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.