This past Christmas was a very special one for my family, for shortly before the holiday a new adoptive son arrived.
I had traveled deep inside Ukraine to find 5-year-old Anton in an orphanage in a village on the shores of the Black Sea. I visited him for nine days before officially adopting him. During that time, I became well acquainted with his daily routine, which was marked by its simplicity. First there was the waking, followed by group exercises, then breakfast, some rudimentary "lessons," and a prelunch walk around the property.
It was the walk that most engaged me, because it seemed to constitute the high point of the children's day. Since I was visiting in autumn, this activity involved the special bonus of windfalls of walnuts, which the children gathered up in paper baskets or cracked under their heels to get at the meat.
One of the rules of thumb about bringing adoptive children home is to keep things low-key for a while, to avoid overwhelming or overstimulating them. In this light, our home in Maine certainly seemed the perfect place to bring Anton back to: a small town set on a river, with plenty of woodland to boot, and miles from the nearest mall. I also knew how to get anywhere I needed to without driving past a McDonald's.
All went well for the first few weeks. I was delighted when Anton showed an affinity for books, giggling as he tore through their pages, sighing with repletion as he slapped them shut. We took walks along the river, visited the playground, and drank hot chocolate and munched cookies in the afternoon.
Christmas approached, and with it our annual trip to see family in New Jersey. I relished the opportunity to introduce Anton to his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. During a pretrip call, I had given them one caveat: Please keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible.
I was soon reminded that asking someone from New Jersey to keep things quiet is like asking the tide not to rise. No sooner had we arrived, than my family whisked us off to an Italian restaurant to celebrate the new family member.
The 15 of us took command of a center table, and within moments there appeared a salad big enough for Anton to do a backstroke in, as well as platters of penne pasta, pizza, and meatballs - plus pitchers and pitchers of Pepsi. A background din was supplied by nieces and nephews fighting over the breadsticks. I attempted one feeble request for quiet, for Anton's sake, but was interrupted by a plaintive cry to "Pass the calamari!"
I looked over at Anton, the littlest cousin, expecting to see a look of wide-eyed horror. Instead, he was chortling with joy as my 13-year-old nephew Mikey showed him how to shoot the paper cover off his straw.
Thinking the end of the meal represented the end of the celebrating, I began to thank my siblings. Big mistake. They were just warming up, and before I knew it they were hustling Anton and me into one of the vans.
"Remember," I pointed out with the calm precision of a schoolmaster, "keep it ..." - the door slammed shut - "... low-key," I whispered to myself.
Within the half hour, we were competing with crowds on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, ablaze with holiday lights. In rapid order there followed the Empire State Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Rockefeller Center.
When next I caught a glimpse of my son, he had a hot dog in one fist and a King Kong-size pretzel in the other. I again tried to thank my kin for their kindnesses, and then pointed to my watch to indicate Anton's bedtime. My family's response was to rush him into FAO Schwarz, the world's largest toy store.
The boy whose favorite activity in Ukraine had been playing with walnut shells was now face to face with an embarrassment of riches: mountains of stuffed teddies, a toy-car nook beyond the dreams of avarice, robot dogs that actually whimpered for affection, and Plexiglas columns of candy at $8 a pound. I was totally outgunned. When closing time arrived, I had to carry Anton out of the store kicking and screaming.
To make a long story short, we had traveled to New Jersey with three pieces of luggage, but we returned to Maine with 13. We did this in order to accommodate the talking books, electronic gadgetry, self-propelled racing-car track, hand-held computer games, and, yes, the whimpering robot dog. But the 10-hour drive back to Maine seemed to work some magic. Anton didn't say a word all along the way. He slept, or looked out the window, or played with his teddy bear.
Arriving home that evening, it took me a half hour to unload the car and find provisional room for all the gleanings. I then noticed that Anton was nowhere in sight. I called out to him. Nothing. I searched the downstairs rooms and then hurried upstairs.
There, on the floor, I found him sitting cross-legged. Scattered before him were his building blocks - unmarked, tossed-off pieces of pine I had accumulated from past projects. Instinctively, I got down on the floor with him and, without a word passing between us, we stacked.
A couple of weeks later, the robot dog has accumulated its first cobweb, and I sense there will be many more. But the blocks seem forever new and are, in their way, exactly what both of us needed.