A Farewell to Our Unlikely Au Pair.

For Este.

This weekend, we were treated to the first taste of fall weather. I remember promising you, around this time last year, that the oppressive D.C. heat would pass. Today it did, but you’ve already returned to late winter in Cape Town. Tonight, on our first Sunday without you, I tried my hand at your curried beef recipe. The smell of tumeric and onions cheered me a little, but it didn’t taste the same.

Did you really use a whole can of tomatoes?

And by the way, where do we keep our Worcestershire sauce?

The State Department has a web page describing the J-1 visa available through the au pair program. It reads:

Through the Au Pair program, participants and host families take part in a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity. Participants can continue their education while experiencing everyday life with an American family, and hosts receive reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.

It was with some trepidation that we decided to opt in for the “American family” half of that exchange. We had heard and considered every warning:

You’re basically adopting another child.

Do you really want an extra person living in your house, all the time? Won’t you miss your privacy?

My friend’s last au pair was such a nightmare. Seriously, she [crashed the car] [got pregnant] [left the kids alone for hours] [ran off with Ben Affleck].

Undaunted, I must have read fifty profiles of young women describing their child care experience, driving ability, and reasons for wanting to come thousands of miles to care for strangers’ children. I came back to yours, again and again.

I kept your profile on hold in my “Favorites” as long as I could. We were vacationing at Bethany Beach over July 4th when I squeezed the kids onto my lap for our Skype interview. There was something about you that drew me in from the start. Even with a year of data from which to sum it up, I still can’t. In fact, though my work and personal pursuits both involve harnessing words into service, I don’t know how to put words to the mark you left on our family.

So, for now – since I still cry once a day since our parting at Dulles – maybe that blurb from the State Department is as good a launching pad as any to take the measure of the past year.

…”a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity…”

As it is, America does a pretty bang up job of exporting our culture. We didn’t need to educate you about Taylor Swift (though the life-size cutout in our dining room did merit an explanation), or Jon Stewart, or the Obama kids. You arrived with a fully-formed crush on Mark Ronson, so one half of the exchange had a clear head start. A few months ago, we had a complete meeting of the minds as we dissected the Ariana Grande donut-licking incident, using it as a springboard for discussion with Devan about fame, entitlement, respect, and just plain tackiness.

I suspect your American education emerged more from the pieces that underscore our enduring struggle. If nothing else, I know you left with a different understanding that America is a study in contrasts, and very much a work in progress.

The exchange I didn’t expect, though, was viewing my country through a visitor’s eyes for a full year. And though you never asked me to, I can’t explain the chronic homelessness we allow to persist, particularly among the mentally ill, like the woman who accosted you with racial epithets at Z Burger. I can’t explain why we tolerate gun violence and mass shootings as a fact of life. I can’t explain how the same polity that celebrated the extension of full marriage rights to all co-exists with the Westboro Baptist Church, or Kim Davis and her jumpers. I certainly can’t explain Donald Trump.

What I’m most at a loss to explain is the shabby treatment that some of your au pair compatriots endured. I will never understand why people mistreat the person to whom they entrust the care of their children. On behalf of my city, my country, and decent people everywhere, I apologize for that host family who ate their au pair’s birthday cake that she had baked, by herself, to share with her friends. Or the family who kept threatening to withhold their au pair’s modest weekly pay. It’s bad enough these people procreated. I’m so sorry they disrespected your friends.

I will admit I indulged in the occasional schadenfreude, such as the host family with four kids, ages 5 to 11, all still in Pull-Up’s.

Like I said, I can’t explain.

As for your part of the bargain, you taught us to appreciate the basic efficiencies and security of American life. The kids shuddered at your description of the daily load-shedding in South Africa, when a nation’s progress is literally stunted as the electricity goes out for an unknown period because the government and its utility operators can’t or won’t construct a 21st century grid.

Your biggest surprise about America was that many people, even in the big cities, don’t lock their doors. In the last few weeks, we talked about your goal of bringing attention to the scourge of sexual violence against young girls in South Africa, which routinely goes un-prosecuted.

On a much brighter note, you shared some awesome exports as well. We will forever be grateful that you introduced us to Suzelle DIY, the South African Lucille Ball of YouTube. Just a few hours ago, Devan and Kian watched her new release, a tribute to Biltong Day. I may yet dress as Suzelle for Halloween and enjoy baffling the neighbors. Thanks to Spotify, from the first night you arrived we all listened to Mi Casa, a soul/house band out of Johannesburg. The Meerlust pinot noir your parents brought us put the best of Sonoma or the Willamette Valley to shame. And I promise you, one day we will join you at your home for a “Bring and Brai,”

“Participants can continue their education…”

You came to us a highly educated and accomplished journalist. Your English was perfect. I doubt that the art seminar (really, an extended tour of D.C. museums) that you took to fulfill your credits was a formative educational experience. Indeed, it’s a shame you couldn’t have checked this required box by teaching classes yourself. I would certainly pay to be in your photography class, and you are a true talent at graphic design, writing, and teaching two weary forty-something’s remedial computer technology.

But you spent your time wisely, and if I had to guess, your favorite classrooms were New Orleans, and Chicago, and New York, and the Rocky Mountains. It was an honor to visit some of those places with you.

Finally, there is that matter of “reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.”

To be perfectly honest, as a caregiver you were not exactly out of central casting. No one would put a guitar in your hands and leave you with the seven kids of a widowed Austrian naval officer, or expect you to descend by umbrella onto a London stoop. But that’s part of what I loved about you: your wry and knowing, but slightly biting, wit; your understated style and cool head.

From day one, when Devan would turn it up to 11, you delivered these deadpan zingers she had no idea how to respond to: “Devan, don’t mess with my stress.” Or: “Just chill, woman – I’m getting to it.” Or: “Devan, no one needs your backchat.” I loved them all.

As best I could, I had warned you that she would be your challenge, and that Kian would be his easy-going, Matchbox-obsessed self. It played out in just that way.

Toward the end of the summer, I could see your frustration level rise and a sense of defeat setting in. I understood the former, but didn’t grasp the latter until my own mother (an Este fan from the jump) said of you, “I think she thought she could make a change in Devan.”

My dear friend, I wish you’d told me so. I should have figured as much when I found such earnest efforts as “Devan’s ‘I Will Not Overreact’ Contract,” drafted by you and executed in her 8 year old hand. I’m sure it was breached before the ink was dry.

Had I known, I would have marched you to the bookcase in our guest room, where an entire shelf is filled with titles such as: Positive Discipline; Parenting The Spirited Child; How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; Is It a Big Problem or a Little Problem?; and, my personal favorite, an oldie penned in a more honest age, The Difficult Child.

A few of them are dog-eared, but for the most part, I skimmed the index or table of contents and found nothing approaching the phenomenon that is my daughter. Amit and I have been at this for eight years. I’d like to think we are pretty smart people, but here we are, with a spirited, difficult, witty, Suzelle-quoting, guitar-playing, Whip and NaeNae-ing girl who excels in having fun, does well in school, and still struggles with self-control. I once told you that parenting a child like Devan is mostly about hanging in there, and embracing the daily triumph of hope over experience. You need to believe me.

In the end, you did your best, every day, on behalf of the two most important beings in our world. That is all we ever could have asked.

So, thank you. Thank you for feeding and clothing them, and for delivering them safely to where they needed to be, and for bathing and reading to them. Thank you for loving them, and us. Thank you for bearing quiet and forgiving witness to every last detail of my working “mum” existence.

And while you’re quite smart about most things, you got one thing wrong. You changed her, and our family, for the better.

I’m still not certain you were meant to be an au pair. But there is no doubt you were meant to be part of us.


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