On Wednesday, June 5, at 12:45pm, a group of 51 new Peace Corp Trainees landed at Chișinău airport to a great deal of noise and fanfare on the part of the M27s who were perched on the roof to greet them. I was surprised to see and feel the giddy anticipation, which quickly morphed into unbridled emotion (tears and all), this particular event evoked within us now 1-year-old volunteers. It was an electric tingling of excitement mingled with sentimental hope for the newcomers, sprinkled with a sense of awe, self-confidence and pride at how distant that moment seems last June when we landed on the exact same tarmac, google-eyed and weary. Life feels so different now. So normal. Routine. We have made it. And most of them will, too.
I stood outside the the terminal exit along with the other mentors and watched as each one of them emerged, wheeling a cart with all their baggage for their next 27 months, and witnessed the play of emotions dance across their tired faces. I experienced it all again – the fear, the exhaustion, the confusion, the gut-churning anxiety that accompanied my first glimpse of my new home. Accompanying them on the bus back to Chișinău, I noted how some of them couldn’t stop asking questions while others seemed steeped in silence, deep in a world of their own. Watching them interact with Peace Corps staff and other mentors at hub site during a quick pizza lunch, I witnessed some of them flit about the room like newly hatched butterflies, while others looked as if they’d like to crawl back into a cocoon. And I knew all of these observations were no indication of how they would develop as volunteers. You just never can tell….
The following Friday, June 7th, was our actual anniversary date and our entire Stauceni class – minus Jan and Leslie, who ET’d (Early Termination) back in October, and Quinn, who was conducting a summer camp – gathered at Robyn’s house in a village near the Romanian border to celebrate. I took a train with Georgie directly from my village to Robyn’s raion center – a 10 minute bus ride from her village – for 9 lei. (That’s less than 75 cents American, folks.) It was fantastic. We got to sit on benches at a graceful distance from our fellow riders, no armpits in our noses and with an actual open window blowing fresh air on our faces (which helped dispel some of the noxious fumes from the 6 boxes of live chickens in the back of the compartment.)
Robyn is one of the most thoroughly integrated volunteers I know. She lives in a small village where she never hears English, which has brought her Romanian to beautifully articulated fluency. She is surrounded by Moldovan neighbors, friends and work partners – there is not an American to be found within at least 50-60 kilometers. And this is just fine with her. She has a large garden, fruit and nut trees, a cat, and a four room house complete with modern bathroom all to herself. The view from her front porch is one of the most glorious I’ve come across in Moldova. This is a dream come true for her – the exact kind of experience she wanted from her Peace Corps service. She is pretty sure that she will be extending for a third year.
And, as I have said over and over again in this blog, everyone’s Peace Corps experience in unique. Last summer there were four very smart, accomplished, and vibrant M26s who ET’d, much to our newbie perplexity. We were just entering and they were bowing out – early – even though they all seemed happy and satisfied with the work they had accomplished during the previous year.
And now I believe I better understand why.
Patty, my “PC daughter” (she calls me “mama”) decided some time ago that she had reached the natural termination of her Peace Corps service. Though it did not happen to coincide with her scheduled COS (Close of Service) date, she felt that she had done everything she had set forth to do in joining the Peace Corps and the time had come for her to move on. So our one year anniversary celebration doubled as poignant farewell to a much beloved member of our little family.
Patty stayed with me for her last four days in country and we spent a number of hours together reflecting on Peace Corps, its ups and downs, rewards and challenge, and, especially, the clarity it (sometimes unwelcomingly) forces upon you in relation to your own character and vulnerabilities. As badly as a part of me wanted to equate my experience to hers, to remind her of the depression and hopelessness I had felt just a few short months before, of how many times I had contemplated ET’ing and how glad I was now that I hadn’t, I stopped myself. I am not Patty’s mother. We are Peace Corps Volunteers, together but different, each walking a very personal path.
For me, her recent departure has become an interesting exercise in self-awareness, revealing more layers of my former personae – the one that had accreted over 27 years of motherhood, flavored by elements of paternal influence that generate my propensity to take control –which I am still shedding here in Moldova. Patty is just 5 weeks younger than Rhiannon, my only child. They share many similarities – sparkling intelligence, a snarky wittiness, big dreams, and a passion for travel coupled with a firm desire not to spend their youth caged in a cubicled-world – that drive them both to keep seeking that proverbial place of contentment, somewhere over the rainbow, of which they have yet to catch a glimpse.
One of the most liberating aspects of my Peace Corps journey has been the opportunity to form peer-relationships with people of my daughter’s generation, to be treated as just another friend, a fellow traveler on this journey, equal in most every way that counts here after all the roles and titles and social contexts of America have been left behind. Patty is good at halting me in my tracks when I stray off into mother role – giving too much advice or reminding her not to forget her purse or nagging her to go to the doctor, for example. Smart-ass comebacks that might sting coming from Rhiannon I receive like a refreshing splash of water to the face from her. Perhaps not even realizing it, she has held a mirror up to me, allowing me to see with clarity many of the reflexive aspects of my personality that I know annoy my daughter to no end. (Rhiannon, if you ever get to meet Patty, know that you owe her a soul debt. I think I can be a better mother to an adult daughter because of her.)
And so the cycle spins, cleansing me of much of the gray water that I toted along from America and that threatened to engulf me through those long, empty winter months. I have come full circle, weathering the spectrum of seasons, to arrive – finally – in a mental space where I could both greet the new trainees with confidence and joy and then, days later, accompany one of my very best friends on a 4am final journey to the airport and hold back tears as I said goodbye, knowing that the last American face she saw in Moldovan should be one of confidence and joy, also.
I’ll miss you Patty. But I believe in the choice you’ve made for yourself.
We wave hello and then goodbye and hold tightly to each others’ hands along the way.