I not give her Ethiopian food for a while, until she shows respect for the food I offer her.  He also asked how much her hair extensions had cost, and told her in Birr, Ethiopian money.  She was shocked.  I have not felt it right to make an issue of those types of things, but he pointed out that I tell my biological kids when something is too expensive to buy, and she needs to be aware of the value of things.  I had noticed that in Ethiopia when adults talked to Tinsae they usually gave her a very buck-up sort of speech, and this was similar in tone.  But it was tinged with the very American understanding we needed. 

Rundassa’s main message to Tinsae (that’s the name she always gives in Amharic, of course, though when I asked her if she’d rather just go by that and forget Saffron she said clearly that in America she wants everyone, even Mom, to call her Saffron) was “eyes-oshe” or the very common Amharic phrase for “be strong.” His main message to me was stop worrying.  When he heard the girls had only been in the country for 2 ½ weeks, he almost laughed.  He said all of this is normal and will work itself out before we know it.  I think I knew this, but it was great to hear it from another adoptive parent.  He was clear in saying that I should not be a softie, but should enforce the house rules and have high expectations from the beginning.  He even called his American wife to have her give me encouragement over the phone.  He gave us both his numbers, told Tinsae to call anytime, and invited her over to play with his kids.  He also said Tinsae was much more stubborn than the average Ethiopian child, probably due to a difficult life, and shy even in her own language.  This was comforting to me because if it’s personality too, and not just language and adoption adjustments, all of these battles of will seem even more understandable to me.

What more could I ask for?  Rundassa upheld and surpassed my impression of the Ethiopians I have met as some of the kindest and most open and loving people in the world.  I left with a whole new lease on life.  I think Saffron did, too.  On the way home I could tell she was making a great effort to show her gratitude for my effort to find someone for her to talk to—and for acting out of love instead of anger.  I sense it surprises her each time I do this.  She offered some new information in the car, like that she had made two friends at school.  This is also when she told me to call her Saffron.

Yesterday the difference was obvious.  Saffron avoided chances to fight with Ruby, instead of looking for them.  It was bad at first after school, which is when I locked myself in my room and told them they could continue bugging each other without my help (I had had a crappy night’s sleep Monday night, and Tuesday was probably my most discouraged day yet until I saw the change in Saffron that evening).  By the time I came out an hour later, the girls were playing happily together.  Saffron had taken Rundassa’s advice and decided to teach Ruby something:  how to climb down a wall backwards with your hands into a back bend.  Apparently, this is something they practiced at mealtime at the orphanage.  Ruby responded by being kinder and sharing her things without complaint, and they had a great night.  If anything, it was little Willa who felt left out (the poor baby sister).

And speaking of that baby sister, we’ve decided to give her a birthday in honor of my oldest sister, Kathryn, who died as a baby:  Willa Birhane’s birthday will be January 31.  Saffron knows she was an Easter baby, so we’ve given her an April birthday in honor of my aunt, Jane, who died with no children:  Saffron Tinsae’s birthday will be April 1.


Tonight Saffron had another garage sobbing session again, but for the first time ever she came in and stopped crying on her own.  She also didn’t ask for other food when she missed my dinner.  She wouldn’t speak to me or smile or eat before school, but I’m pretty sure that was just shear fear of returning to school (I let her take one rest day on Tuesday) and only directed at me as a practitioner of this confounded language.  Ruby was chipper through Saffron’s crying session tonight, but then took her own turn after.  Jasper cried tonight, too, and Willa for about an hour, so only Steve and I are left to take our turns.  Steve couldn’t believe how calm I was through it all.  But it’s because I have seen the beginning of a mighty transformation.  I saw Rundassa’s magic, and I know it’s now just a matter of working out the kinks.

Tonight when Willa cried for an hour (over refusing to apologize to Ruby for biting her—you may think I’m forcing apologies too much but they seem to be a symbolic act of accepting my authority for these girls), Saffron was visibly upset.  I haven’t seen her that way for a while, probably because she’s been too focused on herself.  She was so distracted by Willa’s tears and her refusal to apologize that she didn’t even want to read.  Once she finally got up and got Willa to apologize, she then tucked her lovingly, gently, into bed, speaking to her in the voice I heard the women in Ethiopia use.  I still don’t know what the words mean.   It was something.  I was watching a little mother put her child to bed.  That moment tonight, more than any other since I met these girls, brought home to me the role this little girl has played in her sister’s life.  I’ve known about it, but this time I saw it first hand.  I saw an old soul.  She’s been a good mother.  Willa is happy and carefree partly by disposition, but partly because she has been raised with love—by her sister.  How can I fault that sister a few tantrums now?  She has an entire childhood to make up for. 

This post is brought to you by the letter S, for Saffron:  “Coming from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound, which explains why it is the world’s most expensive spice.”  (the epicentre, “encyclopedia of spices”) 

P.S.  Happy Birthday, Lizzie, fellow student of the Sisters’ school.
P.P.S. Welcome to the world, my two new nephews: Guy Michael Bowman, 11/11/09, and Sawyer James Swensen, 11/16/09.  


Emily said...

Yay for progress!
Thank goodness for Rundassa!
What amazing ramp up speed you are being blessed with!
Three cheers for the first 2 1/2 weeks being exactly what it needs to be so the adjustments can happen.

Jodi said...

That's great news!!! I love how you are writing this all down. You will be grateful later.

emilysouthers said...

i've said it before and i'll say it again...i want to be like you when i grow up. you may not feel like supermom or superwoman, but from my point of view you are pretty darn close to both.

Lisa said...

Emily, you absolutely astound me. You're all going to be just fine, and soon, everything will seem normal.

Brett Bailey said...

You were so inspired that night. Wow. I will try to be more patient and engaged with my kids too. Thanks for the great example. Kathleen

Brooke said...

Wow, the leaps and bounds you are making. What a fabulous sister Saffron is to Willa. I can't believe the things she must have put up with before and in the orphanage. I love that you have given them birthdays that are symbolic. Not just random days. Major break throughs, small miracles. Hang tough! Your doing it!

Rachel said...

This is not a blog, but a wonderfuk book...installments like Dickens...not fiction, but just as anticipated.
Any of you agency in China has around 4 beautiful lost boys all in need of a family. They are toddlers with minor, correctible health issues. Email me for links and info if you or someone is interested in the journey.

Jamie said...

Emily- I loved reading your posts- you are such a strong, wonderful person- some of your stories made me smile because we have such similar interactions between my 3 girls who are 7,6, and 3- oh to be surrounded by sisters causes all of us some difficulty in life- the jealousy, the jockeying for position and attention and the pouting!!!! Crazy times. I think of you often. Keep on keeping on.
Love you.

Tyler said...

Calling all publishers out there in the ethernet! Hire this woman and publish her book -- it's got all the elements: refined and honest writing, the drama and complexity of relationships, race/culture/international history, insight, and above all, love.

Not to put added pressure on your blogging, but I had the very same impression as Rachel did, even before I looked over the comments following this post. This story you are living - and the way in which you are sharing it - is a book. It's your book, all of yours, and it reaches out to the reader (as all truly great books do), who is grateful just for the chance to read it.


JenSav said...

You're amazing Em. Keep it Up! I'm routing for you.