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.

Another Chapter in the Book of Memories

Over this Thanksgiving weekend the theme has been, of course, thankfulness. Today I was thankful for memories. You think about different times in your life, and it’s like picking up a good book and reading it again. Reliving all the old stories. This weekend I’ve been remembering my 4th grade year.

When I was six we moved back to the States from Haiti. We settled in a little trailer on my grandparents’ farm in Morehead, Kentucky, and my mom enrolled at the Morehead State University. She was going back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant. She did two years at MSU and then was ready to start the PA program which was at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. We were established in Morehead, had a church, our home was comfortable and my Mom only needed to be in Lexington for one year. My parents made the decision that we would live in campus housing during the school week and then would drive the hour back home to Morehead every weekend.

We got to Lexington before classes started and moved into our new apartment. We didn’t bring much as the apartment was already furnished, and we didn’t plan on spending weekends there. For some reason we were put in the Foreign Student Housing. There was a long road with identical apartment buildings lining the road. The apartments set aside for Foreign Students were at the very end of the road. Each apartment building had 8 apartments with outside entrances at each corner of the building. I remember having a very real fear that I wouldn’t be able to figure out which apartment was ours since each building looked exactly alike. This was the beginning of one of the most multicultural years I have ever had.

Let me introduce you my neighbors. Downstairs, directly underneath us, was an Indian couple who had a little boy, maybe three or four, named Sanjeet. The mom wore saris and had a beautiful red dot on her forehead. The smells from her cooking would waft up into our apartment and my mom, who grew up in India, would long to just go downstairs and ask to eat with them. In the next building over from ours were two brothers, Harry and Franklin who were from Panama. Franklin was my age and Harry was my brother’s age. These were the two that we hung out with the most. There was Ronnie from the Philippines who was in my grade at school. He lived across the street. He was different. He liked to wear his mom’s makeup and sometimes one of her scarves or her shoes. He was unmercifully teased. I tried to be nice to him but he was not the nicest person and so I ended up keeping my distance. There was the kid from West Germany (this was before the Wall came down) who had stair step brothers and they all looked alike, same bowl haircuts, same worn out clothes. There was the Muslim family whose Mom we would see walking around, veiled, pushing a stroller with several other small children walking along. They were from somewhere in Eastern Europe. They stand out in my memory because the boy that was my age liked to pick fights and his five year old brother went down in history as the first person to totally cuss me out. Then there was my friend Katelynn. She was from Hungary. Even though she lived across the street from me, I didn’t meet her until we had been in school for a while. She was brought into my math class and the teacher sat her next to me. The teacher explained that she didn’t speak English and could I please try to help her figure out what we were doing in our math book. This was when I found out that math crosses over any language. I was amazed that she could look at the math book, understand it, do the problems, and do them a whole lot better than me, even though she couldn’t read the English words that explained the problems. This began our friendship and we soon discovered we lived close to each other. At that time Hungary was still a communist country. Katelynn’s father was a scientist who had gained permission to come do some kind of research work at UK. Katelynn wasn’t able to play a whole lot because she had to keep up with her Hungarian school, plus her Russian school, plus she was trying to learn English and keep up with American school. When she was able to play, she would come over to my apartment with her little sister Ignes, and we would play “Mickey Mouse Club”. I wanted a club and Katelynn and her sister loved Mickey Mouse and had all kinds of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, and so, it became a Mickey Mouse club. I have no idea what we did, but I do remember that we were happy doing it. Little girls, hiding in a corner, giggling. Some things are the same no matter where you are from.

I loved playing with Katelynn, but as I said before, she was usually busy with school work. Most of the time I played with Franklin and Harry. Franklin and Harry are responsible for exposing me to every imaginable swear word in the English language. Their English was actually great. I’m not sure how long they had been in the states. I only ever heard their parents and other siblings speak Spanish. It was quite a shock to come from my missionary kid background plus my small-town country-living, and come to a place where all the kids cussed like sailors and every other word out of there mouth was unrepeatable.

Franklin had black hair and twinkling eyes and he was the life of the party. Everything was more fun with Franklin. I had a pair of skates. Franklin didn’t have a pair of skates. So I gave him one skate and wore the other and we would link arms and team-skate up and down the sidewalk. He was the one that convinced me we could skate down a really steep hill. Come on! We can do it! (No, we couldn’t). It took quite a while for the bloody knees, elbows, and hands to heal from that escapade. Harry and Franklin had very little supervision and they would get on the University bus and ride all over campus. They would go down to the football stadium after a game and scour the bleachers, looking for money people had dropped and whatever treasures they could find. One time they brought back some little pom poms and gave me one. I was so excited. I had, for some reason, decided that having big bushy pom poms and giving cheers would be fun. So Franklin went back and gathered up a giant bag of mini pompoms for me. We divided them up into two bundles, taped the handles together, and created two giant pom poms. I played “cheerleader” to my heart’s content. I would cheer for the boy’s tag football games that they played in the median that was in the middle of our parking lot. I tried to play football with the boys, and they didn’t mind me playing, but after experiencing being tackled to the ground and then having everyone jump on top of me in a giant pile, I decided cheerleading was more my thing.

We all attended Glenwood Elementary School. The school was located in an upscale neighborhood and all of us kids from the UK campus were bused over. The school had a very dedicated music teacher, Miss Markle, who taught daily music classes (she introduced me to the wonders of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite), had an orchestra, the Swing Choir which was by audition only, and a Glee choir that was mandatory for all 5th and I think 6th graders. I was in the swing choir. That year Miss Markle decided that everyone was going to learn “O Come All Ye Faithful” in latin. Adestes Fideles. There is a part in the latin where it says, “venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus, Dominum”  So, the “adoremus” is pronounced “ah-do-re-MOOS”. Harry and Franklin and a bunch of other kids on our bus learned this song. They all loved the “adoremus” part because it ended in “MOOSE”. This lead to the really interesting experience of riding a public school bus with a bunch of rowdy, rough-edged kids, all of us singing Adestes Fideles at the top of our lungs with a heavy emphasis on the “MOOSE”. A definite improvement from their normal habit of flipping off the cars that had the unfortunate luck of getting behind our bus.

During the school year I also got to know a girl named Emily who went to my school. She was Jewish. Her family lived in the neighborhood right next to the school. I think her parents weren’t quite sure what to do with our friendship. I was allowed to come to her house, but she wasn’t allowed to come to my house. I would make the very long walk over the fields behind our apartments, through the neighborhood to her house all by myself and we would play in her fenced-in backyard. Her mother was always dressed very fancy and she was always concerned that Emily not get dirty or mess up her clothes. One time her mom had to run errands and so we got in the car with her and we stopped by the synagogue, which was, to my eyes, surprisingly modern. Growing up learning all about the history of the Jews in the Bible, I found it fascinating to finally be interacting with some real modern-day Jews. Emily’s mom would also bake something called Beer Cookies. My parents were strict teetotalers and so I found this quite scandalous. I tried one, but didn’t think they tasted very good, even though Emily thought they were the best cookies ever.  

All week long I was inundated with culture and amazing learning experiences. Then the weekend would come along. Friday night we would pile into our little car and make the trek back to the farm. It was only an hour’s drive, but to children, an hour feels like a lifetime. We would get home late at night to our cold trailer, nestled in among the pine trees on the hillside. I would go back to my tiny bedroom and jump under the covers, my patchwork quilt making my room feel cozy. All my toys and books had been waiting patiently for me and I would snuggle under the covers, just enjoying being in my bedroom again. I could hear my dad in the kitchen struggling with the wood-burning stove, trying to get a fire started so the trailer could start warming up. Tomorrow was Saturday, I could look forward to playing with my cousins, and the new girl that had moved next door. We would run around the woods, play in the creek, maybe ride my Aunt’s ponies. Sunday we would go to church and see our old friends, then Sunday night, back to the city for another week of adventures. I breathed in the rich smell of woodsmoke, dad had finally got the fire going. I turned off my lamp, snuggled down into my blankets, and fell asleep with a smile on my face.

A Little Trot Down Memory Lane

acul

I was a missionary kid who grew up in Kentucky, Haiti, and Alaska. I was born in Kentucky and then moved to Haiti when I was 2, back to the Kentucky when I was 6, stayed for 5 years, then back to Haiti when I was 11. I lived in Haiti from the age 11 to 15 with a 9 month break when I was 13. And then when I was 15 we moved to Alaska. It’s confusing. I know. I don’t expect you to remember all that.

I’ve been remembering the 11-15 yrs old stage when I was in Haiti. We lived for a year in Cap Haitien and then moved to a mountaintop home that had a view of the entire Northern Plain of Haiti, including a view of the Bay of Acul, a place where Columbus was reported to have landed. The house and its surrounding property was a child’s paradise. The house was a concrete block, 2 story, flat-roofed home with a balcony and a narrow ledge that went around the entire house on the 2nd story. There was an abundance of fruit trees. The driveway had been cut out of the mountainside and so there was a high cliff on either side of the driveway, and the peak of the mountain above that which was covered in tall grass and scattered with large boulders. There was a patch of jungle/woods/forest that had a wonderful old cashew nut tree in it, it’s branches all twisted and curlicued, making it an awesome climbing tree. There was a separate building a little farther up the hill from the house that housed a generator and there was a bench next to the that little building where you could sit and stare at the ocean off in the distance. It was an amazing home. The windows were all covered in metal grates and so we could easily climb up the windows, and get up on the ledge that surrounded the 2nd story. From there you scooted carefully along the narrow ledge till you got to the railing around the balcony, you could then climb onto the balcony. On the balcony was a ladder that took you up to the flat roof.

Occasionally my brother and I would get home from school before our parents and occasionally we wouldn’t have the keys we needed to get onto the property or into the house. We would first climb over the tall, locked,  wrought iron gate that went across our driveway, go down the driveway and then we would climb up on the balcony or roof to wait for our parents.

During that time period in Haiti there was a lot of political upheaval and the infrastructure of the country was not good. There was an electric company, but the power was rarely turned on. We had a generator but later, when Haiti was put under an embargo by the US, there was little fuel to run the generator. We had a well that gave us good clean water, but the well required an electric pump. By the end of our time in Haiti, we were turning on our generator every 3 days for about an hour during which time we would fill an entire room full of buckets and containers of water to hold us over for the next 3 days.  We would quickly run some laundry through our agitator/wringer washing machine, and then quickly turn the generator off to conserve the fuel. I took a cold bucket bath every morning before I headed out to school, mastering the skill of making a 5 gallon bucket last for a complete bath, including washing and conditioning my long hair.

My teen years in Haiti were spent going to school, attending a Haitian church on Sunday mornings, and then an English church on Sunday evenings. The occasional Saturday was filled with going to the beach or getting together with friends. During the summer I would accompany my mom into Cap Haitian for a day of shopping the market places, getting in a supply of basic groceries. We regularly visited friends. A big chunk of my time though, was spent simply at home, left to my own devices.

My brother was trying to graduate early and so he spent much of his time holed up in his room, working on his high school correspondence courses. My father was out doing his work and my mother was busy doing all the work that is required when you don’t have electricity, or convenience stores, or even well-stocked grocery stores. She also worked in medical clinics a couple times a week, and held medical clinics at our home for people in our neighborhood. I helped my mom with her medical clinics sometimes, wrapping pills in paper packets we made from cutting up magazines, handing her the right pill packets as she needed them.

I need to make something clear. I was not a missionary. I was simply a missionary kid. I did not feel any special calling or burden for the Haitian people. Haiti just happened to be where I lived. My parents did their work and I was caught up with school work and friends and daily life. My grandparents had been missionaries in Haiti for 40 years. My father grew up in Haiti. My mother came from England as a young single missionary, met my father, and they married and had my brother there in Haiti. For me, Haiti was not a mission field, it was simply where my family lived.

While my family was busy with their various pursuits, I focused on reading books, practicing music, journaling, and simply sitting outside, taking in nature, daydreaming, trying to sketch pictures of the view, trying my hand at writing poetry (unsuccessfully). I loved to get to a high perch, stare out at the ocean and just exist. I loved to sing and I would often sing loudly, giving it all I had, confident in the knowledge that no one was listening. I would sing hymns and praise songs, not really understanding the concept of worship, just knowing that the earth around me was so beautiful, I had to acknowledge the beauty and the creator of the beauty somehow. And so I sang songs.

I liked to write in my journal, just putting down the every-day occurrences of a young girl. Which friend had a crush on who, what my current crush had said to me the last time I saw him, stories of my life. Looking back through my journals it’s interesting to see how I gradually became aware that I wasn’t speaking into an empty void. Someone was listening to me. As I grew older my journals started becoming a conversation with God. A prayer. A place to vent and rant when I was upset, knowing that someone safe was listening to me. Through journaling I slowly learned the art of expressing my emotions and then learning how to be thankful anyway. I learned how to turn a complaint into a prayer request, a difficult trial into something that made me think and ponder and grow in my understanding of God and life.

Music took up a large chunk of my time. I was blessed to live close by to Laurie Casseus, who, in a fun turn of events, ended up becoming my aunt-in-law. Laurie was a singer and pianist, a missionary kid who had grown up knowing my father. She had married a Haitian, Jules Casseus: pastor, academic extraordinaire, author, among other things. The two of them assisted in the running of a Bible Seminary/University that was only two kilometers away from us. Laurie loved to share her talents with her community. She took the missionary kids under her wing and taught us piano lessons, voice lessons, had a children’s choir, and had us highschoolers working on duets and quartets and other ensembles. We sang popular songs, spoofs, hymns and classical music. I also had a full-length, weighted-keys keyboard my parents had bought me. My father had it hooked up to a car battery so that I could always play whether we had electricity or not. He also had a little lamp hooked up to the car battery so that I could see my music at night. I played that piano constantly, it was one of my only ways of expressing myself, the emotions I was feeling. I honestly don’t think I would have survived my tumultuous childhood without music. I am forever thankful to God for giving me a musical talent and to my parents for fostering that talent as much as they could and to Aunt Laurie for giving me so many opportunities to learn and grow in my music.  

One of my favorite memories of music was one night when there was no electricity, the entire valley was dark except for the small flickers of lamps and candles. There was a full moon and it was shining brightly on the ocean bay. I remember, in the silence, playing Debussy’s Clare de Lune and the music spoke to my soul. I knew what Debussy meant when he wrote the music. He meant this, this dark, moon lit night, silence, calm, peacefulness. It was a glorious experience to become one with the music and moon and the night. I remember it vividly to this day.

This past week I had been contemplating some of the more difficult aspects of life in Haiti, and I wondered if really any good had come out of me growing up there. God’s response was to flood me with memories. Memories of a childhood that was full of quiet moments and contemplation. No distractions of tv and internet and plugged-in entertainment. A childhood of music and book reading and journal writing. A childhood of nature and beauty. In the midst of the chaos God nourished my soul. I am thankful.