Friday, July 9, 2010

One Word or Less

Watching Olivia’s face on Wednesday night was like seeking a Shakespearean drama unfold, right across the limited real estate of her 11-year-old forehead.  “ONE word to describe them?” she stalled, repeating the question and looking around at our family.  “Well … "

The backstory:  We were being visited by a representative from AFS to check our suitability to be a host family.  This is Emma’s latest passion, fueled by a friendship with an Armenian kid and a desire to 1) have a brother and 2) live with someone more interesting than her father, mother and sister. The lady with the clipboard had shown up, and Olivia, who was hanging around with Mary, joined the group.

There have been so many moments of our lives that Olivia has shared with our family, and that makes me very happy. She has been Mary Katherine’s best friend since they could run through the alley to each other’s houses. She is the first one on the list for my long-running “more the merrier” policy, and I am always happy when I can snag an extra ticket or pull some strings somewhere to get her included in something fun that we have planned.

I understand Olivia, deeply. With birthdays one week apart, we share the same astrological sign, appreciation of cleaned-out closets and love of crossing things off lists. We also share a lifeview that could be summed up as, “it’s always a good idea to worry just a little bit more.” I often know what Olivia is thinking, and it’s usually because I’m thinking the same thing:  “uh oh, I’m worried about this.”

She and Mary Katherine are so happy together, that their mutual comfort in each other’s society is always cheering to me. One of my favorite memories ever was a road trip we took a few years ago to pick Emma up after a camp. Olivia and Mary Katherine were still young enough to be excited by the thrilling prospect of staying in a hotel, and they immediately started jumping on the beds when they arrived.  Bounce, bounce, bounce … Olivia had no agenda, no expectations and no disappointments – just some up-and-down time with her best friend. I happened to snap a picture of that moment, and it’s a photograph I cherish. Being weightless is not something that people like Olivia and I experience very often, so those moments need to be savored when they come along.

With all my great affection for this girl, you’d assume that she feels the same way about me. Not so much, really. It’s not that she dislikes me; she just is a little …  disapproving. I often find myself double-checking plans or calling ahead to a reservation desk, doing whatever I need to do to make sure I don’t disappoint Olivia. She doesn’t ask for much, just that I will be able to tell her what is going to happen every minute, and that there will be no disasters or troubles anywhere. To my own children, I offer a hearty “get over it” when things don’t turn out the way they’d wish, but I find myself straining to make the grade with Olivia. And my grade, for 11 years, is pretty much a C+.

Yes, she thinks I’m barely functioning and not often worthy of the description “adult,” but she’s often right, and I am not one to argue with the truth. She figured out when she was four that I shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car, and I suspect her of sneaking in and double-checking to make sure I’ve turned off the stove when I leave the kitchen. I am just a little too goofy for my own good, and while Olivia never says that in so many words, she can communicate quite a bit with a tiny sigh and a lowered gaze. Oh Olivia, I’ll do better next time, I swear.

So there I was Wednesday night, sitting across from her on the couch when the AFS rep asked, “If you could use one word to describe this family, Olivia, what would it be? I saw it on her face, of course. I am guessing that the first word that popped into her head was “psychotic,” or something close to it. (And she’s very, very smart, so don’t think she doesn’t know what that means.) It’s my insider’s opinion that she also wrestled with “goofy,” “improbable” and perhaps, when considering me, “disappointing.”

She repeated the question, took a deep breath, and spoke her truth, if perhaps an edited version of it. “Upbeat!” she declared, and she even smiled.  Right at me.  Thanks, Olivia Louise.  I love you, too.

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