37 comments

Happy Sad Christmas

I received the email in June 2009. The subject line simply asked one question: “What do you think?” 


The email was from my wife, Jodi, so even though I was at work at the time, as a good husband should, I opened it immediately. As it turns out, it was actually a forwarded email with the picture of a young girl named Ania. She was just three weeks older than our own daughter, Kelsey, and she was looking for a host family as part of a high school foreign exchange program. 


The email explained a little about her, including personal details to help a prospective family decide if Ania would be a good fit. I immediately noticed she was from Poland and spoke English relatively well. I also noticed my gut reaction. No way! I was all for helping others, but this was a bridge too far. I was against hosting a foreign exchange student from the start.


Did I mention I am married? I protested and protested and protested, all the while knowing if I couldn’t talk my wife out of the idea, I was fighting a battle I was destined to lose. Less than a week later, it was decided. Ania would spend the school year in our home.  


In an effort to get ready for our guest-to-be, we turned the guest room into an actual guest room. We cleaned out the clutter in the closet and took out the junk that had accumulated in the room for no other reason than it fit. There was a dresser filled with stuff we weren’t even sure was ours, so we emptied that as well. In short, the guest room, now Ania’s room, became the cleanest room in the house.


On August 13th, 2009, my wife and daughter picked up Ania from the airport. I was, of course, at work. Their trip home from the airport lasted over an hour. Mine home from work was almost as long. Even though I had been against the idea from the start, I could not help being excited to meet the newest member of our family.


When I finally arrived home, to my chagrin, Ania and her jet lag were both fast asleep. I often wonder if she could hear our conversation from the living room as I asked my wife and daughter all about her. According to my wife, her English was very good, but you had to speak slowly for her to understand everything. This was a little concerning as I come from a long line of fast talkers. I’ve been known to talk so fast I can’t even understand myself.  


I also found out she had learned English almost exclusively from watching the television show Friends. Our family had long been Friends fans and those facts didn't seem like coincidence. As I learned more and more about her, my defensive walls came down and my hesitations slowly disappeared. Then as if on cue, this sweet young lady came down the stairs. I jumped up to greet her. 


To this day, before or since, I’ve never had someone stick their hand out so rigidly while offering me a handshake. I’m certain if she had a ten-foot pole with a fake hand on the end, she would have preferred to extend that. It was as if she wanted to be as far from me as possible when we shook hands. I, as you might expect, found this incredibly endearing and took a liking to her immediately.


The next month or so was spent getting to know each other, developing a routine, and introducing her to our town, our family, and our friends. She was with us the day she ate her first hot dog. We also allowed her to choose a new paint color for her room; she selected “Blushing Bride.” To call “Blushing Bride” pink is to deceive those who think they know pink. It is electric pink on steroids. Fortunately, we talked her out of painting a pig's face over her bed.


Little by little, Ania’s own defenses began to dissipate. One evening when I came home from work, my wife called me in the other room. In a whisper she said, “I got a hug.” I was both thrilled and jealous at the same time as we were all falling in love with Ania. I think it took the longest for her to trust me.


The most memorable part of my first hug was how unusual it was. As was part of Ania’s nightly routine, she got up from our living room couch and gave my wife and daughter a good night hug. She would then turn to me and say good night. But one night, she walked up the first three steps towards her room before she turned and came back down. No words were spoken; she just walked over to me, shrugged her shoulders and gave me a hug. The last piece of ice between us had melted.


My wife will tell you she knew all along it would be a good idea to have Ania spend a year with us. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was shocked at just how quickly she became part of our family. We took her to New York City to see Chicago on Broadway. We went to the top of the Empire State Building and took pictures of the New York skyline. We took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and bought hot dogs from a street vendor. We showed her Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the home where I grew up. We took her to visit my wife’s family in Louisiana and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. 


We tried to do as much as we could to show her all America had to offer while she was here, but more than anything, we gave her ourselves. In turn, she reciprocated in kind. We were there to dry her tears when she didn’t make the swim team. We comforted her when her romance with a local boy didn’t work out. We stood in for her own parents the night of her senior prom and took tons of pictures. We sang and laughed and played and hugged and cried with her.


Before we knew it, June came as we watched her walk across the stage to get her high school diploma. That day was bittersweet because we knew it meant the end of her year with us.  


It’s a funny thing about time. It goes slowly when you don’t want it to, and it flies when you wish it would stop. The last week or so she was with us was a blur. She was packing and making arrangements and spending time with friends she had made. We sat back and grew sadder by the day.


On June 27, 2010, we woke up and packed her things for her return trip to Poland. The Charlottesville Airport is just over an hour from our home, and we used the time in the car to reminisce about the fun times we had shared, making promises to visit each other. As good fortune would have it, her flight was delayed by more than two hours, an unexpected gift we would not waste. We went to eat one last time as a family. Using Ania’s laptop, we watched the last episode of Friends. From that moment on, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found anywhere.  


With our temporary reprieve expired, we made our way back to the airport and cried in unison as Ania boarded her plane. Soon, she was on her way back to Poland carrying with her a piece of our hearts. 


In the years since, she has visited us once while my daughter, Kelsey, spent three unforgettable weeks in Poland. Ania will be getting married in August 2022, and you can bet your bottom dollar we will be there to see her walk down the aisle. 


As for our guest room? It's been more than ten years, and the closet is, once again, filled with junk but to this day we still call it Ania’s room.


May 28, 2021 23:14

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37 comments

Thom Brodkin
23:20 May 28, 2021

For anyone reading, her name is pronounced Anya, like Tanya. :-)

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Julie Ward
14:20 Jun 01, 2021

This is such a lovely story, Thom. I does read like a fond memory, an invitation to walk down that famous lane. I agree with Kristin - Ania is lucky to have landed with your family. We had a girl from France stay with us for a summer when I was a sophomore in high school. She was also fifteen and it was an unforgettable experience! She came to us through our church and I thought she was a total wild child. She smoked all the time and wore all these crazy outfits. She loved shopping (which we did a lot) and she was totally boy crazy. S...

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Thom Brodkin
15:21 Jun 01, 2021

I think people way overuse the acronym lol but I really did with the "It ees zo OT" I lol'd again typing it. I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said I write my stories just for your feedback but it makes writing them a whole lot more fun. Now I am just a writing buddy from Virginia but if I were you I'd try and find her. It's so much easier today than ever and I'll bet she thinks about you often too. Thank you for always saying the right things. I'm glad to have you as a far away friend.

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Julie Ward
16:36 Jun 02, 2021

Thom! I took your suggestion and found her in short order on FB. We had a great conversation throughout the day yesterday and got all caught up! I've got miles burning a hole in my (virtual) pocket and she sometimes travels out my way, so we are hoping to get together IRL at some point. For now, I'm just super excited to be back in touch! See what you did there?

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Thom Brodkin
17:36 Jun 02, 2021

Julie, I am smiling from ear to ear. I am so glad you guys reconnected. For me staying in touch with Ania makes the world smaller in a good way. This is the greatest gift. Knowing my story made a difference. Thanks for letting me know the good news.

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Julie Ward
20:00 Jun 03, 2021

I could not agree more! You gave me just the push I needed to reach out - so thank YOU!

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Julie Ward
16:38 Jun 05, 2021

PS: I posted a story this week! It's one I wrote for another prompt that didn't post for some reason...but it fit with this week's theme, so I put it up! As always, I would love your feedback!

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Valerie June
01:44 May 30, 2021

Ouch. That last line hit home. Even though Ania might be gone, she'll always be right there in their hearts. Beautiful name by the way. "It’s a funny thing about time. It goes slowly when you don’t want it to, and it flies when you wish it would stop." Now isn't that the truth!

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Kristin Neubauer
15:00 May 29, 2021

I loved this, Thom. Thank you for sharing this important piece of your life with us. How lucky Ania was to wind up with your family and, by the sound of it, how lucky you were to find her as well. I always marvel at the families to take in a FES so completely. I was one myself in Mexico and the family could not have been more warm or welcoming. I thought the straightforward approach on this story worked well - it read so easily and I loved the description of Ania's first handshake. If you were ever to expand on this, I'd love to see so...

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Thom Brodkin
15:09 May 29, 2021

Kristen, that is so fantastic that you were an exchange student and that you had such a great experience. There were seven or eight students in the program the year we took Ania in. We got to know most of them and not all the experiences were as great as ours. I wrote this in a single sitting just relating my fondest memories. You are so right, though. There is much more depth and detail I could add. I may over the week before it is approved. Thank you for such a heartfelt and encouraging response. I know this is not a typical Reedsy ...

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Kristin Neubauer
15:44 May 29, 2021

You know, I think the beauty of Reedsy is in the freedom to experiment, to try more things and to just keep writing above all else. So the fact that you have done something out of the box is great and what it’s all about. Why do we write? Because we have something in us that needs to get out. And this week, this was your story that needed to come out and I’m so glad you went with it instead of limiting yourself to the box. Bravo!

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Iris Orona
17:29 Jun 21, 2021

Love this story...both Ania and your family are lucky to have had this experience!

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Thom Brodkin
17:30 Jun 21, 2021

You words are so kind. Thank you very much. And you are exactly right, we were blessed.

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Anna Mosqueda
20:17 Jun 05, 2021

Thom, this was adorable! I love how light-hearted the ending was. I thoroughly enjoyed this story! I saw in your bio that you said you were taking a break, and that's the deal with me too. I decided to take a break from writing because I have finals week coming up and I need to focus on studying. Needless to say, I will miss your stories until you write another one! As I always say, keep writing! Because if you stop, I think the world might just end. (Okay, that's a bit dramatic but you know what I mean :))

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Thom Brodkin
20:57 Jun 05, 2021

You are too sweet. Ditto you. You have stories to tell and I love reading them.

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Rayhan Hidayat
21:35 May 30, 2021

Wholesome, just so wholesome 🥲 I want to shed tears of joy, Thom. Slight rewording suggestion of the last line: change it to “It’s been more than ten years and the closet is full of junk again, but we still call it Ania’s room.” I think it hits harder that way.

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Thom Brodkin
22:51 May 30, 2021

Thanks so much Rayhan for the encouragement and the spot on edit. I’ve just changed it.

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Rayhan Hidayat
23:08 May 30, 2021

Awesome, I do think it’s better now!

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Jane Andrews
21:34 May 30, 2021

Hi Thom. Whether writing fiction or creative non-fiction like this piece, you always manage to be uplifting. This is such a simple story yet it's beautifully told and it reminds us all of the impact that we can have on others. It's so good to read that Anya is still a big part of your family's life now.

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Thom Brodkin
22:54 May 30, 2021

I’m so glad you stopped by. This was a great story to write because it allowed me to walk down a very pleasant memory lane. I was able to share the story with Ania and she really enjoyed it. Both her and her sister created Reedsy accounts just to like it. That was the sweetest thing. I’ll be by tonight or tomorrow to read your new story. I can’t wait. 😀

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Claire Lewis
00:51 May 30, 2021

Hi Thom! What a touching entry. It’s so clear how special Ania’s presence was and how close you all became after that year. Lovely, emotive writing as always. Well done :)

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Thom Brodkin
10:35 May 30, 2021

It was a story that wrote itself because it was just fond memories. I was able to share the story with her which made it even more special. Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

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Kristin Neubauer
15:01 May 29, 2021

Btw, I hope you didn't get hammered too hard by the storms last night. I saw it was pretty crazy in Fredericksburg!

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Thom Brodkin
15:11 May 29, 2021

We live just west of Fredericksburg and although it was stormy to say the least, we missed the worst of it. Thanks for checking. :-)

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Wirda Bibi
12:37 May 29, 2021

good written :)

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Thom Brodkin
13:08 May 29, 2021

Many thanks.

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Wirda Bibi
03:54 May 31, 2021

no problem :)

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Amel Parvez
11:08 May 29, 2021

BEAUTIFUL <3

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Thom Brodkin
12:05 May 29, 2021

Thank you so much!!

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Amel Parvez
14:11 May 29, 2021

No problem <3

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Freddy Iryss
03:03 Jun 09, 2021

What a lovely, relatable story!

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Francis Daisy
01:30 Jun 07, 2021

This part rang so true for me: "It’s a funny thing about time. It goes slowly when you don’t want it to, and it flies when you wish it would stop." Such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

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Kiran Bassi
04:21 Jun 06, 2021

Such a sweet read! Concise, smooth and flows well, with a great plot.

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Charlie Murphy
02:38 Jun 06, 2021

Great story! I like that Anya became a Friends fan

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Beth Connor
20:39 Jun 04, 2021

This is a beautiful story. There is a fondness in the writing, and it both tells a tale of welcoming a stranger into your home, and as a reader, I felt welcomed into the memory!

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Thom Brodkin
20:49 Jun 04, 2021

Thanks so much. Ania joined Reedsy just to like the story. That was a very special like.

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✨🍀🌸Once a bridesmaid,❄️🌟🌾 always a bridesmaid.🌻☁️☀️

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