FRANCESCA BARBUTO, MY ITALIAN SISTER by Kathryn Stelly
In August of 1984, I came home with my brother and dad from a church work trip in Tennessee to find a wild, exuberant girl running out of the house to hug me. My parents had decided to host an exchange student from Italy for a school year and I was surprised to find her there when we returned home. I was to share my room with her and my parents had decided to add their old queen-sized waterbed to the twin bed in my room. I was unsure, not knowing what to expect from a stranger living in our home, especially my room. Little did I know then what a significant part of my life she would become.
Francesca was the opposite of me. I had some close friends, but I was painfully shy around many people. She was very enthusiastic to learn about life in the United States, had a great sense of humor, and was never afraid to be herself. She knew five languages, joined the swim team (I told her most girls in the United States shave their armpits - all the time, not just at the beach) and as many clubs as she could fit in her schedule. I was a sophomore and she was a senior that seemed to know everyone. Through her encouragement I was able to loosen up and be myself around others.
The music Francesca listened to then in the 80's was New Wave music with bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths. Francesca's unique way of dressing was part European, part New Wave, and mostly whatever she wanted it to be. She would shop at the Salvation Army and find crazy shirts, big belts, and hiking boots. I was young and impressionable and grew to love the things she was so passionate about - art, music, people. I'm not sure the exact moment it happened, but by Christmastime she had become like a sister to me and I couldn't have imagined it any other way.
Francesca had a global perspective having traveled to many European countries and was fluent in French, German, English, and also studied Latin. She taught me about the Italian culture with its regional differences, importance of education, sports, religion, food, even fashion. Her mother kept her wardrobe current while she was away (although she had to lose some weight after she got home - she gained 40 pounds eating our highly processed American food). Her mother sent us packages containing Fran's favorite foods and clothes for the both of us. We tried to show her as much of our country as we could, from our house in Chicago to Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, and at spring break Florida. At Disney World, while waiting in line, she met people from other countries to talk to. It was important to Fran that she acquire a tan, she did and a bit of a sunburn too. On the trip to Kentucky, with our church youth group, she was introduced to less fortunate people in the mountains there. The house we worked on was the home to a blind man who would find his way around with his hands and had worn the paint away in places. Fran spent as much time on the porch talking with him as she did painting his house, which I believe meant more to him than the condition of his home.
Before flying back to Italy Fran and the other foreign exchange students took a three week bus tour. The day we took her to meet the bus was one of the hardest days of my life. I could hardly stand waiting till the bus drove away. It was hard to bear, I cried and waited. Saying good-bye was difficult not only because we had grown so close but because I didn't know if I would see her again. She was a wonderful artist and poet and wrote this to me before she left:
Awgh! Kathy, what time is it?
I stretch and open one eye
-no Kathy is there-
A wooden floor has placed the green carpet
The bed is no more wavy
To whom will I tell my stories?
Who can I bug now.
Who can I touch with my cold toes during the night.
Loneliness and emptiness are wrapping the place that once was my nest.
I push away from my mind the idea of missing her.
It's too painful.
But that thought is waiting for me at the door of my home.
The following Summer, my parents sent me to Italy for three amazing weeks which was almost as profound an experience as when Fran came into my world. She took me from her home in the northern town of Ferrara to Pisa, Florence, Venice, to vacation at the sea and many places in between. My mother says it was my trip there that broadened my culinary tastes (I used to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). Now I definitely appreciate good food and I'm always looking for a good Italian restaurant wherever we go. I've never found anything that compares to Fran's mother's cooking. I know my memories of the food are also tied to the spirit in which it was eaten - long dinners with family and friends.
My husband and I were able to take a vacation to see Fran, her husband Lino, and the family. Fran and Lino also made a trip to see us once. Now they have two beautiful children that I hope they bring or send to visit one day. I know I hope that I can give an experience like that to my own children perhaps through hosting an exchange student or a visit to Italy.
Francesca helped me grow as person and to appreciate the differences of others. Fran came into my life and I received something I didn't know I was missing - a sister. She's always in my heart and thoughts even though we're separated by great distances and busy lives. I love you Fran!