Isharah, our youngest daughter, wrote this for her 12th grade English class 11/15/91, just before her 15th birthday January 9, 1992.
Thomas Wolfe has said, “You can’t go home again.” Perhaps he meant that when an adult returns to the place of his childhood it really isn’t the same because the man himself has changed. As I approach adulthood, I wonder whether my memories will serve me and make me feel as I have in the past about things I meet in the future.
My life began at 7:20 on a Sunday morning, and my first experience was seeing and feeling an exhausted but elated mother. She had been at a dirty hospital in Sri Lanka since 10:00 the night before when her contractions had shortened to two minutes apart. It had been a nightmare of an experience. When she arrived at the hospital, the doctor was not to be found. My vexed, almost desperate father located the doctor’s house, and thinking her to be asleep, pelted her window with pebbles. She was located around six thirty that Sunday morning, drunk at an all night party in downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka. Cross at being called for the birth of some foreign child and still drunk, she reeled into the delivery room and immediately righted the problem of the long labor. She made the episotomy and unleashed the umbilical chord that was acting as a noose around my neck. I was born with the next contraction.
I was kept for several days in a hospital where crows flew in and out of the windows while squirrels and cats roamed uncontrolled. My mother rested and gradually regained her strength. This delivery had been my mother’s hardest. She was thirty-eight years old, and had miscarried four children before me. I had no problem with my health. The nurse attested to my health by reporting to my mother, “Mrs. Johnson, yours is the only girl in the hospital, and she’s the loudest one!”
When I was a month old, we had to leave Colombo, Sri Lanka. My parent’s visa had expired, and the government had refused to renew it. The officials had had some accusations brought against us and rather than bother with a private investigation into why we were there, they made us leave. Undaunted, my parents decided to go to the country of India where my grandparents had been missionaries for twelve years. My dad started a school in Tirucherappali (which is called Tiruchi for short.)
We lived in Triuchi just one year and ten months. When the Indian government changed political parties, we were gently shoved out of the country. Actually, it was not with gentleness that we were put out. My family and I had just gotten over a series of diseases acquired from a flood. My brother, Matthew, had barely escaped death from Asian measles. When the demand for us to leave had come from the government, my parents and my older brother, Brett, were in the middle of a bout with hepatitis. The only ones well were my sister, Ferah, my brother, Matthew, and myself. Ferah, at twelve years of age, had taken care of all of us. She washed our clothes, cooked our meals, took care of the sick in the family, watched after my brother and me, and generally became a little mother in six short weeks. After everyone was out of quarantine, we packed our suitcases and left for America.
Within three months after arriving in the United States on October the twentieth, Matthew became three, and I became two. My father got a job in West Columbia, South Carolina as the minister for the Church of Christ, and we settled into the house we were not to leave for seven years. Living in the United States was a new experience for Matthew and me. At first, I refused to allow anyone in America to touch me, and gazed at the white population with perplexity. One day at a mall, Matthew and I were asked what we wanted from Santa Claus. We looked puzzled and inquired who Santa was. Also we thought it strange and uncouth when we saw women driving cars. Sometimes we conversed with Dad and Mother in Tamil, an Indian language, instead of English.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of America, and it became home to me. I soon met the girl across the street named Sally, and we were best friends almost immediately. There was not a day that I remember that we did not play together. I would stand in my yard beside the road and call, “SAAAAAA- LLLYYY, COME OOOOOO-VER!” She would come, and we would have such fun, playing with the toys in two wooden boxes that stayed in the hall. Sometimes we were allowed to play in the attic with my mother’s and my sister’s dolls, and the boxes and boxes of clothes and accessories. We even took the clothes outside on the front porch and hung them in the bushes and trees. And there was always the dog-house in the huge back yard that our dog, Sasha never used. Dad had built it, and it was large enough that Sally and I could fit into it comfortably. The only set-back was the spiders!
I cannot remember the first two years of my life spent in India. I just remember the ones in West Columbia. One of the most pleasing sensations I remember having there is that of having a cat named Fudge. Dad, a person who absolutely hates cats, happens to have a very compassionate heart. He found a kitten clinging to the bricks over the church door when he went to work one cold December morning. He picked her up and put her on the ground, thinking that her meow was from having gotten herself into a fix, but when he came out of the building to come home for lunch she had climbed back on top of the door. He pocketed her, and took her home for just ONE meal. That’s how many a cat owner ends up with a cat. After a few days, we decided that we had a cat for ourselves also. We named her Fudge because she was wildly striped beige and brown like a civet cat. Fudge would disappear for weeks on end and show up pregnant with a litter of kittens. I would go into mourning while she was gone, but what a happy time it was in our house when Ferah would route us out of bed to see the kittens be born! When they were old enough, the kittens would provide amusement for Sally and me. Sally, Madeline, another friend, and I would have races with them, placing them on one side of the porch, and giving the name of a winner to the one who reached the other side first. Sally’s ugly kitty that looked like Fudge always won because she was the most active. But I wasn’t bothered by it, because I knew that my Nelly Gray, the kitten that was half Persian and looked like she was a pure-bred, was the prettiest.
Not only did Fudge provide amusement as far as bearing kittens goes, but she was also a watch-dog, and the protector of our property. My mother found the postman almost doubled over with laughter one morning. He reported that Fudge had chased away Sally’s little black dog who always bit his heels. Another morning my parents woke to the howling of a large German Shepherd. When they looked out the window they saw what was happening. Fudge, our small little girl cat, appearing about twice her size, had her back arched, and was slowly advancing on this monster of a dog. He was howling, and backing away as fast as he could. Soon he turned and ran. Although she guarded the property against other dogs, to Sasha, our dog, she was a best buddy. Fudge, her kittens, and Sasha would snuggle together. The kitten’s favorite position was between Sasha’s paws. And when visitors came, Sasha would run over to a stray kitten, and stand protectively over it.
The kittens were also trouble as well as fun. The only time in our stay at West Columbia that mother let me cross the street by my myself and go to Sally’s house, I broke my leg trying to save a kitten. In fact, it was Nelly Gray. I was seven years old, and I was swinging in the large swing at Sally’s house. I remember discussing the Lord’s Supper with Sally, and what it was for, because I had been baptized earlier that summer. Then I saw Nelly Gray attempting to crawl under the fence into the pen of a Doberman Pincer. My motherly instincts flared at once, and I ran across the street without looking for cars. A speeding car driven by of one of my mother’s former students hit me, and ran over my left leg. When she realized what she had done, she left the scene of the accident. In a daze, and pain temporarily nonexistent because of shock, I tried to walk the rest of the way home. I remember looking down as I took my first step, and seeing (almost in slow motion) my leg doubling under me. I could see the bone poking through the skin, and there was blood–so much blood! I managed to reach the other side of the road with the help of a cousin and Sally, and I lay down there. The pain suddenly hit my mind, and it reeled with the force. I remember telling mother that I wanted to die, and there were flies on my leg. There were so many flies, or so it seemed to me. Then there was the ambulance and the shame of having my clothes cut from me. The feeling of anger as my favorite pair of blue clam-diggers were cut from me remains acute to this moment. They had to move my mangled leg so many times for X-rays! Then I was given a shot, and I sank thankfully into sleep.
There were many days of pain afterwards. There was the “window” in my cast which had to be opened, and the wound under it that had to be dressed daily. There were long days of lying in bed, and there were the dreaded IV’s. They hurt little veins dreadfully. And there was the secret humiliation of stopping everyone from being able to go where we always went in the summer–to Grandma’s house in Texas. When I was allowed to return home, my situation got a little better. Sally was able to come over, though she never stayed long. I suppose she felt uncomfortable talking to me after being away from me for so long and because I was not my usual active self. I was an invalid. I’m sure she remembered our playing with my older brother’s crutches. To think then that one of us would need them now! I suppose it wasn’t a pleasant thought that that person could have been herself.
In the fall of that year, the year of 1984, my father got the urge to travel to India again. He had been back for a month each year, while we lived in West Columbia, but this time he wanted to take us with him and stay a while. My mother had gotten a job teaching English at Alabama Christian Academy in Montgomery, Alabama. We moved and she taught there while Dad raised the support needed to go to India. All at once, my mother was on summer break, my brother, Brett had married; my sister, Ferah, had entered nursing school, and Dad, Mother, Matthew and I had started on our way to India. It was in June of 1985.
India was just as new an experience as America was when I first entered it. The first feeling I remember having of India is one of astonishment and wonder, fringed by thirst. There were so many cows, goats, pedestrians and people, all running everywhere at once. It reminded me of what I once saw when I’d kicked an ant bed. Everything was so dirty!!! There were pornographic posters advertising movies stuck up to brick or cement walls. The men who stuck them there wore white “skirts” which I later found were called dhoties. Just a few blocks up the street, cows and goats were eating the posters off the walls. Where there were no posters, there would be fluorescent paintings depicting crude drawings of leaders of political parties, and a message to vote for them. As we drew further away from the center of the city, mud houses took the place of the cement ones, and “cow patties” covered the walls instead of posters or paint. (Cow patties are droppings of cows which are molded into patties and dried for use as fuel.)
Living in India required spirit and will to be compatible. The property we lived on was two acres of land on the Adayar River by a village called Kotturpuram. It was on this property that the Madras Bible College was located. There were a great many buildings because of it. There were two guard houses, one for each end of the property, a two story well house, a dormitory where the single students lived, a combination library and press, a mess hall, a storage building, the cow shed, the latrine, the Phyllis Hall annex, and even a murky pond. Phyllis hall was large. It housed the office, the church building, and on top of both of these, our living quarters and a classroom. The first few days of our stay in India were devoted to scrubbing, and cleaning (literally) for dear life. I had never been in a place as filthy before. Between our house and the green-colored pond, someone studying amoebas could have all the needed specimens. Gradually the house became livable, and I settled down into what was to be my life in India.
I had an interesting life in India. Dull moments were rare. I had school to do, trees to climb, books to read, scorpions to scream over, deer to watch, food to buy, workers to spy on, cows to milk, sewing to do, children of workers to watch, and the list goes on. It was in India that I first learned to write. I was eight years old and in the fifth grade. The particular English course I was taking had excellent instructions on the subject, and lonesomeness was motivation. I took a church directory, found all the pictures of the girls my age, and wrote every single one of them. I wrote to twenty, and about half of them responded. Not only did I have my friends and family to correspond with, but I also had the pen pals. (Calvert, my correspondence course, also had a pen pal program which I participated in.) And so I became a regular little letter writer. Because I had no friends my age and color to influence my letter writing patterns, I wrote whatever came to my mind. I wrote about India, I wrote what I felt, and I frequently wrote poetry to send to people. Even I laugh when I read some of my old letters, and remember what I used to be like.
I had such fun writing letters that I even acquired my own personal office to write in. I was given permission to use the little room above the well house. I requested the use of the room and, much to my delight, was granted the key to the padlock. It was perfect. Since it was upstairs, it could only be reached by climbing a rickety old ladder which threatened to break each time I used it. There was a small balcony overlooking the cornfield from which Matthew occasionally shot goats with a slingshot. There was a small desk left in the room under a small barred window, and there was a small chest. Inside the desk lived one of the millions of geckos that pervade India. It provided a suspense and almost a thrill, for I never knew quite where it would be. In this room the majority of my writing and even some studying was done. And there was the rooftop of this room that could be climbed up to by pipes. Many mornings I lay, tummy down, on this precariously slanting roof and read. Trees were also ideal for reading.
I gained my exercise in the form of the simple game of hide and seek. In America this is the dullest of games, but in India with a property of two acres and many buildings, this game provided immense fun. It was possible to hide for hours at a time. There was constant excitement generated by slinking from place to place, keeping an eye on the catcher, but never allowing him to see you. It was easy to do this, for there were innumerable high places to climb onto, and on each one there was a double route of escape. There were drain pipes to climb up, trees to slink down, and buildings under which to take cover. I cannot describe the excitement I felt, and the exhilaration when I was able to outwit my older playmates. Matthew and his friends were larger than I, and some could run faster, but I don’t remember being caught many times.
After seven months, our tourist visas expired, and we were required to leave India for a period of at least five months before entering again. My father chose to go to Thailand to do missionary work there. I don’t remember much of Thailand. I remember our huge green house that had a fish tank in front. The goldfish in it were amazingly large, one of them being a foot long. And I remember the stay at Bible camp, and the ocean in which we swam. I remember the enormous malls that had so many floors and the blue van we drove. I remember the many bridges over the canals that rose so suddenly and descended so rapidly that my stomach felt left behind. I remember the large closet in my room. It had a built-in dresser inside it, which I used as a desk, and again I had a “writing room”.
I remember one particular moment in the blue van. I was lying down on the seat coming home from church, sleepy. Looking extremely pleased with himself, one of the Thais had told me, “Night-night!” I remember being struck with it’s American sound, and thinking that I had not heard anything so American in ages. I must have been contemplating on how swiftly life passes away, and how little we remember of it, because I remember firmly determining that I was going to remember lying in the van and thinking, forever. I remember concentrating like never before, and repeating in my mind that I WOULD remember. My concentration and determination must have had the proper effect, because this is the most prominent memory of my stay in Thailand.
After the required five months in Thailand we returned to India. Once more, we stayed for the limit of seven months and then looked for another place outside the country to work. This time, Malaysia was chosen. We stayed in Penang for January and February of 1987. The four of us shared a room on the second story of the church building. The top floor was one large veranda. It afforded a beautiful view of the mountains. I did most of my letter writing at the table that was on it. And it was in Penang that I had my tenth birthday.
It was in Penang that I first learned to crochet. In the mall nearest our abode there was almost a fair on the third floor. There were video games, bumper cars, balls to jump into, and small rides to go on. Next to this haven there was a yarn and bead store. I first went into the shop to look at the pretty beads. I bought some of them, and made the necklaces and bracelets I’d seen other women there make. I gradually found an attraction for the yarn. One of the ladies at the church had given me a ball of her left-over yarn to play with, and after Mother had shown me the basic crochet stitches, I made a sweater for my doll. I enjoyed the work, and it became a major source of entertainment for me.
After February, we moved to another part of Malaysia. We moved to Serumban. Once again, Dad, Mother, Matthew and I shared a room on the second floor of the church building there. I particularly remember our eating habits in Serumban. We would have fruit for breakfast and go to McDonald’s for lunch. Every day I would order a hamburger. All the employees there knew us, and very often they would stop to chat. One employee that I remember was a girl that had dark hair and always wore a startling amount of makeup. She found a soft spot in her heart for me , and every day would produce a small cup of pickles because she knew I liked them. She would watch me eat them with a little disgust and much amusement. At times I would save them for an afternoon snack. At supper we would go to the roadside stands where the food was extremely good, and amazingly cheap. A bowl of spicy but delicious soup that I loved was approximately ten cents. Every time I ordered it though, I had to instruct them to eliminate the blood that was usually added. When the epidemic of cholera went around, we had to stop eating on the roadside and find other less tasty, expensive places.
We stayed in Serumban three months, and returned to India for another six. We then packed our bags and came to America to attend my sister’s wedding. She was married on January the 2nd, 1989 to her best friend–a friend that she had known since we moved to West Columbia in 1978. They had been thirteen and fourteen when they met.
We traveled all around the United States and Canada, raising support and visiting our scattered relatives. (Dad is a Canadian, and I have dual citizenship.) I realized then how beautiful America really was and how much I loved to travel in it. We traveled by car, and I got to meet many new friends and many of the pen pals I had written all along.
For one month we stayed with my grandma in Clarendon, Texas. Clarendon was generally home base. Grandma owns a farm out in the country. It no longer seemed like the same place we had visited when I was smaller. That was before my grandfather passed away. There were no animals in the pens and stables; although, the kittens in the garage had increased a hundred fold as kittens will. Nevertheless, there were the old barns to roam, tractors to investigate, boxes to open in the garage, and miles and miles of fields in which to walk and just think. It is the most wonderful place in the world to carry on a discussion. There are so many “old fashioned” things to do such as mending quilts and doing housework, and there the feeling of peace and gentle quietness pervades all other feelings. You are free to imagine, to think, to investigate, and to simply be yourself.
After six months spent in the United States, we returned to India. We stayed our usual seven months. This time we decided to leave and stay permanently in America. The last few weeks were ones of elation and almost a premature homesickness. I was outside as much as possible, trying to burn everything into my memory as I had done that unforgettable moment in Thailand. I remember climbing over the top of the library by the tree whose limbs reached up to it, sitting on one of the waist-thick branches, and staring at the red blossoms it shed. My heart felt so heavy I wondered if I had actually learned to love this land. My mind knew that we were not planning to return, and if, by chance we did, I would be a woman, and India could not hold its old charm for me. For I knew that this part of India that I had grown to love would be something I could have no more. The child that climbed on rooftops and spied from trees could no longer exist. The child that came and went almost at will, the child that rested with face in hands, thinking with no one to disturb her and whose hair was ruffled by the breeze–that child would be lost. I could not regain the childhood I would loose. I would lose part of myself to India.
Now, in America, my father’s spirit has stirred with longing to return to India. And he is at this moment raising support to go there sometime after my brother and I get out of school. I will go back, as I once dreamed I might. I will see the places I experienced joy in, and if the Lord wills, I will make memories in them again.