A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life in Charlestown – Volume 2: Death, Debts Forgiven, and Fitting Rooms

Two years ago today my father died. There are times in life where you remember exactly where you are at a pivotal moment. I was at work, chatting with my dear friend and colleague, Suzana. My dad had been declining and we knew the end of his life was drawing closer. Still, no matter how much you expect it, you never really expect it. That thin line between life and death; between heaven and earth. It’s a mystery.

I remember him today. It’s a beautiful day here in Charlestown, and he would love where we live. It is Boston at its prettiest in our neighborhood, with gas lamps that shine their light day and night, and neighbors who say hello to each other.

So I remember my dad today and I pause in gratefulness for his life and legacy.

Debts Forgiven

I am always on the lookout for a good story. There are plenty out there, but unfortunately we don’t always hear them. But on Wednesday I heard a great story on forgiven debt.

Evidently a group of churches in Chicago have decided to help almost 6000 people pay their medical debts. The total cost? Around 5.3 million dollars. ⠀ ⠀

In the next few days, each person will receive a letter in the mail with information on the payment and these words “⁣may you have a beautiful, wonderful holiday. Your debt has been forgiven. Enjoy Thanksgiving.”⠀ ⠀

I grow weary of bad news and cruelty, of incompetent leadership and lies at high and low levels of government. I grow weary of petty meanness – in others, yes – but in myself even more. Then I hear a story like this, and I know it does not stand alone. I know there are other churches and other people doing work that matters, living out their faith in actions big and small. And I am convinced that these small acts matter in big ways. These small acts make a difference, and we may never really know of their true impact. ⠀ ⠀ ⠀

One of the ministers from one of the churches involved in the debt relief effort said this about the decision: ⁣”Well, I began to cry because I knew what it would mean for – it was exactly 5,888 people. I’ll never forget that number. I knew what this would mean for them, that it was a new start for people.”⠀ ⠀ ⠀

A new start. Your debt is forgiven. What amazing words those are! The link to the full story is here. You’ll be glad you listened.⠀

Warning: You Are Entering the Fitting Room!

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I believe that fitting rooms need a warning sign. A warning sign that says “The mirror may reflect things that surprise, shock or astound you! Please refrain from sudden outbursts!”

Here’s the back story: We head off to a family wedding in Florida today. I love weddings, I love family, and I love palm trees so I’m looking forward to it.

In thinking through what I would wear, I realized I’d like to look a little firmer. You know that thing called gravity? It creeps around and through you in the oddest ways!

I had limited time, but I was armed and ready – or so I thought. I picked up a few things from the rack of undergarments and headed toward the aptly called “fitting room.” Five minutes later, busy with Lycra and straps, I caught sight of this stranger in the mirror! I shrieked! “By God, who is that? Who is in my fitting room and what is she wearing?” Thankfully the store was short-staffed, so no one came to my aid, because the moment after I screamed I realized that the chubby, wrinkled person in the mirror was me.

How did I get to be HER?

What? How could this be? How could the beautiful, lithe, me who I thought I was be Her of the Stretch Marks and Muffin Top? I gasped in horror. Where is the me who I thought I was?

While those of us who are of a certain age have our own challenges, any female who has reached the age of being able to go to the fitting room alone knows the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” that are part of the shopping experience. Too often we women drag along men, expecting them to  make a potentially self-esteem damaging experience easier. It rarely happens and I can’t count how many couples I have watched in the same scenario.  It goes something like this:

She: You don’t like it. (in flat tones) He: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. (in defensive tones) She: But I can tell – you didn’t say anything. If you had liked it you would have said something. He: It’s not whether I like it, it’s whether you like it. She: But I need an opinion. He: Look, I don’t know women’s clothing. I guess I like it. Maybe you need something that doesn’t have stripes. She: I knew you thought I looked fat(in an accusing and hurt tone, eyes welling up). He: I did not say that. She: Let’s just go.

It’s a set-up for failure of both parties. We are desperately looking for words of  affirmation and have a completely unrealistic expectation of what those will sound like. 

But back to my experience looking for undergarments. As I laughed at the stranger in the mirror, I thought about our bodies and our souls. How one can be revived daily, and one is daily losing something. What if I spent as much time on my soul as my body? There is so much to think about in that statement. But I’m not going to unpack it here and now. I’m going to leave you with the vision of me screaming at the me in the mirror. “By God, who is she and what is she wearing?” The person in the mirror started laughing, and strangely – so did I.

Routines & Nesting

We are settling into something of a routine here. Though there are boxes in our cellar, this has become a good place to call home and nest for awhile, and we are loving the neighborhood and this little red house. We have begun family dinners with my daughter, son-in-law, and nephew and we have already had a couple of overnight guests. This is a true joy for us. The neighborhood provides beautiful walks, sunrises, and sunsets in a truly historic area of the city. What a gift!

Kurdistan is close to our hearts but far from our bodies and in moments of honesty we confess to each other how difficult that is. We pray and talk about our friends and Kurdistan all the time, and we are with them in spirit during this difficult time of history.

If you’d like to read more on the Kurds, this is an excellent site: The Time of the Kurds.

I began this post with death, and I will end it with the same by leaving you with a quote from the highly acclaimed novel – Laurus.

“⁣Each of us repeats Adam’s journey and acknowledges, with the loss of innocence, that he is mortal. Weep and pray, O Arseny. And do not fear death, for death is not just the bitterness of parting. It is also the joy of liberation.”

Laurus

A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

Low Tide at Wingaersheek

Low Tide at Wingaersheek

Wingaersheek Beach is a beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A winding road off Route 128 takes you up hills and around curves, like you’re traveling to nowhere. But beyond the winding roads and heavily wooded area you realize there is an extraordinary beach, hidden from the unaware traveler.

Wingaersheek beach is unique among beaches. Massive rocks in the middle of the sand create a natural playground for children or seating spaces for adults to lounge. High tide pushes everyone toward the marshes and soft, white sand while low tide transforms the area into sand bars in the ocean and empty beach to roam and play.

For us the real magic of Wingaersheek comes after 5, when tired beach goers walk toward their cars, sand and sun covering their bodies, and we arrive. The real magic is low tide at sunset.

Our love of Wingaersheek began many years ago, during another tumultuous time of transition. We had been living in the mega city of Cairo, Egypt for seven years but circumstances urged us to return to the United States. We landed in Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. with five kids, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat named Pharaoh. Two of our kids had been born in Egypt, and none of them knew much about living in America. In fact, none of us did. In total we had lived in the United States for 12 months in 11 years. The best way to describe us was as hidden immigrants with good English skills.

We thought we would make our home in the suburban landscape of Washington D.C., where politicians, lobbyists, and power brokers hide behind expensively unassuming brick homes and everyone has to know someone to get anywhere. It turns out that this was the wrong place for us, and six weeks after arriving we found ourselves on the Northshore of Boston.

We were jobless and initially homeless, with an extended family that was praying hard.

I remember the palpable fear of a new beginning in the United States. I remember the unknown, the newness of everything, the anxiety about the future. I remember the sense of being on shaky ground; like an earthquake where you don’t remember where to go, and instead stand paralyzed, wondering when the tremors will stop.

Our hopes and plans for the future were all focused on living overseas. We never imagined that this would change, never imagined that our dreams would have to change, that our plans would have to shift. It was a death of expectations. It was the death of our life as we knew it. It was the death of a dream.

If someone had asked us what we had left behind, we would have said “Everything. We left everything behind.”

We found a ranch style house in the small town of Essex with a bright orange kitchen. It was an unimaginative house, but the pond behind the house provided hours of joy for our kids. We enrolled our three oldest in school, and we began to look for jobs.

It was now September and Massachusetts was at its finest. Each day dawned bright and golden, temperatures in the low seventies, blue sky that artists and lovers dream about.

We would wake up in the morning and get the three older kids off to school, comforting them as they bravely set out to make their own way in an American school in a small town. After the three older ones were off, we would sit down and look for jobs, scanning newspaper want ads and filling out job applications, all the while praying silently.

And then, we would go to Wingaersheek Beach. The two youngest were one and four years old, and we would pack them into car seats in our red mini van and ride the winding road to the ocean.

The ocean never disappointed. Laying a picnic blanket on the sand, we would sit and munch on sandwiches and fruit. One year old Jonathan was not yet walking and was content with a shovel and bucket. Four-year-old Stefanie would prance all over the sand in a polka dot bikini, her whole being alive with the joy of sand, sun, and ocean.

And we would rest. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t make people call us back to interview us, we couldn’t beg people for jobs, we couldn’t do anything to speed up the process. We did all we could do in the morning, and then we went to Wingaersheek Beach.

It was a gift during transition. A healing gift that filled our souls with hope when so much else felt hopeless. Allowing the gift of creation to do its solid work, we rested and we drank in the beauty all around us.

I never knew so many years ago that Wingaersheek would again become a solace during transition, but this August it has. With our unexpected early return from Kurdistan, we have done much the same as we did so many years ago. We have looked for jobs, contacted people, gone for interviews – and then we have gone to Wingaersheek Beach, where low tide and sunsets have wrapped us in hope.

So many years ago, a pond became a solace to my children while an ocean became a solace to my husband and me, making a difficult transition bearable. And so it is this time, nature doing what it does so well if we allow it – providing healing and fostering resilience.

I will always love low tide at Wingaersheek Beach, where heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets, a tribute to a Creator who calls it ‘Good.’

Low tide at Wingaersheek, where Heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets.

On 35 Years of Marriage

We get to the Athens Central station early but already it is filled with travelers. We look around at crowds of Greeks on their way to Thessaloniki or other stations along the way to celebrate Nativity.

A train security man, zealous for our safety, periodically walks the yellow line along the platform, presumably shouting at all of us in Greek to not, under any circumstances, walk into that yellow line. We dutifully comply.

We stand and I look at my husband as he leans against a pole, our train tickets in hand. I smile, overwhelmed with a sense of great love for this joy-filled, fun, adventurer that I have married. He grins back and I capture the picture.


It is this picture and event that I remember as I wake up to our 35th wedding anniversary. Though it is six months after the train ride, it captures what this year and our married life has been. This is us – the grin, the train tickets, the sparkle of adventure that we see in each other’s eyes, the luggage, the chaos, the jostling, the unknown.

35 years ago we said “I do” to all of this and so much more. Would any of us say the words “I do” if we knew what was ahead? Perhaps that is the beauty and mystery of marriage – that despite all the mistakes, all the failed marriages, all the hurt that can happen, there still emerges this splendid hope that two people can combine intimacy with individuality and make it.

My faith tells me this is more than a man-made institution, that there is a spiritual mystery beyond understanding that undergirds these fragile vows made in the beauty and unwrinkled days of youth.

Though promised in innocence, they have matured in the fire of life and emerged from that fire scarred but worthy. Worthy of celebrating, worthy of announcing, and worthy of remembering and looking ahead.

It was a year ago that we made the seemingly radical decision to upend our life in Cambridge and step into the unknown. Many of you have followed us on that journey and its unexpected ending. The year has been a paradox with some of the most difficult situations accompanying some of the best. The year mirrors marriage – the good, the hard, the sad, the lonely, the loss, the bargaining, and the acceptance. Unexpected joy and unanticipated grief met together, and we are still reeling in the aftermath.

But today, we forgot all that in a near perfect celebration.

We spent the day with our oldest daughter, an example of the grace that comes with adult children. She is here with her young family and we spent the day in sunshine and the relaxation that only a perfect summer day in Rockport can bring. The wonder and excitement of a three-year-old and the miracle of a seven-month-old punctuating our time with appropriate exclamation marks of joy.

We completed it with a balcony dinner of clams and linguini made by our daughter, accompanied by a perfect white wine.

As the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, God’s stamp of approval came with the sunset and a sky painted in blues, greens, purples, pinks, and oranges.

This indeed, is us.

Celebrating a Quiet Life

Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.

On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.

My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.

Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.

In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.

This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.

In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.

In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.

There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.

On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:

Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”

Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.

Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.