This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 4)

IV.

Our family collected songs about heaven like some people collect teaspoons. They marked and measured moments in our lives, like the dirge we learned around the time Mom went blind in one eye.

The world you know as a child is the one given you. You move because your parents move. You are from here or from there because your parents tell you so. You grow up in a religious group and are told it began on Pentecost Sunday and you believe this to the point of arguing in fifth grade with Catholics about primacy of origin, utterly ignorant that Campbell and Stone were 19th century Americans and that your particular religious group was born in the hills of Kentucky. Children live and move about in a world presided over by adults. The lucky ones never have to call into question that world, get to bounce about enveloped in love, oblivious to most anything but their wants. We were lucky and parental love covered over many sins.

I remember aspects about Mom’s blindness. How the morning she woke up and couldn’t see we were in a mountain village, several hours north of Managua. Dad had been holding a health clinic. We’d been sleeping in our Volkswagen camper. I remember our leaving Nicaragua, the time spent in Houston, the parents going to see specialists, the miracle of Mom’s sight regained. I think I remember their having talked about it that morning. I’m rather sure we headed back to the capital early. They probably talked about it all the way home and then long into the night and for many nights. But I don’t remember. Maybe they kept this from us. Maybe a mother touched by blindness was, for us children, inconceivable. As a child it’s hard to see beyond your own needs and desires.

Who can remember what street we were on? Dad was driving the Volkswagen they bought anticipating van-fulls of Nicaraguan brethren and sistren. And there always were. We often fulfilled Christ’s injunction to let the soldier ride along. But on this morning or afternoon, it was only us. Dad was recounting a nurse flirting with him. Only more. Even at seven I knew that overt and blatant propositions were improper. But I wasn’t worried. Mom and Dad were in their golden years and talk flowed between them like light. They trusted each other, were faithful to each other, and could talk about anything. This I do remember; but I don’t the worry about Mom’s blindness.

And yet, that song. One more step, one more step in faith, forward brother, forward, our prize waits for us in heaven. Like I said, a funeral march, each measure dragging like a tired foot up a hill. And mother, eyes closed, singing, One more stepForward brotherThere’s a prize.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 2)

II.

Maybe her name was Pat. I can’t recall.

My high school years were a procession of medical mission and Habitat for Humanity work groups. Two, three, even more, a year would come down. When I wasn’t working the makeshift pharmacy, stuffing bags full of medicine, giving children swigs of mebendezole, explaining the doctor’s instructions to patients and having them recite them back to me, I was translating for doctors, dentists, nurses, or house building crews. People came and went. A week of work, a day at the beach, and they were gone.

Pat was in her early fifties. Had a son in a rock and roll band named “The Grievers.” She was an honest, blue-collar American, drove a forklift in a warehouse for a living, made ties for the men in her life, had paid her house off years ago. This was her first trip out of the country and she’d decided to come on a short-term medical mission trip to the Caribbean.

She’d packed little American flags in her luggage to pin to shirts. I refused to wear one. Missing home and wanting to celebrate in some way, to establish some kind of solidarity with fellow Americans, she asked us what we most loved about the U.S.. I answered, “Not a lot.” I don’t recall much of the conversation after that. I remember the sadness in her eyes. I remember stumbling between my regret and a need to defend myself.

The tape I play in my mind has me unfolding before her the history of Anglo-American aggression in Latin America since Teddy’s gunboat diplomacy days. But my history back then was much more piecemeal. There were the bits garnered from second grade Sandinista history primers. In 1981 we attended The American School in Managua, Nicaragua. The revolution had already happened and everyone was teaching from government-vetted books. There were the snippets of Castro’s epic four-hour discourses caught on the radio or talked about admiringly by my middle school teachers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

There was the fact that our encounter happened on this island, an island LBJ invaded in 1965 to keep it from turning Commie.

That the U.S. Marines left once order was restored in the form of a man who governed for twelve years with the use of death squads.

That people I loved knew victims.

Maybe I said something about Chile; maybe I didn’t. I probably did say something about Iran-Contra. After all, the U.S.-backed Contra insurgency was why we left Nicaragua.

It was the Fourth of July.

“Tilaran, Costa Rica. Dad was working with Nicaraguan refugees. My brother and I had just finished a run in the rain. We were supposed to have smiled; I was hungry.”