In Memoriam of Martha Pontier, 1962-2013


My first memory of Martha goes all the way back to the reading circle in the corner of Miss Stewart’s first grade classroom. While other classmates struggled through poor Sally’s drama in our Dick and Jane readers, Martha was showing me how to color my nails with a pencil.

She was the last in a long row of Pontier siblings and part of a greater Pontier Congo family. Her dad and his siblings had also attended Rethy Academy — a missionary boarding school where my mother taught — in its early years, when many roads were paths and many families could only get around via motorcycle.

Because of their work generally far from anywhere generally navigable, the family was often flown to school in a plane small enough to land on the tiny local airstrip. One time, though, when they did drive to Rethy will remain in my memory, because they rattled up the hill in what I think was an ancient Peugeot. The missing back seat had been replaced with a single wooden plank. Since the trip from their station had taken generally three days (in Congo everything regarding time, place, space is always “general”), I wondered if the kids had sat on that thing the whole time while traipsing through rainforest.

A lot of us kids were scrappy like that car. Our hair was scraggly. Our clothes did not match. For the most part we didn’t care. While there were those junior high girls at Rethy who spent Saturday mornings in curlers and looking at the latest fashions in the Sears catalog while sitting in front of the fireplace, Martha and I and others were in trees and either eating loquats or guavas, or investigating rickety old tree houses where the floor boards bent beneath our nervous feet while the pine trees swayed and groaned in the breeze.

There is one event we have always ruminated on that could have turned tragic. She and I, part of a small group of girls, were rock-hopping on top of a mountain during one of the school’s mid-term picnics. We returned to see everyone — gone. Suddenly there we were, about five or six white girls in the middle of the forest, miles away from the station. We panicked, and amidst tears and stilted communication in a mix of Lingala, Swahili and Kingwana, allowed a group of Congolese boys to lead us into the forest, along a dirt path. It did eventually lead to the main road just as the station truck — with the supervisor inside — drove by on his way out to find us. We were naive. The adults at the station were praying.

A memorial generally focuses on nice. But this morning as I was reaching into every dusty memory corner, trying to pull out everything about her, I realized this: I never had a cruel word from her. Even within my easily bruisable middle-school soul, she was always easy-going and kind. While we girls sometimes had to navigate those catty cliques that exist, yes, even in the middle of the mission field, Martha easily floated amidst each one, always approachable, always laid back.

Though I saw Martha last when I was almost twelve, by then she had been established within my foundation of lifelong friendship. After years of separation I was so glad to be able to reconnect with her on Facebook, finding that she had spent all of her adult life as a missionary in Kenya. I was hoping for a reunion someday at her house in Mombasa.

I paid her mom a visit about three years ago in her retirement complex in Florida. While I thrilled over all the Africa memorabilia covering her walls, I was also struck by the joy in Mrs. Pontier’s eyes as she told me of her children’s adventures with Christ throughout the world.

At times ever since, I’ve ruminated over that joy. Out there in the relative Congo boondocks, many of us — and that includes scrappy me — lived in relative comfort Rethy style. The nights were cool. The Milky Way paraded through the heavens. The springlike days there up on that hill made my life pretty idyllic. I rarely had to deal with creatures that came with heat and humidity. Others, though, like the Pontiers, out in the poli, were really in the thick of it, the whole family putting feet to their faith. At her home in Florida, Martha’s mom showed me a picture of their time in southern Sudan. Though the photo seemed to radiate with the heat and stickiness of that place, her eyes had only joy as she recounted the thrill of seeing Congolese and Sudanese meet Jesus. That kind of joy, to me, can only come from Christ.

That’s what I will miss most about Martha and why she will have an entry in my own personal Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame. From afar, here in my sometimes annoyingly quiet suburban life, I have observed that focus and dedication of hers, and it has impacted me, as well as knowing it has impacted others. That same scrappy joy, eminent in her recent photos, willing and able and happily at work for the Master.

The Other Side of Obedience (and why I hate sequels)

When my brother Bob called to say that he and Dorie had taken in six foster siblings, I offered to make other plans for Thanksgiving.  With all assorted relatives and such, that would make more than twenty for dinner including eight kids under the age of twelve: overload, I was sure, for Bob and Dorie.

Bob would have none of our other arrangements, so Mark and I steeled ourselves for possible chaos.  And sure enough, as soon as we pulled in the driveway at noon on The Big Day, there was the whole menagerie outside, Bob swinging three of the kids in a porch swing tied under a tree and the other three playing on the driveway.  Grant, eight years old and the oldest, immediately strode toward us and introduced himself, his hand outstretched. “That dude’s the little man of the family,” I noted to myself. Tyler started kicking a soccer ball around with Paul, while a little bitty girl wearing pink sparkly sneakers and a knitted cap on her head tried to push around, with one hand, a tiny tricycle which kept falling over.

I glanced at Bob. He seemed relatively sane. Now sane and Bob have always been very “relative”.  During his sojourn upon the earth, he has attacked with gusto everything he’s set his mind to do, including flying hot air balloons and ultra light airplanes; mastering the workings of anything mechanical; and building radio controlled airplanes, paddle wheel boats, house additions, you name it. Bob has also always been one color – loud – though tempered in recent years with a softer hue named Dorie.  Bob has also nursed a tender heart his whole life. I can attest to this even though, as his younger sister, as kids his tenderness wasn’t always directed at me. At any rate, seeing him push kids in a swing was no surprise at all.

Throughout the afternoon it was hard to get the six kids straight. In between the smoked salmon and baked brie appetizers I looked out the window to see them playing well with my kids. That was a relief. But why had I presumed that foster kids would be a batch of terrors? They also had good manners: When they came in for dinner, all dutifully washed their hands and stood in line, sat without fidgeting in their seats, and asked politely to be excused. During the partaking of all that is Thanksgiving dinner delight, I picked up tidbits on their background. Their mother was only 24. The kids had been removed by CPS due to her purposely burning her 3-yr-old on the hand. The family had been living in a one room apartment where meals consisted only of Blueberry Pop-tarts although one day the “present” father had brought home strawberry by mistake. When Dorie had asked Alyssa, the eldest girl, to talk about a good day at home, the girl had remarked , “There weren’t any.” They had been removed once before, but the judge in this particular county of this particular state held that children should be with their parents, so had allowed them back. And then the burn, which had required a hospital stay and skin grafts.  This three-year-old, according to the other siblings, had become the object of her mother’s frustration. The other kids had been taught to needle her, disregard her.

With the holiday hullabaloo in full swing it wasn’t until that evening, after the pie had most of the guys zonked on the couch and while the kids were in the basement playing foosball and ping-pong, that the little itty-bitty girl who had been pushing the tricycle around outside approached me, her arms raised to be picked up. It was then I realized who she was with the bandage on her hand, a persistent blister peeking around the dressing. On her fingernails was shiny red polish, now chipped, that a doctor had lavished on her before she left the hospital. I picked her up and hugged and kissed her. She pointed to the basement stairs. “You can take her down if you stay with her,” Bob explained, “but she’s not allowed to navigate the stairs on her own.” I wasn’t sure I should navigate them either with the clunky high-heeled boots I had on. She grasped at my blouse and I hugged the wall to keep from plunging headlong with my precious cargo.

When we reached the ping pong table I tried to set her down, but she continued to cling to me so I alternately stood and sat, rocking her and kissing her forehead while she tapped my teeth with her fingers, my braces making plinking sounds. “Wot dat?” she asked. “To make my teeth look pretty,” I answered. I gently held and pointed to her painted fingernails. “Like your fingers are pretty.” She grabbed at the cap on her head and pulled it off, exposing a wide swath of shaved hair which was starting to grow back, where doctors had taken the skin grafts for her hands. While she shifted her gaze back and forth from me to the boys, I tried to get a glimpse of her soul through her eyes. My heart flip-flopped. What I saw seemed muddy — shallow. I held her to me and prayed for her then, remembering Ellen’s response at my hope that her young age would relieve her future memories: “They say that a burn is the one thing you never forget.”

When we went back upstairs, Dorie was down on her knees with one of the girls, enlisting her help in getting the toys picked up and put away. “Can we please please please have a Bible story?” Grant pleaded, walking into the room.  Ellen stood up. “Let me tell ya,” she said to me, “These kids put me to shame when it comes to their desire for God.” Bob ambled into the kitchen, looking a bit done for. “How do you do it?” I asked him. “Daycare!” he laughed. “School and daycare. They’re great kids, but the weekends are so exhausting I’ve never looked so forward to Mondays in my life!” “So what was it that inspired you guys to do this in the first place?” I asked. “I felt that God was calling us to do it,” Ellen explained.  She paused and stated simply, “Obedience.”

Obedience. What a dog. It lay at the foot of my bed as I went to sleep. It was one thing for me to live four hours away and admire from afar Bob and Dorie’s decision to take in these kids; it was quite another to connect grace directly with these little faces, and to see in their eyes (well most of them anyway) deep pools of spirit. The little pink jackets hung on the coat tree and sparkly shoes lined up by the door were no longer just shoes and coats; they embodied hope. As I lay in the darkness I again felt the three-month-old baby melting into my shoulder after I fed her her bottle. I heard the squeals of joy as Bob pushed the three on the porch swing high into the air. Then I heard the dog at the foot of the bed groan and remembered times I’d ignored that supernatural nudge, holding my ears and closing my eyes until it had stopped. But then the awful emptiness .

I had only seen obedience from one side – mine: The work it would entail. The hours it would consume. The faith it would require. Now I saw obedience on the other side: the hope the work produced; the joy contained within the hours. The blossoming of increased faith.

It was easy to shift any self-reflection away from my weakness and to instead despise the mother.  Easier even because I’d never met her. Six kids including a newborn, three different fathers. Had she used her brain at all before passion took over?  Was she redeemable? Did I want her to be redeemable? I tried to put myself in her shoes. Was she in the throes of post-partum depression? I could almost talk myself into being sympathetic until I remembered that Dan had said she was willing to legally sign away her burned daughter. She didn’t want her. That I found hard to swallow.

The next morning, Friday, the tribe was headed out the door to daycare by the time I got up. Grant led the older siblings into the van like the General, while Bob and Dorie stood on opposite sides strapping the three-year-old, one year old, and three-month-old into their car seats. I watched Bob, that sometimes obnoxious loud-mouth of old, standing so humbly, tenderly and patiently making sure every belt and buckle was in order.

“You guys are doing a great job,” I offered when they came back into the house.  “How about we go out for breakfast?” I searched their faces for signs of cracks. “I hope they manage to stay buoyant,” Dorie’s mom had said the night before. “Six kids. It’s exhausting.”

At the diner Bob and Dorie finally got to relax and watch Mark and me wrangle with our three over the perceived injustice of who got the least bacon. On the way back to their house Bob and Dorie drove us by some income property they had just bought and were fixing up. They explained how the events surrounding the sale had them convinced that God had orchestrated and blessed the whole thing.  Well, that’s a no brainer, I thought. Being selfless like this, taking in these kids like this, obedience like this, faith like this, I’d think blessings were certainly in order. This was a family who would certainly live happily ever after.

But that is why I hate sequels.

Characters are supposed to live happily ever after. It especially drives me crazy when writers try to mess with Jane Austen perfection. I wish they’d just leave the happiness alone, but then they write ridiculous sequels where someone inevitably dies in childbirth, has some hunting accident, or discovers love is too difficult.

Monday morning Bob called me. I immediately knew something was up and was fearful that it had to do with those kids, that they were being sent back to their mother. Instead, Bob told me that he has cancer. A difficult kind. He has surgery in his future and possibly radiation. The surgeon wants to remove his lymph glands. I have lived long enough upon the earth to learn that these things — illness, pain, suffering – come to all, whether or not they take in foster kids or attack life with zest, or whether or not they are my brother – or dad – or uncle. We live in expectation – with groaning expectation at times – for what CS Lewis calls The Weight of Glory – for that Land far away, that Longing for Home.

Bob says he feels ready for that. He also says he doesn’t feel as if it’s his time to go. How do I feel? I feel as if I’m still in class. I feel like I’ll be in class for the rest of my life, having to learn and relearn, when life slings its muck, to fill my life with the kind of prayer that leads me to not only pray with confidence for Bob’s health and healing, but also leads to trust, to hope, to faith, and followed up with the obedience to put it all into practice.

Grace Rules: A Rant on Humanity (therefore exposing mine)

I love rules. They are so useful for making other people behave. I don’t need rules because I am a good girl and behave very well already.

My husband thinks rules are unnecessary and confining. This makes me very nervous.

So recently while on the way to that “Walk with the Dinosaurs” extravaganza making its rounds nationwide, we had a conversation we’ve repeated a few times during our marriage:

“Why did you bring that?” I pointed to the camcorder. “They’re not going to let you take pictures or film.”

“Why not?”

“They never do at this type of thing. It has to do with copyright. There’ll be an announcement — just you wait.”

“Copyright?! I just want a few snapshots — I’m not going to sell them. Besides, what are they going to do? Send around the camera police?”

“It doesn’t matter what you do with them. A rule is a rule. Just because you don’t agree with it doesn’t mean you should disregard it.”

Yada yada yada — and so it went on. Whatever. I had made up my mind. No camera.

On this particular day this conversation set the tone for my mood which was too bad since, though I couldn’t care less about dinosaurs, I care somewhat about my husband who likes dinosaurs so much he had been willing to shell out a small fortune for the show. I wanted to appear the supportive wife, so I had already decided that at least I could watch people, who are often more entertaining than any show. I was also glad to get out of the house.

Sure enough, before the show started a voice boomed over the stadium: “Dinosaurs will eat anyone filming or photographing the show.” Told ya so, dear, though I looked very gracious to not rub it in.

But now a tangent. (Bear with me.) Soon after seating ourselves, a Cluster of folks appeared with tickets for the seats next to us, including a Seat #9 at the end of the row, which was simply a chairless space. While they stood there looking confused, a woman a couple of rows back rasped loudly, “That is just awful! How dare they sell a ticket for a seat that isn’t there! You should complain – they should give you a seat in the front row! You should sue!”

I wanted to be helpful. “I’m sure they could bring in an extra chair.”

A woman in the Cluster sneered at me and snorted, “A chair –!” while the group’s matriarch complained to Mr. Security, who stared at the tickets with furrowed brow.

Immediately I was inwardly reeling about the sneering “a chair –!” comment. Had I said something wrong? Was I being inconsiderate somehow? After all, who was I, who already had a seat and was sitting in it, to suggest bringing in “a chair —“! Had I walked in these people’s shoes? Hmmph. I wondered:

Maybe they’d had a bad experience with — Musical Chairs.

Maybe the chair had been pulled out from beneath them.

Maybe if I had used the word seat instead of chair….

Meanwhile the stadium was filling with magenta Cretaceous fog. The show’s soundtrack started with an intensity they couldn’t expect to sustain. Dinosaurs lumbered onto the stadium floor; I could see their computerized carts.

Mr. Security came back with a folding chair which, unlike ours, had four inches of padding. The Cluster stood in a semi-circle around it, studied it, took notes over it, and then shook their heads.

It would not do; it was not bolted to the ground like the rest of ours.

I was annoyed. A chair is a chair is a chair. Now there was a Seat #9. Why couldn’t they just sit down and shut up?!

For Pete’s sake — I would have sat in the chair!

But never mind. My attention was momentarily diverted to the narrator saying:

“There were no flowers before the Cretaceous. But insects came along and helped the ferns pollinate, so to thank the insects, plants started to grow flowers.”

Read that again. Really?

Great. The predictable evolutionary allusion to us all coming from monkeys. I pulled a crumpled receipt out of my purse and scribbled the quote on the back.  When I looked up, the Cluster had disappeared.

“I bet they got front row seats,” Raspy Woman said. I noticed they’d left a sippy cup behind. Oh – now this was ripe! I could race down the stairs, waving the cup. I could stop them. Breathless, I could apologize:  “I’m so sorry – I’m so sorry for suggesting they bring in a ‘chair’!” And then  – wait for it — wait for it: “A ‘throne’ would have been so much more appropriate!”

Sometimes I crack myself up. But wait: what was that? I was jolted back to the present when one of the computerized carts started moving backwards, making the allosaurus look as if it were doing the moonwalk.

Simultaneously, all over the arena, a thousand flashbulbs went off.

Never mind what I said about us not coming from monkeys.

I was mad. I looked at Mark in disgust while he mouthed, “Told you so.” I imagined my first grade teacher rising out of the mist with great condescension and whining, “I’m soooorrrry, but because some of you are taking pictures so not follow the rules, you have ruined the treat for the rest!” The fog would cease, the lights dim, the dinosaurs would roll to a stop.

I couldn’t wait! Meanwhile, the magenta fog rolled and the soundtrack tried to sustain its frenetic energy. I stewed myself into a good frenzy. I rehashed the scenario of the “Cluster” and the camera-toting rule breakers again and again, analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing.  I even imagined what Jesus might have done, hanging out and looking cool.  Well, He probably would have called Raspy Woman to be his disciple: after all, she was loud like Peter.

I imagined myself at Princess Diana’s wedding. No one would have dared flout the rules there. No one would have hidden her camera in her purse. That’s where I deserved to be. A couple rungs up on the civilization ladder, that was for sure. Instead, here I was, tucked amidst the Great Unwashed Herd.  For Pete’s sake, what was wrong with people?

Thank heavens I was not like them.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Camera and camcorder at my feet. This time we were on our way to see my niece in her high school’s production of Seussical. My sister-in-law was saying, “You’re not supposed to film because of copyright, but last night everyone was filming and taking pictures anyway.” “Yeah, I don’t know what the big deal is,” my husband agreed. It was the same conversation all over again, except that when the show started, I flipped open the camcorder and filmed a little here and a little there with nary a thought. Why not? She was doing great, and I love her!

During the intermission, I got up to get the kids some snacks. When I came back I found this marked-up program on my chair:

I had asked my hubby for his jacket during intermission because the room was cold. Now waves of heat were radiating off my skin, my heart was pounding, and sweat was beading on my forehead. I felt a sudden empathy for how Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov must have felt before he finally blurted, “I killed the old woman!” How dare that Invisible Someone call me on the carpet at my own game!

I had broken the rules — I was part of the Great Unwashed Herd after all!

While Horton cradled Maisy’s egg and Gertrude McFuzz flitted around him, every guilty moment from the age of four paraded before my eyes: Stolen Fizzies; boarding school chidings; thank you cards I’d never sent! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Eyes behind me burned into my back — those fingers that had grasped that black marker felt as if they were strangling me. I was suddenly exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go home and hide in a closet. On the way home, “Y’know –“, “After –“, “Why did we –” was all I could blurt to my husband, who, alternately concerned and frustrated, kept saying, “What on earth is wrong?!”

When I finally spit it out, all he did was laugh. He laughed! He saw my pained look. “Come on, Ev, they don’t know you.” (Why hadn’t I just given him the camera?!)

Now, a couple months later, something pretty profound is sinking in (stay with me!). As a Christian, I’ve learned that Christ’s payment for my sin through his death and resurrection frees me to live within his boundless grace.  I am not restricted to having to follow a bunch of rules in order to please him. My head gets this, but sometimes my heart doesn’t. From the time I was very young I taught myself that behaving and following the rules would ensure approval, acceptance, and love — all of which felt really, really good.

The problem is, I get mad when people don’t follow the rules, because it takes the focus off of me and the rewards I think I deserve for my good behavior. So, the more I follow the rules, the more resentment I feel for the amoral masses. Following rules is also imprisoning, though, because I inevitably fail and so condemn myself. It doesn’t feel good to realize that I’m as creepy as the rest of them and it’s even worse when people like Black Marker Guy notice.

How can I extend Grace to others when I’m already condemning myself?

It boils down to this: I have no problem loving people except for when it comes to people. And that’s a problem when it comes to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Was Jesus’ irritation with the religious leaders of his day due partly to the fact that their focus on rules incapacitated their ability to be compassionate?

Consequently, where Grace would find potential and a possible disciple in the Great Unwashed Herd, within my snug behavioral boundaries I usually find fault.

Conversely, my rule-flouting, freedom-loving husband is the guy who extends grace all over the place — who always gives folks the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it drives me crazy.

But I’m learning. After all, I love it when folks extend grace to me — especially my dentist — because for all all my introspection and soul-searching this morning, apparently I just missed an appointment.

Discussing Race: Who the Heck is Malcolm X?


To the New York State Department of Education (at least in the Capital District): your teachers are doing a bang-up job educating kids about Martin Luther King.

Quiz in the car:

Me: “Who was the first president of the United States?”

“Um — Martin Luther King?”

“Who freed the slaves?”

“Martin Luther King?”

“Who was the most important person that ever lived?”

“Martin Luther King?”

I’m not kidding. It was my three boys’ default answer as they each progressed through first grade. Since Faith is a huge priority in our family, you can imagine how dismayed I was by the answer to the last question. Apparently those teachers had managed to make a greater impression than I had. After all, at that age, hadn’t my default answer been “God”?  

 My mother: “Who was swallowed by a great fish?”

You get the picture.

I was born in the middle of Africa and lived there until I was 12. American black history didn’t figure into our boarding school curriculum. Many students were Americans, but British, Canadians, Australians, Germans, Congolese, Swiss, and Belgians all contributed to the school’s environment. One of my closest friends was from the Zande tribe in northern Congo. We learned that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but in my mind everything from then on had been smooth sailing. When we returned to the US in 1975 my mind was a race relational blank slate.

Which can be a good thing. At a writing workshop a couple of years ago, a woman of color commented to me that I had an “open countenance” – that she couldn’t detect, unlike with others, that I was trying to cover up any racial hang-ups. She said I had no walls behind my eyes.  

 Which can be a bad thing. As a high school sophomore I witnessed my first race run-in. My school participated in a fine arts festival in Pennsylvania, and I memorized Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The girl who performed before me did a piece by Malcolm X. She was a very powerful speaker. I remember the piece being about a black man who was lynched and run over by a trolley “over, and over, and over”. I won 2nd place; she won 1st. I didn’t mind; she was that good.

The next day, my English teacher, fuming, sent a letter to the festival organizers about how such a rancorous piece was inappropriate for such a venue and could do nothing to promote general racial harmony.


Me? I went home and asked my mother, “Who the heck is Malcolm X?”

Really, I had no clue. I had finally heard of Martin Luther King, but only because then, in the late 70’s, there was buzz over making “Martin Luther King Day” a federal holiday and some folks were in a tizzy about it.

Fast forward thirty years: I’ve done the reading; I’ve seen the movies; I’ve tuned in on some really interesting conversations. Even so, when my three boys came along, I went back into blank slate mode. I think I thought that if I modeled correct behavior and treated everyone the way I wanted to be treated, my kids, watching always, would intuitively follow suit and skin color would never be an issue.

Reading that back now, I think that was very naïve.

First, I failed to realize the strength of the messages of outside forces. Second, I failed to realize the inner workings of my kids’ own thought processes. When he was in second grade, Tyler asked, “Who’s better? White people or brown people?” (I don’t know how the “brown” thing started, but it covers a lot of people in the world so I decided to leave it alone.)  “Were you talking about this with kids at school?” I asked. He shrugged. “I just want to know.”

So here’s the latest: our 9-yr-old, who falls under that autistic spectrum umbrella, has no conversation filter. We were eating lunch at a local pizza joint that had an adjoining game room where the kids went to play after they ate. My 11-yr-old suddenly showed up back at our table in tears. “Hunter’s embarrassing me!” he wailed. “He said – very loudly – ‘there’s a lot of brown people in here!” “Did they hear him?” I gulped. “Yes!” he answered. I glanced up to see dagger eyes. I shook my head in a grandiose manner and frowned, hoping it’d send the message that I was – unapproving — of Hunter, who had followed Tyler, wailing himself, “Are you angry at me?!”

Isn’t it just great that somewhere in the Albany area there are people full of pizza who think I’m purposely raising skinheads.

Suffice it to say that the word “proactive” has replaced “whatever” for my word of the year.  Proactive, Evelyn. You gotta be proactive. Talk with the kids constantly – process with them – the things that matter. Write it on their walls. Write it on their hearts. Don’t allow whatever they run into – or whatever runs into them — to make up the foundation of their thinking.

Any-w-a-a-ay, recently we were invited to a Catholic Mass where the daughter of some friends was having her First Communion. On the way over I was prepping the kids over what they would see and what to expect, encouraging them to ask questions after the service, and not during. One of the kids asked, “What is the difference between Catholics and Protestants, anyway?”

“Well,” I started, “a few hundred years ago there was this guy named Martin Luther –”

“Ooooh!” He crooned. I know who he is!”

My Story in a Nutshell

Once upon a time, long, long ago, over the sea and high away from the rest of the world lay a green hilltop amidst a thousand other green hilltops. And the sun did not bake and the chill did not freeze, and its people, dark and genial, lived at ease in this place where they grazed their cattle and planted their gardens.

And it came to pass that grown-ups from the West came over the sea, in service to the Creator and prepared for all things terrible. But after sailing and flying and riding and driving, over and across and up and around, upon their arrival to the hill they were met with such verdure and tranquility that it was all they could do to open their mouths and say, “oh!” and build there, in this land that was surely enchanted. And the grownups bore children who roamed the hills and gazed into the fiery sunsets and mingled with the mud. And in the evenings all – the dark, the light, and the children in between — lifted their eyes from the hill and praised the Creator who had given them life which, in this place, seemed close enough to touch.

And the years went by and the grownups finally retired back over the sea from whence they came. And their children, dreaming of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and I Dream of Jeannie waved goodbye to the hill with barely a glance over their shoulder. And they were dispersed over the earth and dropped into high schools and colleges and universities, where strangers who suggested that life on the green hilltop must have been miserable were told by the children to go jump in one of any number of lakes. But as time went by the children became grown-ups themselves and married a few of those strangers and settled in places with extraordinary names like Port St. Joe and Las Vegas and Albany. And they bore their own children and continued to thank their Creator in churches small and large, though away from the hilltop and down on the ground the Creator for some reason seemed further away. And as the years went by the green hilltop became a sort of legend to those children born on the hill – a dream, a fairy tale — spoken of in hallowed tones during holiday dinners.

But it came to pass that one day, as they were sitting upon their living room couches and watching CNN, Anderson Cooper appeared, reporting that war had come near the green hill upon which he was standing. And simultaneously around the world, the children of the green hill drew near to the screens and reached forth their hands, trying to touch that familiar place.  The stories they were telling their children were real after all, and what had been a fairy tale no longer had a happy ending. Tranquility was shattered, and now their souls were slipping away, drawn by magnetic force to the cries of the land which had nurtured, fed and raised them. And the children of the hill found each other on Facebook, and began to determine that something must be done.

Tales of Serendipity: Facebook, the Missionary Barrel, and Johnny Cash

It was just a dress.

The memories associated with it weren’t that great. The way it flopped around on my frame justified the “2 x 4” nickname greasy 7th grade boys bestowed on me. The year, 1975, had been a bit rough: first year back in the States from Africa. New school. The junior high formal. No date. The (non) hair-do. The unibrow marching across my forehead.

But this dress recently jumped out of the past. Thanks to Facebook, this dress has singularly managed to take me back 35 years — to Congo, to Rethy Academy, to friends I thought I had lost forever.

Mary was one of those friends, though my memory of her was hazy. While other Rethy Academy friends and I had started and progressed through school together, she and I had known each other only in third grade. When she “friended” me a couple of years ago, it was her 8-yr-old bright blue eyes that pierced through my memory first. It took awhile longer to remember that, with her gigantic-flowered dresses and tricked out hair bands, she had been instrumental in introducing the 70’s to a mission station forever stuck in the 50’s.  It was her bright red patent leather shoes which gave me the courage to wear the blue and white sandals with huge buttons my mother had bought for me in Nairobi, when everyone else seemed stuck in their practical African Bata shoe store browns. But I had known her only that year, no big surprise. Some missionary families went just as quickly as they came, due to short-term status or to fleeing President Mobutu’s disintegrating economy. We boarding school kids were always saying hello and goodbye.

But her note when I posted photos from those days surprised me. “You have given me such a gift by posting those old Rethy pictures. Where before I had only sad memories of Rethy, you have reminded me of the happy times I spent there. Thank you so much!”

Sad memories? What sad memories? Was this some missionary kid boarding school thing?

I racked my brain and out of the recesses of my memory finally emerged an article I’d read on the web when I’d searched for “Rethy” in Google’s early days. Among the mentions of the “Princess du Rethy” and Belgium’s province known for its aviaries were some articles that I now realized were about Mary’s family. They had been a confusing read at the time because the years didn’t jive with my Rethy memories, and believe you me, I remember a lot. It can be a curse. One of the articles headlines cried, “Death on a Mountain.”

Death? What death? I certainly would have remembered a death. The missionary community was small, and news like that would have certainly made it to me. I looked at the year: 1973. The spring. Well now my confusion lined up into sense. My family had been on furlough in the US that year, the year after Mary and I had been in school together. I guess I was dealing with my own stress – that of my widowed mother remarrying. This “Death on a Mountain” business had not reached me.

I looked up and read the article again. Mary’s father, a medical missionary working in the large mission hospital in Nyankunde, had taken a break from grueling work to climb with some buddies in the Ruwenzori mountains, a snow-capped range bordering Uganda.  He had slipped and fallen to his death on a glacier, and was buried there.

Mary filled me in on the details. One day the principal came and took her and her brothers from their classrooms to one of the dorms where the station’s missionaries were all assembled. Mary thought that perhaps her mother had died because she had been sick in a hospital in the States for many months. In the dorm living area, the principal announced that “David Mason was dead, that he had been killed in a mountain climb.” Mary and her brothers sat in shock. They were whisked away within hours, taken with a missionary chaperone to Kinshasa and then put on a plane alone to the U.S., to join their mother who had just been let out of the hospital.

”We did not even recognize her because she had lost weight from being sick and had different glasses, hairdo, and clothes – we went running right past her to the mission director who had driven her to the airport.”

Mary's favorite photo of her father's resting place

After reading and rereading the article, I spent the whole evening in a daze in front of my computer, trying to line up and give full inspection to the million thoughts jostling for dominance in my head. Of seemingly unsympathetic principals. Of how I assumed as a girl that because of my parents’ work in Africa, God would allow no trouble to touch us. Of how I’ve come to know since that trouble comes to all – that I am broken, my friends are broken, the world is broken and so in need of a Savior. The Choice is eventually forced upon us: will we choose Faith? Will we falter? My own yearning for Congo and that life heaved within me once again. I felt both the loss and richness of experience intertwined together in the lives of cross-cultural families. I reread Mary’s posts, felt the brunt of her burden. I tried to put myself in her shoes — I, who had also lost my father, but at three years of age leaving me with little memory of him. I paced through Mary’s photos again and again – of her family before the accident, and of the Ruwenzori climb – retrieved from the battered camera found near her father’s body.

But hold on there.My introspection came to a screeching halt. How on earth could I go from Congo in one picture to Johnny Cash in the next?! It seemed so – randomly out of place.

Mary’s mother had written an article to explain:

When Mary and her brothers came home [from Africa] they had a strange request. They wanted to see Johnny Cash, their dad’s favorite singer.

In the fall of ’73 I took them to Nanuet, NY. But after the show, instead of grins, I noted tears. Why? They didn’t get to shake his hand!

I glibly said something like, “If God had wanted you to meet him, he would have worked it out, … and he still could.” I guess in my own way I was saying, “Give me a break, kids. I did everything I could to please you.” Or, maybe I was trying to let them down gently. Whatever, as kids often do, they took me seriously and literally. They prayed all the way back to the hotel that God would work it out.

The next morning, while Mary, Davy, and Gerry were wading and swimming in the pool, I went to the coffee shop overlooking the pool area to figure out how to handle their disappointment when they would realize that their prayer was not going to be answered.

Had I not spent hours the evening before telephoning New York City hotels trying to locate Johnny Cash — to no avail? As if any hotel would reveal the presence of a celebrity to a complete stranger? What won’t a parent do to bring a smile to a child’s face — let alone three children in the midst of bereavement?

I soon found out. Only the parent in this case was our heavenly Father. Once I stopped staring into the cup of coffee and looked around my immediate surroundings, I saw Johnny Cash’s manager and accompanists right there in the coffee shop, seated at a nearby table. Who couldn’t recognize Carl Perkins after watching him perform “Blue Suede Shoes” the night before?

I knew what I had to do. I had to muster up the courage, be willing to appear to be a “groupy,” and walk over to their table to explain the situation to them. I did, and the men were touched by the story. Together, we made arrangements for the kids to be introduced to Johnny that night. Of all things, he was planning to come to our hotel to eat supper anyway!

Not only did the kids get to shake his hand, but Johnny talked with them for about fifteen minutes, and we got to eat supper at a small table right next to Johnny’s!

To be sure, this was no life-or-death issue, but apparently God delighted in answering the kids’ believing prayer — and in demonstrating to me what he says in Psalm 34:10: Those of us who reverence the Lord will never lack any good thing. (From “Coffee Shop Miracle”, FINDING GOD BETWEEN A ROCK & A HARD PLACE: Stories of GRATITUDE & GRACE compiled by Lil Copan & Elisa Fryling, Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1999, pp 169-171) 

Wow. What an awesome, God-fill surprise. I scoured the photo, studying the sad smiles and even the clothes, smiling to myself at the way Johnny had his shirt buttoned down to there. And then I noticed Mary Ellen’s dress. It looked kind of familiar. I pulled out the junior high photo. It fit Mary a lot better than it fit me, but it was the same dress.

I sent her the picture. “You do not know how happy I am to see that sweet little dress and to know who got to wear it next!” Mary replied. “My mother put it into the missionary barrel at mission headquarters after I grew out of it!”

Now, just about every missionary kid has had a run in with the missionary barrel, full of second hand clothes sent to us poor kids in Africa who generally cared not that we wore polyester. A missionary barrel, with its moth-eaten mink stoles and other perplexities, not only contributed heavily to Rethy’s Halloween costume closet, but was once even the catalyst for a “January Jamboree” party, organized due to mittens, scarves and hats sent to the tropics by some well meaning church. There was an occasional prize here and there: a Lord & Taylor dress, or the bathing suit my mother found when I begged for something “just like I saw in the Sears catalog.”

But how had I gotten that dress?

“I think my memory of you is clearer than your memory of me,” she wrote. “More than just that year in third grade. We lived at the mission headquarters for awhile when we first came home, and if you came back to the US in ’75, our paths must have crossed. Didn’t we check out that basement at Headquarters together?

Now the bells were ringing! Returning missionary families usually spent time at headquarters where we were subjected to cruel and unusual appointments with specialized tropical medicine doctors and where parents met with mission staff. Mary, a couple of other girls and I had spent evenings exploring the basement — a health spa in earlier days — featuring medieval looking “butt jigglers” which supposedly vibrated fat off one’s rear (remember, this was 1975.)  Eventually some adult ruined our fun. At some point my mother had rifled through the missionary barrel. Mary stayed on; my family moved on and bought a house in South Jersey, and I took up the worries of junior high, my memories of Mary gradually disintegrating.

Until Facebook reconnected us, in addition to about 50 others from those Rethy days. Conversations with these old friends mean the world to me. Friendships have become deeper, grander. Many of us, holed up now in suburban America, marvel at that life, often in wonder of our parents’ faith – faith that we often took for granted as we hung on to their coattails. Life has twisted and turned and taken us all in so many directions, but there is a magic that binds us to Congo.

Mary has not had it easy. But what strikes me every time I talk with her are her tender and poignant comments in the face of life, due obviously – to me, anyway – to her being seasoned with grace – a grace which, in turn, enriches my days. Serendipity found us after thirty years. Now I have, four hours north of me, an old and new friend with whom I have a bond – a bond that extends all the way from Congo, to grace, and to that pink and white gown that touched Johnny Cash.

Though it was really just a dress.