I have experience as a younger sister. It’s a role I know how to play well thanks to my older sisters. While I love my sisters, I always wanted a brother. When I went to Australia as an exchange student, my wish was granted.
My host Rotary Club in Kingston, Tasmania had not planned to take two exchange students. They had already accepted a student when they learned about me. They decided to take on the responsibility of an additional student which meant finding additional host families, paying additional tuition and an additional monthly allowance.
My first host family, Mum and Dad Verdouw, were open, positive, and welcoming. They made me feel at home with their family, involving me in gatherings and activities. Mum and Dad had five children so being at their family dinners was just like being a part of a DiNoto family dinner, except they were Dutch Australian, not Italian American. Their youngest son, Michael or Mike as I called him, lived at home which meant I finally had an older “brother.”
My bedroom was next to Mike’s room. Since the bus route to my school was not accessible, he would give me a ride some mornings on his way to university. Those mornings, he would yell to me warning he was about to turn his music on which meant I had to get out of the bathroom within ten minutes if we wanted to get to school on time. I would yell back with a request for Midnight Oil, U2 or Sting. Some mornings the request would be honored or else he would play his version of “name that tune” making me try to guess which song would be next.
Mike and Mum had five fish tanks throughout the house and bred tropical fish. I sat with Mike watching in amazement as the Bettas, or Siamese Fighting Fish, built their bubble nests and performed their mating dance or “nuptual embrace.” When Mike was away I had the task of feeding the fish in the tanks in his room. It was so relaxing to sit with the fish and watch them explore the tank.
When I lived with him, Mike had just started his studies in architecture. Mum and Dad were planning to repave the walkway towards the front door. Mike was working on a design and I asked him what the pattern meant. I have never been a visual person and the design wasn’t making sense to me. Mike patiently took the time to explain the rationale behind the color pattern and design, answering my silly questions.
Mike was always patient and understanding, as any good big brother should be. He helped explain creepy crawlies – even drawing me a life sized picture of a Huntsman spider to prepare me for what might be lurking behind curtains. I didn’t believe I would ever encounter one until I closed the bathroom door at the Verdouw’s holiday house and saw one staring at me from its perch on the back of the door. Thanks to Mike, I knew it wasn’t a poisonous tarantula, although that’s exactly what it looked like. It was out of my reach, so I bargained and pleaded with it to stay where it was while I was on the toilet, quickly escaping to go get Dad to take care of it. When we returned home and I told Mike, he laughed at me and called me a wimp, like a big brother would.
The next weekend he walked into my bedroom carrying a blue tongued lizard, asking me to hold it while he went to get tweezers. Apparently, tick removal was the order of the day and I was expected to help. I had never held a lizard with any color tongue and wasn’t really sure this was a good time to start, especially if ticks were involved. Again, Mike laughed and told me to go outside with it “before it decides to go the bathroom on your arm!”
After three months, I moved on to my next host family but kept in touch with Mum, Dad and Mike throughout my year. I went back to stay with them for a week before I came back home. Their house was on a cliff overlooking the Derwent River. The last night, the aurora australis (southern lights) were shooting brilliant waves of color up the sky, reflecting on the river below. Mike and I sat out on the balcony, huddled under thick blankets, watching the light show and talking about my experiences down under. I remember him telling me he was proud of me for taking advantage of every opportunity and for not being afraid to try new things. I was warmed by his praise, and as I sat leaning on his shoulder, thanked him for being the brother I always wanted.
Today, Mike is a husband, father and successful architect. Mum and Dad have passed away but he and I stay in touch through email and Facebook. He knows I am traveling to Australia next year and I’ve told him he is on the short list of people I hope to see while I am there.
Thank you Mike for being the brother I always wanted, for helping introduce me to Australian wildlife, for expanding my musical horizons and for encouraging me to keep asking questions. I appreciate you adopting me as your younger sister for a bit, and I can’t wait to see you again soon!