Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

Tomorrow I will board a plane and travel to Florida for my mother-in-law’s funeral. Since we found out last week, I have been thinking about death – how final it is, how permanent it seems, and how unreal it is until you are actually back in a place where the person lived.

I read these words in an article on grief:

“Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do.”*

They are true words in an otherwise mediocre article.

Memories have resurfaced – some that make me laugh out loud. My mother-in-law was a force of nature. It’s impossible to compress a life into a blog post, and I won’t try, but I want to share some memories of this force who was Dorothy. Thank you for reading.

*****

Dear Dorothy,

On a hot July Saturday in 1983, I received my first phone call from you. I had begun dating your son in February, but he headed off to the Middle East on a study trip in May. It would be a long summer for me; an exciting one for him.

So on that July day, your phone call was welcome. You introduced yourself to me as “Clifford’s mom” and I remember voicing surprise at your southern accent.

“Well, what did you expect” you retorted! “That I would talk like a Yankee.” And that was my introduction to your quick wit and comebacks, something you passed on in no small way to your sons.

In late summer, after Cliff returned from the Middle East, we took a trip to Florida to meet the family. We arrived on a gorgeous day and went straight to dinner at a restaurant.

I was nervous until you looked at me and said:

“The service has been terrible at this restaurant the last 12 times we’ve come.”

“Then why do you keep coming back?” I said. It was the perfect opener to help me relax.

Later that week, as I came into the kitchen ready to head out for a trip to Disney World, your eyes took in my outfit from head to toe, and you said “Well Cliff’s safe with you. No truck driver is ever going to pick you up in those pants!” Cliff looked at me and confirmed your opinion. No one had ever told me how bad I looked in them. Thank God I found out sooner rather than later.

Through the years, you amazed me with your artistic and creative ability. Whether it was China painting or sewing, you knew how to do it. My children wore sweatsuits with embossed designs, drank tea out of tiny china cups that you had exquisitely painted, even admired china cremation urns that you were making for a funeral home.

There are two memories that still come to mind after all these years. The first was a time when your youngest son, Greg, and your husband, Richard were sitting in the family room discussing the weight of football players. I could hear them from the kitchen.

“Did you see the weight on that guy? Wow! 240 pounds! How about that other player? He’s 300 pounds!” And on went the discussion by two men who didn’t have one extra pound on their bodies.

Suddenly I heard you come up behind me. You were laughing so hard you could barely speak. You finally stopped long enough to whisper in my ear “Did you hear them talking about weight? Thank God they don’t know what I weigh!”  I joined you in laughing. Both of us had a struggle with weight that wasn’t easily managed, and having two thin men discuss body weight just added insult to what was already difficult. But laughter was something you did well, even when it was at your own expense.

The second memory makes me smile hard. Again, I was in the kitchen and Cliff and the kids were resting somewhere in the house. It was early afternoon, and you had gone out to do some errands. I heard the living room door open, and then heard a “Psst.” You repeated it. I went to the opening between the kitchen and living room area, and there you were with two beautiful boxes.  You slowly opened them. In each box was the most delectable fruit tart that I have ever seen. The perfectly fluted crust was piled high with cream, then fruit, then more cream. They were magnificent.

As I surveyed them with shining eyes, I realized that there were only two of them.

“Shall I call Cliff?” I asked, thinking that you had bought one for him.

“NO!” you retorted! “This is for you and me! I didn’t even buy one for my son!”

We sat at the kitchen table, like two naughty little girls, savoring a stolen treat. We laughed and whispered, eating every single mouthful and then wiping the cream off of our upper lips. It was heaven.

Something about that moment has stayed with me all these years. Any mother and daughter-in-law combination has its challenges, and ours was no exception. There were times when I fought hard and you fought back. But the shared treat of that moment was a communion of understanding — understanding that sometimes moms need to forget the needs of the rest of the family and eat rich and creamy fruit pastries.  Perhaps also, understanding that sometimes the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship needs those occasional moments away from the rest of the family to forge a bond.

Your life was not all easy, and there were times when I saw glimpses of that.  By the time you were in your early twenties, you had four active boys and were raising them all over the country followed by the world. You knew what it was to pack up and move multiple times, say a million goodbyes, and leave places you would never see again. Yet you made sure that those kids were able to see every sight possible during those four years in Europe. I imagine these last few years with increasing health problems, a husband who is struggling with his own health, and a scattered family were some of the hardest. But every day, you got up, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.

And now you’re gone. It’s not real to me yet – it won’t be until I see Richard alone at the funeral. Your quick answers won’t be a part of this weekend’s gathering. You won’t be chiming in with opinions and laughter. But you will be there, because we will be celebrating you and your life. We will be celebrating the creativity, laughter, quick quips, tenacity, and personality that were uniquely yours.

I hope I will get to eat a creamy, fruit tart and as I do, lift my eyes to Heaven and thank you.  I love you and I look forward to the day when I see you again in another time and another place. Perhaps you are already saving a fruit tart for me.

*Time Magazine, 4.24.17

Honoring the Past; Rejoicing in the Present

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I woke up tired – tired in the best sort of way. How do you capture an event that weaves your past and present together, giving you a tapestry that includes not only memories, but also a sense of being grounded in your current reality?

This weekend brought together a group of people aged 16 to 90. Some danced with the grace of youth while others shuffled with the wisdom and reality of aging. Some came with extended families while others came alone.

Old friendships were rekindled and new friendships were formed. Conversations went deep, and laughter was around every corner.

The only thing that everyone of us had in common was a connection to, and a love for the country of Pakistan and a sense that we did not end up connected to the “Land of the Pure” by chance. And with those two things in common, the rest followed.

I have begun to see what a gift it is to honor my past. To accept the hard and the good that made me who I am today. This weekend was a chance to honor that past and not be stuck in it. It was a chance to renew friendships based on who I am today, not what I was yesterday.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples experienced an extraordinary event. They caught s glimpse of the eternal as they saw Jesus communicate with Moses and Elijah.  They desperately wanted to hold on to the glory of the event. “Let’s build shelters,”they suggest to Jesus. “Let’s capture this! We don’t want it to end!”

Can anyone blame them? 

When you have experienced something of the eternal, you want to hold tightly onto it, afraid for what might happen if you let it go.

This morning, I wanted to hold onto what I experienced this weekend. I wanted to hold onto the contentment, laughter, joy, and belonging that were in abundance. Like Peter, James, and John – I wanted to build a shelter. (Although my Peter, James, and John looked more like a Debbie, a Eunice, and a Joan, or a Leslie, a Marty, and a Suzi.) But the idea was the same.

“Let’s capture this, never let it go, make sure we protect it so we never lose it!”

But that did not happen on the Mount of Transfiguration; nor did it happen today.

Instead, Peter, James, and John gained a greater understanding of who Jesus was.

And I leave my reunion with the same. Through honoring the past, and rejoicing in the present, I get a glimpse of the eternal and it is a gift.

A Marriage and a Mirror


This past Friday, my husband and I celebrated our 32nd anniversary.

Along with our anniversary, we celebrated a milestone – we met our first grandchild. There was something deeply moving about holding this small bundle of baby, knowing that he has no idea how beloved he already is. He is born to  parents that wanted him, planned for him, and love him deeply. He has come into the world to an extended family of uncles and aunts; grandparents and great grandparents; cousins and friends. With him comes a new identity for us – we will be Pop Pop and GiGi for the next generation.

Our wedding was in Chicago, and our grandson was born in Chicago. So along with the joy of meeting him, we went back to the campus of North Park college, the site of our celebration so many years ago. The gazebo that framed our wedding party is gone, vandalized by students who obviously didn’t know the significance of its pristine white frame to so many couples. But the earth below it has not moved and the grass is as green as it was on the day of our wedding. We searched for the statue of a woman that my husband remembered and found her, guardian of many secrets and the only campus witness to our wedding vows.

The usual clichés come to mind as I think about it.

Where did the time go?

We were so young when we got married – just babies really.

How could it be that we are old enough to have a grandson? 

How did it get so late, so soon? 

But in truth, while some years zipped by like days of summer, full of grace and light, others were  slow and hard, with winter clouds hanging low. It has only been recently that I wanted to stop time, put it on pause for a while so that I can catch my breath. Moments have become precious; Saturday mornings curled up with coffee and a book are a gift from the heavens. Summer evening dinners on a porch, with warm breezes blowing are treasured times.

Marriage and faith — both are mysteries. Unexplainable, and yet — we try so hard to explain them. They both take work, they both take effort, they both bring unbelievable joy and earth-shattering doubt.  They both begin as babies, but if either are going to survive, they must grow into adulthood.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about marriage. I looked back at it today, realizing that the words I wrote are as true today as they were when I first wrote them.

*****

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book of the wildly successful Harry Potter series. Chapter 12 in the book is called “The Mirror of Erised.” The “Mirror of Erised” is an ornate, magnificent mirror hidden away in an unused classroom. It’s as tall as the ceiling and has claw feet. But this is more than a beautiful mirror — the person who looks in the mirror sees the “deepest, most desperate desire of [their] heart.” So when Harry, an orphan cared for by a dreadful aunt and uncle who hate him, looks in the mirror he sees his entire extended family waving at him, loving him, letting him know he belongs. His dead parents smile back at him from the mirror, large as life. And when his friend Ron, just one more boy in a huge family with nothing that stands out about him other than his flaming red hair, looks in the mirror he sees himself as head of the Quidditch team and head of the house.

You see that which you long for most of all.

And for most of us our wedding days are a bit like that. The Mirror or Erised is held in front of each couple and we look inside and we see untainted love that lasts through the ages. We see bodies that will never grow old and a love that will never die. We see joy and hope, we see plenty and laughter. While we may say the vows “for better, for worse, for rich, for poor, for sick, for health….” we don’t see those things in the Mirror of Erised.

The Mirror shows us that which we want more than anything – eternal love and happiness.

And then the guests go home, the cake in the top of the freezer gets freezer burn, the money from the beautiful cards given on that wedding day runs out. We want to stand in front of the mirror again, just to get a glimpse of that beauty, that glory, that hope.

But more stuff happens – kids come along and with them nightmare tantrums and learning disabilities, weight is gained and lost, houses come and go, unemployment rears its ugly head, family and friends die. Love is tested morning and night.  Sometimes there is betrayal or wounds that are so deep you think you’ll never heal; other times it’s just life – and marriage has grown oh so old. All the while we remember that mirror in the unused classroom – but it just sits there.

In the Harry Potter book as Harry goes for the third night to see the mirror, he finds Dumbledore sitting off in the shadows. Dumbledore talks to Harry about the mirror and exposes it for what it is “….this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”  Harry is sobered as he heads back to his dormitory room.

Last Friday was my 32nd wedding anniversary. 32 years of so much good and so much hard that it defies description. And on our wedding day, we like so many couples before us, looked into the Mirror of Erised. And we loved what we saw. We wanted to stay in front of that mirror forever — a cute, young couple with adventure on our hearts and fire in our souls. It would never end. It couldn’t as long as we had the Mirror with us.

But like all couples, the mirror was wisely hidden away. In its place was a real mirror – a mirror that reflected back a couple that would grow and age, that would sometimes hate what they saw looking back at them, but keep on going anyway, keep on loving, keep on living, never giving up.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that….” says Dumbledore. Some of our dreams were realized, others were lost, but we have learned to live, really live. While the Mirror of Erised reflected wishful thinking, our real mirror reflects a brave marriage forged on hope, faith, and grace that could only come from One far greater than us. 

And today I proclaim again the truth of a life of commitment. I proclaim the truth that marriage is really very little about love and very much about something bigger. Today I speak against our Hollywood Mirror of Erised notions of magic and romance; I stand against a culture of quick satisfaction and selfish sex. I speak up for an unpopular view that marriage is so much more than two people falling in love.

For in 32 years never have I embarked on anything so costly and so worthwhile as marriage. Never have I faced the awful in myself so closely and so viciously, never have I needed the grace of God more profoundly. We do not have a Mirror of Erised marriage – We have a marriage born on idealism and hope, weathered by storms, challenged by crisis, tempered by love, sealed by God above. 

And so I wish another Happy Anniversary to the man I said “I do” to. I’d do it again this side of the mirror. 

 

The Story of a TCK Friendship

Friendship

The first picture that was taken of me with my friend Lois was on the shores of the Dead Sea. There we are, two little girls – one blonde, the other dark-haired; one taller, the other shorter. We are holding hands with our fathers and we are oblivious to the fact that our lives are already intertwined, that we are experiencing the world in a completely different way than our peers in our countries of origin. After the picture was taken, we went back to our respective homes – me to Pakistan, her to the Kingdom of Jordan.

We would not remember or think about each other until I was 18 years old, beginning a nursing program on the edge of Chicago. At that point, we were destined to become friends.

Our friendship began in earnest that year as we dealt with classmates, Freshman nursing instructors, the cold of Chicago, and the business of being third culture kids who were trying to fit into their habitat but finding it was a bit of “square peg meets round hole.”

There was no word for us at that time. We were missionary kids and the expectation was that we settle back in and make our missions and our parents proud.

She had a year up on me in negotiating life in the West – she had already been through a year of college – but we were still fish floundering on land, trying to breathe through gills that were created for water. I remember going to a wedding together where we were supposed to do the guest book. “What’s a guest book?” I remember thinking. A few years later, my husband and I would find out we were actually both at the same wedding. “I always wondered why there was no one attending the guest book!” he said with surprise. My guilt was absolved when he said that it was not the right job for two third culture kids. We stood by the guest book for five minutes and then abandoned our posts, uncertain on how to respond to the small talk of rural Pennsylvania and clearly out of our element in both dress and responsibility.

Our conversations covered Pakistan, Middle Eastern politics, the Iranian revolution, and which restaurants in Chicago served the most authentic Pakistani or Middle Eastern food.

When we graduated from nursing school, Lois went on to work in a refugee camp in Somalia, while I moved for a short (though oh so long) year in Massachusetts. She was learning how to function in tents with limited supplies and overwhelming problems; I was learning how to survive a head nurse who took such an active dislike to me that she accused me of overdosing someone with morphine.

I was at her wedding a year later, celebrating her union with Dave – a blonde haired, blue-eyed man who had captured her heart. A few weeks later, I flew to Pakistan to work as a nurse, only to return a few months later and meet the man who became my husband.

My husband and I moved overseas, while Dave and Lois moved to the woods of Maine. Children were born. Then more children were born. All the while, Lois and I would talk by phone every time I was in the United States. She would come visit me in Massachusetts at the home we lovingly called “Eight-Acre Woods.” We visited their growing family in Maine, where we found a Pakistani restaurant and ate off of styrofoam plates, our forks sticking into the sponge as we inhaled a chicken curry. They came to Egypt, where we visited the famous Pyramids of Giza and had the most memorable visit of our seven years in the country. Between us, we had five kids and a baby and as the sky turned a grainy yellow, we knew we were caught in a sand storm. We stumbled along, trying to appreciate ancient ruins while protecting our eyes and our children’s from the blowing sand, the gritty particles getting in our mouths, our hair, and our ears. I remember muttering meanness at my husband, even as I tried to behave for the sake of our visitors.

Lois and I knew what it was to grow up Christian in Muslim countries; to struggle with the missionary kid identity, even as we burst with pride at who our parents were; to grieve goodbyes and multiple losses; to have adventures that people would never believe; to long for places and people with an indescribable ache – and yet to not regret how and where we grew up. We learned early that this third culture kid life was a life of complexity and contradiction; that faith was a struggle worth the pain. We always argued whether the sky over the ancient ruins of Petra or the sky at 7000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range had the best stars. (My husband, who has been both places, says without doubt that it’s Petra.)

Through the years, my friendship with Lois has seen me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. I can’t imagine having walked the journeys that I have without knowing Lois was there. We have never lived near each other since that time, but the friendship has survived.

Despite living miles apart since our Chicago days, Lois has walked me through distorted theology, anger, and deep grief. Mingled throughout have been times of laughter, eye-rolling, head-shaking, and pure joy. Because anger and grief go down easier when you know joy is around the corner.

We still have our “diaspora blues” — times when we know  we don’t fit in here or there, when we realize we will always be “too foreign for here, too foreign for there.”* Despite this, we have both found our niches in our passport countries.

The thing with Lois is that I’ve never really had to say goodbye, because I know she’s always there. Maybe that’s what makes her so special.

*Diaspora Blues by

On Making Recent History

I leave my Cambridge apartment mid-morning on a Friday. Usually I would be walking, but I am going to a store that is too far so I pull out of my driveway in our small, city car.

The first person I see is our neighbor, Christopher. I wave and he waves back, a smile on his face. Just steps away, So is walking toward her apartment that sits across from ours. She too smiles and waves. I stop and roll down the window. “Can I steal your mint again this summer?” She laughs. “Come anytime! You not stealing.”

On my right, John is watching as little Peter draws in chalk on the sidewalk. We have seen him grow from newborn baby to a seven year old. This week is school vacation and the weather is fully cooperating, enabling this city kid to enjoy the outdoors.

I drive slowly, marveling that I know my neighbors. But I need to move on – in the afternoon we will host a rehearsal dinner for a friend who will be married on Saturday, a dear friend I met when we moved to the area seven years ago.

I realize something. Our history is no longer just with people from “there,” no longer just with people from our past homes and lives. We have made history with people here.

Cecily Paterson’s excellent post Seven Stages of Reentry Grief takes the reader through the stages that Cecily has identified in order to survive and thrive in our passport countries.

Stage Four of Cecily’s post is called “Making Recent History.” She says this: “….I found that memories from 10 years ago appear more faded than memories from say, two years ago. ….” 

It is liberating and wonderful to realize that we’ve made recent history; that we can now look at people who we regularly see and say “Remember that time? Remember that Christmas Eve? Remember that holiday? Remember that small group?”  Photographs and stories have not only captured the old memories, but they are capturing the new. The album of our life story continues to fill, new pages added, recent history recorded.

My thoughts echo Cecily’s words: “Just by continuing to breathe and eat and live, I’d been able to make my own ‘recent history’.”

I smile and I drive on. Staying in one place for eight years has had its challenges. There are times when I have climbed the walls, and then rearranged the furniture; times when I couldn’t wait to head to Terminal E. But this day? This day I delight in recent history and in knowing the names of my neighbors. This is what it is to live in the present and I am grateful.

When Faith Roots Go Deep

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I sit in church, watching as children file slowly up to the front of the sanctuary. It is Easter Sunday in my parents church and the children are playing in a bell choir.

The strains of “Just as I am, without one plea” begin coming from the speakers and on cue yellow, red, and blue bells begin to chime. I am transported back in time and I shake my head at the mystery of memory.

I am back in Pakistan at my boarding school, listening to a Danish evangelist speak during weekly chapel. He would come at least once a term and present the gospel message in compelling words. The service always ended with an altar call and the hymn “Just as I am.” And we would all go up, repentant, teary, the impact of the words and song hitting our souls with just the right amount of emotion to compel action.

During those altar calls, when all present were singing “Just as I am,” I was acutely aware of my sinfulness and the beauty of God’s forgiveness. For some reason, no one explained to any of us that we needn’t go up to the front over and over again. So every time the evangelist came, up we got and down the aisle we went.

A wave of emotion hits me as I remember that time and my faith, a child’s faith, so easily shaped and molded.The memory is not negative. Rather, it is a part of childhood that I now better understand, a faith journey that has matured and grown.

My faith roots go deep. They go back to boarding school and early childhood. They twist and turn, much like the roots of a Banyan tree. There is something deeply comforting about my roots. The soil where they grew was rich with love and grace. There were mistakes – no life grows free of mistakes. There was sadness. There was misunderstanding. But that doesn’t take away from the deep roots. Adversity made them stronger.

So I sit and I watch small children, the same age as I was in boarding school, play “Just as I am.” They can’t know what it fully means, but that doesn’t negate the importance of what they hear.

We are told to come to God as children, expectant, joyful, and innocent. As I sit and listen to bells chime a song of my childhood, I feel like a child, wrapped up in God’s abundant love and grace.

And I thank God for the mystery of memory and deep roots of faith. 

A Tribute to a High School Principal

Mr. Roub was principal of my elementary, middle, and high school from the time I was six until the time I graduated. There may have been a year or two in there where he was on a well-deserved furlough and Mr. Nygren took over, but overall it was Mr. Roub.

He was a big man with a booming voice, strong presence, and a heart that embraced his staff and students. Mr. Roub was a leader in every sense of the word.

He was a man entrusted with the overall leadership of a small school in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range in Pakistan. A man whose primary job was to serve the mission community by using his leadership skills in an educational setting. And he was a man who did his job with integrity and grace.

Through the years, our small school, primarily made up of missionary kids, experienced almost everything that a large high school in the United States would. Although home churches and mission agencies may have wanted to deny it, there were drugs, smoking, revolts and rebellions, staff/student tension, suicide attempts, deaths, eating disorders, and more. All these took place in a complicated context – a small, Christian sub-culture in the middle of a Muslim country. It took incredible wisdom and sometimes just pure grit and determination to work at the school and believe in its mission. Mr. Roub had all of that and more.

Because he was in our mission agency, I often called him Uncle Chuck. We were like extended family and the auntie and uncle labels were used all the time. In the absence of blood family, we didn’t need a Mister or a Missus. We needed something more and the auntie and uncle title put more responsibility onto us, and onto those given the title.

I grew up knowing Uncle Chuck as principal of our school and as friend to my dad. At one point in my dad’s work in Pakistan, he was deeply discouraged. In the absence of telephones, email, and other instant communication, Uncle Chuck took an overnight train that took 18 hours to visit my dad- just to encourage him. When my parents would come to Murree, they always visited, and often stayed, with the Roubs.

This became more complicated when I reached my teen years and I had all sorts of reasons to spend time in the Principal’s office. I remember showing up at his house one night with a guilty conscience, confessing that I had smoked cigarettes. Smoking was absolutely forbidden, as it is in most high schools, and I had bought K-2 cigarettes and had a go with them on the grounds outside of the school. K-2 cigarettes were named after the famous K-2 mountain and boasted a pristine picture of the mountain on the outside, with unfiltered ghastly cigarettes on the inside.

K-2

My conscience was strong, and I found myself in the Roub’s living room making up a story about “a friend who I knew was smoking.What on earth should I do?” Being a man of wisdom, he asked the right questions and quickly knew that “the friend” was me. He gave me a punishment, but he did more. He absolved me, like a priest would, prayed with and for me, and sent me on my way. I never smoked again, more importantly – this was the last time I was ever in the “principal’s office.” 

To my knowledge, he never allowed my bad behavior to affect his relationship with my parents, nor his overall view of me.

Uncle Chuck was also my American History teacher during my senior year of high school. I should probably not admit that, because my understanding and knowledge of American History is appalling. I simply saw no need to learn it, but I do remember that it was an incredibly fun class.

A year after I graduated from high school I saw Uncle Chuck in Wheaton, Illinois at a gathering of missionary kids. He wanted to know how I was, how nursing school was going for me. I asked him about the school, a place I had ached for every day since I left. “You know,” he said “the last couple of years, including your year, were years of great spiritual growth and impact. Staff and students are getting along better than they ever have. Morale is high. It was a good year.” He smiled and his eyes were misty as he talked.

That brief conversation invited me to see the school not as a student, but through his eyes, the man at the helm. I was given the gift of perspective and saw what the most important thing was for this man. He longed to see hearts change and grow; more than anything he longed for students and staff to love God.  That’s what he prayed for, that’s what he lived for. The magnitude of this hit me in a way it couldn’t have when I was a student.

Chuck Roub died on New Year’s Day. The posted announcement was followed by many comments speaking to the man that he was, thanking him for his life, for his faithfulness, for his example of grace, and for his leadership.

As one commenter said, Uncle Chuck was a “Giant of a man.” His family will grieve their loss, even as they know he is finally home.

As for Uncle Chuck, he has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith.* Is there anything better? 

*Paraphrased from 2 Timothy 4:7 NIV

 

Phantom Sensations

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I’ve read that when someone loses a limb, it takes their brain a long while to adjust to the loss. For years afterwards they experience pain in the missing part. Suddenly the leg, no longer there, has an itch. It’s called phantom pain.

Although certainly not as tragic, I too experience a phantom sensation of sorts. It’s been eight years since we left South Asia, but every time I hear something scamper across the roof, I assume it’s the monkeys! Every time a branch bounces under the weight of a critter I know with an unfounded, and yet uncanny, confidence, it’s the monkeys. When I realize it’s merely a squirrel, I’m shocked every time.

I’m curious. Do you have any lingering phantom sensations? Anything that catches you off guard with a chuckle and a moment of surprise that says–that’s not a monkey?

About the picture: This photo was taken about ten or eleven years ago on our roof in Varanasi. These mischevious monkeys were playing in the run-off from our water tank when our good friend and photographer, Kris Hoffman, just happened to catch them in the act!

Memories of a Chatty Cathy Doll

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When I was eight years old, I got a Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. Chatty Cathy was the first talking doll. When you pulled a ring on her back, she would say one of ten or eleven phrases. Sometimes it was “I love you!” Other times it was “Let’s play!” It didn’t matter, when I pulled the string, my Chatty Cathy would talk to me and I was over the moon.

Chatty Cathy was not available in Pakistan anywhere. The only reason I received the doll was that another missionary family had left Pakistan and had sold their children’s toys. The family had twin girls, Becky and Kathy. They were older than I was and, I suspect, had outgrown their dolls (although who ever outgrows dolls?) They had two of these talking dolls, and had sold one to my parents for me, and one to Bettie Addleton, mom of my best friend Nancy.

In the middle of the Sindh desert of Pakistan, because of Becky and Kathy Elkins, Nancy and I got Chatty Cathy dolls. It was a magical Christmas.

This past Friday, Becky Elkins died. I didn’t know Becky well, but I do know she died too soon, and too painfully. She died of lung cancer in Colorado. I saw Becky at our Pak Reunion just one and half years ago. My friend Janet let our community know through social media that Becky had died.

When you are part of a community that shared so much of life together in a place where we were all foreigners, you grow deeply close. Even if you didn’t know each other and were years apart in age, you know there is a connection that goes well beyond normal neighborhood relationships. We were part of a small community that lived counter-culture in both our adopted country and our passport countries. We lived apart from blood relatives, and so those around us became relatives in proxy. We inherited each others houses, cars, clothes, families, and dolls.

I can’t stop thinking about Becky and that doll. I loved that doll so much. Memories, filed away in my brain like index cards, come to mind. I remember the surprise of unwrapping the doll. I remember pulling the string so much that she stopped talking for a while. I remember Nancy and me playing with our dolls, surrounded by the innocence of childhood. The sights, shapes, sounds, and people who shaped my life are spread around the globe, and faded memories have taken their place. The index card memory box emerges as I read about Becky’s death. And I know that the sadness I feel  is combined with the ache of loss for a time that no longer exists.

In Between Worlds, I write this and I think about it today:

“For many of us, the only thing we feel we have left are our memories. We cannot go back to the place that was home. Either it does not exist, will not let us in, or danger and cost prohibit a casual trip to indulge the times of homesickness. In its place is memory. Our memories may be biased, or relayed in a way that would make our mothers say, “That’s not quite the way it happened,” but they are inalienably ours.”*

and then:

“Pieces of childhood are important foundations to building adults. Whether it be the doll, the bear, or the book, it’s part of the story of our lives. The pieces of childhood bear witness to times and places that helped shape us into who we are today.”**

The Chatty Cathy memory is inalienably mine and I find strength in remembering. I smile when I remember that doll, and the two girls in Pakistan who daily pulled the string to hear Chatty Cathy say “I love you!”

*From Kebabs in Jalalabad essay in Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging.

** From Pieces of Childhood in Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/photo-photographer-old-photos-256887/

National Middle Child Day

Today is National Middle Child Day. I didn’t know this until this morning when the joys of social media alerted me. I’m glad they did. Because my middle child, Micah, turned 27 on Monday and with traveling I had not had a chance to celebrate him through writing.

The following is a blog post that I wrote five years ago, but it describes the amazing person he is and I celebrate him today as a man who has survived being in the middle.

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It’s difficult to describe my son Micah.

Born between countries, he entered the world on August 10th in 1988. We left Pakistan two weeks earlier and were transitioning to the United States with Florida as our base. I well remember our shock at re-entering the United States. When we left for Pakistan, we had a tiny 3 month old baby and had never lived anything beyond the student life. We went straight into working overseas for three years.

On return a lot had changed. We realized that with 2 children and one coming any day, we could no longer subsist on our fine student cuisine of Ramen noodles and generic soup. We realized that to get money, people put a card into a slot, punched some numbers and out came the cash. Our first visit to an ATM was memorable. We realized that the cost of living in Pakistan was vastly different from that in the United States, and we realized through our first fast-food meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken that one thigh and breast piece of American chickens were the equivalent of a whole Pakistani chicken.

I went to a doctor who was willing to take on a pregnant woman in her last month of pregnancy and at my second visit she breezily told me that she was going to be on vacation for the following 10 days. I looked at her in shock “But what if I go into labor?” She dismissed this saying I was nowhere near ready to deliver and we parted, me with the “just in case” number to call should the baby decide it was time.

The “just in case” number was used just a few days later as I felt those familiar pains that were not a stomach ache over dinner at a restaurant. By midnight that night I was at the hospital and delivered Micah in the wee hours of the morning in Daytona Beach,Florida– just blocks from the famed Daytona Speedway.

He joined Annie, an almost three year-old and Joel, a 14 month old. For years we called them twins born 14 months apart and indeed they were inseparable.

As parents we were warned about middle children – that is was easy for them to lose their way, lost in the shuffle of a big family and struggling for their identity. I don’t know why, and I can only attribute it to the hand of God on his life, but that was never the case for Micah.

Born in the middle, he was never lost.

As a young child, he had a quiet confidence in who he was. When I went into labor with Jonathan a day before his 7th birthday, he looked at his father and I and said “If our baby is born, I won’t be able to have a birthday party!” We assured him that he would have a birthday party no matter what, and so sixteen years ago with Jonathan just hours old laying on my lap, eight little boys ran through our house in Cairo, playing games, going on a treasure hunt and eating their fill of ice cream and cake. I’ll never forget that birthday. My guess is that if it was up to me, I would have promised that we would be sure to celebrate his birthday as soon as we could but maybe not that day.  My husband, who knows what it is like to be a middle-child, made sure that the expectations of a little boy were not lost in the chaos of labor, transition, breast-feeding beginnings and new-born wonder.

As his personality developed, so did his sense of humor and unique personality. At 12 he walked into the kitchen and said to me “Mom, Just so you know, I’m probably going to be the boy in this family that dates the most!” “Oh really?” I replied “Why’s that?” “Oh, I don’t know, I just have that feeling”, and off he went.

Micah had a strong sense of justice and clear view of right and wrong. He exercised that view fearlessly through middle school, unafraid of the opinions of others in this most cruel of ages, the slandering, insecure, gossiping breed that defines the developmental stage of those in grades six through eight.

When we moved to Phoenix in 2003, Micah saw this as a chance to grow and embrace a bigger school and more opportunities. And he did with determination and drive – he was the lead in almost every school play that was performed in a school of three thousand students; he excelled in speech and debate, writing his own pieces as a senior under a pseudonym so the real authorship could remain anonymous; he became president of National Honor Society and gave such a memorable speech that when he smashed our car into someone else’s later that week, instead of being angry they looked at him and said “Hey, you’re that kid that did that speech at National Honor Society! That was great!”  They said it with complete admiration and their smashed car seemed to fade into the background.

Micah graduated from university and a year later married Lauren, his soul-mate. He found his match for humor and love of life in Lauren and their life together will surely not be boring as they negotiate the worlds of acting and film, striving to be themselves among narcissistic competitors. Micah is now editor of a popular, zany television show called Portlandia and his gifts of humor and film-editing can be seen throughout each episode.

So I celebrate this child of ours on National Middle Child Day. Thank you Micah, for who you are in our lives. We salute you. 

The Photo Albums of Our Marriage


Our love, our marriage is like a series of photo albums that is kept through the years. 

The old albums show the beauty and arrogance of youth. We were young and lovely. Best of all, we knew everything. The smiles and laughter shine through every picture, every page. The trip to Egypt and Pakistan to get engaged, the wedding in July with 200 people from all over the world, the short shorts on our honeymoon. Even the faded photos can’t deny the sheer joy of it all.

Then came the kids. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed for the first two, clear evidence of the strength of your genetics. Then darker-haired with brown and hazel eyes for the next three – as though we were in competition. But we weren’t. They were so incredibly cute and bright and fun – a unit of littles all connected through blood and family. People would stop to watch our unit pour out of a little red Zastava car. We were like an Egyptian family that fit as many as possible into whatever vehicle we had. Those photo albums make us laugh. We laugh through super man pajamas and picnics at the Pyramids. And our kids? They were so perfect! Not like other kids.

But then there’s the photo album that we sometimes want to keep hidden. The photo album that feels heavy with pain. These were the hard years, the ones where we didn’t know we would make it. This album is sparse – no one wants to view photographs of the hard years. The camera is put away and all energy goes to survival. A few photos make it in, evidence of the strength of our commitment, of sheer grit and determination. The grace is that even those photos show sparks of joy, like life could throw us all kinds of awful, but we would defy the naysayers, we would make it. This album shows the stain of tears and the bruises on knees bent in prayer. But family still continued through beach trips to Sanibel Island and Harry Potter Halloween costumes; through prom glamour and community theater productions. Because you just can’t stop family. Because what God joined together, let no one separate.*

The albums continued through college trips and cross-country moves; through late night phone calls and times of crisis. We looked in envy at younger families with their perfect kids, because we remembered what it was like to know everything and to have perfect kids.  But even as we envied, we loved what our kids were becoming: Passionate young adults with hearts that beat hard for justice; young adults with creativity coming out of their pores.

And now we’re in a new album. The pictures now are less of us and our five, and more of – well, just us. This is the album where we learn how much fun we still have, the album where we begin to dream again of far off places, of making a difference during this time of our lives. In this album, the prayers for our children take on new urgency and meaning. They are creating their own albums, and we are desperate for those albums to last. 

Through all of these photo albums, we glimpse the mystery that is marriage and we shake our heads in awe. As we watch while all around us marriage is stripped of its mystery, boxed into a man-made definition where love is the main ingredient, we remember the photo album that is our marriage. We remember the Garden and we desperately look to the wedding feast of the lamb. A feast where our albums fade into insignificance as we celebrate that greatest mystery of all — the wedding that will last into eternity.

Happy 31st Anniversary to the man behind the blog!

*Matthew 10:9

Stones of Remembrance – A Life Overseas

Good morning! It’s a rainy day in my part of the world, a day where I need to “remember the signs.” I hope you’ll join me at A Life Overseas today, as I resume blogging and enter back into this space.

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When I was four years old, my parents thought they may not be able to continue living in Pakistan.

They were tired. They were discouraged. They felt they had seen so little, for so much work. Mom and Dad were getting ready to go on a furlough and wisely decided not to make a decision until they had reached the United States and had a chance to process and rest.

It was while at a summer linguistics course that my dad had a renewed sense of purpose, a reawakening of his ‘call.’ While reading the book of Acts, he was struck by this work that began so long ago: The work of reaching out with the message of the gospel.

I learn this as I begin to reread my mom’s book. It is a book about the mission work that was started in the Sindh area of Pakistan by my parents mission, soon after Pakistan’s birth and independence. It is a fascinating history full of names and people who I know. Not only does it read as a historical account, it also gives me insight into my parents as a young couple, beginning with a journey by ship to this new country.

I read about my dad building a septic system with one page of simple instructions; about how three couples with five kids between them lived in two rooms; about a Hindu friend bringing them keys one night to a new house, urging them to “Quick, come put the lock on so Muslim neighbors don’t take it!

I read about death and discouragement, about times of miscommunication and trial, about raising a family in a country far different from the one they left.

I read, and I remember. Read the rest of the post here at A Life Overseas.

On this Monday, what are your stones of remembrance? 

On a Dad and his Birthday

        I wake up early in the morning. There is something that I am not supposed to forget, but I can’t remember what it is! All I know is that it’s important.

I get up and wrap my sky-blue, winter bathrobe around my body. It’s June but it is still cold, with temperatures in the high fifties. Slippers protect my feet from the cold floor, and I do my early morning shuffle to the kitchen to make coffee. 

As I catch sight of my reflection, I sigh and smile as I think about the inevitability of aging. What did one husband say to his wife as she was looking into the mirror sighing at her aging self? “Don’t believe everything you see!” 

And then I remember: Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday! How could I forget? I blame my inability to remember to send cards on not being raised on Hallmark. In Pakistan, you made your cards. You didn’t go to the store and shop among the thousands. And Hallmark was never around to remind you of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, your dad’s birthday.

But it’s Dad’s birthday and a warm feeling comes over me. My dad has always been a strength in my life. Early memories flood my mind: My dad at his large, messy desk, head bent in concentration; driving our trusty Landrover over precarious roads in Pakistan; gregarious – laughing with friends and telling jokes; on his knees every day before his Maker.

I am re-reading my mom’s book, and with that comes another look at my dad’s life beyond my own memories. Falling in love with my mom, heading to Pakistan for the first time, building a flush toilet and a shower system at one of their first houses in Pakistan, translating the Bible into Sindhi. They speak of an accomplished man with a heart for God and a stubborn will to continue in the hard places. No wonder my mom and I both reacted when a nurse who couldn’t have been more than 22 years old called him “Hon.” My dad isn’t a “Hon.” He is a man who knows three languages; has flown around the world numerous times;has taken trips to places the nurse couldn’t even pronounce. Sorry honey – you can’t call him ‘hon’ on my watch. My dad, gracious man that he is, would have been mortified if we had said anything. And so we didn’t.

Thinking of my dad provides solid memories in an ever changing world. The older I get, the more important these memories become. For Dad is facing what every human faces: He is getting older. He celbrates his 89th birthday and, though I still see him as strong, he is not as strong as he once was.

But that’s his body. Age may change the outside, but the inside belongs to God alone. Age may take his earthly body, but it will never take his soul. That’s the legacy he lives, that will be the legacy he leaves.

And so I remember and I smile. Happy Birthday Dad! I love you to the moon and back.

Hatching Baby Sea Turtles

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I’m in a cocoon of snow. The entire world around me is white and cold. I am happily non-essential so there is no need to go anywhere and I am so grateful. I wanted to take this day anyway, to think about life as I enter a new birth year, to do some writing, to rest. And I get all those things because of this snow.

As I sit here thinking about life, my mind goes back to the baby sea turtles of my youth. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because it is my birthday, perhaps it’s because there could not be a greater contrast between the world out my window, and the world of the baby sea turtles.

But I remember the sea turtles as though it were yesterday.

The mama turtle lumbers up the beach in the moonlight. It’s a long, lonely walk. She is trying to find somewhere safe to lay her eggs, a place where she can dig deep, where predators will not find those precious eggs – her eggs, her babies.

She is heavy – hundreds of pounds – and this journey from sea to land is not only arduous because of her size, it’s miles and miles long. She knows her job. It’s to find a place on shore, excavate a large hole big enough to put around 80 eggs. Then she will need to cover it with sand and make it look as though there is nothing buried there. As if it has already been disturbed and nothing was found, tricking the forces that would harm her young into believing there is nothing there.

Exhausted she heads back to the ocean, finally resting her heavy, weary body, allowing herself to be carried away in the ocean waves of the Arabian Sea.

She doesn’t know that she is being observed, watched by a family who is staying in a small hut nearby. She will never know the life lessons she brings, the quiet that comes upon us so that we don’t disturb this important work.

The eggs will hatch in around two and a half months. And we, the missionary kids of Pakistan, will be there to see them.

And it will be magical and amazing. But we won’t realize this until later. 

A lone dog will be the one that alerts us to their arrival, sniffing at a pile of dirt and beginning to frantically dig for the tiny turtles. But we will run and shout and wave them off, fiercely protective, taking on maternal roles as we ensure that these turtles make their way in a safe passage to the sea.

These baby turtles are like us. They are vulnerable and small. They are facing a big, dangerous world and their task is enormous. Make it to the ocean. Survive. Grow. Thrive.

We who were raised across oceans and boundaries of nations are so much like these baby turtles. We are cocooned for a while, and then we have to go, we have to make it in a world that can be hostile to who we are and what we believe. While buried in our sand there are those that wave off the predators, but once we begin the journey to the sea, it’s a journey we make alone in many ways.

As a child, I never tired of watching baby turtles make their way to the sea.
As an adult, I never tire of remembering, of seeing faded photographs of Hawke’s Bay, where children gather around baby turtles anxious to help yet knowing they can’t. Because for sea turtles to make their way to the ocean without help is critically important. It’s their first step in gaining the strength to survive.

All of this magic happened in Pakistan, a land that has sustained many catastrophes, much political upheaval, and tragedies from both man and nature. Yet on Hawke’s Bay you could always forget the bigger world and succumb to the spell of the ocean, get lost in the waves, and fall into the magic that is baby sea turtles.

Today in the snow, I remember the baby sea turtles and smile.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/sea-turtle-baby-young-survival-356125/

In Praise of Tooth Fairies & Memories

We have moved a lot. My oldest daughter has lived in 17 houses in 29 years of life. My husband is on his 34th or 35th house. I haven’t counted mine.

In all the movement, creating and defining place becomes difficult and sometimes painful. What and where is home? Does ‘place’ matter? What is stability? These are just a couple of the questions that go through your mind. I write a lot about this in the book Between Worlds with a whole section devoted to “Home” and another devoted to “Belonging.”

Some of the hard parts are around what you keep and what you throw or give away. It can be agonizing going through your things, packing up place.

But in all the hard and serious moments of trying to figure this out, there are the ones that are so funny you stop and laugh until your sides ache. A few years ago we had one of those moments and yesterday relived them.

A few years ago my daughter, Stefanie, was going through one of my boxes of ‘special’ things. She found an odd and old looking bag with something tiny inside and an old note. She took one look and her face paled.

“What is this?” she asked, holding up the bag and wrinkling her nose.

I took one look and started to smile and then laugh.

“Teeth,” I said. “Baby Teeth”

She looked like she was going to throw up.

“They are from the tooth fairy.” I added, thinking that would make it all okay.

It didn’t.

“MOM! I can’t believe you kept some of our baby teeth” said the non-mom who has never been responsible for creating place in a world of movement.

Our kids loved the fictitious tooth fairy, who brought them a shiny dime from America wherever they lived in the world. And of all the teeny, tiny birthday teeth she (I) collected, these were of few of the remains. Relics of sorts. (you can tell I’ve turned Orthodox.) Something to remember when life turned more complicated.

And here is the note:

The memory comes quickly as I read it – her best friend had moved to Indiana and she no longer wanted a shiny dime. She had outgrown the dime.

So there in my small box of “keepables” are a plastic bag, baby teeth, and a note from long ago.

So in praise of the toothfairy, and memories that can’t be given or thrown away,I offer you this memory. What about you? What are your memories with children that surface in a life of movement? 

PS- she got the ticket…..

Aunt Gracia and the White House Christmas Ornaments

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Like so many others in the western world, we took down our tree this weekend. While there is much excitement and anticipation as we put it up, there is relief and refreshment as we take it down.

Trees that come into our homes fresh and green, begin to shed needles in abundance, branches hanging heavy like the arms of a tired, old lady. The ornaments no longer look beautiful, but sad and incongruous.

What was once beautiful was now tired and ready to go.

We took off the decorations and carefully wrapped them in crisp, tissue paper, placing them into a colorful Christmas container. Red, gold, and green glass balls were wrapped up as well, showing their colors through the transluscent paper.

The clay angels from our Cairo days, wooden Pakistani camels, small, knit stockings from Christmases gone by — all of that too was taken off shelves and packed up until next year.

And each year as we pack away Christmas I think about my Aunt Gracia and her gifts to us while she was still alive — White House Christmas ornaments.

Yearly the White House Historical Association, whose purpose is to “enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House”offers a Christmas ornament through their museum shop. The association designs the ornament and it is only available through this venue.

For years my Aunt Gracia, my father’s oldest sister, volunteered at the White House. Among other things she would address cards to people for their birthdays or special events (I know you thought that the president himself sent you those special cards but – no, that’s not so. It was my Aunt Gracia.) And often her gifts to her nieces and nephews, of which she had an abundance, were White House Christmas Ornaments.

Delicate and framed in 24 karat gold, the ornaments are beauties.

There is the 1988 ornament – Children of the White House featuring President Jackson’s children. There is 1989 – the Bicentennial of the Presidency. 1994 shows soldiers standing at attention and is called “The Imperial Christmas” while 1995 goes for a patriotic theme with the white house flanked by two American flags. 1996 shows us an eagle on the Presidential Seal and 1997 gives us a larger view of the White House grounds. Others include Dolly Madison with an oval frame surrounding her; Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic “thinking” pose; a 200th anniversary edition in 2000; and a family’s first carriage ride in 2001.

The themes are endless. With their gold filagree and unique designs, these ornaments are works of art, heirlooms to be passed down for generations. 

There are times when it feels strange to me that I am so drawn to these ornaments. As a third culture kid and adult I have divided loyalties between countries, and the White House has never held particular interest to me, despite the decisions made daily in the oval office that affect our world.

But these ornaments? They are special. They are moveable pieces. They tell a story of Aunt Gracia, aunt to many nieces and nephews. Gracia, who lost her father at the awful age of 13, she the oldest in a family of five. Gracia Mae who lived in the nation’s capital for years, who lived alone for many of those years, but died surrounded by family who loved her. The ornaments remind me of my brother and sister-in-law who rearranged their home so that Aunt Gracia could live with them during her last weeks of life. Aunt Gracia, who kept up with all of us, who had an 80th birthday party attended by 75 friends and family where my mom read the poem “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple!” Gracia who chose a perfect gift for her nieces and nephews each year – White House Christmas ornaments.

In more recent years we have occasionally received ornaments from other family members hoping to continue the tradition. 2007 “A President Marries in the White House”; 2008 “A Victorian Christmas Tree”;  2012 where William Taft rides in a green automobile. Each time it was special, a time to reminisce and remember Aunt Gracia, thankful for this beautiful tradition.

So the ornaments have become one of our moveable pieces, a visual reminder of a beloved Aunt, a tangible, moveable piece to pass on.

So we packed up Christmas, and all the square boxes of different colors that hold these ornaments, grateful for our moveable pieces. They will always be visual reminders of a beloved Aunt; tangible evidence of her life and her love.

The Good Ole’ Days: Remembering Thanksgiving in the “old” country!

We (Robynn & I) wish you a Happy Thanksgiving from the United States! Enjoy this post by Robynn about the “Old Country.”

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Those were Thanksgivings where kimchee lay down next to the roast chicken and we celebrated with true gratitude the extraordinary community we got to be a part of.

One of my favourite days of the year when we lived in India was always Thanksgiving Day. I’m referring to American Thanksgiving with sincere apologies to Canada and other nations who have similarly marked days for thankfulness or to celebrate a successful harvest:  The Netherlands, Grenada, Australia’s Norfolk Island, Liberia, Germany’s Erntedankfest or Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day isn’t celebrated in India, except of course among expatriate communities of Americans tucked around the country. On the second Monday of October, Thankgiving in Canada, it was always far too hot to celebrate with any vigor! But by the end of November, the temperatures were favorable. The hot summer was over, the messy monsoons after-mud was all dried up and there was nearly, if you used your imagination, a Fall-like atmosphere in the air! It was time to party! We took that celebration to a whole new level in the way we honoured American Thanksgiving. In fact the day became affectionately known as, the International American Thanksgiving Hosted by a Canadian! (And I was that Canadian!)

Our house was perfectly situated for such an event. We lived in an ancient stone house built right next to the Ganges River. Our house was built around a central courtyard with a massive mango tree growing out of the center. There was a staircase up to the roof with a glorious view of the river on the eastern side, a view of the city from the other three sides. From the roof top you could also look down into the open courtyard in the center of our home. While the house was actually quite small, the courtyard was large and hospitable. The last year we were there 111 people attended our Thanksgiving day and all managed to find a place to sit down: on chairs , on mats, on cushions, on the roof, in the living room, in the tree house!

With no turkeys available and no pumpkins in the market we had to improvise. We hosted a potluck. People from all over the world find themselves living along the banks of the Ganges river in the vibrant little city of Varanasi. Those same people are often nostalgic for their favourite foods. Once a year, at our International American Thanksgiving, they’d give into their memories of home and food and family, creatively substituting ingredients where necessary, they’d bring amazing dishes to share at our table. Typically we’d have mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy with roasted chickens and stuffing piled high. But we’d also have kimchee salad and fruit platters and sushi and tandoori chicken. There was often rice pulau with chunks of lamb and oodles of raisins. There was cabbage salad and sweet glazed carrots and green beans cooked up with onions and garlic. If the season cooperated, and we were lucky, someone might have found sweet potatoes in the bazaar. Those were smothered in a syrup made from coarse sugar and raw molasses to make a tasty vegetable side dish. Often we had curried dishes next to more traditional thanksgiving fare. Aloo Gobi. Muttar Paneer. And one of my favourite eggplant dishes: Baingan Bharta. Usually someone’s mother had sent a tin or two of cranberry sauce to complete our meal. Those were shared with joy and rationed out by the teaspoon! The dessert table was always divine. It held squash and carrot pies, apple pies, banana cream pies, lemon or key lime pie without the key limes. There was milk tart, dumplings, spice cakes, lamington and Ute’s special tiramisu. It was an international feast of international treats lovingly prepared by international cooks with whatever ingredients they could find, or had saved especially for the day.

After everyone had eaten their full and the coffee and tea had been served, we cleared the plates and got ready for the afternoon’s entertainment. With no football game to distract us, we found our own fun! A stage was created to the west side of our courtyard. Everyone turned their chairs, or their cushions on the courtyard floor to face the stage. People sat on the roof and watched down below. Babies crawled through and around and over the legs and laps of aunties and uncles. Toddlers toppled and played with leaves fallen from the mango tree in the center of our courtyard. Every year we had a talent show as part of our unique Thanksgiving Day celebrations. There were classical Indian dances from our little girls in dance class, there were silly songs and sad songs, there were painful magic shows, my husband Lowell would demonstrate our dog, Koyla’s, ability to understand 5 or 6 languages, someone would tell a story, another would have a series of jokes. And then the afternoon would be over. We’d linger long over another piece of leftover pie, another cup of hot chai. Slowly people would trickle out, no one really wanting the day to be over.

Our first Thanksgiving back in the US was in 2007. As we were making plans for it, our kids asked what we were doing for the talent show. Lowell laughed gently and then told them that the talent show wasn’t really a part of a traditional Bliss family thanksgiving in Kansas. Our children were aghast. How could you have thanksgiving without the talent show?

Making plans for a different type of Thanksgiving this year, with Lowell’s mom now living with us, and Lowell’s brother’s family now out at the farm, I wonder what changes we’ll see. It makes me remember those other Thanksgivings, a world away, on the banks of the Ganges. Those were Thanksgivings where kimchee lay down next to the roast chicken and we celebrated with true gratitude the extraordinary community we got to be a part of. Those were, in my mind, the good ole days.

(Although, truth be told, I don’t miss the annual awkward moment in the talent show where Lowell played his tin whistle with his nose….!)

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/thank-you-gratitude-appreciation-490607/ adapted by Marilyn Gardner