Part 1: June-July, 1982 and 1983
Starting in the summer after 8th grade, I was part of a student interchange program from CISV International. (“CISV was founded in the belief that peace is possible through building friendship and mutual understanding, starting with children.”)
In 1982, a delegation of about a dozen German kids from the Frankfurt area came to America and stayed for a month in the homes of about a dozen Knoxville-area kids. The following year, we Americans went to stay with our interchange partners in their homes for a month. The idea was that the hosting families would both participate in large group activities as well as take their interchange student around the country for cultural enrichment. To give you an idea of how busy they kept us kids for an entire month, here’s the actual schedule from our time in Germany.
My partner’s name was Tina, and we got along famously. The time I spent with her over those two summers, but especially the month in which I lived as a part of her family in Germany, was more impactful on my life than I can express. It deepened my love of Germany and it cemented my love of learning about other cultures and other places, outside of my home. The whole experience was a huge core memory that is made up of mini-core memories, all of which I have carried in my heart ever since.
Tina’s family, all five of them, came to Knoxville for a little visit in the summer of 1984, and other than my mom sending holiday cards to them for a few years after that, I lost touch with them completely. I have thought about them a lot over the years, wondering what ever happened to Tina, but they have a common last name so the task of finding them was close to impossible.
Part 2: October 29, 2023
Jim and I were in Germany, on vacation. On this trip we were spending a day and a half in the Frankfurt area, and I wanted to drive over to Tina’s house, to show him where I had stayed for that amazing summer experience. He pulled up in front of the house and I got out of the car to look at the mailbox. Tina’s last name was still on it. Her parents still lived there!
I turned to Jim and said, “Cool, okay, let’s go!” He looked at me and asked me, “Aren’t you going to ring the bell??” I shook my head. I didn’t want to put Tina’s parents on the spot. While the Germany interchange was my only CISV experience, all three of their children worked with CISV a couple of times. I wasn’t sure if they’d remember me, and I didn’t want to cause any awkwardness or fear, especially with a woman in her late seventies or early eighties, who was basically a total stranger at this point. Jim said, “Come on, you came all this way. You should ring the bell.” So I did.
Nobody was home. I was a little relieved but also sad. I got back into the car and we drove away, to the old part of the town so I could check that out. Then I exclaimed, “Wait. I should leave a note. Let’s go back!” I dug out a white paper bag that held some postcards I had purchased the day before (the only blank scrap of paper in the car) and a pen. I wrote a quick note identifying myself and describing how I had lived there for a month in 1983 as a part of a CISV interchange and that I was looking for Tina and her family, that I had stopped by with my husband in hopes of saying hello. I put my phone number and email address on the note, and we drove back to the house so I could deposit it in the mailbox.
Part 3: October 30, 2023
I was checking my email constantly while we were making our way around Frankfurt the next morning. Maybe they didn’t check their mailbox in the morning? Maybe my note got stuck at the bottom of the mailbox and she’d never know it was there?
Around 10:30 in the morning, I got the email. It was from Tina’s mom. She was sorry she missed us when we came by…but were we still in the area? She’d love to see what was possible for a meetup. She told me that Tina was living about thirty minutes west of her now, and sent me Tina’s phone number.
I emailed back immediately and told her that we’d be happy to cut our day in Frankfurt short to come back to the house, but we had to be on our way to our friends’ house nearly two hours away later that afternoon. I didn’t hear back from her in time. When we got on the road, I emailed her again: it had occurred to me that we could stop by her house again a couple of days later, right before taking our rental car back to the Frankfurt airport. Would she be home?
She emailed me back that yes, she would be home and would love if we would come back. I texted Tina (and then emailed her when she sent me that information), and she said she’d be at her mom’s house to see us, too! This was all so surreal to me, but I couldn’t wait.
Part 4: November 2, 2023
I wanted to stop and buy Tina and her mom flowers. I remembered that some of the German grocery stores have flowers much like American grocery stores do; however the one I chose and navigated to had the tiniest, saddest looking bouquets. Those weren’t good enough. I Googled “florist near me” and found one that wasn’t closing for another hour. When we walked up to the storefront it just seemed like the perfect little shop, for no reason I can explain. The florist asked (in German) if she could help us, and the strangest thing happened. While I can understand German very well, I don’t feel confident speaking it to natives. So on this trip I could get us by with the basics but I wasn’t really having conversations.
But after the florist spoke to me, I cut loose, I spoke more German to that lovely woman than I had in the entire trip. I told her how much I wanted to spend. I told her who the flowers were for. I told her that we first went to a grocery store and those flowers were awful. The first thing I had said to her was that I only speak a little German, but while I was talking she interrupted me and said that my German was pretty good. It was a magical moment in which I felt carried away with this whole situation. And the flowers were gorgeous.
On the way to Tina’s mom’s house I was feeling scared, nervous, emotional, and excited. I couldn’t wait to enter that house again, for the first time in forty years. I rang the bell on the gate and they buzzed us into the front yard. When we approached the front door, which was mostly glass, I saw Tina doubling over, laughing. I don’t know what was going on in her head but I imagine the surreal nature of our reunion was the cause of her giggles. She let us in and hugged me, and then I saw and hugged her mom. I was crying; her mom was crying. Her mom gives huge hugs, wrapping you up in her arms and then quickly patting your shoulders up and down multiple times with both hands, and then doing a little dance before releasing the hug. It all came back to me: she had the same hugging style as decades before. Tina’s laugh was the same. We were all in a little disbelief, but happily so.
Tina’s dad, a lovely and kind man, passed away last year. I was sad to learn that news, and shared news of my own dad’s passing with them.
Jim and I spent two hours with Tina, her mom, and Tina’s husband. I showed them pictures and caught them up. They caught me up on Tina’s brother and sister, and I learned about her children. Tina’s mom made us a wonderful meal to enjoy, and there was wine.
Tina was amazed at all I remembered from our time together. She didn’t have all of the same memories, which didn’t surprise me, and I wasn’t insulted that she didn’t at all remember some of the things I mentioned. As humans we are all unique and we all take away different things from our life experiences. I think about this all the time. Tina reminded me of some elements of her American stay that I had forgotten all about.
While we were sitting around that dining room table, I reached out and touched Tina’s mom’s arm as I addressed the two of them. “I’m just so happy,” I said, “that I can thank you in person for providing such a wonderful and formative experience in my life. You have no idea how much my time with you meant to me.”
More tears, and a strange feeling of relief/big exhale on my part, one that I didn’t ever realized I needed. Thanking these important people from my past, in the setting where so much of it took place, was a huge Life Moment for me. I try to live my life with gratitude as much as I can, and this was a lottery-winning type of milestone in that department. More tears from me. Her mom, too. She grabbed my hand and said (not for the first time that evening), “I want to thank you for being brave and leaving me your note.”
All too soon, our time was over and Jim and I had to take the rental car back. He took some pictures, there were more hugs, and we were on our way.
I felt great. I felt warm and fuzzy. I felt like my being able to thank them was a sort of “open closure” on that CISV experience. I don’t anticipate that Tina and I will suddenly become besties; after all, we’re strangers who just shared a couple months of fun in our formative years. But they remain important people in my life.
In fact, I wrote them a thank you letter as a part of my “50 for 50” thank you project five years ago, and now that I have confirmed home addresses I can actually send them a copy of it. I’ll be sending them annual holiday cards too, and keeping in touch via email here and there. I’ll definitely be thinking of them more often as the people they are now, instead of the people they once were, even though their core personalities (or their laugh or hug styles) haven’t changed a bit.
Let me end with this: think back over your lifetime to the people who impacted you in important-to-you ways. Consider finding them, even if you’ve completely lost touch. Find a way to thank them. Tell them what they meant/mean to you. There are no losers in this situation, only winners. If you think you won’t be able to find them, try anyway. Put yourself out there and if you’re scared, lean on someone who will support you (thanks, Jim).
The 40-plus-year arc on my story with Tina will continue to blow my mind for years to come. I’m so glad to have made the decision to choose bravery.