Adoption: Our Older Girls (conclusion)

|Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part 5

(Warning: This is VERY long, so save it to read when you have a few minutes.)

After meeting our girls, we went to their rooms to get their things. The girls shared rooms not with each other, but rather with girls in their own classes. Each room accommodated 7 or 8 girls, and all were tidy, with beds made and clothing neatly tucked into individual cubbies.

Once they’d grabbed their things, we headed toward the gates, with them hugging workers and friends along the way. We had been told that it was best to make this first stay at Layla brief, since children would be eager to begin their new life. The girls seemed to understand this as the normal routine, but our older daughter especially seemed very enmeshed in life at Layla, and had many people to hug as we made our way out.

Back at the guesthouse, we started by showing the girls our rooms.  We’d been assigned two adjoining rooms, one with a king sized bed, and the other with bunk beds. I showed them the clothing we’d brought them, and they went to try things on.  They emerged shyly, smiling as we admired them. They knew maybe 20 words of English, and we knew about that much Amharic.  And yet each time I made eye contact with this precious girls, they flashed me radiant smiles. In my gut I had the feeling we would be okay.

Our older daughter brought the album we’d sent her and named off every family member.  Then she showed us the pictures of friends she’d tucked into the album herself, telling us whether or not they had families yet, and if so, which state they would be going to. We strained to understand her, but she did a good job communicating with the amount of English she had.

In the midst of a game of Uno, they gave us a lesson in Amharic counting. Our first meal together was vegetable soup and rolls prepared by the guesthouse cook. After lunch I took our two year old to our room for a nap, while John played ball in the courtyard with the girls.  As I lay with the toddler to coax her to sleep, I heard happy thumping and laughter. My husband was just dynamite with them, humorous and affectionate and sensitive to their feelings. It was lovely to see.

That evening we ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, the Merry Fam. I wasn’t sure what to order as far as portions, and we ended up with way too much:  injera, and tibs and shiro and firfir. The girls ate well, and initiated us in the Ethiopia rite of gursha, where you hand-feed your dining companions choice bits of the meal. It can’t say the custom was to my liking– the bites that they tucked into my mouth seemed enormous. But the sentiment was precious.

Our five year old managed to guzzle an entire Coke during the first 5 minutes of the meal, and so half way through she was desperate for a bathroom. I remembered that the bathroom at the Merry Fam was not good, and was tempted to walk her to the guesthouse for the bathroom. But I didn’t want to miss out on time with the other girls, so I braved the Merry Fam bathroom.

It was not the same bathroom I remembered.   It was much worse– far, far worse than the most neglected Texaco I’d seen. A true ’squatty potty’, a ceramic basin set in the floor, over which a person was expected to somehow hover.  The ceramic, originally white, showed evidence of every encounter with humans it had ever had. Appalled, I hissed at my 5 year old to touch nothing. I suspended her over the filthy hole, trying not to touch anything myself.  Except of course I had to touch the doorknob afterwards.

And adding to the charm– the door to the bathroom was 10 feet from the kitchen stove. Waterless hand cleaner did nothing to quell my loathing.

Once back at the table I was much less enthused about the (admittedly delicious) food, and even less thrilled at my new daughters’ further gursha offerings. I prayed fervently that this first meal would not be the start of a trip-long bout with illness.

Wednesday morning we made instant oatmeal for breakfast before going shopping. Upon seeing the oatmeal, my 9 year old said, “No eat.” And only ate rolls and juice.

The morning was spent buying shoes for the girls and looking for Amharic/English Bibles for the girls.  No such luck, but we did get Amharic ones, plus story books and a CD.  Back at the guesthouse the 9 year old read one of the story books to John,proving that she was an excellent reader.

That afternoon was the embassy appointment, which went well.  Dinner that evening was at Layla House– spicy sloppy joe-type meat on oiled rice– very good. (I have an adaptation of the recipe in my cookbook.) The huge room was incredibly noisy, and by the time the meal was over, there was rice all over every table and floor. But everyone was friendly, and I enjoyed the bits of conversation I had with our daughters’ friends.

Our younger daughter visited with friends a bit, then sat with us to eat. Our older daughter spent most of her time going from friend to friend hugging and talking seriously. They seem loved by all and they love everyone. They even hugged the little 5 year old boys. I was starting to grasp just how hard it would be for them to leave.

The bedtime singing was loud and lively, with long fervent prayers offered between songs even by very young children. Our 5 year old was overwhelmed by the noise, and kept asking to go out into the courtyard, but I loved the spirit in their worship. These kids had so many reasons to be angry with God.  And still they praised. 

When it was time to leave, our 11 year old went around hugging friends. Then she asked if she could stay at Layla just one more night. My gut just didn’t feel easy about that, so I reluctantly told her no. I was prepared for her disappointment, but I wasn’t prepared for my 9 year old to pat my arm with relief and say, “Good Mom!!!!!”  I’m not sure if she just didn’t want to stay, or if she knew it was better for her big sister not to stay. In any case, I was glad she agreed with my gut.
It was time to start saying goodbye.


The next day we went to Kidane Mehret, the orphanage where both our little girls had lived before coming to us. In the baby and toddler rooms (overcrowded as always), workers all over both rooms remembered both our little girls, hugging and kissing them excitedly. The two year old was asleep in the Ergo on my back at that point, but our 5 year old returned their hugs happily. It was very, very gratifying to see the worker’s excitement and to realize how meaningful it was to see ‘their’ babies grown and thriving.

As I thanked the workers for caring for our girls, I found myself suddenly in tears. I knew babies who had not survived the wait to come to a family. And yet my girls had, thanks largely to the loving care they had received at the hands of these women. The heap of plastic pants I had brought to restock the baby room seemed a meager thank you.

Sister Veronica, the nun who had taken care of our 5 year old still remembered that Tsion had been the fattest baby in the room. Then to my delight out from the nun’s house came Sister Camilla. Sister Camilla has a special place in my heart. She is the second in command at Kidane, and not only did she care for both our little girls, she also was able to stay at our house for a few days in 2004 when she came to America to escort some children. “My first- and last – trip to America!” she said with a laugh.
She also was thrilled to see our girls doing so well, and greeted our new daughters very kindly as well. I was so glad we had been able to find time to come to Kidane.

Later in the day we went shopping for traditional dresses for all 4 of our Ethiopian daughters. We ended up with a lovely blue and gold dress for the 11 year old, and pink and gold ones for the younger three girls. The older girls’ dresses were 160 birr each (around $16) and the little girls dresses were about 40 birr each. We were well pleased, most of all by the smiles of delight on the faces of our older girls.

Near the end of the day we drove up Entoto mountain, on the northern edge of Addis. The mountain views and lush trees were lovely. Very often our van would pass women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs. I’d seem pictures before, but to see it in person was distressing.  I cannot imagine doing such difficult work for only a few pennies a day.

A half-hour’s drive brought us to Menalik’s palace. At the museum we met a gem of a tour guide, who walked us around the various exhibits in the museum, explaining everything in both Amharic and English. He had a sweet grandfatherly way with our older girls, and explained things kindly to us all. His kindness to us was a high point in our trip.

Back at the guesthouse dinner was injera and wat prepared for us by the extremely capable guesthouse cooks. We all enjoyed the meal. All week both of the older girls enjoyed working John’s little camcorder, and that evening the older one spent several minutes videotaping every detail of her beautiful Ethiopian dress, which made us feel good. Then both girls produced an adorable video where they named each member of our family and said, “We love you, ____!” It was sweet.

But as the evening grew later, they got more somber, and both wrote some more letters to friends. They were still responsive to our overtures, returning smiles and talking when we spoke to them. But it was obvious that tomorrow’s going-away party at Layla house was weighing heavy on their minds. I wished there was something I could do to ease their hearts. But this was just one of those times in life we were going to have to get through somehow.

Friday morning found me fussing over hair. Our agency had arranged for us to meet with our girls’ uncle who had traveled all the way from Harar to meet us, and I wanted them to look nice. But the meeting time — 9:30 AM — had me in a bit of a time crunch. Four heads of hair takes a lot of doing.

A couple evenings earlier, three of the girls ALL decided they wanted their hair done and proceeded to unbraid–at 8 PM, no less.  These days I would say NO WAY in heck will you all undo your hair all at once but at the time I was too soft-hearted– and inexperienced- to say no!  I had a moment of pure panic at the sight of three heads of hair all loose at once, and so close to bedtime.  That evening I did puff ponytails on the younger two, and set to work on my older daughter’s hair with some uncertainty.

It took me an hour and a half to do 10 cornrows on her thick extremely curly hair. The cornrows were wide and less than expert. But I was pleased to discover that the thickness of her hair makes my cornrows look better than they ever did on my little girls’ thin soft hair. But now several days later they needed redone, and all I had time to do was redo the little girls single ponytails, gel her fly-aways, and promise her a better hairdo later today at Layla.

The meeting with their uncle went well. He is a very kind man who genuinely cares and wants the girls to suceed in life. The goodbye was tough, but the very kind AAI social worker helped the girls through it.  After that we were off to get the 3 older girls’ hair braided.  My 5 year old was less than pleased with the experience. She finds my loose cornrows much more comfortable than the lovely crisp ones that were produced by the Layla House girls.

The going-away part for the girls that evening was very emotional.   Many tears.  Much sadness.   I felt terrible guilt for taking the girls away from friends who loved them dearly, and from this culture that was obviously so rich in connections and caring.

Our 9 year old seemed eager to go.  She asked me all day how long it was til we left.  (One funny aside: when I told her to go to the bathroom right before we left for the airport, she said, “No. I go in America!”  Of course she had no idea that the Idaho bathroom was still a good 30 hours away.)

The 11 year old was torn. I saw some excitement in her eyes at times about this adventure. But also there was huge sadness. By the time we left for the airport, she was very sober. On the drive she spoke with Abraham, the driver, and handed him more letters for her friends at Layla. At the airport, he gave both of the girls a big hug, and told them he’d miss them. We were quite a parade, the 6 of us heading into the airport with our 5 checked bags, and a backpack for every one of us.  The 11 year old pushed the stroller with our 2 year old, and the 9 year old held hands with the 5 year old. They were best buddies by now.

We got to the gates a good two hours early, and found quiet benches near one end of the terminal where we hung out, eating snacks and playing cards.  When it was finally time to board, the kids had a great time getting the headphones going, looking out the windows, and playing with the various controls.  That first take-off was a real thrill for everyone. The big girls just glowed, and John and I grinned just watching them. Hopefully their enthusiasm (and ours) would last awhile. It was still about 30 hours till we’d be home.

The girls all slept from Addis to Frankfurt. Then came a very long 6 hours til it was time for our next flight. We mostly hung out at McDonalds where we discovered that the girls were big fans of chicken nuggets and French fries. The girls watched a movie on my laptop. The were proving to be good travelers. They hung close, helped each other out, got along well, and even the little ones stayed fairly good natured.

Still, we were exceedingly glad when it was finally time to board our plane. This 10 hour flight would get us to Denver, and after that it was only a couple more hours till home.  Here was where we really had to work to come up with entertainment. Fortunately I had lots of little things to pull out at various times. Some things didn’t work as well as others. My two year old kept accidentally shining her flashlight in the eyes of the young man sitting next to her. Oops, ditch that. And the little toy cell phones with candy inside…well, the candy was good, but the repetitive ringing, not so much. Ditch those too.

The very best toy turned out to be the beading kits I made up in ziplocks. The older girls strung beads on strings, and added real clasps to the ends to make fun necklaces. The two year old loved stringing her pony beads on pipe cleaners. Once on the pipe cleaner, the beads staying put even when she dropped it. I used a snack cup with a smallish opening for the beads, which also minimized spilling.

Other popular items included fruit snacks, chapstick, and cocoa puffs (again in snack cups). The movie Shrek 3, showing on the airplane TV was also a welcome diversion. Our two year old watched almost the entire thing. Thankfully also they all also did plenty of sleeping. By this point we’d been traveling a long time, and they were all really tired. When it was time to get off the plane in Denver, John and I were running on adrenaline. We had two and a half hours to get through immigration, pick up our luggage, get through customs, recheck the bags, and get to our gate for our final hop home.

Going through immigration we got into the line for US citizens. We got to the front of that line quickly, then were led over to a side room where we would need to be interviewed more extensively by another immigration officer. As we waited, we watched one officer speaking very brusquely and impatiently with several different immigrants. Thankfully we got a different person who seemed to be having a better day and treated us very kindly. That interview lasted only about 5 minutes. However, the wait to be seen had been a good half an hour, so we were very glad to finally be sent on our way.

Our luggage was some of the last remaining in the pick-up area. The United Airlines baggage re-check is only a few hundred feet from customs– a good thing, because we were very glad to drop off all that luggage. Then it was on through one more security checkpoint and then onto a tram that got us to our gate with 10 minutes to spare before boarding began. That was just enough time to call the kids at home to let them know we were on time, and run across the hall to buy a fruit salad and cheese to nibble on that last flight.

We dozed our way through those last couple hours to Boise. By that time we were all so whipped that we could fall asleep in seconds. Before we landed, however, I found enough energy to run a brush through my hair and put on some fresh lipstick. That didn’t get rid of the bags under my eyes, but at least I didn’t look totally beat. The two year old slept her way off the plane and into the stroller, but the bigger girls seemed to get a little second wind when we got off that last plane. As we walked down the long hall to where our family waited, we all smiled and smiled.

As I had expected, the welcoming committee included siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends– a couple dozen people at least. The 9 year old hung back shyly with me, but the 11 year old squared her shoulders and proceeded to go down the line of people shaking hands like a born politician, bless her heart, and graciously accepted hugs as well. it was really neat to see the kids all greeting their new siblings. The kids at home had made a big banner for us, and the girls smiled to see their names on the banner.

Eventually we made our way downstairs to get our luggage (every piece arrived– hooray!) Then it was time to head out to our van, where every seat of our 12 passenger van was now full. It was a feeling of awesome responsibility and amazing privilege to see all those faces looking forward towards John and me. God had been so very gracious to us. Now it was up to us to do our best for them all.


  1. Wow, Mary, what a beautiful story! And how wonderfully written. That’s a beautiful memory for when the girls are bigger! However, I saw the little red x on the last picture (home from Ethiopia). Don’t know if that’s a little problem on my side of the pond or yours..
    Wow! Thanks again for sharing the story of the girls!

  2. I just loved reading your story over my morning coffee. Not only did I find it interesting, I also found myself falling in love with those sweet girls you’re describing. 🙂 What an amazing story….so full of love.
    God bless you

  3. I loved reading the story of your older girls’ adoption. Our son was much younger when we adopted him and still bonding was challenging compared to our biological children. I would love for you to write about bonding with your older girls. We want to adopt again in a few years, but given our age we would likely adopt an “older” child. The unknown of bonding with an older child frightens me. I would love to read your bonding experience.



  4. What an amazing and inspiring story! Thank you for sharing!

  5. Breathtaking.

  6. I loved it!!!!

    Did you change their names, or keep their given names?

    I would also love to hear how the bonding was different from adopting an infant or toddler.

  7. Must go blow nose – wah!! Oh, what a beautiful story – what dear girls.
    I love all the little details, how truthful you are – and how strong the girls were/are! Wow!
    You are an amazing family. I struggle so in my marriage — and ask for your prayers to be 1/4th the woman/wife and mother you are, dear Mary!!

  8. Great job, Mary! It was so fun to read this and remember seeing your sweet girls for the first time when Sophie and I were in Ethiopia for Natey. 🙂

  9. Again…tears of joy. I am so glad to be a part of their lives too. 🙂

  10. LOVE this. Thank you 🙂

  11. Wow. This beautiful story has brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for telling it with so much love and truth.

    I have come to check your blog several times a week, and am always blessed by what you have to say. My husband and I have only four children, but I don’t manage half as well as you do with 3 times that many! You are an inspiration. God bless!

  12. What a captivating experience and beautiful story. [Cue the smiles, laughs, and tears.] Thank you for taking the time to share this.

  13. Thank you for sharing your adoption story. It is beautiful and very inspiring.