I arrived at the home of Michele and Jim McMath knowing only that the couple had adopted two daughters from Russia. Before I could ring the bell, two coltish young girls threw open the door and immediately swept me into the excitable, innocent, shy, coy, infectious energy of female adolescence. This includes rigorous scrutiny-my earrings won approval-then they both pounced on my open notebook crying, "That is not how you spell Mama's name. There's only one L." I asked their names. Anastasia (11) and Alina (12) are not biological sisters, but they are often mistaken for twins. They are both lovely and captivating.
Michele came down the elegant curved staircase to join us in the marble foyer. She was smiling and at ease and invited me to come upstairs and wait while they finished their end of day grammar lesson. The girls are home schooled. Sitting apart, I could detect their accent, slightly more pronounced in Anastasia's speech. It made their excellent English sound musical.
When they joined me in the sitting area, Michele sat in a chair. Anastasia snuggled into her left side and Alina into her right side. They seemed an inseparable unit, linked by affection and physical touch. I quickly understood that the girls wanted to hear their "mama" tell their story. Each telling helps them understand who they are, where they came from, and who they belong to now. It is the birth story of a new family.
In the summer of 2009, Anastasia was one of ten children from Russia who were placed in host homes on Hilton Head. The other nine children were adopted. Anastasia returned to Russia. By chance, Michele was talking to a friend about the host program and saw a picture of Anastasia. She fell in love.
Michele says, "It took me about a week to ten days to talk my husband into adopting her. He has two grown boys. I accepted I wouldn't be a mother a long time ago. But there was something about this one." Michele's eyes tear up and Anastasia buries her head in her mama's stomach.
The adoption process was harrowing. The Russian children's home tried to block the adoption unless the McMaths agreed to adopt Anastasia's teenage brother. Jim and Michele traveled to Penza, Russia to see about another four-year-old girl, but by chance (or destiny) they saw Anastasia in a doorway. Michele was determined to fight for Anastasia. The Russian courts were persuaded by Anastasia to rule in favor of her adoption.
While Michele and Jim were in Penza working things out for Anastasia, Alina entered the picture. Michele turns to Alina and says, "Papa took one look at you and decided two is better than one. We needed to have you both."
Anastasia has been with Jim and Michele since September, 2010. Alina came the following summer of 2011. Michele laughs, "I tease that my younger one came first and nine months later my older one arrived."
Michele and both girls are crying and laughing and hugging. There are strong emotions and amazement at being together. I ask the girls about seeing their home for the first time. They are wide eyed, remembering and talk on top of each other, "I felt like a princess and this was a castle. It was like a fairy tale. It was so cool, I couldn't believe this is where I lived."
Gently, Michele reminds them how fortunate they all are. She feels deep gratitude and encourages it in the girls. She also makes it clear that, like all fairytales, there have been some dark forests and dragons to slay. She is in her mid-fifties and was used to her independence and free time. When Anastasia arrived, she lacked any discipline, sense of limits, or manners. She was a disinterested student and hated being told what to do. There were tears and tantrums. Alina was a conscientious student, but she was constantly being bullied at school. With a commitment that may have stunned her, Michele decided to home school.
She has created a learning environment and a set of values and expectations that are both firm and comforting for these girls. There are routines and rules. Their pretty room is immaculate. The girls are effervescent and respectful and they love their mama. Tonight is "date night." Usually, Jim and his three girls go out together. Tonight, the adults get a rare night alone. Alina and Anastasia are going to the Island Rec Center for Zumba dancing. They get up and give me a preview of their dance moves. Crazy joy in motion. Mama is laughing.
I drive away and find myself humming "Fairytales can come true." It feels good.
Family Legacy: Michele is one-fourth Russian. She feels that bringing the girls from Russia is paying homage to her Mother. "It really was all meant to be."
Girls' Favorite American Food: Papa's steak filets off the grill.
Favorite Colors: Alina loves purple;
Anastasia loves pink.
American Family: The girls have a big extended family including Jim's two "handsome" sons, Justin (23) and Logan (21).