Monday, March 05, 2007

A Charmed Childhood

I was born in California just before the end of World War II. FDR was still president, but would die two months after my birth—as my son would say: “Correlation does not imply causation.” The timing was entirely coincidental. My parents were living in Waukena, in the San Joaquin Valley, California, where my dad was pastor of a small church as well as a school teacher. He was a member (and still is) of a denomination which had a strong peace stance and qualified for a draft deferment. His service during World War II was to be part of the civilian patrol in California that watched for Japanese aircraft (since the perceived threat of invasion was high) and reminded folks to keep their black out curtains drawn at night.

The place I was actually born was in Tulare, nearby Waukena. Other than my birth, the only other “famous” association of which I am aware for Tulare is that it provided the name for rabbit fever, tularemia. My dad loves to recall the day of my birth (a Tuesday) and a malfunctioning car and a freight train that threatened to block the road, nearly keeping him and my mother from getting to the hospital in time. I don’t recall these details myself.

When I was just shy of two years old, my parents were ready to go to the mission field in Africa. They had actually been approved to go several years before, but World War II altered travel plans. My dad had grown up there, in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a missionary child himself. Due to a combination of circumstances, traveling to Africa by ship was out—there was a travel backlog post-war, and some concern about the North Atlantic still being treacherous. Eventually, the travel plans for my parents worked out to be by airplane. Of course, today that is not at all unusual, but in 1946 it most certainly was. In a somewhat large party of missionaries, my parents with me flew from New York City on December 12 and arrived at their destination, Bulawayo, then Southern Rhodesia, on Christmas Day! Imagine traveling for that long both in distance and time with an almost two year old.

Photo of Dorothy's grave courtesy of my brother

My childhood recollections begin with the birth of my sister. I was three when my sister Dorothy was born. My parents were assigned to a mission station in then Northern Rhodesia, just outside the town of Choma. She was born in March, and died in November. I state the brackets of her life at the outset, not out of insensitivity, but to state the facts straightforwardly. The cause of her death was
malaria. At that time, quinine was the prophylaxis for malaria, and everyone took it. That is, except infants. I don’t know if my mother took it or not during her pregnancy, because quinine is contra-indicated for pregnant and nursing women, and for infants. While there are medicines available now for infants, at that time there were no others. Unprotected, my sister was bitten by a mosquito, and developed malaria. At first, her symptoms were general, not specific to malaria. She was seen by a doctor several times, and only on the last visit, did he do a blood test that confirmed she had malaria. My parents had planned to take her to a hospital, traveling by train some miles away from Choma. They had just gotten on the train, and it had begun its journey when Dorothy died. My mother told me that Dorothy screamed, arched her back, and then went utterly limp and died.

I remember seeing Dorothy in her simple coffin. I remember that when my parents brought her back to the mission station, she was laid on a bed, and I thought she was sleeping. I also remember that days before she got sick, I had been swinging her on a baby swing, and was pushing a bit too hard. Mother cautioned me, but I didn’t listen. Predictably, Dorothy bumped her head because of my carelessness. For some years, I thought I played a part in her death, a very natural conclusion for a child to draw. When I told Mother many years later about that, she was amazed that I had carried such an erroneous memory for so many years.

The next major event in my life was the birth of my brother. Since I wrote a Sibling Stories account of that birth, it would be most unfair to repeat the story. Or actually stories, as I have quite a few about my brother. Soon after his birth, I went off to boarding school. In preparation for that momentous event, I needed a hairdo that I could care for. Up to that time, I had braids. So, my mother placed a rubber band at the top of each braid, and one at the bottom, and snipped above the first band. Then she sent a braid off to each of my grandmothers. I learned later that one of my grandmothers cried when she saw the braid. I always assumed it was my paternal grandmother (who was a soft touch if ever there were one). But it turns out it was my maternal grandmother who, in my childhood memory, was always stern and foreboding.

Boarding school was quite a change for me. The school year then ran from January through December; since my birthday is in February, I was actually 5 about to turn 6 when I went off to a church run boarding school. The school, called Namwianga, was a mission run school, located some fifty miles from the mission where my parents were stationed. So after they took me to school, of course they left. I so distinctly remember first nights, when all the boarders arrived at school. Since we all slept in dorms, segregated by age and sex, we could hear each other in the dark. All around the dorm, I could hear sniffles, and soft crying. I was homesick enough that I wrote daily letters to my parents. To have them mailed, I dutifully gave them to the matron who collected them and mailed them once a week. When I ran out of writing paper, I stopped writing.

Photo of jacaranda trees at Namwianga School


I remember almost nothing about the school, except that I learned to knit there, using hair pins that were straightened out. And, since I believed in fairies at the time, I made little fairy houses and stocked them with bits of food. The fact that the food was always gone in the morning confirmed my belief in fairies.

A few of the more vivid memories I have from this time of my life involves our family travels. We went on vacation, traveling to South Africa. I have seen Capetown several times in my life, and would love to see it again. I remember riding the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. We also went to the beaches along the Indian Ocean. When we returned to the United States (for my parents to have a furlough, and to go around to churches to give mission talks), we traveled this time by ship (much more exciting for a child than plane travel). We left Capetown, sailed to Southampton, England, and then to New York. Along the way, we stopped at the Canary Islands, and at Cherbourg, France.

When we returned to Africa, my parents were assigned to a mission in Southern Rhodesia. It was during this time that my sister was born, written about in Sibling Stories II. Even though she was 12 years my junior, it was great to have this sister. I suspect I saw her as a real live doll. Since I went off to boarding school, this time a government run school in Bulawayo, I didn’t really spend much time with her. My brother was at a different boarding school in Bulawayo, and I do recall visiting him on Sunday afternoons. Boarding school was not a luxury, but a necessity for us to continue our education. The location of the various missions was always about a day’s journey from the nearest towns, and hence schools, so boarding schools filled the need. Missionary children were not the only ones attending such schools—children of farmers, government workers, or anyone who lived away from town attended these schools. Sadly, I do not remember any of my friends from those days.

I do remember being something of an exotic creature as far as the Rhodesian girls were concerned. I was an American, which gave rise to the occasional taunt. The school I attended was structured like many British schools of the time, with the school sub-divided into “houses.” These internal units competed against each other every school year, with points awarded for things well done (example—getting high marks on an exam, or winning a sports event) and points subtracted for failures. One time, I was called up before the house council for getting a bad mark on an exam. To berate me, the head girls mocked my shortie pajamas, and called me a rich American. Quite a shock to a missionary child whose parents earned very little.

In Form II (the rough equivalent of 10th grade), I was picked as head girl for my form in my house. One day, some girls were bouncing on their mattresses, as the beds were stripped each week to remake them with clean sheets. One mattress went plunging through to the floor. Since I was theoretically in charge, I was held accountable. The matron swept into the dorm, and demoted me for something I had not done.

The main Matopo Mission house in S. Rhodesia

At this point in my childhood, my parents returned to the U.S., as my father was being moved to the administrative head of missions. They came home “early” for a vacation, and then returned to Africa. That is when the decision was made for me to stay home.

I have reflected often on my unusual childhood. By American standards, I missed out on many things. When my husband and I were talking once about our childhoods, he recalled growing up watching television, such as the Howdy Doody Show. I had no exposure to television until I was a teenager. One of the first things I remember seeing was the presidential debates in 1960! (Kennedy vs. Nixon in case you are too young to recall.) During the brief times that I attended grade school in the U.S. (the times my parents were home) my teachers were very happy to have someone with international travel in class. I would imagine that today with the degree that the world has “shrunk” through constant exposure to news on CNN and the Internet, a child like me would not seem so rare.

A couple years ago, I was asked to write an article for a small historical journal published by the church in which I was raised. I chose as my subject “Third Culture Kids.” I mentioned earlier in this post that my dad had grown up as a missionary child. Obviously, I and my siblings did too, and my brother continued the family tradition when he and his family spent time in Zambia and Zimbabwe. So my birth family had three generations of missionary children. I focused in the article on characteristics of third culture kids (TCK) and how things have changed over time.

Briefly, a TCK is someone whose parents are from one culture, who then lives in another culture, but is constantly suspended between the two. The result is creation of a third culture. Belonging to neither culture fully—the birth culture or the host culture—TCKs adapt by moving seamlessly between these worlds. Such children are not surprisingly highly adaptable. They are also mostly quite responsible, but they can be very naïve as to social mores of American culture when they return. My family evidences much of the characteristics of TCKs. With the changing times, children spend far less time away from parents than I did.

After my research, it was great to have a name for what I experienced.

One time, not long before she died, my mother expressed some regret to me for having “left” me in the U.S. when she and my dad returned to Africa. Since I am a parent now, and have seen my children go through the teen years, I do understand why she felt this regret. But, I told her—I like who I am. I am happy with myself, and believe that what I am has resulted from all the experiences that shaped me, including being alone. So, I told my mother—put it out of your mind. I had a charmed childhood.


Ruth said...

I enjoyed reading this so much! The pictures are beautiful. Did you scan colour slides?
I too believed in fairies (influence of Enid Blyton), learned knitting and needlework in Class I or Class II, travelled by boat twice from Capetown to the Canary Islands, Southampton to Montreal. We were TCKs too, but I feel it has been nothing but a benefit overall. We grew up without TV and I never have become attached to it.

Cathy said...

What a touching, interesting story. The pictures are precious. It must have been difficult for your parents to leave you behind. I think it was generous and good-hearted that you reassured your mother that there was no harm done.

Mary said...

Donna, I didn't hear my phone ring or taps on my office door. Your photos and descriptions of your childhood took me away for a little while. A very different upbringing that must have been difficult for you, but it obviously molded you into a strong person with a well-rounded character. It's so good that you assured your Mother that no harm was done and that you are happy to be who you are... You are a terrific story teller. One day, like I mentioned before, please tell more about your Mother. Thanks for sharing special events during your childhood. That last photo is so pretty!

dmmgmfm said...

What an amazing story. Like Cathy, I'm glad you told your mom that no harm was done. It must have been hard for her to leave you behind and hearing you say that had to give her peace.

Anonymous said...

Your story pulled me right in from the first sentence - thank you. Of course you believe in fairies! What's not to believe? Have you ever thought of publishing a memoir? Or if you have and I missed it, where is it?

KGMom said...

Ruth--the photos were slides that my mother had made into photos, that I in turn scanned into my computer! My dad took most of them.
Mary--I will write about my mother, someday. I have so many blog subjects lined up!
LauraO--I have not written memoirs. I guess my blog will have to stand in for such!

Ginnie said...

Fascinating to read of your past and I loved the pictures. Thanks.

dguzman said...

Thank you for sharing the story of your childhood. And the pictures are wonderful; the colors are amazing. Your dad was quite a photographer.

Denise said...

This is basically what I said on Daryl's post too, but I can't wait to read all this. I've printed this post and plan to read it on the way to Florida. It will give me something to do since I am "not allowed" to help drive. (I drive too slowly - Hmmppffff) Thanks for the info on other blog sites. Love you - Denise

Denise said...

I also wanted to say how much I love these pictures. I have a vague memory of Dorothy's headstone. The last one of you is classic and beautiful! And, so angelic......hmmmmm. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I so enjoy reading everything you write. This story of your life was so touching to me - I left my chair and my computer and I was with you in it. You have a great gift and talent. I also was sent to boarding school at a young age a long ways from home and share so many many early memories similar to yours. I have not thought of my memories for a long time.(by the way the photos are wonderful) -- it is the quality of a book and how lucky we are to have you blogging. with us.I must add you to my links.

Among Worlds said...

Wow...taken back a few years by reading your blog on TCKs!

As a fellow TCK - would love to contact you in real life (IRL). I am looking for writers/authors who wish to be part of the "Among Worlds" magazine (specifically for TCKs).

Please feel free to contact me at:

I really DO look forward to hearing from you!