Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Last night we got out the big box of various costume elements from the basement so that the boys could figure out what they were going to wear for Halloween. At their school the "Halloween Parade" is actually an All Saints' parade, so the children end up needing two costumes, as sadly none of them even consider for two seconds the idea of going trick or treating as St. Francis. Anastasia is set. The "St. Jane of Valois" costume she is wearing happily will double as a regular non-holy princess. (Or should I say that the non-holy princess costume can also double as a saintly princess costume?)

Among the boys there was some discontent that I was not planning on making a full-fledged visit to the Halloween store to purchase new costumes for all. Last year we did that, despite the fact that I insisted they spend their own money. I have the quaint belief that Halloween costumes should be creatively devised from items found around the home (an attitude that I apparently am not able to convincingly share).

This year I noticed that after I mentioned the words "your own money", they delved into the box. Sergei found a "scream" mask that would work, and a black robe; Zhen was thrilled (and I relieved) that Sergei's old Batman costume fits him perfectly. Maxim was happy with Aidan's old creepy hockey mask (from some horror movie I have never seen). But there was nothing much for Ilya. I had already had in the back of my mind that since this was his first Halloween, I might allow him a brand new costume. And this clinched it. So after supper we set out for Halloween USA and he promptly selected the skeleton costume. Of course immediately on arriving home, he tried it on. I was putting the school uniforms into the washer when I heard "Mam!" (His cute accented version of "Mom"). I turned and this is what I saw. Despite the full headgear provided by the costume, apparently Ilya did not feel fully dressed without his hat. I am immensely proud of myself that I never cracked a smile 'til he was out of my sight.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The first year we had Sergei, we told him all about Halloween and his eyes were big as saucers! Going from door to door to be given candy was just about the most amazing thing he'd heard about America. He obviously relished the idea because the next morning he came bursting into my room. At this time we were planning our adoption of Zhenya... Sergei said, "Oh, mom, I can't wait to tell Zhenya all about going up to the houses and saying "Chicken Feet!"

Monday, October 29, 2007


The main reason we were so anxious to adopt Ilya, of course, was so that he could be reunited with his sister, Anastasia. And in these last two years Anastasia certainly has shed tears many a time because she missed "my brothers". When I first met Ilya, for just those few seconds two years ago when we were on our way out of town with Anastasia, I could see in his eyes that he was attached to her, and devastated that she was "going to America". For all he knew he would never see her again.

Of course, when Ilya first arrived home, despite complete exhaustion from that long trip, I was alert to see them reunited. And, indeed, it was a very special moment when he first laid eyes on her - first the recognition, followed by amazement - she has grown astonishingly since he saw her.... Then a clumsy but affectionate hug - then the realization (on his part) that there were also all these new brothers standing there, watching him hug a girl.

A day or two after we arrived, I happened to catch him looking at her. Absolute amazement in his eyes. Well - she is proof of what nutrition can do! In two years, the tiny little sister grew to be as tall as he is. A day or two later, at bedtime, he said goodnight to everyone, then tiptoed into Anastasia's room where she slept and kissed her cheek.

Had I not actually seen that, I might not believe it, because in the ensuing weeks - voila! We have no longer the brother and sister of romantic fiction or dreamy idealism, rather a real life brother and sister, who fight, tease, and occasionally torment one another.

I'm glad I caught those glances and that little kiss. I think they were from the depths of his heart - a place rarely revealed by little boys. I will treasure them in the depths of my own.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I looked over in the middle of Mass and realized Ilya was wearing his hat. Oh, dear!

I've never really understood on any level why it is rude for men and boys to wear hats indoors, but really nice for women to. But, I do know that occasionally there is someone, usually an elderly person, who is really enthusiastic about this idea and on the look-out for miscreants.

Of course my Russian is not up to explaining, in a whisper, during Mass why the hat should be taken off and his bizarre hair revealed to a large crowd, so I shirked this motherly duty.

No one actually came over and grabbed it off his head, but I hope the word is not "out" around the parish about what disrespectful boys I have!

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Here is Ilya as we know him now. Always wearing "the hat". Since the episode with the haircut and the razor, Ilya has not been seen outside the house, anyway, without his hat. And, though you can't see it so well from this photo, the unique aspect of this particular hat is that it is worn high atop the head (to hide the offending shaved part) making Ilya look a little like Ghenkis Khan.
This is Ilya about to go into Natalya's house. Natalya is a lovely woman, the teacher in our Russian school, and she just happens to also run a daycare. I think there are no accidents. Surprisingly, it seems to me now that this change from going to school, to going to Natalya's was fortuitous.
I do not really understand why, but Ilya seemed to be learning almost nothing at school. I didn't expect him to learn about whales, or about the distributive/associative/commutative properties, but I did expect he'd be learning some basic English. It didn't seem to be happening. After 5 weeks - nothing. But after only a day or two at Natalya's house, out comes some English words - "home", "food", "bed", "car", "please", "thanks" etc.
Turns out that not only is Ilya blossoming under the sweet, nurturing care of Natalya, he is helping her with the "babies" and, in turn, learning their "baby vocabulary". Randy, Natalya's husband, said Ilya spends a lot of time talking to two year old girl. Undoubtedly she enjoys this attention, but it is also clear that Ilya is picking up English from her. I laugh to think how perfect this is for him! No pressure. No one to look askance, raise an eyebrow, scoff, etc. All of those things surely to be feared in a classroom of fourth graders, even nice ones.
So, though at first "the Hat" seemed to bode no good, now I recognize that I just need to relax and "put a hat" on my expectations. Of course Ilya will learn English - just in his own time. And his hair will grow back, too.

Friday, October 26, 2007


When Ilya first came to America he needed a haircut! When I mentioned this to him he made it clear he liked his bangs. "Oh, yes!" I promised; " We won't change your hair much - just make it a little shorter, so it is not in your eyes!." Little did I think how silly such promises are when you are trying to communicate with hairdressers - and husbands.

The day came when Ilya had a day off school, and Craig took him to get his hair cut. I do not really know if Craig did not sufficiently describe what haircut we wanted or if, as in the case of many hairdressers, the girl listened then did what haircut she could do....but when Ilya looked in the mirror he reacted in a way which we have come to recognize as severe distress. Without saying a thing, but carrying a load of energy with him, he strode in a straight no-nonsense line right out of that place. He landed a few kicks on the back of Craig's seat on the way home in the car, then, once home, strode up to the bathroom and locked the door.

There he decided to "fix" his hair [as some theorize] or, as I tend to believe, he chose to take control and hurt himself more than anyone else could hurt him. Apparently, he began by taking scissors hastily to the front of his hair. As they were too dull to do much, he then grabbed Craig's razor and SHAVED right across the front of his head where his bangs had been.

Craig called me in horror....apparently some slammed doors, etc. also ensued, as well as most of an afternoon with Ilya on the front porch with a coat over his head. Fortunately, by the time I got home, Ilya had sorted himself out. When he came in for dinner he was handling it all with good humor, making a bit of mock of himself. I was rather pleased that he had the ability to carry it off, frankly. Of course, it helped that he couldn't understand what were were saying about him. Craig's opinion is that he appeared to have had a lobotomy. It seemed to me that he had managed to make himself look quite a lot like a little monkey. The kids used words such as "dorky", "dumb" "imbecile", etc.

The next morning, when I went to wake him up, Ilya had considered a little more fully how difficult it would be to appear at school like this. He'd found a hat - the stocking cap that after over a week now seems to define Ilya - but I had to explain to him that hats are not allowed at school. And here is where I maybe erred on the "soft" side. Yes; he'd had a fit. He made a stupid choice. Still, I just couldn't see him making his first impression at a small Catholic School he must attend for the next five years looking like an imbecilic, lobotomized monkey!

So, I called Natalie, our Russian teacher, who runs a daycare, and asked if Ilya could spend the day with her. He has been with her for just over a week now.

And here is where I just have to believe that God works in mysterious ways. For some reason - because he is relaxed? because Natalia understands what he's going through? because he is learning "by doing" and not just a list of words? I don't know, but suddenly he is making some progress learning English! We really saw no progress at all during the four weeks he was at at school. So.....perhaps the haircut and its resulting trauma to all, was a blessing in disguise.

And the hair? My friend Alexei Kotchan, who does ministry work with the children in Shuya School orphanage wrote me to explain that among the older boys there, bangs represent their individuality. The longer the better (cooler), so by cutting his hair we took away from Ilya, quite unknowingly, the one thing that in Russia he'd felt he had control over...the thing that he felt allowed him "self-expression". Hence, I suppose, his need to take control back. And since he couldn't do it via long hair, he did it via short hair.

I wonder how he will process this. Hopefully he will learn not to be so rash. Perhaps that even without bangs, he is still himself - unique - Ilya. It will be interesting to see.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


How grateful I am for everyone's prayers. After one heck of a morning and afternoon, by yesterday evening things sorted themselves out a bit.

I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when into my line of vision crept Ilya. "Sorry" (very small). I said "I understand", and asked him for a hug - and received one....oh, so gratefully.

And I breathed a sigh of relief. When you don't know a child very well, and can't communicate with him very well, you have to throw yourself into God's arms. Please, Lord, please help me to handle this right!

Was Ilya being a defiant brat, just testing our authority over him? Or was he just about to crack under the strain of being cooperative while always struggling even to understand what was wanted of him? And, all the while, bereft of anything familiar, homesick, afraid, questioning this whole idea of "coming to America".

I always tend to err on the side of compassion. While this seems like a good thing, it can cross over into being too lenient, not providing the necessary boundaries, letting kids turn into selfish, thoughtless brats. I don't think any of mine are this far along, but I do worry that I am perhaps too soft-hearted.

I really think that if I'd tried to be more understanding and less authoritarian yesterday morning, it would have gone better. Later in the day Ilya tried to explain that he "hated English", that he'd never understand English - English! English! English! Well, he needs to learn English, but since he seems to be learning it [somewhat] painlessly as he helps our friend Natalya at her daycare, isn't that good enough?

This is the hard part about mothering for me. I struggle with too much compassion. I could have called this blog "Second Time Around" because this is in some sense my second chance to correct all previous child-rearing mistakes. But while one of my older children thinks I should have been stricter and demanded more, the other lauds me for my softness and compassion. So, I have to fall back on just trying to listen to the Holy Spirit's guidance within the moment....and so often second-guessing myself.

So, today, I gave Ilya lots of warning that his NEW tutor was coming (just coincidentally a second college student began today). Fortunately, Julia speaks Russian - well, pretty good Russian. She moved here as a child from Ukraine and understands what Ilya is going through. I prayed that Ilya would respond well, and gratefully listened to the laughter from the library. Apparently Julia's understanding and humor won him over. When they came out he was teasing her about her accent. Now, he's at Natalia's. So far, so good. When you adopt older children, for quite a while you really know what it means to take it just one day at a time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


What a great day to start a blog! I am certain that things can't go anywhere but up from here! My first helpful hint to adoptive parents: adopt them when they are small enough that you can pick them up! Or at least sit them down, or catch them....or physically control them in some way!

Our honeymoon with Ilya is officially over today, apparently. The counselor at school kindly and cleverly recruited tutors from among the students at the MSU Russian department to teach him English. Janna comes on Monday and Wednesday; Julia should start coming on Tuesday and Thursday. They meet with him in our building, which (thankfully) is empty at this hour of day except for me and mine. Well, today for some reason Ilya decides he will not work with Janna. Before I finally get him home, he has: attempted to lock me out of 1) my office, 2) my building, 3) the car. He has also run from me, imitated me, and scoffed at my Russian (well worth scoffing at - but still - more disrespect).

Now Ilya is at home, where Craig (up-til-now-understanding husband) and Maxim, our foster child, are both ill. I am sure this is just what was needed to brighten their day. Meanwhile I dread answering the phone, lest it herald more trouble on the homefront.

Second hint: Give your children sufficient "extras" that you have lots to remove as punishment. Ilya has a nice room to himself, but I haven't given him a lot of "toys" yet, as I didn't want to overwhelm him. Unfortunately, that left me with little to remove for punishment. He had Maxim's cassette player/radio in there, and I took it but other than that it was slim pickings. Good luck Craig! I'm here praying for you.

I really am. Fortunately, I trust in God to help us through this stage, however miserable it might be.