Who Took You IN?

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.

11 comments

  1. Adriana: Me hicistes llorar. Gracias por este bello escrito, Dios me premio cuando vine con mis padres y mi hermana en ’61; sin embargo tengo muchas amigas Peter Pan y siempre las he comprendido y admirado mucho.
    Un Beso
    Dulcita

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    1. Gracias, Dulcita. Tengo muchas amigas como tu que pudieron venir con sus padres. No por eso se les hizo el exilio fácil ya que empezar de nuevo a la edad de nuestros padres no fue fácil ni para ellos ni para los padres de los Pedro Pans y todo el mundo pasó muchas necesidades. Gracias por tu comprensión y tu apoyo en este blog que acaba de empezar. Un fuerte abrazo.

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  2. Yolanda: Everyone should have at least once in a lifetime a friendship like yours and Linda’s. Needless to say, my eyes welled up as I read the story.

    I also lived in La Vibora and attended Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. My memories of Cuba and my arrival in the U.S. are not as clear as other Pedro Pans, probably because I was 10 years old and I may have unconciously blocked some of it. However, after reading the stories on the Pedro Pan network of the Miami Herald and conversing with other Pedro Pans, I have recaptured some of the memories. It is surely bittersweet.

    Stay well and best wishes.

    PS. In error, I posted this message on another subject. If possible, please delete from that one.

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  3. I was sent to Chicago on Dec 17, 1961, approximately 2 weeks after my arrival as a Pedro Pan in Florida City. We were the first group of Pedro Pans sent to that city. We were all very quiet, anxious about who are foster parents or schools were going to be. I was sent to Winnetka, Ill, where I lived with the family of Peter J. Brennan, a lawyer, like my dad, and his wife, Kathleen McNaulty Brennan, and their 4 children, Mary Beth, Peter, Kathy and Jimmy Brennan. My years with them were wonderful. Katie and Peter Brennan were very nice to me, devout catholics. I was sent to Katie’s alma mater, Marywood Highschool, sisters of Providence, an all girls school. I was very fortunate to have lived with these wonderful people. I stayed in touch, both Peter and Katie passed away…they got different kinds of cancer, but I stayed in touch with them till the end.

    They provided the “oasis of love and kindness” that I needed while living in the US waiting for my family to arrive.

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  4. Wow, kindness like that is so beautiful. I don’t think anyone can understand how much a moment of kindness can me to a kid. I love your blog!

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  5. My dear Tocaya: Just got into your blog and began with the first at the bottom and then to the last one at the top. Both filled me with much emotion and I am writing to tell you even before I read the other entries – which I look forward to doing very soon.
    It is lovely to keep filling in the blanks in our life stories, as our friendship began a bit late time wise, although I keep feeling I’ve known you all along.
    In my story the angel family were the Kings: Jewel, Carl and their 5 children, Raymond, Carla, Rusty, Eddy and Cathy. We had met them during our stay in Florida City camp and they began to take us out on weekends and holidays. Because they were protestant they did not qualify to become Foster parents with the Catholic Welfare Bureau, so we went to a Catholic Foster home in New Mexico. It was the Kings who took in my parents after they arrived from Cuba, along with my brother and me, into their three-bedroom house in Gainesville, where they sheltered and fed us and helped us get started in this country.
    Our two families remained close for years. After Mamma and Daddy King died in their 60s, their kids stayed in touch. Although Carla was much younger than I was, we became good friends in later years. We married on the same date and each had a son on the same day of the month a few years apart. I was the only person she wanted with her when this son was lowered into a grave after being killed in a car accident at the age of 18. Carla died two years later, much too young, of a brain tumor from metastasis breast cancer. I was there during her last moments. We had enjoyed planning for her to come to SC for a trip to the mountains, but sadly it could not happen.
    I remember that during our first days with the Kings I thought it very odd when once in a while Mamma King said to me, “I love you.” After all, we had just met. A lifetime later I know perfectly well how it is possible to love a stranger when our hearts connect through compassion and caring, when we understand that we need one another because we humans are vulnerable in the same ways, no matter where we are born, what language we speak, what colors we are. When we reach out with loving humandkindness we find what is good and holy in one another. These families that welcomed us exemplify what is best in people. Grace and love ensues from their humanity. Looking forward to reading more stories, your tocaya, Yoli

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    1. Yoli, thank you for your beautiful story. It occurs to me that both of us had the opportunity to one day become angels in the lives of those who had been ours. Ditto to everything else.
      For those of you who don’t know, a Tocaya in our country is anyone who shares the same name. This Tocaya and I share much more than that.

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  6. To do justice to the kindness and generosity of the three families that took me in I would have to write many pages, but here I must be brief. After a week’s stay with relatives who were already in Miami, I went to the Alberto and Ofelia Villamil home in Coral Gables. Ofelia, the oldest of their three children, was one of my best friends, had been my classmate and neighbor in Cuba, and it was thanks to her parents offer to my parents that they would take care of me, that my parents felt confident in sending me alone to the United States. Ofe’s family had left Cuba exactly one year before I did, and they were still struggling to establish themselves in this country and had welcomed into their home one of Ofe’s aunts and her three daughters. The Villamils enrolled me in St. Theresa School in Coral Gables, and they offered to keep me with them for as long as I needed to. Just before school started I found out that I had been accepted at Ursuline Academy in Dallas, Texas, so I went there as a boarder and started in the eighth grade. The boarding school closed the next year. William and Jane Bret, from Dallas, who had four children younger than me, invited me to stay with them so that I could continue my Ursuline education. I stayed with the Bret family during my four years of high school, even though my parents arrived in Miami in the summer between my junior and senior year. I feel immensely fortunate and am forever grateful for the love and care that I received from the Villamil family, the Cuban family that first took me in; for my Ursuline family: the nuns, lay teachers and schoolmates; and for the Bret family, my American family who had me for so many years as one of their own.

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  7. Elena, thanks for sharing your story. I think so many of us owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped us stay safe in this country. I know we thank them privately but it’s wonderful to speak about their goodness and generosity.

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