the bond not shared by blood

by Faith M., 16

“No matter the country, no matter the religion, it doesn’t matter. More that matters is the human feelings. The feelings of love, empathy, comprehension (like, an understanding). And then, just, no matter anything, you love him for the way that he is. For the value he has. Not for culture, religion, or even for money, just for the way the person is.” – Sandra Ascencio Molitor

When my dad first mentioned Sandra (my future step-mother), I will admit, I was hesitant to meet her. Since my dad always had non-permanent relationships, I didn’t want to get emotionally tied to anyone if it wasn’t going to last forever. Also, I worried about whether or not I would like her. Most of all, I was very protective over my dad, and I didn’t want him to get his heart broken.

When I first met Sandra, I could tell she was very genuine, as it was apparent in the way she greeted me. Her smile was as bright as a twinkling star, and she embraced me the moment she saw me. There was nothing about her that implied she had an ego, and even though she seemed very confident in herself and her identity, I could feel the anxiousness dripping off her body, waiting for a positive sign, from me, to confirm that I had no hateful feelings towards her. I knew how much she wanted things to go well between us. It was evident in the way she was trying to make a good impression, so I told her how nice it was to meet her. I valued the fact that she wanted to make sure I liked her before she became part of my family, and I tried to make sure she knew that.

From the moment she made my step-brother give me the biker teddy bear he had won at the local arcade, I knew that not only would she be a good fit for our family, but she would always make sure I was included. I was happy that she wanted to create a personal bond between us, and I began to realize that even though I wasn’t her biological daughter, I would always have a special spot in her heart.

As my dad and Sandra got more serious, I tried to let her know that I appreciated what she had done, as well as how welcoming she had always been. I started to ask her about her culture, life, past, and what things were important to her. As a person who loved sharing her side of the story, and was deeply passionate about almost everything, she was more than willing to talk with me about the numerous struggles she faced upon coming to America, before finally finding everything she’d ever wanted in the end.

For a start, my step-mother wasn’t born in this country. She is from Ecuador, and even though she is very proud to be Ecuadorian, she admits that her country has shortcomings, one being that it isn’t the safest country in the world. So when deciding whether or not to move her family, she realized that no matter how much she enjoyed Ecuador, it wasn’t the best place for her kids to grow up, as crime was always a frequent occurrence. When I asked her for a specific moment, she stated, “many times I got robbers in my house. Also, I got jewelry, computers, purses, and documents stolen from my car.”

Besides crime being a recurring problem, she explained how the South American job market is in pieces, which makes it a lot more difficult than the one in the United States. For example, if a worker loses their job in Ecuador, there is no possibility that they will ever be able to get back on their feet again. In the United States, one can always be comfortable due to the relief that they will always have a backup plan. They are insured by the opportunity and growth provided for them in the job market. But in Ecuador, there are not enough jobs for all of the people that need them. In fact, it is even worse if a person is a single mom, due to the fact that not only do they have to earn enough money to support themselves, but also their kids.

That being the case, Sandra knew that even if she wouldn’t be in her dream job in America, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about suddenly not being able to support and take care of her family. Sandra was more than willing to start back on the bottom if it meant things would be better for her family. She explained to me: “If I’m a mother, I need to do what they need, even if it’s washing the dishes.”

In order to get her residency in the United States, my step-mother had to go through a multi-layered process. She stated, “first, we went to an interview with the council, with the embassy. They send us for a lot of medical tests, (say) we need to do a lot of immunization shots, and then send us for x-rays. The second was because they send you to one doctor that is qualified for doing those things. It was a doctor from the United States that you need to go. There needs to be something qualified for the United States.” Sandra could not just be examined by her country; she needed to meet the United States expectations for proper health, due to the fact that they wanted to make sure she was not bringing anything from Ecuador to the U.S.

Sandra didn’t mind the wait though. She understood their reasons and didn’t question the process. She stated, “I didn’t understand why in some countries they do that, but in other countries, they don’t, because there is a still a lot of illness coming to this country. There are countries very strong, and others are very weak, and they are bringing sickness (with them).”

Sandra and her family didn’t hear the news until a month later when the government officially accepted and reviewed the forms Sandra had submitted. Sandra remembers them telling her, and I quote, “ok, you are able to go.” When she learned the news, she started preparing to come to America by packing her bags. She thought she knew what she needed, stating, “I didn’t bring a lot of clothing.” She left everything else, and once she finished packing, hopped on a plane to Queens, New York.

Sandra can vividly remember seeing the bright lights of Manhattan outside her window in the night sky. She recalls being completely amazed with the city, as she descended into John F. Kennedy Airport. As I asked her about the moment, she stated, “it was a surreal experience. I had seen so many pictures, but I realized this was now reality.” She even explained how Mother Nature seemed to be on her side, largely due to the fact that the weather did not provide any sort of interference, stating, “The sky was so clear. It was so beautiful.”

When she finally got on the ground, her mom and her step-dad greeted her and her kids, and then brought them back to their house in Spotswood. My step-grandmother, Momma Betty, had been living in the United States for fifteen years, and understood how difficult it could be. For example, after meeting in the local gym, Momma Betty and Pappi Harold (my step-grandfather) began dating, and eventually got engaged. When they went to get the government’s blessing, they did not give their consent since they doubted that the marriage would last. They didn’t let the government’s disapproval stop them though, and soon after hearing the news, Momma Betty and Pappi Harold went to Las Vegas to have the ceremony. After the ceremony, Momma Betty got her green card, as she had only had a short term American Visa when first meeting Pappi Harold. Originally, she did not plan on permanently staying in the US, until Pappi Harold made her see a new, possible future, with him.

To this day, after eighteen years of marriage, they still are still together.

Before Sandra even came into the country, Momma Betty aided her by pushing for her residency with the U.S. government, and she also renovated her and Pappi Harold’s home in order to accommodate Sandra and the kids. She added a whole new downstairs level to the house! Momma Betty prevented Sandra from having to worry about buying a house, which gave her the opportunity to save up her money for later. In addition, they took even more responsibility off Sandra’s shoulders as they helped pay for food. When talking about her mom and her step-dad’s involvement, Sandra stated, “they helped us with everything in the beginning.”

Once she settled into the family home, Sandra’s first real experience in America was going with her mom to get some new clothes, as she had underestimated the winter cold upon arriving. As Momma Betty has always struggled with temperature during the winter, she understood the major adjustment in climate. In Sandra’s country, the temperature depends on where one is in Ecuador. When first talking to Sandra, I thought her country was always hot due to the fact that it is on the equator. However, as she continued to talk, I realized that I was wrong, and that this is only true if one lives closer to sea level. Thus, if an individual lives in the mountains, they are more likely to get a typical United States winter. So, since Sandra lived in Machala, which is not in the mountains, and is, as Sandra states “one of the four coast cities in Ecuador,” her town is more susceptible to the warm temperatures.

Besides climate, Sandra explained to me how the change in language was a major adjustment. Since the main language of Ecuador is Spanish, Sandra only had to speak Spanish, not English, in her country. Therefore, when she got to the U.S., she couldn’t communicate with others, and it made daily tasks, such as going to the grocery market, even more difficult than they should be. When talking about the situation, Sandra stated, “I couldn’t speak. I knew no English.”

As a result, Sandra almost went home. She became overwhelmed with all the forces working against her. Still, she ultimately chose to stay, as she thought of what moving back would mean for her kids’ futures.

She decided that it was time to enroll them in the local school system, three weeks after stepping foot in the United States. Sandra submitted all of their health information, as well as their insurance, to the school system, in order to pass the school’s medical qualifications. At the same time, Momma Betty and Pappi Harold took care of the money that needed to be paid before starting school.

Then, she decided it was time to start taking care of herself. She concluded that she needed to stop wallowing in her sorrows and do something, rather than just sitting around the house. She knew it was time to start working when she noticed how she wasn’t doing anything productive. It made her feel strange, as that wasn’t the way she lived her life. When I asked Sandra about it, she stated, “I was never a house mamma.”

Hence, she asked Momma Betty if she knew of any local jobs, which lead to Momma Betty contacting the local Costco. She found out that they had a job available at their warehouse, and Sandra eagerly took it.

When she started working at Costco, she was just another worker, doing the things required of her. She worked an eight hour shift and tried to do the best she could in order to finally start bringing in an income for her family. She wasn’t looking to rise up in the ranks and was just happy to have a job, until she heard that the position of warehouse supervisor needed to be filled. She registered and waited for the news eagerly.

In the weeks following, Sandra’s bosses observed that Sandra could communicate with her coworkers fluently in Spanish, making her a prime candidate for the position of warehouse supervisor, where she would make sure the inventory was properly being distributed to customers. Soon after observing her, they finally gave her the job.

Rather than it being a disadvantage, knowing Spanish actually helped Sandra at Costco, since Spanish was the number one language among the employees in the warehouse. Sandra expressed relief that for once, she didn’t have to know English, or speak it, since all of her co-workers spoke Spanish.

Sandra enjoyed the job very much, but it still was an afternoon shift, which didn’t allow her to be home to greet her kids as they came home from school. She recalled how even though it was a steady, nice job, it “wasn’t good for the kids,” which made it ultimately not a good job for her lifestyle, as family is most important to her. Since she values being there for her kids, and always wants to give them all the love she possibly can, it is not confusing why, at that time, she decided to quit and find something that would be better for them, as she knew she wasn’t the only one starting her life completely fresh.

So, she contacted the Board of Nursing to get a license to become a nursing assistant, as she had to get re-certified in the U.S. before being allowed to do anything in the medical field. They told her that in order to get it, she had to take a test that was issued from the state, after reviewing the material they sent her. Rather than getting taught in a classroom, Sandra only had a book and the internet to help her if she had any further questions. She explained how she was very anxious, even though she had studied very hard for three days, from five in the morning to ten at night, because she knew that a lot of the people that took it didn’t make the mark. It did not help that she knew that if she failed, she only had two more times to take it, which added extra pressure.

She told me how their tone, when she arrived, also did not help the situation. Before the test, they told her, in a stern, serious manner, that she was not to bring any objects, as well as food or drink, into the room while taking the test. Plus, they told her how she had a hundred and fifty questions to answer in two hours.

When she finished earlier than the other students and went to turn in her test, electronically, it was revealed that Sandra had done surprisingly well. She had gotten a really high score, which allowed her to get her license on her first try.

At first, in Ecuador, Sandra had worked with kids, but decided to quit after treating a child with a third-degree burn. As she talked to me about the situation, she seemed heartbroken, and even told me how she recalled asking herself the question, “how is this happening to them?” That being the case, Sandra shifted her focus to seniors who needed her help in Ecuador.

When she graduated in the U.S., she resumed what she had started and continued to care for the elderly. Her first job as a nurse in the U.S. was distributing medicine to a senior couple, every hour, for eight hours. She recalls getting paid nicely for her work with them, but she desired more than just giving them medicine; she wanted to do something to know she had impacted them for the better.

Around that time, she applied for her driver’s license. She knew that if she got it, she could start doing things on her own, such as taking classes at night at the East Brunswick High School without having to rely on her mom to give her a ride. She knew that she needed to improve her English, and by being able to admit that she needed help, conversations in English became easier in the long run.

Even though she began to feel more comfortable in America, she still didn’t feel at home. She still longed to be in Ecuador, with the majority of her family, and with everything that was familiar to her. She missed the music, the people, and most of all, the yearlong heat that kept her warm. Still, she knew that she couldn’t go back, as she had already picked up her family once and wasn’t going to make them do that again. She couldn’t ignore the fact that she needed to go back to Ecuador to solve some things from her past either though, so she left to accomplish that, and then she returned back to America.

She explained how doubtful she was about the future, but knew it was time to begin a new part of her life. She had to move on from the past, but that did not make the future any less nerve-wracking. She approached it with uncertainty, and she did not believe in herself. She often doubted her own ability to adapt to situations and make the best of the ones before her, as she constantly questioned her ability to raise her children on her own while adjusting to a new country. She wanted to make sure they felt content that she would always know what to do. Getting used to a new way of life, which she didn’t completely understand herself, made the task very difficult, though.

Soon after, she met my dad. They were put together by the Match dating app, which allowed them to text back and forth before meeting up. She had my step-aunt, Lorena, assist her when texting him, as she was fluent in both Spanish and English since she had lived in the U.S. for three years during her twenties. Sandra knew more English after getting schooling, but wanted to make sure she didn’t mess anything up. Lorena had to leave at one point, though, and Sandra was left to text my dad all alone. When I asked my dad about Sandra’s texts, he stated, “at one point, it became utter gibberish.”

From my understanding, even though it wasn’t the most in-depth conversation, they really connected. Sandra respected the fact that he was very calm and understanding when she tried to speak in English, as she still struggled with it. My dad admired how much she tried to make sure the conversation went well, even though they spoke two different languages, as well as the effort she put into their talks, even though she barely knew him.

As they chatted more and more, they started to have more and more feelings for each other. It was nice to see my dad, who had dated after the divorce but had never truly fallen in love, find that part of himself with Sandra.

Three days after they met, on their first date, my dad asked Sandra to help him pick out my Christmas presents. My dad was okay at giving presents, and I applauded his effort, but he often needed someone to help him get into the brain of a maturing teenage girl. So, when I got a karaoke machine that Christmas, I praised my father for the present, as it was the best one yet. I loved to sing, and I was so excited to be able to jam out whenever I wanted. When he informed me that Sandra was the one who got ninety-eight percent of the present, I instantly admired the fact that my future step-mother was willing to go with him, in the middle of their date, to pick out something that wasn’t even for her own daughter.

In fact, on my fifteenth birthday, my step-mother did the same thing, once again. She became determined to give me a Quince, which is, in simple terms, an American Sweet 16, but in Spanish culture. It’s a year earlier, and it has different traditions, such as the changing of the shoes, and the giving of the doll, at its core. Plus, there’s cake, presents, food, and lots of dancing, not to mention the dress.

My step-mother wanted me to have everything I desired. She helped me pick out my dress, sat with me through all the dress alterations (as my shortness made everything more difficult), and she went shopping with me to pick out my shoes. Also, she helped me to pick out the place to host it. Without her going in with me to each place to check it out, we would have never found the best place. Sandra made sure she was involved, helpful, and available⁠—three things that were needed to transform my Quince from the one I had dreamed about to one that actually happened.

In addition, my step-mother even invited my mom and step-dad to the party. She had always encouraged me to ask them, and wanted to make sure that they didn’t ever feel excluded. Nonetheless, she told me that she understood if they felt strange coming, and wouldn’t take it personally if they denied the invite.

When my mom thanked Sandra for throwing the party for me, Sandra told her that she wanted to make sure I got the party she never had, as she had gone to a Bon Jovi concert for her Quince. As I watched them, I realized that their love for me was a rallying factor that made them have a mutual respect for each other. As a daughter, I admired Sandra for welcoming my other side of the family with the same open arms she had greeted me, and as a person, I was proud that instead of letting people stay divided, she rallied them all to come together.

As much as my step-mother has impacted me, my dad has impacted my step-brothers. I would like to think that he has made them see the world through a different light. They can be weird and wacky and he will embrace them, without judgement. He even lets them get into their more athletic sides, as he often plays basketball and football with them. He frequently takes them on fishing trips and they make a day out of it, and he’ll watch football games with them, discussing touchdowns, players, and teams as if it is a way of life.

It turns out that Sandra didn’t need to worry about raising kids on her own, as my dad has given them (even though the boys will never admit it) someone to look up to. They listen to him, and he gives them attention and love. As much as Sandra has made me a better person, my dad has done the same thing for them.

When I asked Sandra about the future, she explained how she doesn’t have any big dreams or ambitions. Rather than trying to buy lavish places and items, Sandra wants to focus on the little things, stating, “(I) don’t care about materialistic things. Having a simple life (is what I want).”

Furthermore, she wants to be able to keep her mind focused on the present and focus on the good parts of her life. Instead of trying to bring up negative parts of her past, she wants to keep her mind in a healthy and calm state in order to make “living in the moment” a part of her daily routine. She wants to focus on the once-in-a-lifetime moments that make life worth it, and enjoy life to the best of her ability. Sandra, as we discussed the future, stated, “I try not to get stuck (in the past).”

Moreover, she wants to be surrounded by her family, each moment of the day, and be the one to never let them forget how important they are to each other. A person who prides herself on how close her family is, she doesn’t want anything to change that, not even money, stating, “I don’t care if I’m under a bridge, as long as we are together.”

As Sandra and my dad near their third wedding anniversary this year, I don’t know where the time has disappeared to. It seems like just yesterday I was a five-year-old kid whose parents got divorced. Back then, I didn’t understand what was going on around me, and I saw it as a bad thing as my parents distanced themselves from each other, more and more, as time went on. Now I see, as a sixteen-year-old young lady, that if they never separated from each other, I never would have met Sandra, who has become a significant role model in my life. I also wouldn’t have my step-dad.

My five-year-old self may have seen it as Armageddon, but now I see it as a “Soul Surfer,” where something that seemed like the end of the world actually made it better than it could have ever possibly been before.

Jackson, New Jersey