Category Archives: Abandonment

Paper strong…

My remarks here are written in response to this blog.

Several years ago after my Grandmother died, I was sorting through her things for the sale, and found, tucked in the piano bench along with her favorite hymnals, the aerogrammes I’d sent her from Papua New Guinea as a child. I sat on the floor next to the piano and read the ramblings and concerns and the joys of a little girl away at boarding school, trying to explain the world as I knew it in the jungle to someone on the farm in Ohio. Sprinkled throughout those letters are hints of homesickness coupled with fears of returning ‘home’: such tensions for a little girl to hold!

In a filing cabinet I found a bundle of the aerogrammes my Mother had sent her Mom. Many of them detail the same events or the same time period, but told instead from the perspective of a very young woman, trying her best to make good decisions for her children, and trying her best to serve the Lord in a very patriarchal, patronizing mission station. Her grief on so many levels was evident, even among the more heroic claims of faith.

The juxtaposition of the two sets of letters was very healing for me. And Grandma, bless her, managed to hold both close to her heart without betraying confidences. Those thin pages wielded a mighty balm!

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

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On corporate disappearances…

Today my company ‘announced’ layoffs.  I’ve been with the company 6+ years and have weathered the storm many times–often enough that I begin to recognize the routine; the pattern of corporate demise.  Last year I took the following photo as an homage to those victims who disappeared.  I am reminded of the disappearances which occurred in S. America during the 1980s–where folks simply vanished, with no bodies to mourn, no closure.  Some were walked out on ceremony.  Others simply called at home and told not to come in.  What few artifacts left at their desks are packed up in boxes and mailed to them.

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Masoleum

Without bodies to mourn, these artifacts are all that is left.

In corporate America, those left behind don’t even have a list of who all was let go (due to some strange bit of legalese). We are finding out slowly as emails bounce back, and phone calls don’t get answered, desks are empty.  Key players on my projects have vanished.  People I’ve worked closely with for forty hours a week, for the last six years have simply been removed.

No goodbyes.

And I am at a loss.

The pretend orphan…

When I was 24 my parents moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to be missionaries.  I was an adult, living on my own several states away from where they’d been living, and was surprised at my own response to the announcement that they were moving.  I found myself grieved, giddy, mournful and completely unable to account for those emotions: all in all, things were not really going to change.  I would not see them often (which was already the case).  Instead of a 10 hour car ride, there would be an 18 hour flight.  That’s only 8 hours! Why was I shaken? I’d lived ‘away’ from them since I was 11.  I took to writing to try to sort this out, and ended up writing them a letter, to be opened only AFTER they arrived in Hanoi.  The letter turned out to be a series of affirmations of them, coupled with apologies by me… some things I needed to get off my chest… or at least have them understand.

One such incident: As a special surprise for my thirteenth birthday, my mother scraped up enough money to fly to the boarding school to spend the weekend with me.  The day had gone largely unacknowledged, and routine:  I went to school, ate lunch, and had a fairly uneventful day.  So I was startled to see her in the  shared sitting room between the boys and girls halls in the hostel.  I stopped in the doorway, unable to take a step forward.  One of the boys pushed me on through, moving me out of his way.  Mom stood up and turned to me and said “Happy Birthday!  I’m here to spend the weekend with you!  I am staying at the guest house.  Do you want to stay there with me this weekend?”

My behavior was less than stellar.  I refused to go to the guest house with her, refused to stay with her, refused to eat with her.  I made certain we were never alone together and Saturday morning I got up early and took off, not caring who was worried or offended. I spent the day romping in the jungle, and when  I returned late that evening hardly spoke to her.  She was hurt.  The house parents were livid.  I’d proven how unruly I could be.  She finally declared that if I didn’t want her there, she’d save herself the housing expense and just hop the next flight home.  Fine.

The 24 year old had spent 11+ years thinking about how awful she’d acted.   She needed–I needed–my mother to understand what was going on.  So in that letter read 11 years later in a hotel room in Vietnam, my mother learned this:  “It wasn’t that I didn’t love you.  The problem was that I loved you too much to have you just come in and out my life–too much for these sorts of surprises.  You see, I’d spent the year at boarding school pretending you were dead.  It was easier for me to be the orphan than the unwanted child.  The idea that life for you and dad went on without me and Bill was just too much to take in.  I wanted to not think about you until the holidays.  Then the holidays felt like heaven: a reunion of sorts.  But during everyday life at the boarding school, I just couldn’t bear you both moving through the routines of life without us kids.”

Beat me, bore me… never ignore me…

One fateful Sunday lunch during high school, my adolescent wilfulness and rebellion had tried the patience of my mother to the point of exhaustion.  I was flippant and irritable, and wanted more than anything to NOT be at the family table for dinner.  Anything would be better than sitting there with my folks.  In spite of all my angst, however, I knew that my parents demanded propriety:  I asked to be excused.  My mother, frustrated beyond recognition, cut her eyes at me and pronounced “You may leave the table when you have said the following ten times aloud: Beat me, bore me, but never ignore me.”  A subsequent marathon-length battle of wills ensued:  neither of us was willing to give in.  We sat there staring at each other for hours.  Dinner plates got cold and crusty.  My dad and brother had long left the table and were no doubt indulging in the Sunday-afternoon-after-church nap. Yet we sat.  Finally, I mumbled out the phrase the tenth time and fled the scene.

Of course sitting there like that didn’t break my spirit; if anything it escalated my anger exponentially.  But I knew better than outright disobedience.   In my adult years, I can look back on that incident and laugh and tease my mom about the battle for power/control.  But as a teenager, I was livid.

Now as an adult, I’m amused at how often that phrase comes to mind: particularly in moments wherein someone is wrongly lording their power over me.  I thought about it during this incident.  And more recently, in response to a woman in my local congregation who loves to be on committees and loves to manipulate herself into control.  I swear she wins by filibuster, as we are all too sick of her to keep arguing.  She wields her ill-gained power like a sharp knife and possesses an amazing ability to cut your throat without you realizing it.  She smiles, nodding in feigned comprehension and agreement, as you continue your narrative, and watches the life-force eek from the wound she inflicted.  Finally you collapse.  She’s left standing, and deems that you were too weak anyway… she is merely thinning the herd.

I can do little about folks willing to manipulate and connive their way into positions of power.  But I can sure as hell pay enough attention to flee when I see the flash of the knife.

When pricked, I will bleed… eventually.

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down at my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures.  Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I laid in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio.  Antonio goes to great lengths to secure a loan for his friend: offering a ‘pound of flesh’ as guarantee.  The description of their friendship borders on the erotic.  Antonio doesn’t hesitate to help Bassanio (mirroring the words on Portia’s leaden casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”).   It was  Antonio’s unexplained depression — “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” —which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake, indeed soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than platonic love between the friends than meets the eye–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused  Antonio great pain.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

It is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  The words on the lead casket echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ (Matt 19:29)–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things. Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. Evil’s plans (in this case, the Jewish merchant, Shylock) are thwarted, and it all works out in the end. But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio paid with a pound of flesh? What if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Can there not be limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading the introduction to Craig Keen’s The Transgression of the Integrity of God pushed these buttons for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students of Keen’s) describe a radicality in his devotion which is dangerously inspiring: that nothing would get in Keen’s way of his discipleship.  “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which  he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to nobel ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitude of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).  Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that the God worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhārtha Gautama more compelling than the teachings of Jesus; certainly more so than many of the ‘followers’ of Jesus.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’, Siddhārtha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

When immersed in the pseudo-evangelical holiness world, is it possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential? The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility to those left holding your urn.

The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Oddly, this middle way bears a strong resemblance to holiness…

The day the rabbit(s) died…

No, I was not pregnant.  I was 19 and working as the head of maintenance for the summer camp for the Peoria Southside Mission.  The camp was located 20 miles outside of Peoria, on 380 acres of wooded land. It seems that when you’re raised an MK, there are a lot of assumptions made about your skills–assumptions you yourself embrace. Who doesn’t want to be considered a renaissance woman? a Jill-of-all-trades?

That summer I fixed fences, door frames, and roofs. I plunged toilets, mowed lawns, painted, planted trees, you name it–I even learned to drive a bulldozer.

The camp had a petting zoo of sorts–all donated animals who were found to be misfits in their former homes.  We had three horses, two miniature goats, three very large goats, a flock of geese, several dogs and puppies, and there were always kittens around.  Half my day was spent tending to the animals–either simply feeding or grooming them–the other half was spent (it seems) chasing them down and repairing fences.  I have been known to walk two miles with a full-grown goose tucked under each arm, green goose shit running down each pant leg.  Sigh.  But I digress.  The point I was making is: these animals were misfits.  On any given day, someone would drive up with a dog who was pregnant, and not wanting to terminate the pregnancy, decide to ‘donate’ the dog to the mission.  And we took in anything that wasn’t sick and didn’t bite.  We’d seen how therapeutic it was for our inner city kids to spend time with the animals, learning to care for them and grow attachments in healing and healthy ways, we were pleased to take the strays in.

One day I received a phone call that someone would like to donate some domestic rabbits.  Could he bring them over right away? Knowing our policy of accepting pretty much any healthy donation, I said “Sure! Bring the bunnies over! The kids will love them.”  I set the phone down and began to scramble to figure out what type of cage I could quickly assemble for these rabbits.

I should have asked more questions.  Really.  Within half an hour of the phone call a pick up truck drove up in the hot July sun with a large wooden crate in the back–the crate literally filled the truck bed.  The donor walked across the yard and asked where he could set the crate, and I cast about for a suitable temporary spot and pointed to a spot telling him it would be fine to ‘put it there, under those trees in the shade.”  To my surprise (and subsequent panic) he and his buddy unloaded that huge crate FULL of rabbits.  “I reckon there are about 100 of them.”  I filled out the tax deduction form for them and quickly as they came, the gentlemen were on their way.

Good grief!  I was building a pen for a few rabbits–I’d been thinking 5 or 6. Now I had 100 to deal with! I set about anew, trying to figure out not only how to contain these animals, but where I could put such a large brood!  I phoned my boss in the city, and he suggested a temporary run on the grass, where we could then build up a proper hutch/shelter. He was excited about the number and had visions of inner city children quietly holding and stroking these gentle lapin.

It took me about an hour to gather the posts and fencing and wire to create the ‘run’ on the grass and locate a suitable site which would provide shelter and shade as well as some bright sunny spots. As usual, I had about 20 kids watching my every move.  I set to work.  It took an additional hour to get the pen set up in a satisfactory fashion: I needed the rabbits to stay in, and the local raccoon and coyotes to stay out.  As I was finishing up, my boss arrived from the city.  He inspected the pen and was pleased with my progress.  He then asked to see the rabbits.

It turns out that the shady spot I’d picked out for the donor to set the crate in remained shady for only a few minutes. As the day progressed (unbeknownst to me, as I was frantically building a rabbit pen) the shade shifted until the majority of the wooden crate was exposed to the hot July sun.  My boss began yelling…

I came running with a crow bar to open the crate.  The rabbits had gotten so hot they were huddled all on one end of the crate, trying to get into the shade.  They were piled on top of each other.  Those on top were sweaty and panting.  I ran for a hose, while my boss began sorting them out.  We hosed the lot of them down in an attempt to cool them quickly.  My boss suddenly stopped what he was doing and laid into me with a barrage of blame.  “These animals were in your care and you neglected them!  You’ve killed them!  This is your fault!”  The barrage went on for a good ten minutes or longer.  The kids who’d gathered round began crying.  I was crying.  My boss was crying and continuing to scream.  He finally assaulted me with a “This is on your head!” before storming off.

Sobbing, I kept sorting the animals.  The ones on the bottom were wet and stiff.  The ones still living were placed in a box in the shade–I think there were maybe twelve still living.  The rest I threw into the back of a truck and headed off to the dump.  All the while I had kids from the city watching… and some of the older ones rode with me to dispose of the lapin bodies.  I backed the truck up to the edge of the dump and the kids made a game out of tossing the 90 or so rabbits into the ravine.  I then covered them with the bulldozer: picture the college girl in tears behind the controls of that land mover.

The kids talked about it as one of the most fun days of their whole camp experience.  I, however, went back to my cabin and sobbed.  And can still end up crying when I think about it for long.   I know that it was an impossible situation, exacerbated by a boss whose crass display of frustration only compounded the guilt I felt.  But I felt responsible: all around responsible–for the deaths of the rabbits, for the experience of the kids who watched–for it all.  I caused the deaths.

The next morning I got up before anyone else and released the remaining rabbits.  I couldn’t bear to face them.  My boss cornered me that evening and asked if I was the culprit.  When I affirmed, he stared at me grimly and told me they’d likely not survive in the wild.  “You’ve killed them all.”

The perfect storm

That there was a pedestrian accident on the Metra affecting Northbound trains, an afternoon Cubs game at home, and an extra-alarm fire at Fullerton shutting down the Red, Brown, and Purple line El trains was sufficient ingredients to cook up the perfect commuter storm.  I was stuck on the Red line of the El underground for about an hour Monday, awaiting word on where we could move to, and where we could escape our interment.  They finally allowed us to proceed to the North/Clybourn stop, and disembark.  The underground platform was crowded with confused and inconvenienced sojourners.  Body to body we were moved en masse towards the narrow escalator and stairs–and I thought to myself how easy it would be to get trampled or knocked off the platform onto the ominous, electrified third rail below.  Shudder.

We emerged from our dark womb and stood squinting in the bright sunlight.  There were shuttles off to one side, promising to take folks around the disaster to the next strain stop to the North, but there were also thousands standing in line, waiting for said shuttles.  I turned and walked the opposite direction, getting caught up in the sweep of the crowd.  It took me several blocks to get clear of people enough to figure out my bearings.  I could see the skyline and determined the best thing for me to do was head towards the lake.  Perhaps, even, if I headed slightly South I’d have a better chance of catching a cab or bus.  And so I walked. And walked.  And walked.  I wished I’d worn better shoes to the office.  My computer bag was beginning to weigh heavily and my feet became inconsolable on the hot concrete.

I paused to take a break and wipe the sweat from my eyes, and looked around. I was standing on the edge of one of those large city blocks designated for construction–fenced off, but for now, just a large overgrown field.  In the bright sun, the tall grass shimmered in the heat.  And I was transported to another world.

I’m 11 and sitting on a grassy airfield with my 13-year-old brother in Irian Jaya.  We’d been dropped there with the plane’s cargo the day before, and were patiently waiting for the pilot’s return.  We’d been on our way to ‘the village’ from boarding school, but cloud cover had made the hour and a half flight into a much longer series of dangerous holding patterns.  Running low on fuel, the pilot set us down on an open airfield and promised to be back once refueled and the cloud cover had receded.

24 hours have passed.  We don’t speak the language.  We don’t entirely know where we are.  We sit.    I wandered off for a bit, only to have my brother (big brother) yell at me, concerned I’d get hurt, uncertain of the wildlife in the area, and just generally being controlling.  “What if the pilot comes and you aren’t close by?  We might have to wait for you and the clouds might come back!” We worry about being on the wrong side of the border–given we don’t have our papers, and border fighting is common.

I begrudgingly come back to the pile of cargo we’ve been left with.  We are dirty, hungry, and mildly scared.  Our thoughts turn naturally towards abandonment, and whether or not any one has even missed us yet.  We fight–verbally and physically.  Finally, we are silent and sullen.

And the sound of the plane comes over the horizon…

Back in present day Chicago, I’m struck as to how very vulnerable I feel.  Vulnerable and alone.  Would anyone notice I was missing?

Fan Fare and Waving Palms

X is one of my closest friends and is a gay man. We’ve known each other for years (since high school)  and we’ve seen each other at our best and worst.  I love him dearly.  But I hate going out with him.

X is a sexual predator: not in the illegal sense, but rather in the sense that every interaction is a potential sexual encounter.  This is the lens through which X views the world: there are women and there are potential sex partners.  I’ve discussed it with him multiple times over the years, and his outlook and behavior have not changed.  I’ve learned to live with it, and placed some limits and demands on him as a result.  For instance, when we go to a restaurant, I make him sit facing the wall or position him so that his line of eye site is limited to the fewest people possible.  Otherwise I find myself largely ignored as he scopes the surroundings for potential prey.  The worst experience?  Try going to a gay bar with him: not only does he ignore you, but the wait staff will as well.  It is hard for a woman to get served in a gay bar.

X took me out recently for my birthday.  We walked to the restaurant Saturday evening and I found myself contemplating the Palm Sunday services at my local church.  As I rambled about the festivities, I realized he’d broken stride with me and was busy flirting with a young hottie on the street.  This continued on the way to the restaurant various with men he’d make eye contact with: that knowing gaze and sizing up of one another.  At dinner X flirted with the wait-staff and eyeballed the crowd for cute men.  I said something about it to him, and his response was of the “wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity” ilk.

There is no jealousy in me: I’m not a stereotypical fag-hag, hoping to change him.  I have no need to be the object of flirtation or affection.  But I couldn’t help but feel that just for once, I’d like for someone to wave palm fronds because I walked in the room…

We all want to be honored occasionally and to not disappear into the crowd. I am not one among many: I am one; singular; someone to be celebrated, even if just a little.

Missing wantoks…

I’ve been in a funk this past week and I know it is related to news from New Guinea.  There was a landslide which took out two villages near Mendi (about 40 missing–buried) and then the ferry capsized off the coast of Lae–there were 250 students on board, and 104 are still missing (days later).  Several of those on the boat were from the Melanesian  Nazarene Bible college.  It is heart breaking…  and especially frustrating how little press it received.  (Given how much press the cruise liner off the shore of Italy received… where only 24 are still missing.  I guess it once again pays to be European).

There is a system in PNG called “wantoks”–which literally means “one talk”–that is, you speak the same native language. What is implied therein, is that you are from the same village, and are related, and your concerns belong to all your wantoks.  There is an obligation to tend to one another’s needs.  Sometimes this is good–no one is left out and no one goes without help.  But at times it is also a pain: relatives can just show up and demand things.  It is heavily intertwined with the lack of a notion of ‘personal property’ and the fact that language groups are so very small, isolated, and tight.  Anyway… I’m missing wantoks these days…

And the grief I’ve experienced over the news from PNG kinda exacerbates that feeling: to whom can I turn when I feel like this?  There isn’t anyone around who speaks my language… who has shared these experiences… who shares my grief.  It makes it very difficult to even talk about New Guinea at times.  I remember once when dad and I were riding his motorcycle, we came upon a bus accident.  I was about 10 years old.  Dad worked to triage folk, and we noticed one man who was bleeding out.  Dad said there was nothing to be done, so we tried to make him comfortable, and then went to help the other injured.  We heard a gurgling noise and saw someone pouring water down the man’s throat–literally drowning him.  The rationale: he’d lost a lot of fluid so this good Samaritan was filling him back up.  When we told this story in the US, it was met with disbelief that the ‘natives’ were so ignorant.  Sigh.

And I recall a time when a missionary family was driving the highlands highway (the only highway)–which was treacherous in and of itself with 20 some rivers to ford–to visit us on the north shore for vacation.  They never arrived at the appointed time, and we traveled to find them, only to discover a large landslide had covered part of the highway for several kilometers.  We spent 4 days digging people out, removing bodies and vehicles and debris, only to find out that the landslide had occurred before the missionaries got to that part of the road.  Because it was impassable, they merely turned around and went home, never thinking to notify us where they were, or that they were safe.  And their spin on the situation was that God had somehow intervened and saved them from being buried.

With whom can I share such tales?  Who can hear them without sensationalizing them, or using them for their own agenda?  In my grief, I am missing my wantoks.  And my wantoks are missing…

One among many…

Boarding school was presented to us missionary kids as the pinnacle of achievement: that is, you knew you were finally grown up when you were ‘allowed’ to attend with the big kids.  I’b been attending an international primary school for 4th and 5th grades and had been largely bored and lonely.  My grades were good, and my folks offered to let me choose to skip the 6th grade and advance to 7th–and therefore to boarding school.  I was 11.  I visited the school, met with the instructors and passed their oral examinations and was welcomed to Ukarumpa High School.

Ukarumpa, the international boarding school, was situated in the highlands of New Guinea at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) near Aiyura (where the airstrip was), about 13 kilometers from Kainantu.  I moved into our denominational hostel (one of several hostels on campus which were denominationally funded) and became the youngest child in a house of 12 kids ranging from age 11 (me) to 19.

The denominational hostel I lived in starting in 7th grade.

The Naz Hostel.

The twelve of us were ‘parented’ by whichever couple in our mission drew the proverbial ‘short straw’.  These people weren’t called to the mission field to take care of each other’s kids.  They’d sold their belongings and moved half way around the world for the singular purpose of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  That the missionary kids required education and tending to was at best an afterthought.  The couple stationed at the hostel were only assigned for a short period of time (usually upon arriving back from a year’s deputation in the US, while they were waiting for their position at the Bible College or the hospital to be vacated). We kids were a bump in the missional highway–an assignment most missionaries tried to avoid.

As such, the turnover of house parents was rapid and frequent. We would go through periods of time where we had a different set of ‘parents’ every six weeks.  Often the people the mission hired to take care of us were barely older than we were (one couple was only 5 or 6 years older than the oldest ‘kid’).  It was a chaotic and disruptive existence, never knowing what expectations were, what meals would be like, what might be considered funny and what might very well offend.  Some people had their own children to tend to, and found the disruption of the other missionaries’ kids in the household to be nuisance.  Others felt a need to save the mission money and doled out food and supplies as if there was significant scarcity. Some were not any more mature than we kids were.  Many felt free to criticize the parenting style of our biological parents—the missionaries they took exception to: often humiliating their kids who were at their mercy for 10 ½ months of the year.  Some couldn’t cook; others couldn’t even speak the local language and go to the market by themselves. Most had little to no theological training and functioned on a folk theology where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’.  If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.

During my tenure at Ukarumpa, there was one set of house parents who stayed for a full year without disruption.  They were an older couple, fresh back from furlough.  Their own kids were grown and they had enough distance from them to provide some stability in our lives. They laughed a lot, spent time alone together, and cooked together.  They were not perfect: his tolerance for childish nonsense was slim, and he spent a lot of time talking about “Blessed Quietness”—an old holiness song—especially when we got too rowdy or raucous.  He paddled the boys occasionally when they were bad, and looked upon misbehaving girls with contempt.   If we were late getting up in the morning, he’d walk down our hall with a pan from the kitchen and a metal spoon and bang until we got up.  When the hostel’s dog, Beast, got old, he waited till we kids were out of the house, then shot the dog and buried him.  When we cried, he told us it was ‘just a dog’.

She was lovely—tall, stately, elegant.  She played the piano and the violin and had an infectious laugh which was accompanied by an impossible twinkle in her eye.  Everyone loved her with a reverence which created space—quite literally.  She held herself at an emotional arms-length from us, treating each of us with professional competence and the care only a nurse could offer.  But she hardly mothered us.  She had favorites, and I was not one of them.

They had their own living space apart from the dormitory we kids lived in.  It was taboo and we kids were forbidden to enter.  They would disappear behind closed doors each evening, not to emerge again until morning.  Each night when I went to bed, I wrote in a notebook: a diary of sorts describing to her my day and thoughts, sometimes just the love letters of a little girl in need of a mother close by.  I would slide the notebook under her door and go to bed.  In the mornings, I’d find it on my desk—in pristine condition, without evidence that it had been read or even opened.  Nevertheless I’d write.  I think it was my way of having a little time with her alone (an impossibility with 12 kids, but also given her ‘distancing’ personality).

Years later, when I moved to Kansas City to attend Seminary, I was delighted to find out that these house parents had retired nearby.  My own parents had moved to Vietnam, and I found myself ‘orphaned’ once again in a strange country.  I imagined contacting these newly retired house parents, and having a place to ‘go’ occasionally and a ‘family’ to fall back on if I needed support.

It was a harsh reminder of childhood days the first time I went to visit this retired couple.  Whereas I considered them “mom and dad” for a year of my life and a real source of stability, they saw me as a painful reminder of a year of lost ministry—a year doing a job they never wanted and didn’t feel called to—I was one among 12 kids who never really were theirs.   The emotional arm’s length had stretched miles.  It shook me to my core.

And I began to feel more at ease being the orphan, than the less-than-desirable foster kid.