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Still Together--as Father Wished


There were no prouder parents at La Canada Flintridge High's 1992 commencement than Chris and Sharon Bisgaard.

Diploma in hand, daughter Claudia hugged them, posed for their video camera--and said goodby. She was off to that uniquely American rite, an all-night graduation party at Disneyland.

Only five years ago, Claudia, then 13, and younger sisters Sandra, Yvonne and Jennifer had arrived at the Bisgaard home from Mexico--little strangers, really, who spoke no English and hardly knew these people who were now "mama" and "papa."

Today, Sharon and Chris, both 45, are "Mom" and "Dad." The girls' world is one of gymnastics, piano, driving and ski lessons and slumber parties.

Five years ago, it was very different.

Only Claudia, 18, and Sandra, 15, recall much of that other life, which was turned around Sept. 19, 1985, when an 8.1 earthquake devastated Mexico City, killing thousands--including their mother.

Jennifer, now 8, bounces from chair to chair in the Bisgaards' spacious living room. She is describing her recent poolside birthday party, complete with a rent-a-mermaid.

"The Little Mermaid" is Jennifer's favorite movie, so a real mermaid entertained the 35 guests. Well, not really real, Jennifer explains: "Her feet came out of the bottom of her fin."

Life is sweet for Jennifer since Lara, 18--the Bisgaards' biological daughter--returned from a summer study program in Mexico. When Lara went away, Sharon says, "Jennifer just about went into mourning. She slept with Lara's picture on her chest."

From the start, Lara, a student at Brigham Young University, and her brother, Christopher, 20, now on a mission in Spain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, welcomed their four new sisters.

Any jealousy on Lara's part was, Sharon says, "fleeting, at best."

Christopher's status was less endangered. "Christopher has been Claudia's big buddy," Sharon says. "She used him as her sounding board," the one to whom she took her problems. He loved having four more sisters to tease.

Asked what difference her sisters have made in her life, Lara says flippantly, "I learned how to speak Spanish and not French."

Then she adds: "It's been a great blessing in my life to have them."

This is still not, as Chris said in a 1987 interview when the girls arrived after months of red tape, some Pollyanna vision of life. The Bisgaards never deluded themselves that it would be "The Sound of Music," with a new family of eight "going off into the sunlight singing together."

After all, the girls had spent only a few weeks with the Bisgaards a few months earlier during a trip to Los Angeles.

One challenge was Claudia's education. Although 13, she had only finished fourth grade, family responsibilities having taken precedence over school.

"She had to skip four grades, and do it in English too," Sharon says. Despite a Berlitz blitz, Claudia was hardly prepared for eighth grade.

Chris recalls: "They were having her read 'Romeo and Juliet.' She might as well have been reading Greek. We bought those books in Spanish, but it was old Spanish. That might as well have been Greek."

(In the fall, Claudia will enter Dixie College in St. George, Utah. She wants to teach preschool.)

Not all school traumas were academic. On Oct. 1, 1987, shortly after Chris had driven her to class, the Whittier earthquake struck.

Claudia's classmates were laughing, enjoying the big shake. But, Chris says, "here was this poor little girl who'd lost her family" this way.

With Sandra, temperament was the big challenge. "It was difficult for her to make the transition to 'now these are my parents,' " recalls Sharon. "If she was ever told 'no,' she didn't like it. She's very strong willed and stubborn."

And Yvonne? "We call her the party animal," Chris says. "Everybody likes Yvonne."

Jennifer, a little scene-stealer, is "very bright," says her mother. She's into piano and gymnastics, writes stories and, Chris adds, "is ready to speak her mind on everything."

There have been bumps along the road. In the beginning there were some nightmares; Jennifer would wake up screaming. Nowadays, Chris mentions the rule of 16: In this family, girls don't date until they're 16.

But all told, Sharon says, "I think it's been remarkable for two families merging with so many economic, cultural and language differences."

So that her sisters won't lose their heritage, Claudia made a scrapbook for her service project at church this year. In it are a few precious photos and her childhood recollections.

She tells of sharing a one-bedroom apartment and a bed with her mother, Arcelia, a cleaning woman; her father, Jorge, an auto mechanic, and her sisters.

The family she describes was poor but loving. On birthdays, Claudia recalls, there would be a cake and the birthday girl could request one simple gift: "Sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn't."

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