As I may have mentioned (once or twice or a dozen times), Ralph comes home from Colombia on Thursday. He’s been there since September 2016, and we haven’t see him in two years. As you can imagine, we are very excited, and there’s a whole lot of anticipation going on at our house.

I’ve been trying to reflect on these last two years, and the experience of observing my son — via emails and messages — when he’s so far away. It was Ralph’s birthday yesterday. He turned 21, which seems like a significant age. So that’s on my mind as well. I wrote up some notes about Ralph the day he left to Colombia, and I wrote some more notes over the weekend, and I’m going to share them here.

I hope you’ll indulge me — I know we all like to talk about our kids, and I am well aware I’m reporting from behind the rose-colored lenses of parenthood.

In my experience, the first kid ends up being a bit of a guinea pig, and so is every first time parent. As we all know, there’s no manual, and there are parts of parenting you just have to flounder through and figure out as you go. Your first child experiences all your mistakes. It doesn’t really seem fair. (Our youngest, June, has had a whole different set of parents — much more experienced, understanding and patient.) But despite Ralph being the guinea pig, he was a really easy baby and toddler to parent — happy, interested in everything, and quick to laugh.

As he got got older, around 4th or 5th grade, I realized he had relationships with people of all ages. The littlest kids at church would run to greet him. He would gather stories from the over eighty crowd. It continued through high school — his peers wanted to hang out with Ralph. So did the parents. Basically, if you know Ralph, you want him on your team, because he makes everything more fun, better, and more interesting. When he’s on your team, he makes you feel like it’s the best, coolest, most fun team. 

At age twelve, he figured out one of life’s big secrets. We lived in France and we were heading out to go hiking. Ralph did not want to go, and was uncharacteristically surly in the car on the way to the starting point. But when we arrived, he sort of took a deep breath and then completely changed his attitude. He was enthusiastic and participated fully; leading out the other kids. He was the first one to dunk his head in the river. I asked him about it later and he said, “When I realized I had no choice, and couldn’t get out of the hike, I decided to make the best of it and enjoy it as much as I could.”

One thing I can say about all my kids is that they participate. If it’s a math lesson, if it’s Sunday school, if it’s a tour of the city, if it’s P.E., if it’s cleaning the house. They participate. They jump in, do the work, add what they can, and get what they can out of the experience. I think a good portion of that comes from having Ralph as the oldest sibling. His enthusiasm has always been infectious. He could get the kids on board for any project or idea — or talk them in to making movies for hours and hours. Maude said his role in our family is leader.

As a teenager, I realized how much Ralph loves life. He’s very aware of being alive, how precious our time is here on Earth, and how fast things change. As he was preparing to leave to Colombia, he would lament a bit about how much June would change while he was gone. “She’ll be so big. And her little voice will be a big voice.” He begged us to make videos of her and our whole family as much as possible. He didn’t want to miss out on anything.

Ralph has a really good understanding of family relationships and what it takes to make them strong. The night before he left, he was all packed and ready to go, but he stayed up pretty much all night working on something, and then the whole family got up really early — like 5:00 — to take him to the San Francisco airport. When we got back to the house, we found sweet, thoughtful letters from Ralph for each sibling, and a personalized playlist for each sibling too. He also issued challenges for each member of the family, to be completed before he returned from Colombia.

As a kid, he became close with many of his aunts and uncles, and would keep the contact up even when we lived far away — skyping them to talk about a particular movie, to get film-making advice, or to share a new band he loved. Throughout his childhood, he would beg Ben Blair and me for stories about what we were like, and what we did, at his age. He has always loved photo books, scrapbooks, yearbooks, journals — any kind of family records. He wished he had an older sibling, so he would think of what he would want from an older sibling, and try to give that to his younger siblings.

He stayed good friends with his dad, even through the teen years — he’s always super excited to tell Ben what he’s working on, or to collaborate with Ben on a video or a project. In the first few years of this blog, on April Fools Day he would secretly log-in from my computer, and write a joke post. Once he announced our baby had arrived. (She hadn’t. She didn’t come for 6 more weeks. Hah!) We would have family lip sync sessions, and though you’d think a 17- or 18-year-old would be too cool to participate, that didn’t apply to Ralph. He would take it seriously and prepare a song and totally get into it.

We learned to depend on him for so many projects. He would edit my vlogging experiments, help me figure out technical issues, storyboard Olive Us episodes with Ben. He MC’d the First Film Festival. We knew we could tackle certain challenges because Ralph would be able to help out.

I didn’t know what Ralph would be like as a missionary. Frankly, I thought it might be a bad fit, and made sure he understood that he could come home at any time, no shame. I don’t believe missions are a smart thing for all Mormon kids. No program is one size fits all, and that includes missions.

But he embraced it and seemed to truly want to make the most of his time there. On missions, the missionaries get assigned to a new area every couple of months. This past July, the mission president called to tell us Ralph makes every area he goes to blossom. He said Ralph makes things happen, gets people excited and involved, brings an enthusiasm to the local congregation.

Ralph’s emails home were atypical for a Mormon missionary. They were not particularly spiritual, they didn’t reference scriptures. I have no memories of him mentioning baptisms, or talking about trying to convert people. Instead, he shared cultural observations, he wrote about how much he loved the people he spent time with — his assigned companion, community members, or people from church, and talked about projects he was working on. Anytime he mentioned someone new, he’d include interesting backstory like:

Alonso from our ward is awesome. He is a baker so we always go buy his bread in the morning. He has like everybody’s phone # memorized. He legit can recite off the top of his head almost all the church members phone numbers.

I’m training Elder Lucaila (Luke – ay – la ) from Ecuador. He is from Guayaquil and is DOPE. His hobby before the mission was downloading animé episodes and re-editing them down to the BEST parts and then adjusting the audio so youtube wouldn’t recognize copyright. These last transfers are gonna be SWEET.

His emails left the impression he was enjoying his time in Colombia, but we didn’t know if he was liking the missionary part. In June of 2016, when he’d been gone about 9 months, we got an email from his mission president:

Brother and Sister Blair,

You have a great son! Sister Laney and I just love him! He always has a smile that brightens the room and a positive attitude. I wanted to share part of a weekly letter that he wrote to me on Monday:

One thing my mom would always tell me is “get in problem solving mode”. 5 words which I probably took for granted but help a ton now. I realize that there is never nothing to do in the mission field. If the cita is cancelled- contact. No one to contact- Visit a member. No one home- Make calls etc etc etc. One nugget of advice my dad gave me before I left was to learn to love work. I feel like that especially rings true for me. I always feel the best when im working hard.

Well, that explains why he is such a wonderful missionary. Thank you for sending such a great missionary to Colombia!

Robert Laney
Presidente
Misión Colombia Bogotá Norte

From that point on we realized he was not just enjoying himself, he was working really hard, and being a creative, problem-solving missionary.

As you may know, Mormon missionaries don’t get to choose who they work with. They are assigned a companion, and they stick together basically 24/7. The companionships switch up every few months. Some companionships are more challenging than others. Ralph has never once complained about any of his assigned companions. We assumed it must get tough sometimes, because relationships always are, but he wrote:

“It has always helped me during my mission when I’m mad at my companion to ask him about his life.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but the only communication with Ralph while he was in Colombia has been weekly emails, and 4 videochats — on Christmas and Mother’s Day each year. On a video chat with us this past May, he asked about the morning routine. Who made lunches? Drove to school? He said to his siblings, that it sounds like it’s a challenging thing for Dad to drive to so many different schools each day, so they should try and think of ways to make it a more fun experience for him — like they could find a joke to share with him each morning, or a quote. I noticed he didn’t complain and wish the hard thing would go away. Sometimes life is hard and he accepted that. He just tried to make the hard thing easier, more enjoyable.

In each area he was assigned to he seemed to really think hard about what the local congregation needed. In one area he focused on English lessons. In another area, he helped organize and host an open house. In his current area, he started a hiking club — once a week, the missionaries and any church members or community members who want to participate, get up at 4:00 AM and go hiking for a few hours.

On Colombian Independence Day there was a parade in town. The whole community was watching. He observed with his companion and said, “We should be in this parade.” So he stopped at a corner shop, bought posterboard and the Colombian National Costume, made signs that said: Want to change your life? Call this number! And then joined the parade Ferris-Bueller-style. When his fellow church members, all locals, saw their church represented in the parade they went wild with joy. I would have been worried that I didn’t have permission. But he doesn’t seem to have much fear about that sort of thing. He’s not afraid of hard work. He knows how to get things done; how to make things happen.

There are a huge number of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia right now. You may have seen the headlines, the Washington Post is calling it the worst crisis in our hemisphere. I know Ralph worries about them daily. He wrote:

A lot of refugee families go to bed hungry where I work. The minimum wage in Colombia is 780,000 Colombian pesos monthly, i.e. $270 USD monthly. San Francisco minimum wage right now is $15 USD per hour (holy crap). And all the Venezuelans that have come to Colombia in the past 3 years work for waaayyyy less. Like 200k or 150k which is about $50 a month…for a family. Super poor.

When he lived in Bogota, he said he would buy as many loaves as he could carry in the morning and deliver them to hungry families as he went about his day.

A couple of weeks ago, he wrote this tribute to Colombia:

I am just trying to take everything in. There is not one street in my area that you could find in the States. All the kids playing on the street at 10pm. Crazy wild dogs running everywhere. Dudes walking around selling avocados in wheelbarrows. People yelling at the top of their lungs to sell yuca bread and fish. Things I’ve heard and seen every day that I won’t see again in a long time.

That doesn’t even compare to the people I’ve met here who have been my family for the past 2 years. Some of the best friends I’ve ever made.

It’s gonna be weird leaving the safe bubble of the mission. No world news, no social media, you live in a sector with limits and that’s what you know about.

It’s a funny thing. We have missed him so deeply, and yet I know that if he had been home for those two years, we probably wouldn’t have seen him much. He would have had a full and busy schedule. He would have had a life.

Yesterday was his birthday. Last week, a mother in Colombia who lives in his town, a woman I don’t know at all, uploaded videos to Instagram of a birthday celebration she was hosting for Ralph. I was so grateful. I couldn’t stop crying while I watched, and I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. It was wonderful to see him so happy; to hear him speak beautiful Spanish so easily. I’m incredibly grateful for all the people who have looked out for my son while he’s been far from home. These are people I will likely never meet, and have no way of adequately thanking. It’s just one of those gifts you have to accept and wonder why you are so lucky.

I don’t know what Ralph will do when he comes home. You may remember that he skipped out on his last year of high school and took the CHESPE instead (which is California’s GED). Then he attended a year of community college while enrolled in the UC transfer program. (Basically, you go to community college for two years and take specific classes, and the program guarantees admission into the UCs. UCs means University of California at X. There are 9: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, and UC Merced. They are good competitive schools and the transfer program is amazing — it basically cuts your college costs in half, and allows you a chance to get in to a great school even if you never took the ACT or SAT or AP Classes. If you didn’t do well in high school, or you’re a late bloomer, it’s a fresh start.)

Anyway, he needs one more year of community college before he can transfer. But he may want to work first. He has mentioned wanting to spend the fall in New York working on a movie. Or maybe he’ll head to France to connect with friends there.

Ralph is worried he’ll be strange when he gets back, that the transition will be awkward or difficult. He loves being in the know about music and movies and pop culture, and he knows he’s totally behind. The world has had some major changes since he left. When he went to Colombia, Barack Obama was the president. Ralph hasn’t seen Get Out. Or heard any of Cardi B’s music. He’s missed a thousand memes. The kids have been updating a Google Doc for the last two years — they’ve filled it with every news item, movie, song, and internet joke that they think he’ll want to know about. Maybe it will be useful. Maybe it will be overwhelming. : )

Whatever he decides to do, I hope he knows how proud we are of him, how much we love him, and how much we love being his parents. I think we got lucky to have Ralph as our first. He was an easy kid to raise, and was an enthusiastic model for his siblings. Since Ralph embraced whatever activity we were doing, the other kids did too. I suppose they figured that was normal. : ) I keep thinking about who might hire Ralph in the near future, and how lucky they will be to have Ralph on their team. What a great human being he’s turned out to be.

P.S. — We’ve been posting his weekly emails to a blog, so that his Grandmas can read the updates. We’re printing them out as a book.