A Little Trot Down Memory Lane

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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.