Childhood Memories

Disclaimer:

The following is a memory from my childhood. A note on memories. They are not always accurate. Details might be wrong. Also, these are the memories of a child, my understanding of the world around me was that of a twelve year old. My main concern in posting this article is to not cast a bad light on the country of Haiti. I do not want that. I think the events that happened are universal to any society that is going through upheaval, not specific to Haiti. So, without further ado..

I was twelve years old. We were living in Cap Haitian, Haiti. We had just moved back to Haiti maybe six months before, after living in the States for five years. Haiti was the home of my father and mother, and I had memories of Haiti from when I had been younger, so it felt like home.

There had been a Coup d’etat, the government had been overthrown and the country was in an uproar. We had been hiding in our house for a week with little word of how things were going around the country. My father religiously listened to the radio throughout the day and he had a ham radio in his truck that he could reach a missionary compound that was maybe a thirty minute drive away in Vaudreille where my Grandparents lived. My father and Grandfather had a prearranged time that they would talk over the radio twice a day. 

The first day that everything fell apart we had heard explosions and gunshots. We had all hid in the stairwell of our house, the safest place we could find in our open, airy, tropical home. Not sure if any of the bullets were aimed our way. During the day we could hear the low roar of a mob, far off in the distance. And I wondered what that mob was doing. I had overheard stories of mobs attacking rich people’s houses, dragging the occupants out into the street and killing them in horrible ways and then ransacking their houses. The sound of the mob was the sound of death. I hated that sound. 

We stayed inside, rarely venturing into our concrete-block-walled yard. We had very little groceries in the house and had been subsisting on macaroni and a large bag of pancake mix. 

The first night of the trouble, my father had told us to lay out an outfit in dark colors and pack one small bag. He was afraid that our house might be attacked in the night and that it would be necessary for us to run on foot from the house. He had spoken to our night watchman and the watchman knew the trails over the mountain that could take us to the missionary compound, and he was willing to lead us if necessary. 

I had always wanted to hike over that mountain, it always looked so romantic, looming over the Northern Plain, often covered in clouds. The whole idea sounded exciting, but it also made my stomach churn. I remember laying out my black tshirt and my blue jean capri pants. I packed a small blue jean bag with leather straps that my mother had brought as a gift for me when she had gone to South Africa for the funeral of her missionary father. I always slept with my favorite stuffed animal, Potbelly, and I couldn’t decide if I should stuff him in the bag so he would be ready to go or should I sleep with him and then, if I was awakened in the night, I could stuff him in the bag at that time. I can’t remember what I decided. 

My mom had a large jewelry collection, none of it worth a great deal, but each piece representing an exotic location she had visited. My mom got out some dark green fabric and showed me how to sew a simple little drawstring bag. We sewed two bags and then put our jewelry in the bags and stowed them in our travel bags. 

When I woke up the next morning, I looked over, and all my travel stuff was still there. I was surprised and thankful that we hadn’t had to run in the night. But, we left our stuff layed out every night that week, just in case. 

After a week, my Dad came in after talking on the ham radio with my Grandpa. After talking with my mom, they announced that we were going to drive to the missionary compound and stay there until things had calmed down. 

What about the drive there? What about the mobs? What about the gunshots? What if we got stopped? 

My Dad said we would not get stopped. Everything was going to be ok.

We each packed a small bag of valuables and clothing and then loaded them into our truck. The watchman agreed to stay on and take care of our pets and take care of the property. 

Our truck had once been a Tap-Tap, a vehicle outfitted to act as public transportation. The back had a roof and sides. My dad had changed the benches in the back to make them more comfortable and he had installed a tail gate and wire mesh doors that could completely close up the back. 

Usually, my brother and I would sit on the benches and we would get a bungee-cord and fasten it to the two wire mesh doors to hold them closed from the inside. If my dad wasn’t carrying passengers he simply used a padlock to shut the doors from the outside.

This time my dad put a mattress down on the floor of the truck bed and instructed us to lay on the mattress. Then he shut the wire mesh doors and locked them from the outside with a padlock. He had canvas curtains that he could put down when it was raining. We hated those curtains as it shut out any breeze and made it very hot. He put down the curtains so that nobody could see into the back of the truck, and we couldn’t see out. 

I lay on the mattress on the floor and just stared at that padlock through the dim gloomy light. What if our truck DID get stopped by a mob? What if the mob set our truck on fire? I knew this was a possibility. I had seen burnt-out vehicles by the side of the road before. What if the mob pulled my parents from the truck and killed them and we were just stuck in the back of the truck, unable to do anything?

I looked over at my brother. He had his headphones in, music blasting. I scooched a little closer to him, layed on my back and stared at the sliver of light coming between the rubber curtains. I held on as the truck slowly made its way down a very rutted and washed out dirt road. I mentally kept track of where we were, each bump and turn giving me a clue. I didn’t move from the mattress. I had no desire to get up and peek through the cracks. Finally the truck pulled off the dirt road and onto a paved road that was also rutted and full of potholes, sections of pavement missing every once in a while. My body tensed. We could drive faster on this road, but we were still in town. Just a little bit farther and we would be out of Cap Haitian. The closer we got to Vaudreuille and the missionary compound, the safer we would be. 

Finally, finally, the truck took a sharp right turn and then stopped. I knew we must be at the gates to the compound now. The gate would be locked and guarded, but they would recognize our truck and let us in quickly. 

We finally pulled into a grassy driveway behind my grandparents house. My dad got out and I could hear him talking to my grandparents. I shook the back door, Hey, let me out. And he walked over and unlocked the gate. My brother and I jumped out, holding our bags. We all then acted like we were having a holiday visit with my grandparents. My grandmother showed us our rooms, my brother and I sharing the room we had always shared when staying with them. A cannonball from the Citadel, a large fortress in the North, acting as a door stop for our door. The whoosh of ceiling fans. The chimes of my grandmother’s clock. 

My grandmother explained when supper was, when breakfast was, what the shower schedule would be, what she and Grandpa’s work schedule would be, as they were still working full-time at the Christian Radio station. It was all so orderly. Just like my grandmother. 

I laid on my bed that was made up with seventies style flowered sheets. I pulled out my book and started reading.

The Traveling Clothes

It’s funny how an outfit can get associated with an entire time period of your life. When I was six and half years old we moved from Haiti back to the States. My mom was planning on going back to school so she could become a PAC and come back to Haiti to do medical missions. 

 

I remember shortly before we left, I was looking in my closet, and in the back of the closet found an outfit hanging up. It was a white sleeveless tshirt with blue anchors all over it. There was also a pair of navy blue culottes. Culottes? I didn’t own any culottes. Now, my next-door best friend Helen had lots of culottes. Maybe these were her clothes hanging in my closet? Maybe she had left them here and Mom was just waiting till she could give them back? I went and asked my Mom and she said that actually this was my traveling outfit, I was going to wear these clothes when we got on the plane to leave Haiti. They were my traveling clothes.

 

Oh. Ok. 

 

I remember the confusion of emotions. Excitement that I had a new outfit with CULOTTES! (I’d always wanted culottes!) Anticipation of getting on a plane. But also a bit of dread since I had no idea what all this meant. 

 

I remember when we got to the airport. My clothes were new and a bit stiff. The airport in Cap Haitien was still small and simple at that time, an open air tin roofed structure with a small area of seats. Lots of gates and chain link fences. For some reason or other me and my best friend quarreled at the very last minute and we either did not say goodbye or it was a very stilted farewell as the group of missionaries that had accompanied us hugged and kissed us on our way. But, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on that, we were getting on the plane. 

 

My mom handed me some Chiclet gum that she had bought from a vendor outside the airport. We rarely got candy or gum so this was a special treat. She instructed my brother and I to chew our gum while the plane was taking off so our ears wouldn’t pop. We obediently and industriously chewed our gum as the plane creeped down the runway, turned, and then suddenly started moving very fast. Everything rattled, we gripped the armrests, and then abruptly, all the shaking was gone. We were up in the air. My face was glued to the window as I watched Cap Haitien and the Mountain and the Bay slowly become smaller and smaller, and then all I could see was the ocean underneath us. 

 

We stayed in Florida for a little while. My only memory of that was going into a grocery store with my parents. Being a lot closer to the floor, I happened to see a small bag of Reeses Pieces in the trademark orange bag. The bag was open and only had a couple pieces of candy left in it. I quietly picked it up and tried out this little treasure I had found. Wow. This stuff tasted good! I quickly finished off the bag and then hid the evidence. Maybe a year later, I learned in school that you were not supposed to eat candy you had found because it might be poisoned. I was still too young to understand how poison worked, and I went through an anxious period of time while I wondered if that candy from a year before was still inside of me and might poison me yet.  

The next time my memory kicks in was when we arrived in Nashville, TN. My mom was looking at two different schools, one in Nashville and one in Morehead, KY where we had lived before on the family farm. 

 

While in Nashville, we stayed in a little guest house of sorts. An upstairs tiny apartment. I remember it was rather dark inside. I’m not sure how we got hooked up with this guesthouse. Some kind of church or mission connection I imagine. I remember that outside the house were long grassy lawns that my brother and I ran around on. And downstairs was a grizzly older woman who I somehow made a connection with. When we left that place she gave me a stuffed toy cowboy as a parting gift. I named him Cowboy Bill and kept him for the rest of my childhood. 

 

I remember while we were staying at this apartment, my Mom bought us a box of Lucky Charms cereal. This was amazing. We did not eat cereal in Haiti. In Haiti we had cooked breakfasts. Oatmeal, pancakes, toast, etc. What was this heavenly ambrosia? It had marshmallows in it! Marshmallows! For breakfast! And they were all pretty colors! And this began the long debate in my mind…Do I eat all the marshmallows first and then have to eat all the plain oat cereal afterwards? Or do I eat all the plain oat cereal first and then end the meal with the bliss of mouthfuls of marshmallows? (It took years of gaining maturity before I could learn to enjoy eating it mixed together, the perfect blend.) 

 

Though I’m sure I had other clothes, all of my memories of that time are of me wearing my white sleeveless tshirt with the blue anchors, and the navy blue culottes. A dark haired little six year old girl. Silently taking in the world in her traveling clothes. 

 

Car Trips, Broken Ice, and Laughter

Today we drove about an hour north to go visit my parents. My youngest daughter had a birthday and we were going to celebrate with Grandma and Grandpa. We had seven kids in the car, our oldest three off living their own lives. We were traveling on a small country highway and I was looking outside enjoying the view: farmland, creeks and rivers, pretty little towns. We were driving along and I noticed a pasture covered in puddles which had then frozen over. I suddenly had a memory of living on my grandparents farm in Eastern Kentucky, maybe ten years old, stomping around on a cold winter day. I was wearing my old light blue tennis shoes, full of holes but wonderfully comfortable, my old worn out blue jeans, hand-me-downs from my older brother, my pink puffy jacket with decorative flaps on the front and secret inside pockets, an old knit hat and a worn out pair of gloves. I remember stomping through my aunt’s pasture where her ponies lived. The ground was covered in muddy indentations from the ponies’ hooves and each indentation had filled with water from the earlier rains and now had frozen over. I remember the sensation of the thin ice cracking under my feet, my foot bending with the frozen ridges in the ground. Stumbling along as I tried to find more ice to break under my feet. I remembered all this and then felt a pang. My children would not have those country-living memories. They were city kids. And I felt this overwhelming longing to just uproot my family and move to a farm so my kids could know the joy of running through fields in winter, breaking ice under their feet.

We spent the day with my parents and then loaded up the van to drive home again. I love car trips. I love just looking out the window and thinking about whatever random topics pop into my head. I love looking at the houses that we pass, wondering about the people who live there. Watching the sky turn colors until it’s just the stars making tiny dots of light. Seeing the dark hulk of hills looming in the distance. As we drove tonight I thought about all the roads I had traveled on in my life. I remembered driving home from Cap Haitien, Haiti to our little house on the mountainside. Laying on a bench in the back of our truck, watching the moon chase us down the road, marveling that we could never outrun the moonlight. I remember driving on sandy, gravelly roads in the bush town of Bethel, Alaska, looking out from the road into pure darkness, no lights to interrupt the horizon, only our little island of a town, floating on the tundra. I remembered driving the Alaska Highway, the vast forests of never-ending trees. And all the other roads, highways in Chile, cross-country road trips out West. I felt melancholy. I couldn’t share these things with my children. I couldn’t give them these experiences.

As we drove along I started tuning in to what was happening in the car. In the very back seat my eleven and nine year old boys had made up their own little game. The eleven year old was singing favorite Disney songs, but he would stop at key words, MadLib style, and then the nine year old would fill in a random word. In the next row up were my two little girls, seven and six. They were giggling and laughing their heads off at the antics of their brothers, sometimes offering a suggestion of a word here and there. Lots of singing. Lots of laughing. In the next row up my four year old and two year old were strapped into their carseats, the thirteen year old sitting next to them, trying to ignore them. The four year old was holding up different shells from a little container of shells that his grandma had given him. He was explaining that if you held up the shell to your ear,  you could hear the ocean. Then he held up a different shell and said, “In this shell you can hear a crab playing rock and roll on his guitar.” He studied the shell thoughtfully for a minute and then pulled out another shell. “In this shell you can hear a turtle biting a fish.” And on it went, each shell with it’s own story. The two year old was fussing and wanted to hold my hand, but his carseat was a bit too far back and so in order to hold his hand I had to bend my body backwards, stretching as far as I could. It was a position I could only maintain for a couple minutes. I would finally feel something snapping in my back and I would pull my hand back and he would instantly start fussing again. My husband started making up a lullaby with silly words for him in an attempt to distract him. And it occurred to me. My kids have these memories. These are good memories. They are worth having. Memories of outings with the family. Memories of singing and laughter. Memories of talking to Mom and Dad about your shells. Memories of being loved.

I am so happy that I don’t have to replicate my own childhood for my children in order for them to have happy, fulfilling memories. They’re writing their own stories, and those stories are good.

Stories From My Journey to Worship

I think one of my favorite journeys that I have been on is the journey of learning how to worship God through music. As a child my family sang a lot. My father had in fact been in a musical group all through his growing up years with his siblings, performing on the Christian Radio Station where his parents worked, performing for churches in the states when his family would come back on furlough (usually a year long break from the mission field, a time spent visiting supporters and speaking at many many churches and events). Music runs pretty deep in my family. My father plays the guitar and my mother sings alto and my brother and I quickly learned how to sing the melody while our parents harmonized and then later learned how to harmonize ourselves. I loved to sing for the sheer beauty of it. As a teen my brother and I and our friends formed a tradition, whenever we were driving in a car together, coming back from a trip to the beach or some other type outing, we would sing together. We would sing worship and praise songs and hymns, and usually the songs had parts and we would split into parts and it was the perfect way to end the day, driving home, tired, making beautiful music.

As I got older I slowly started focusing a bit more on the words that I was singing. I think I started doing this at the suggestion of a worship leader or pastor, and it kind of stuck with me. When I went to Biola University I was exposed to a lot more of the modern style of worship: words printed on a screen above the stage, all electric instruments with a good set of drums, easy, repetitive type songs that never quite have a clear melody line. It was the kind of music that you kind of spaced-out a bit when singing. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the music. It was just very different from what I was used to. But I started noticing something when I attended various worship sessions. There seemed to be a different attitude in the people who were singing. Like, it wasn’t so much about whether your voice sounded perfect or you played a really good solo, or sang a song that was technically difficult. It seemed to be more about disappearing into the song. What I mean, is that the song, the words of the song, who they were about was the focus, not the music that was being created. I enjoyed this new way of singing, I enjoyed the feeling of peace that was in the room and I slowly started learning how to turn my focus on God instead of the music.   

One of my big moments on my worship journey happened when I was twenty. I attended Biola for two years and then “took a break” (that never ended) and went overseas for a year. I spent my first four months in Haiti. I lived with Laurie and Jules Casseus, my old piano teacher from Haiti. I was kind of crashing emotionally and trying to figure out what I was doing with my life and Aunt Laurie ended up doing a lot of listening as I poured out my troubled thoughts. I was staying with them over Christmas (my first Christmas away from home!) and I was quickly caught up in all the Christmas Music performances. Aunt Laurie has a beautiful voice and she had been asked to sing “Oh Holy Night” at a church function in the nearby city of Cap Haitien. She asked me if I would accompany her on the piano and so I dutifully practiced with her and we quickly got it ready to perform. The night of the performance we drove into Cap Haitien to a large concrete church that I had never been to before. My hazy recollection of the church is that it had a large balcony that went around the entire upstairs with the section in the front of the church becoming part of a large stage-like area where the pastor preached, people sang, and I don’t know what else. My memories for architecture aren’t that great though, so I might be a bit off on that. I do remember that I was shown to a little alcove where there was a small, inexpensive keyboard, jury-rigged to a questionable sound system. There was no sustain pedal for the keyboard and so I quickly looked through my music, figuring out how to accommodate to a much smaller keyboard without a sustain pedal. I’m not a big fan on being the center of attention so this particular set up was a dream come true. I was sitting back, kind of out of the way, there were a lot of different people on the stage, and I was simply accompanying, so the focus was on Aunt Laurie. I had this. Aunt Laurie was singing in French. The words to the French version are actually not translated directly in our English version. We’re actually singing something pretty different when we sing the song in English.

Here is a literal translation of the final verse from French into English which I found handily on Wikipedia:

The Redeemer has broken every bond:

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those that iron had chained.

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,

For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

So, here I am accompanying on my little keyboard and Aunt Laurie reaches the final verse. She’s singing and suddenly the whole church rises to their feet and starts singing along, “People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,” and suddenly I’m not accompanying one person, but instead I’m playing along with hundreds and hundreds of people. But it didn’t matter because I was singing along too and I think I may have been crying a bit because what happened felt like Jesus had suddenly walked onto the stage and everyone saw him and they all stood up and started worshiping him and no one wanted it to stop. I think we ran through the chorus several times, I’m not sure.

After the service we drove home in silence, through the dark, unlit night. We got to the top of the small mountain pass that was close to our home and the driver pulled the car over at Aunt Laurie’s urging. The car stopped and the motor turned off. We climbed out of the car and stared out at the valley below us and then looked up. It was the most clear I have ever seen the Milky Way. It was like we were surrounded by stars and they were dancing in the sky in their own form of worship to their creator and I experienced the meaning of the word “awe”. We just stood there in silence and my heart felt like it was going to explode, it was so full.

The memory of that night has stayed with me, I think because it was a rich experience of worship through music in a way that I had unknowingly always been longing for. Focusing on Jesus, using the music to communicate my love for him, my awe of him, my longing for him. The music was just the conduit. Worship. It’s about focusing everything on him and saying, You Are Worthy.

jeff-nissen-562124-unsplash