To Honor Her Late Daughter, She Became a 'Mom' to a Homesick Student

What could she do for this young man, missing his loved ones in Veracruz, Mexico, at Christmastime?

- Posted on Oct 24, 2017

Rosemary and Juan at St. Raphael’s, where she first heard about the ESL program.

“Where are you from, Juan?”

I asked the question clearly, as I’d been taught in the program I’d completed for teaching English as a second language.

“Veracruz, Mexico,” Juan said promptly. “It’s beautiful there.”

Juan was my first student. We had seen each other often at the Chinese restaurant where he worked as a bus boy. Eventually it was decided he would come to my house, eat with my family and study with me. We practiced grammar and simple conversations.

“How is your family, Juan?” I asked one evening. “I talk to them on the phone,” he said. “But it’s not the same. I miss them so much.”

I understood how Juan felt. My daughter Donna had died in an accident two years earlier which had left longing in my own heart. That was one of the reasons I’d wanted to volunteer teaching ESL students. The Gospel of Matthew taught us to “give as gift what we have received,” and my daughter was truly a gift. That Scripture was a favorite of ours, and the two of us loved exchanging gifts with that in mind.

This time of year especially, with Christmas coming, I longed for ways to give in Donna’s memory.

When I first saw Juan months before, working at the restaurant, I was struck by how young he looked, how he moved like a hummingbird around the customers, filling water glasses, replacing silverware, clearing tables. He didn’t speak much, but his smile was infectious.

Once he began studying with me, he delved into his English lessons with the same enthusiasm. I looked forward to the evenings we sat at the kitchen table and really got to work.

“Let’s take a break for dinner,” I said. Juan had the table set in a flash. As I served a tasty meal I remembered the first time I’d invited him to stay and eat. “Thank goodness,” he’d said. “No egg rolls tonight!”

He’d been getting most of his meals at the restaurant and was thrilled with a new menu. I was delighted to be able to give him some good home cooking.

“I’d like to invite you for Christmas dinner with my family, Juan,” I said when we were finishing up that night. “I know you can’t spend it with your own people.”

Surely Juan’s family would be missing him that day. They had to worry about him, so far from home. Give what you have received, I thought. I had lost a daughter, but I still had plenty of mother’s love to give. “If you need an American mom,” I said, “I will be here for you.”

His eyes widened in surprise, and his face lit up with that smile of his. “Okay, Mom,” he said. From then on, that’s what he called me. I knew my daughter would approve.

Juan arrived for Christmas dinner dressed for a celebration. I’d gotten him a Spanish Christmas music CD. Juan gasped when he saw the cover. “I know these people!” he said, holding it up. “This group is from Veracruz! My hometown!” I’d had no idea of this when I purchased it.

We popped in the CD and Juan sang along. “One day I hope to become a DJ,” he said over the music. In all the conversations we’d had to practice his English, he’d never told me this.

“I want to entertain at parties and get people dancing,” he said as he broke into a little dance himself. Juan had a real zest for life, and he certainly inspired me. Seeing him enjoy Christmas made my own heart feel lighter as if the longing inside had begun to lift.

I knew my daughter would never be replaced, but by opening my heart to someone in need, Donna felt closer. It was the kind of thing she would have done especially at Christmas.

Juan’s ESL lessons have long since passed, but he still calls me Mom and his children call me Abuelita, which is Spanish for grandma. I thought I was giving a gift when I reached out to Juan. It turns out, Juan was God’s Christmas gift to me.

Rosemary Kuhn is the author and illustrator of a series of children's books published by Guardian Angel Publishing, Inc. 

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