The stranger who left as a sister and daughter

We waited at the bottom of the bus's steps for our girl's name to be called. It was an August night, and the stars lit up the blackness in the high school parking lot. The diesel engine roared as Brazilians, Germans, and Spaniards stepped onto the pavement and looked around. Each stood alone for a few moments until a family emerged from the crowd.

Then, a young woman appeared in a yellow slicker with straight brown hair, clutching her satchel and smiling. "This is Corine from Geneva, Switzerland," the American Field Service (AFS) International host called out. "That's us," I said. I grabbed my mom's hand, and our family pushed to the front. Corine slowly pronounced each of our names and we huddled together, making small talk.

It was a dream come true for me. Ever since I'd visited friends hosting AFS students and had felt what it was like to have a sister at home again, I'd wanted an AFS "sister" to live at our house. The problem was, my parents didn't agree, at first. "I don't want a stranger living in our house for a year," Dad had said. "We're too busy at the Dairy Queen to host a foreign student," Mom said. But I was 16 and didn't want to give up. I begged until they gave in.

That first week with Corine, everything was part of an explanation. What we ate, when we ate. We'd ask, "What do you like to eat, Corine?

"Everything."

"We're Presbyterian. Do you go to church?"

"On holidays."

"The school bus comes at 7 a.m. and the return trip isn't until dinnertime, if you stay for sports practice."

"At home, my moped got me home in minutes."

Mom and Dad decided we needed a summer vacation that year, even though it was busy season at their business. "Let's show Corine our beautiful northern Minnesota," they said. Every chance we had to share a tidbit of our lives with Corine was a new adventure. We rented a cabin and fished, boated, and listened to the call of the loon. ("Our state bird, Corine.")

Corine began to open up and told us about family life in an apartment, and about her need to study chemistry, physics, and calculus each night to keep up with her Swiss classes back home. How her brother, Rene, liked to tease her the way her new American brothers did. How she'd learned to drive and liked to drive fast around the French countryside.

Living with a French speaker felt like having a cozy part of Europe right in our home. My French improved. Corine pointed out the many French references in American cuisine: French toast, French fries, French-cut green beans. "Why is this French?" she'd always ask. I didn't always know the answer, but her questions opened up the world to us both.

In hindsight, I see how many flaws there could have been during that year, 1975. We heard tales of less-ideal host situations. But Corine fit into our family like a sixth child.

When I began fall tennis practice, she joined the volleyball team and taught her new teammates how to serve underhand. In the winter, she used her gymnastics poise and grace to uplift the high school team. In the spring, she tried track and field. She also skied, played soccer, and rode Ross's skateboard. She wasn't afraid to try anything.

My parents beamed while they sat in the bleachers, cheering on this stranger who'd captured their hearts.

A year later, we stood in another parking lot saying good-bye. We had overslept. Dad had driven 80 m.p.h., faster than I knew our station wagon could go, to get there on time. We hugged and kissed but could force few words past the lumps in our throats. Corine got on the bus wearing her new jeans (one of many new pairs) and the red-and-white checkered shirt Mom had sewn for her going-away present.

I heard the woman standing next to me say, "Look at that poor girl sobbing."

I looked, and it was Corine. I turned to nudge my Dad, and he was crying, too. The stranger who'd arrived in August had become sister and daughter without our realizing it.

Now, 26 years later, Corine and my family have been back and forth across the Atlantic many times to visit each other. In her last e-mail, she asked, "Would you ever want to exchange our kids for a few weeks?" Another generation of exchange students may live in my home, only this time I'll call them my niece and nephew.

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