My two families
My father huffed and puffed, my mother “ooh”ed and “ahh”ed, keeping her scrapes and scratches to herself. We filed in line, one village boy leading my father, my mother, me, followed by a second village boy as our guide. We traipsed through the rainforest on a barely worn and overgrown trail. We were bound for a hidden waterfall.
I was fortunate to have my parents visit me in Fiji. I was fortunate to have them visit me when I studied abroad in Rome. That was my father’s first trip out of the U.S. I am fortunate to have to parents who care so much about sharing my experiences.
Like many Volunteers, I became part of a host family. Both my American and Fijian families have three kids and two loving parents. Both struggle financially. Both have houses that are warm and open and welcoming. My Fijian father, whom we call Maku, once said that their house is one of the poorest in the village but is the one where people always stop. Maku’s house is where people go to wait for the bus, eat a meal, drink tea, shower, rest, or kerekere (Fijian system of ‘borrowing’).
Sometimes I ran away from breakfast on those Sunday mornings in Fiji with my family. The laughter, banter, reminiscing, kidding, and gossiping reminded me too strongly of my American family. My heart ripped open when I thought of Sunday mornings in our kitchen in America, watching the CBS Sunday Morning Show with Charles Osgood, my dad cooking pancakes or waffles or French toast with bacon or sausages, and my sisters and I teasing one another. My mom would chide us for something and we’d spend the rest of the day together doing chores or watching the Packers. Those days felt so sunny and warm and comforting. Those moments flew in and flew out of my life before I knew they were important.
Not that I did not appreciate Maku and Nana (my Fijian mother) and all the siblings, grandmothers, grandfathers, and cousins in Fiji. I love each one of them with every ounce of my being. I loved getting to know each of them and becoming a part of their family. I am bound to them, and they to I, forever. I am indebted to them for my survival and ability to work and become a part of my community.
But when my American parents visited me, I was wholly responsible for them. Today, I hang my head with shame that I did not do more for them while they were my guests. All the anxiety I felt about their visit and planning left me tired, nervous, flabbergasted by the collision of both worlds once they finally arrived. Despite my shortcomings, they persevered and integrated into my life and pushed their sleepy eyes and taste buds open as best they could. My two families, together.
My father was determined, more so than I think I have ever seen him. His leg gives him trouble and I know his physical condition was strained. But that Sunday, he was set on seeing the waterfall, and he pushed on through the forest and mud and mosquitoes. None of us were dressed for a hike, this being a Sunday after church, after all. Exceptions were made for their visit and we were able to be physically active after lunch.
We hiked on, at the mercy of our two tour guides. I was in a too short dress and my mom was clad in one of my Fijian outfits, a sulu jiaba which is an ankle length skirt and a long top. I was barefoot and my parents were wearing Keens, which failed in slippery spots. Yet we went to the waterfall, a clearing nestled deep within untouched forest, where the creek water was as cold as the snow in a Wisconsin December and the sun opened up its power onto our cool, sweaty skin.
We breathed it in, bathing ourselves in the hot and the cold, smiles on our faces.
In this way is Peace Corps so profound: my parents, two homebodies deeply entrenched in their small community, traveled 7,171 miles to a tropical island group, a group so small you have to squint to see the main island at the edge of the world because the rest of it is cut off of most maps. They went somewhere completely beyond any scope of their comfort, and they persevered. I have never seen the intensity of my father as I did that day, nor the sheer sense of accomplishment in both of their eyes. And pride, pride in themselves, pride in their daughter, and pride that they were fortunate to have that experience. All the petty teenage squabbles of my youth dissipated.
Peace Corps does not just touch the Volunteer or the community. It permeates in ways large and small, in our families’ lives and our friends’ lives. It brings together the most unlikely of coalitions, people with nothing more in common than a Peace Corps Volunteer and being part of humanity. It was only a hike, but it was a meeting of worlds and a sign of triumph.