Tiny Missionary

Auntietata

I am the child and grandchild of former missionaries.

My maternal grandparents spent a lifetime in Nigeria working to improve agricultural methods, caring for lepers, praying for their neighbors, and spreading the Good News. When we were cleaning out their house we had to figure out what to do with dozens of Bibles, boxes of ancient tracts, and books in languages they used to speak to each other in code. I grew up loving this exotic legacy of piety and perseverance, of colonization and enculturation. I traced the ebony heads on their mantle with my fingers and I imagined my grandma cooking over her open fire. And like most (maybe all) white missionaries to foreign places, they were the both the glorious helper and the colonizer-oppressor in a single person. Onward, Christian Soldier.

To do this work, they sent their children off in small airplanes across the country to boarding schools staffed by strangers. Some of the adults were kind. Some of them had been placed there after being pulled off of "field" assignments for indiscretions. Some of them were cruel. My mom was five when she went off to sleep in a dorm governed by severity and righteousness. There are lots of stories that she told us growing up that made me sad and still make me sad. I am amazed that she was the mother that she was and is given how little she had been mothered.

I knew that my grandparent's service had wreaked havoc on their family of six. Whoever they had intended on saving, it was their children who were left without the net. They are, in some ways, still paying the price for this sacrifice. This too, my legacy.

****

When I was young my parents traveled the world sleeping in the homes of friends, family and strangers. We traveled together with a group of young adults who played guitar, sang choruses and performed at colleges and on street corners.

I loved flying and being with my parents and the attention of the adults that traveled with them. I loved learning how to read in the back seat of a 15 passenger van. I loved meeting children and making friends and the smells and sounds of new places. My sister and I learned how to untangle microphone cords and sing duets with polyester puppets. We learned all the skits and the finer points of miming. Over time the places that we returned to became extensions of our own sense of home and family. We were aces at the wordless book– a small flip book of colours that stood for the crucifixion and resurrection story and the way to salvation. We were polite and respectful.

When I was six, and just before my parents retired from this part of their lives, we spent several months in India staying with my "Auntie" Tara and "Uncle" Rajah and traveling by train to different parts of the country with bulky sound equipment and a collapsible puppet stage made of PVC pipe. My parents were cultural anthropologists as much as they were street preachers and they tried to participate in the life of the places they traveled to. One of my clearest memories of that time: standing in a group along the edge of a Hindu temple courtyard watching as a man brought in a baby goat to the center. I remember my dad's hand on my face as he turned it away, and I listened to the last bleat of the goat as they slit its throat. We watched the people line up to have their forehead's anointed. I saw mothers holding babies and children my age avoiding the blood on the ground as they waited for their turn. There were marigolds everywhere.

Whatever lesson I was supposed to learn from that day was most likely lost on me. I saw sacred act, surely. These people believed differently but no less fervently than I did. They clearly needed Jesus, but I was unsure if that was my job. Maybe we had washed our hands of them in that moment because they were probably too far gone.

We visited the Sadhu's as well– these wise men and teachers who held their limbs in impossible positions meditating toward enlightenment. Their eyes were terrifying and their limbs were held up by ropes and withered to nothing. This was curious to me. And otherworldly. I have squeezed my eyes shut and thought about what else I can remember. I see Mother Teresa's Home for The Dying– but I only see the flat roof and the funeral procession below. I feel myself trying to hide under the chair away all the people wanting to pinch my cheeks. There is more, but it is nothing exciting.I loved it all, though, and would find myself longing to go back. My sister returned for a visit in her early twenties. My auntie Tara came to visit when my boys were young. My love for her transcended the hard line she took on my growing apathy toward regular church attendance.

****

Years later I would be waiting at an intersection in Chicago as a bus pulled away from the corner. A burst of steam rolled up from the vents as I heard the red line pass underneath the street. It was hot and humid. The smell of piss, garbage, and exhaust rolled together with the fried food being sold behind me and it all made me fall back a few steps. I had never smelled or felt something so clearly tied to a time of life that I loved so much as I had in that moment. I started to cry.

****

I joined first grade at my small elementary school in the river valley half way through the year. It is the same school that my nephews and niece now attend. On the first day I thought that someone had broken my Mork and Mindy lunch box and stolen my lunch. But it was someone else's. I cried. I mostly cried because this was hard. I had attended school for a day when we stayed in a college town with friends. The principal had noticed me with my hands in my pockets during the national anthem and had walked to where I was standing and pulled them out in front of everyone. Our friends had told me to run home for lunch, so I had taken off across the field as soon as the bell rang not realizing that it was just time for PE. They brought me back. I cried after I returned to their house a second time and begged to stay home. I imagine my mom recognized the fear and frustration in my face. But now we were home and this was my school and the teacher did not understand my travel journal or my scrapbook. I knew how to read better than most of my classmates, but I did not understand that the pecking order had already been established. She insisted that I had been taught to write my "a"s incorrectly and I turned red at my perceived incompetence.

I would make friends quickly. My dad became a self-employed contractor and built us a playhouse as a replica to our actual house. We pulled it on a trailer in our small town's parade. We were surrounded by family and a community that had watched my dad grow up and supported our family while we traveled. I broke my leg on one of the last days of first grade and had to wear a hip to toe cast for most of the summer. We still lived in service to our neighbors. My parents had not sacrificed their family for their calling. More likely, their family could live in concert with their calling in ways their parents had not been allowed to. My sister and I counted it all joy. There would be more siblings.

****

I told one of my kids that I was applying for a job and he said, "but you already have one. You have lots!" And he listed off the things he sees as he moves through the week. They are "jobs" but they are unpaid. That is not true. I guess I am paid in-kind. They are meetings and hours of volunteering and turning up when I am asked. I am grateful and surprised that he sees any of it and counts it as part of my work. It is my work. My family and this way of showing up is the way that I've reconciled myself to the endless cycle of motherhood and home-keeping. I did well in school. I had potential. What is my lot now? What is my legacy?

It is this and all of the above.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. Your words are always so well thought out that I worry mine will seem trite. My in laws, a Baptist minister and his incredibly gracious wife, became missionaries after serving in a local church for many years. They were in their 60s and my husband and I had just married that year. While my husband didn’t grow up travelling around the world, the world did come to his family’s dining room table in many different ways – visiting missionaries, dignitaries, youth in need, families in turmoil, college kids. While we no longer attend church, we are familiar with the choruses, the puppet stages (both of us having travelled with them to foreign countries), and the perhaps the emotion of someone looking back from a distance.

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  2. I’ve been meaning to write this for sometime. Your words hit me hard, I also had potential and, for a number of reasons, I now feel that ship has sailed. I will never “be” any of the things I studied to be. What I wanted to say to you though is this — writing is your legacy. I don’t mean that you will always have these posts to remember your family’s history. You will. But, I am saying you need to be paid for your writing.
    Unfortunately, I’m not an editor or publisher or book agent. I was a bookseller for a number of years and yours would be the type of book that independent bookstores love to handsell. You have a unique, authentic story. You are brave and compassionate and face truth head-on. You have a message the world needs to hear, especially now.
    I’m not sure how you would take that next step to begin working with an agent and finding a publisher. There are any number of books that have been published that began as blogs — you may even know some of these people. In any case, think about it. Your writing is a gift.

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