Aletha and Shamika – Our Caribbean Girls
It was 1998 and George called me from a payphone near the bar at Peg Leg’s restaurant in the Nanny Cay Marina. He was in Tortola, British Virgin Islands visiting some of our dear friends, Rick and Elaine. At this stage of their lives, Rick was the captain of Windward Haze and Elaine was the features editor at the St. Thomas Daily News. They were living on Hammonasset, their cement-hulled schooner. Yes, a boat made out of cement – somehow it floats and they sailed it all the way from Rhode Island!
I answered the phone. George and I exchanged our sweet nothings and then he said there was something he needed to tell me. His tone was sheepish. I could hear the voices and laughter of other patrons at the bar and I knew George was happy and having fun. I wasn’t alarmed, but felt some apprehension about what George was going to tell me.
It was a strange story and he began with the ending saying, “I agreed to let two young girls come and stay with us this summer.” With each sentence that stumbled over his tongue, I replied with things like…. “Are you kidding me?!!” and “WHAT????” and “Who are they?” and “How did this happen?!!” We had never met Aletha and Shamika. We did not know their family. For all I knew, they had never been away from home. Of course, I agreed. To George’s credit, it wasn’t his idea. And it’s possible that he was as perplexed as I was when it was proposed to him. But his reaction to the proposal was immediate and unequivocal. He said to our friend, Elaine, “Of course! I’m sure Kara would love it!” After he accepted the proposal, George met Jennifer (the girls’ mom and a colleague of Elaine’s) and the girls. As an afterthought, he decided to call me. So, that was that!
I remember standing at the gate in the Albany Airport with my identification. The girls traveled as unaccompanied minors and could only be released to me. They came through the gate looking stone-faced and scared. It occurred to me that the airport personnel might be suspicious of George and I. I imagined them thinking, Why aren’t these girls happy to see them? They are clearly strangers to them. What was the nature of this visit? But nobody batted an eye and off we went with Aletha and Shamika in tow.
I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. George and I tried to make small talk and help them to relax. George told jokes, tried to lift the heaviness from the air and I turned on my maternal charm. The girls were tired, so it was hard to lighten the mood. They both slept all the way back to Vermont. We woke them when we arrived at the house and gave them a tour, started talking about fun things we do and the plans we had made. They met Shawn, Erik and Weston and started smiling and showing some enthusiasm.
The boys encouraged Aletha and Shamika to come outside and gave them a tour of the property. They introduced the girls to the dogs and cats – Rosie, Rascal, Sassy, Shadow and Mr. Big. They showed them the good hiding spots, took them down to the river, into the cornfields and out to the freshly rolled hay bales. Inside the house, the boys showed off our books, toys, games, craft supplies, movies and video games. They showed them our second-hand, 30-year-old pull-out sofa that the boys thought was a miracle. “It opens into a bed!,” they exclaimed, as if it was magic!! Aletha and Shamika quickly relaxed and seemed happy. They were great girls – sweet, helpful, polite and lots of fun.
Aletha was an outstanding big sister. Since she was older than all the other children in our home, she eased into that role comfortably. She and Shawn were close in age and had similar personalities, so there was never any conflict between them. Aletha was serious and somewhat reserved. When she was more relaxed, she had a deep, belly laugh that was very infectious. She loved to play games and played with all her heart. When she was having fun, everybody knew it. During our first week together, she and I competed for authority over Shamika. Our styles were different and I was not comfortable with how strict and stern she was with Shamika. I wanted them both to be treated the same as our kids, so Aletha had to relinquish her authority (at least in my presence). That eased a lot of the tension and freed Aletha from a responsibility she took very seriously. She was mature for her age (12 or 13 years old) and was comfortable with adults. We had many great talks. Shawn even let her braid his short hair into cornrows while she was here. Aletha was also very loving toward Weston. She never hesitated to lend a helping hand around the house or with the other kids.
Shamika was a happy, friendly, energetic little girl. She had a great sense of humor and was very playful and uninhibited. She was very conscious of Aletha’s watchful eye and often looked at her for unspoken approval or disapproval. But when Aletha wasn’t watching, Shamika was a free-spirited, joyful child with a hint of mischief. She and Erik got along great. She was physically active, loved to run and easily kept up with all the boys. She loved the outdoors and seemed at home everywhere we went. Vermont was certainly different than Tortola but we never sensed any culture shock. Shamika seemed a little homesick a couple times, but nothing serious. Both girls adapted very well and felt like part of the family.
We went camping, swimming and hiking. We played UNO, Yahtzee and kickball. We went to a rodeo, played dress-up, roasted marshmallows and spent a week in a cabin in Merck Forest. We went to outdoor concerts and festivals and family fairs. Shawn and Erik had chicken fights against Aletha and Shamika in the lake. All the kids could swim for hours and much of the summer was spent in pools, rivers, lakes and ponds.
At some point we wondered when the girls were leaving. There was no plan. We kept asking, but the visit continued for quite a while before we learned that their mom was going to travel to Vermont to get them. Jennifer arrived with the youngest sister, Jessica. Jessica was a little older than Weston. Our friend Elaine came too. They cooked some delicious meals, in the evenings we sat out at the campfire, during the day the kids swam in a small pool on our deck. And then they left. But they didn’t return to Tortola. Nor did they return to their native island of Dominica. They stayed in the U.S. and settled in South Carolina and we realized it was all part of a bigger plan. The summer of 1998 – a great summer to remember!!