After spending seven months in a foster home in Miami I was sent to boarding school in Santa Rosa, CA.
My flight arrived in San Francisco late at night and two nuns picked me up at the airport. They looked friendly and reminded me of the nuns who had last taught me in Havana. I was again in the care of Ursuline Sisters, for the third time in my life. I was now thousands of miles away from my country and my life in English had begun in earnest.
Every other weekend boarders were allowed to go home. Since I didn’t have a home, I always stayed in school in the company of other girls who sometimes chose to stay, preferring the company of their friends.
Then Thanksgiving came. It was my first Thanksgiving and I wasn’t familiar with the tradition, but I knew I would be the only girl alone over the Holiday. Just as despair was setting in, the principal called me to her office and told me that the PTA president, Anna Mae Thomas, had offered to take me home for Thanksgiving.
It was a magical Thanksgiving! The Thomases welcomed me into their very loving home without reservation. My classmate Linda, their daughter, became my best friend. For the next two years I spent every other weekend and vacation in their home. Rex and Anna Mae Thomas became Mamma and Pappa T and Linda and I became inseparable. Her sister Mary Ann (now Rovai) was already happily married and another lovely member of the family. I wore her persimmon colored dress to the junior prom and felt like a princess!
I loved Ursuline High School, the Thomases, and Linda. For a time they provided a much needed healing place. I began to look forward to our times together. Linda and I delighted in music, ice skating, and when she learned how to drive we delighted in driving around the town square “being seen” by cute boys. Twice we dated brothers- the Zuurs and the Hermansons. We always went on double dates regardless. At Christmastime the Thomases gave us each five dollars to buy a present for each other. Our junior year we bought each other identical hats and laughed wildly when we realized how alike we had become. We had become sisters.
I will never be able to thank Mamma and Pappa T enough for the love they gave this Cuban girl. They made me a part of their family forever. After I reunited with my parents, we continued our friendship through the years. Linda and I shared the joys of our marriages, and the birth of our children, from separate ends of the country. Our children met and for a while we prayed that her Tony and my Karen would end up together, but it was not to be. We grieved our divorces together partying too hard in Santa Rosa. We hurt and we healed together and we both found priceless men to share our lives with the second time around. Linda’s voice on the other side of the phone was like the sound of a spring when I was thirsty. I can’t think of one time when we disagreed in all those years. She was always there. Always steady. Beautiful and talented, she opened her own restaurant in Santa Rosa, The English Rose. She was beloved by all who knew her. Mamma T was always a soft place to fall. Pappa T’s laughing eyes and wonderful sense of humor warmed my heart. They kept my picture on their TV set with Linda’s and Mary Ann’s- always. I was their third girl.
Linda died after her breast cancer metastasized several years ago. I was able to spend time with her. I bathed her and took care of her for a few days and we had the last pajama party of our lives the night before I left. We reminisced, laughed and cried. We knew we would not be together again. Mamma T waited for her on the other side. We talked with each other every day after I went home until her words were unintelligible. But I know she was saying she loved me, because she always did.
The day after she died I stood in the back yard looking at my roses. It was a windless day, but I was suddenly caressed by a very real soft breeze that felt like Linda.
At that moment, I was overcome with gratitude for a family that took a Pedro Pan into their home and into their hearts when she needed a family the most. I will never forget their kindness and their love. They were a living example of the power of welcome and generosity.
Many of us have similar stories to share about American families that took us in and provided for us when we had nothing. They gave us the strength to continue our journey and delivered us safely back into the arms of our families. I dedicate this blog to them and to the Ursuline nuns who were terrific teachers and of whom I have nothing but good memories.