Jubilee

Fifty years ago, my life changed forever. That summer, my family left the city of Detroit and relocated to a mission station near Kasempa, Zambia. I had just turned eight. Two days after arriving and moving into our tiny turquoise house at Mukinge, my mother and I climbed into a crowded van and I was on my way to boarding school. The date was August 5, 1967. (Even at the age of eight, I knew it was a momentous date.)

For the next eighteen weeks, I lived in a dorm room with fourteen other girls. I did everything else with those same girls–went to school, ate meals, went to church, played games, and even learned to garden. Sakeji School shaped the person I became in so many ways. I spent more time there than I did at home, and as a result Sakeji was the place I thought of as “home” in Zambia.

I know some of you associate boarding school with misery and abuse—and there certainly was plenty of both at times during my years at Sakeji. But the reality is that I loved my school. I loved the way it smelled. I loved every building (well, except maybe the outhouse and the changing hut down by the river). I loved the rain and the sun and the mangoes and the gigantic glowing moon at night. Most of all, I loved to learn, and I crammed knowledge into my brain as fast as I could. I spent all my free time reading and even read in bed by moonlight. If you want to know what my life there was like, you should read my book about it:

This Rich & Wondrous Earth

But today, I just wanted to acknowledge the influence this school had on my life on this, the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival there. It made me who I am. It gave me lifelong friends that are more like siblings. It enriched my life in so many ways, and I am grateful.

My last year at the school (Form I/9th grade) was the happiest of my childhood. I reveled in every moment of it. Graduation plunged me into a deep depression that plagued me for many years afterward. It was almost like all my siblings had died, because all my classmates went elsewhere (together) and I stayed at home to do school for the next year and a half. I had to learn the hard lesson of looking forward instead of back.

Today, the school is still in operation, though it has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable to former students of my vintage. Still, it has been a source of great delight for me to know my daughter Lina is teaching and living in buildings I once frequented, is seeing the same moon and the same river and the same airstrip, and hearing the same birds at night. Wish I could pop over there and spend a couple weeks of her vacation with her this month!

Here’s a Google Earth view of the school:

Sakeji with labels

Birthday Memories

Sorry for my silence the last two days. On Thursday night I was heading for bed until I remembered I needed to mix and bag a new batch of chai mix in order to be ready for Friday. By the time I was done it was past my bedtime!

Last night I was on my way home from Dallas, watching a spectacular lightning show the whole way. Again, by the time I got home it was well past my bedtime and in fact it was already my birthday.

My daughter Lina says there are two kinds of people in this world: celebrators and non-celebrators. Like my mother, I am a celebrator married to a non-celebrator. As a kid, the birthdays that involved some sort of celebration were the ones that stood out–except for the ones that stood out for other reasons!

My eleventh birthday began a string of memorable birthdays. The day I turned eleven, we were camped in a crowded campground in the Netherlands. The plan was to celebrate my birthday by spending the day at a nearby amusement park. Instead, we huddled in our tent and played board games while the rain came down in buckets all day long. The trip to the park could not be rescheduled and we never went.

My twelfth birthday involved a broken arm, absent parents, and a grumpy grandparent. My thirteenth birthday was celebrated aboard a Greek freighter in New York harbor, right before we set sail to return to Africa. My fourteenth birthday I think may have taken place while camping on vacation. My fifteenth birthday was spent in solitude, listening to show tunes on my parents’ reel-to-reel tape player, and my sixteenth birthday was a little surreal because I spent the day with two total strangers. They were very kind, but they really didn’t know me at all.

I mention these earlier birthdays because my seventeenth birthday was such a sharp contrast. I may have written about it before, but if so it was quite a few years ago, before I switched to WordPress.

My seventeenth birthday was my first birthday away from home and family. Although I had gone to boarding school for years, my birthday had always fallen in the long dry season (winter) vacation when I was at home with my family. Now, as a junior in high school, I went to a school which used the “trimester” system, so my birthday fell during the third and final term of the school year.

I went to bed the night before my birthday quite sure that no one at school even knew it was my birthday and that I wouldn’t even get a “Happy Birthday” greeting from anyone. (I was not the type to go around telling people that my birthday was approaching.)

On the stroke of midnight, I was woken up by the sensation of something touching my chest. I opened my eyes to see a cupcake sitting on my chest. I could see it because it was topped with a lighted candle, which also illuminated the grinning faces of several of my friends in the senior class who had tiptoed in and gathered around my bed. They whisper-sang Happy Birthday to me to avoid disturbing my roommate, and insisted that I blow out the candle and eat the cupcake instantly.

That one thing would have made my day. I was so tickled. Yet in the morning when the rising bell went off, my roommate Beth puffed into the room with a breakfast tray for me. It was a tradition in our dorm that you made breakfast in bed for your roommate on her birthday, but I hadn’t thought Beth knew it was my birthday. (Maybe she hadn’t been as asleep as she appeared to be at midnight!) The breakfasts weren’t fancy, because we didn’t have access to fancy food, but it was a thoughtful tradition and in fact this is what led, many years later, to our family tradition of breakfast in bed on your birthday.

Warmed inside by these tokens of my friends’ affection, I slid into my seat for my first class of the day, which was English. Our English teacher, Miss Platt, of course had access to our information, so to my horror she announced to the class that it was my birthday and they all burst into a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to You. While they were still singing, a boy from the senior English class next door dashed into our classroom, laid a piping hot pancake on my desk, said, “Happy Birthday, Linda!” and dashed out again.

I had no idea what the protocol was for dealing with a pancake which was delivered to one in the middle of a class, so I just stared at it in disbelief. “Don’t just look at it,” said Miss Platt. “Go ahead and eat it!” What else could I do? I ate it while my classmates snickered.

That afternoon I was invited for tea to the principal’s home. I thought nothing of it because my friend Lynnae and I went there every week to have tea and plan the Sunday School lesson with the principal’s wife. The toddler 3-5 year old class was held at her house every week and three of us had to entertain the kids for two full hours, so planning was essential.

This time Mrs. Entwistle had made a special birthday tea, including a whole chocolate cake which she insisted that I take back to the dorm to share with my friends. Full of joy, I headed back to my room, to find a beautiful angel food cake sitting on my desk. Worried that I’d be cakeless on my birthday, my mother had sent money and instructions to my friend Pam, who had made me my favorite kind of cake.

Staggered by all this generosity, I was further surprised when yet another whole cake arrived courtesy of my dorm mother (who would later also provide me with a lovely birthday dinner). I had three cakes on my desk, and although I offered it to all and sundry, I didn’t have many takers. What to do with all that cake?

Someone suggested that I call over to the boys’ dorm and let them know I had cake. By now it was evening. My roommate Beth was already in her pajamas and doing homework on her bed, but the lounge downstairs was still open, so if I could get a couple of guys to come over, I could take some cake down to them and they could share it in their dorm.

I made the call (each dorm had only one phone). The phone was answered by Steve, a boy in my class. I asked if he was interested in some cake, and he said, “We’ll be right over.” I waited to hear someone call me from the lounge, but the call never came. Instead, two heads suddenly appeared in the window of our second-story room. (Our windows had two panels that opened, and no screens.) One of them belonged to Steve, and the other one to his friend Jim. They had climbed up some pipes to reach our window.

Poor Beth ran screaming from the room, yelling down the hallway that there were men in our room. (Not technically true—it was only their heads.) The boys soon realized they had made a grave error in their calculations. They wanted cake, but they could not hold on to cake and also climb back down the pipes. So they climbed back down to the ground and then instructed me to throw the cake down. Picture me tossing half a chocolate cake out the window and having it be caught bare-handed by a teenage boy. Having tossed each boy half a cake, I watched them swagger off, covered in icing. By the time Beth returned with witnesses to prove our room had been invaded, there was no sign of any boys.

Best. Birthday. Ever. (When you’re seventeen, at least.)

Reunited and It Feels So Good

Last Friday, I did one of the most courageous things I’ve ever done. I got in my car and drove from Tennessee to Kentucky to see people I hadn’t seen in forty years. I was absolutely terrified. My hands were shaking on the steering wheel. Every moment during that drive, I considered chickening out. I wanted to chicken out.

I had known this would happen, had known I would look for any excuse to back away. So I cleverly made it harder on myself by promising to contribute cookies and breakfast casserole and chai to the reunion. (I genuinely wanted to help out, but I’m being very honest when I tell you that it was also a sort of insurance policy. It’s one thing to let myself down, but I am very unlikely to let anyone else down if I can avoid it.)

When I reached the ranch where the reunion was held, I drove right past the entrance. I thought maybe I would just drive all the way into town and buy the groceries I needed, and then go back and face my classmates.

I got a few miles down the road before getting a grip. I turned around and went back to the ranch gate, and this time I went in. I drove all the way to the lodge and parked my car. I got out and walked into the building, believing in my heart of hearts that I was walking into extreme emotional danger.

As I stood palpitating inside the door, looking into a room filled with my former classmates, my friend Sally came forward to greet me. She was soon followed by others, and my fear began to drain away. It was replaced by incredulous joy at getting to be with this particular group of people for the first time in forty years. I had a wonderful time for the rest of the weekend.

This, of course, does not answer the question I know many of you have, which is: Why on earth was I so terrified? What was I afraid of?

I would really love to not answer those questions. I hate exposing the real me to the entire internet, and I rarely do it—but it has occurred to me that somewhere, sometime, someone might benefit from knowing what went on inside me on this specific occasion.

First, though, I have to explain a thing or two about being an MK (missionary kid) and going to boarding school. It’s not like “normal” life here in the US. Your classmates are your only social group. They’re the people you draw your friends from, go to church with, play games with, study with, and socialize with (and if you’re like me, they’re also the people you get in trouble with and get punished with). They live in your dorm with you, eat all your meals with you, and of course also go to classes with you. In short, they quite quickly become your adopted family.

Because of this, friendships tend to be deep and long-lasting. Remember, I also went to boarding school for elementary school, and am still close to many of my friends from those years.

This reunion, however, was a reunion of my high school class. I went to Rift Valley Academy (RVA) for my junior year and half of my senior year. It was a very intense time for me, coming on the heels of eighteen months when I had studied at home in almost total isolation. I wanted to be friends with everybody in the world. (I know. I’m an introvert. But even for me, there is such a thing as too much solitude.)

I do not wish to discuss my experience at that school. It was deeply colored by pain, anguish, and betrayal. There are good reasons I have not written a second memoir detailing my experiences there. However, at the same time I was experiencing so much misery, my life was also filled with joy and delight at being around people again and having the opportunity to make new friends. I threw myself into relationships with an enthusiasm that I have not matched since. I made some mistakes. I was, after all, a teenager whose head was full of immaturity and stupidity. Still, I loved my friends with an intensity born from my months of extreme loneliness.

So why did I then avoid them for the next forty years? My excuses were legion, and some of them were lies I told myself. For the first decade or two, I honestly thought I could not emotionally survive the experience of seeing my high school friends again, and it was very helpful that I also could not afford to attend any of those early reunions. It’s not that I didn’t want to see my friends. I desperately wanted to see them and connect with them again—but I was afraid all the wrong memories would come back and I’d be a quivering basket case after the first few hours. I feared that I’d be asked questions I didn’t want to answer, or that people would judge me unfairly, not knowing the reasons behind some of the things I did. In short, I was a coward.

I wish I could say that was the worst of it, but it wasn’t. There was a much bigger sin that came into play as the years went by, compounding my cowardice—and that was the sin of pride. I did not want my classmates to know how fat I was, how very mediocre in my achievements. I thought the day would come when I’d look svelte and glamorous and be a bestselling author, and then I’d turn up at a reunion and not be ashamed of myself. It never occurred to me that I was judging myself much more harshly than my friends do.

For four decades—forty freaking years!—I let fear, stupidity, and pride keep me from staying connected with people I cared deeply about. I had opportunities from time to time to meet up with one or more of them, and I wriggled out. If I had not been such a spineless coward, I daresay I could have figured out a way to attend at least one reunion before now.

So what happened when I gathered up every last molecule of courage I still possess and walked into that group of people? Instead of finding myself in danger, I found myself in a place of safety; a sensation that is very rare for me. My classmates shared details of their lives with the rest of us, knowing that they’d be met with acceptance and encouragement. I did not see a single instance of someone being judged, as I had always feared I would be. Believe it or not, not one person came up to me and said, “Boy, are you a big fat disappointment.” Everyone just seemed glad that I was there. There are parts of my life that I do not share here or with any of my local friends, but I felt quite sure I could have shared them with that group had I wanted to. We all shared some experiences that tend to make us empathetic and compassionate toward each other.

I had feared that going to the reunion, seeing all those people again, would be like knowingly drinking a glass of deadly poison. Maybe it would have been—35 years ago, but I doubt it. After forty long years, I found that the misery and bitterness of the past had evaporated away, leaving only the sweet clear wine of joy.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is what so many others have said in different ways and about different things: don’t wait. Don’t wait till you look skinny and fabulous before you let someone take your picture. Don’t wait till you have achieved some cherished goal before you reunite with old friends who just want to enjoy your company. And most of all, when you do meet up with old friends, be a safe place for them. All they really need from you is your love and acceptance—and your presence.

Group Shot 1

 

Double the Enjoyment

I’m going to take a stroll down memory lane here, to explain to you how I came to possess one of my favorite treasures. In 1993, we moved to Zambia for what we hoped would be years of missionary service, but which ended up being just for 18 months.

Upon our arrival, we inherited a few barrels of possessions that had been left behind by family friends. One of the barrels was full of old books, some of which were real treasures, like an original version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales–rather horrific compared to the sanitized versions I had heard as a kid! There was also a little book that caught my interest. It was a travel book about various journeys the author had undertaken in his homeland of Great Britain. Having been raised in a former British colony, I am an unapologetic anglophile, so I settled in for some enjoyable reading.

It was a charmingly dated account, written in the 1930s as I recall. My problem was that most of the places he wrote about were unfamiliar to me, and not big enough to be included on your average map of Britain. I hate not being able to picture where things are, so when a British friend of mine was getting ready to go for a brief visit home, I gave her some money and asked her to please buy a detailed map of Britain for me.

She exceeded my expectations by bringing me this:

3-23-17 atlas

A nice thick road atlas of Britain, with individual pages on a scale of 3 miles to 1 inch! I was so, so happy! I got out my little travel book and searched out all the places on the map. My enjoyment of the book was increased immeasurably once I had the map to refer to. I have referred to my treasured road atlas many times in the intervening years. I keep it where I can easily access it. So helpful if you read classic British literature.

Which brings me to this week. A couple of days ago, I started reading Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, about the travels he went on throughout Britain before moving back to the USA in the mid-90s. Once again, I hauled out my atlas and have been following his travels with great interest on my detailed maps. To my amusement, many of the place names he uses are totally made up–but they’re no stranger than some of the actual place names. For instance, a quick glance over a couple of pages yielded the following places: Herodsfoot, Spriddles, Boohay, Ipplepen, Dippertown, Quoditch, Clapworthy, and Lower Sharpnose Point.

Yes, I know I could probably look up the places in the book on Google Maps–but I really prefer the real atlas. I can follow his travels from town to town and see what route he must have taken. Having my atlas is adding tremendously to my enjoyment of this book.

Of course, it’s not as if I did nothing but read all day. Jasper and I continued our floundering with geometry. This afternoon I took Lucy out to get her birthday present–a new pair of jeans. And this evening Jasper and I went to the bee meeting for the first time in months because the speakers were a couple that I know slightly. The husband has designed and manufactured an absolutely brilliant beehive stand that keeps ants out of your hive. If you keep bees, you should check them out:

DefyAnt Stands

Also, Walter fixed the van.

Staying Alive

We all have songs that are special to us, that bring back a certain time in our lives, a person, or maybe a special event. Today’s hymn is special to me because it kept me alive during a period of time when I did not want to live. It was one of the hymns I listened to over and over on the night I was planning to kill myself at the age of 17. Once I had made the decision to not go down that road, I made it irrevocably.

However, I did not magically acquire the will to live. I was sent away from everything and everyone I loved and put into an environment that I found stifling and unbearably lonely. I was dealing with so much grief and loss and no one ever said to me, “You are suffering from severe clinical depression and you need help.” I woke up sad every morning and went to bed sad every night. But this hymn was what kept me doing it. When my roommates were out of the room, I would sing this hymn with tears streaming down my face. I had to believe that God would not let me go—and He didn’t. The day came when I was able to smile again. Eventually, I had days when I woke up actually looking forward to something. I didn’t need to sing this hymn to myself quite so often.

Fast forward a few decades, to a few years ago when my father-in-law died. My husband and his siblings were going through the papers my father-in-law had left with instructions for his funeral. There was a list of hymns he suggested, and they were discussing which ones they should use. Some hymns had a star beside them. This particular hymn had three stars. I campaigned to have it included, and it was. My father-in-law was a very formal, distant man in many ways, but after he died I found that he loved this hymn as I did. That made me feel closer to him than anything else had.

I figured the chords yesterday and we sang it in church today. I love the tune and the words. It still makes me cry. Every time.

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

by George Matheson

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Keeping It Weird

Here are three true stories from my actual life:

#1: Many years ago now, when my husband and I were actually young, we befriended a student at the university named Marlan, who was from Alaska. Three years into our friendship, I was talking to my mom on the phone one day, and she said, “You know, if you ever think about it, you should look up a student named Marlan Ball. He’s the son of our dear friends Virgil and Annette.” I remembered the Balls, and the fun I’d had playing with Marlan’s older sisters. The fact that he belonged to that Ball family had never come up in the three years we’d known him! Accidental mult-generational friendship!

#2: When our son Flynn was a student at the university, he was good friends with two guys named Chris and Joel, who were both missionary kids from Japan. They were often at our house. After we had known them for three years, they were over at our house one night and Joel mentioned in passing that his mother had also been a missionary kid from Japan. I did some mental math and asked him if his mom had gone to the Christian Academy of Japan. Yes.

Me: “I bet she must know my friend Mary, who also went there. They would be close in age.”

Him (looking stunned): “Yes, we know Mary. In fact, she and my mom were roommates when they lived in Indiana.

Me (I met Mary in Indiana and knew both of her roommates): “So what was your mom’s name?”

Him: “Flossie.”

Me: “Oh, I know Flossie!”

Him: mind blown. His expression could serve as a definition of the word “gobsmacked.”

 

#3: Over the last few weeks, Mercy has often invited her friend Daniel over. He helped decorate our Christmas tree. Mercy has known him since her semester in Korea a couple of years ago. So anyway, he spent the night with us last night because he had to get out of the dorm yesterday. Yesterday evening, he mentioned that his mother had grown up as a missionary kid in Zimbabwe. Today at lunch, I was thinking maybe my parents would have heard of his grandparents, so I asked what his mother’s maiden name was. Him: “McCloy.” Hmmm . . . We knew a Danny McCloy who was a student at the university many years ago. He was an MK, and I started to ask my husband if Danny had been from Zimbabwe, when Daniel volunteered, “Danny is my uncle. My mom’s brother.” Mind blown. Daniel and Mercy have been friends for over two years, and this was the first we heard of an Africa connection, let alone that his uncle was an old friend of ours!

Does stuff like this happen to you? Stuff like this happens to us all the time. The older we get, the more it happens. It doesn’t hurt that we both grew up overseas and have friends all over the world. But we’ve found that at least for us, there are significantly fewer than six degrees of separation between us and others!

P.S. I still have no idea what Daniel’s last name is.

Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s carol comes with a story. I would hazard a guess that most of you have not heard this Christmas carol, written by a man named John Byrom in 1745. It is burned into my memory because of its association with a childhood memory. At my boarding school in Zambia, it was traditional to play this carol as a sort of reveille on the last morning of the term ending in December.

All the boys who could play a brass instrument would assemble in the middle of the playground and wake us all up by playing this song. It was indeed the happiest of morns for us because it was the morning of the day that we got to go home for the Christmas holiday! Those who were wide awake with anticipation anyway were allowed to rise early to join the trumpeters on the playground and sing the words.

Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn

Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of the world was born.
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above,
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the virgin’s Son.

Then to the watchful shepherds it was told,
Who heard th’angelic herald’s voice, “Behold,
I bring good tidings of a Savior’s birth
To you and all the nations of the earth;
This day hath God fulfilled His promised Word;
This day is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.”

He spoke; and straightaway the celestial choir
In hymns of joy, unknown before, conspire;
The praises of redeeming love they sang,
And Heav’n’s whole orb with alleluias rang.
God’s highest glory was their anthem still,
Peace on the earth and unto men good will.

To Bethl’hem straight th’enlightened shepherds ran
To see the wonder God had wrought for man
And found, with Joseph and the blessèd maid,
Her Son, the Savior, in a manger laid;
Then to their flocks, still praising God, return,
And their glad hearts with holy rapture burn.

Like Mary let us ponder in our mind
God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!
Trace we the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
From His poor manger to His bitter cross,
Tread in His steps, assisted by His grace,
Till man’s first heav’nly state again takes place.

Then may we hope, th’angelic hosts among,
To sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song.
He that was born upon this joyful day
Around us all His glory shall display.
Saved by His love, incessantly we sing
Eternal praise to Heav’n’s almighty King.

 

Perilous Playthings

This afternoon during my class, we were going over similes. I had a list of common similes that I passed out to my students, and as I did so I noticed that one of the ones on the list was “as quick as silver.” So I asked the kids why they thought silver might be thought of as “quick.” They didn’t know, so I explained to them that the metal mercury used to be known as quicksilver, and the simile refers to that rather than to actual silver.

This caused me to have one of my frequent sudden nostalgia attacks, and I related to my students how I used to play with mercury as a kid. Of course, none of them has ever handled mercury, and that is as it should be, since it’s a deadly poison. However, I did not know this as a kid and as a result I probably shortened my life by several years.

We all handled mercury during our science classes at my boarding school, and found it fascinating, but I had extra exposure because my job for a couple of semesters was to clean the science room after school every day. If one of the classes had involved mercury, there would inevitably be some drops of mercury on the floor, and my instructions were to find every tiny speck and return it to the bottle. This involved crawling around the cement floor on my hands and knees. I’d start on the perimeter of the room and when I encountered a shimmering drop of mercury, I’d nudge it with my finger  or a piece of paper and scoot it toward the center of the room. I’d crawl in ever-decreasing circles until I ended up with one gleaming puddle of mercury. I admit I usually spent several minutes playing with it before scooping it up with a piece of paper and returning it to the bottle. It was fun to play with and if you’ve ever fooled around with it yourself, you know that it is indeed very “quick.” Also lethal, of course, but I’m glad I didn’t know that then.

So here’s my question: did you play with anything dangerous as a kid, and if so, what was it?

Today ended up not being much of a school day, because Jasper had to pack and prepare for his big trip tomorrow and I had a class to prepare for and teach. This week is officially Jasper’s “fall break,” although Mercy plans to do at least some school with him while they are in Colorado.

After my class Jasper and I went out to buy him a couple of things he didn’t have, like long-sleeved shirts and . . . shoes. Shoes are always problematic for this family. On the off chance we find shoes that are long enough, they will almost certainly not be wide enough. We could not find sneakers to fit his size 14 wide feet—well, not without going to the other side of town. To my surprise, we found a pair of hiking boots that actually fit. They were not cheap, but he can use them for work too, so hiking boots will be his only footwear in Colorado. I just hope he doesn’t outgrow them before he gets some decent wear out of them!

Thanks, Mrs. Cook

Last night just before I went to bed I saw a post saying that a lady named Eleanore Cook had died on June 30. I had not thought about Mrs. Cook recently, but when I saw that she had died, a wave of memories washed over me.

When I was 16, I was sent to a new boarding school in Kenya after a year and a half of home schooling. It was much bigger than my old boarding school, and even though I knew some people there, it was a little overwhelming at first. During my very first week there, I was approached by a girl in my class that I don’t think I had even spoken to before that. Lynnae wanted to know if I would be willing to help teach Sunday School to the three to five year olds (these would be the children of missionaries whose parents worked on the station).

I admit I was a little taken aback. I had never heard of a teenager teaching a Sunday School class. However, I was considerably more interested when I heard that it would get me out of going to church. I had been to one service in the very crowded local church and had been dismayed to discover that the singing was not the beautifully harmonious singing I was used to in Zambia. (Just being brutally honest here.) Since the toddlers were too young to sit through the service, we would have to entertain them for more than two hours every Sunday.

So, even though my reason wasn’t very admirable, I agreed to do it. That was the beginning of an amazing experience. Our “head teacher” was the principal’s wife, and the class was held in her home. Every week Lynnae and I spent an afternoon with her planning and preparing for Sunday School. We took turns doing the lesson, the crafts, and the music. That was wonderful training in and of itself.

But then there was Mrs. Cook’s class. Mrs. Cook oversaw the Sunday School program for the whole station, I believe. High school students helped to teach all the younger classes up through middle school, and Mrs. Cook taught us how. Every Tuesday morning, we Sunday School teachers skipped chapel and hiked up the hill to Mrs. Cook’s house, knowing there would be a fabulous snack and hot drinks waiting for us.

Every week, the same Bible story was taught at all the different levels. In Mrs. Cook’s class, she taught us how to present it. First, she would explain the lesson and the Bible passage we’d be covering. Then she would talk about all the various ways we could make it more interesting and enjoyable for each age group, whether it was acting it out, drawing it, or using an object lesson. She would give us ideas for related age-appropriate crafts and show us how to do them. She had song suggestions—and motions to go with them. She led us in memorizing the verse for the week so we could help our students memorize it too.

Do you understand what a brilliant and visionary lady she was? Who else have you ever heard of who would devote so much time and energy into teaching teenagers how to teach the Bible to children? Even at the time, I felt so privileged to be part of that group. Pretty much everything I know about teaching young children, I learned from Mrs. Cook. I was not at all close to her personally, but if I ever had a question related to Sunday School, I knew I could go to her and she would devote her full attention to helping me.

Over the past three decades, as I have taught Sunday School for several years at a time, I have often thought about Mrs. Cook and blessed her fervently for all the hours she poured into my life and the lives of so many others. I didn’t fully understand how incredibly privileged I was until I realized that no one else I met ever received any instruction in how to teach Sunday School, let alone a weekly class for a year and a half (the length of time I attended that school).

I have been pretty good, as an adult, at writing letters of appreciation to people who were positive and inspiring role models for me in my youth. But last night when I saw the news about Eleanore Cook, I realized I had failed to thank her, and my conscience smote me. I hope she received notes of thanks from many others who were more on the ball than me!

Her husband has asked that instead of flowers, anyone wishing to commemorate Eleanore’s homegoing would contribute to a fund that will go to children’s ministries in Kenya. How perfect.

Mrs. Cook, I salute your memory—and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Bonus Essay: A Mission—and a Man

It occurred to me during the seemingly interminable drive home from North Carolina, that some of my valued readers may not be sure what The Master’s Mission is, or why we went there. Maybe it’s a good time for a reminder.

The story of our relationship with The Master’s Mission actually starts, in a way, in 1975, because that’s the year I started going to Rift Valley Academy in Kenya. There was girl named Bobbi Teasdale there, in the class below mine. I never got to know her well, which was a big pity, because as it turns out I think we would have been good friends. Her older brother Jim had just graduated, and stayed on to help coach the rugby team. I never so much as spoke to him, but I heard he was tough as nails and made the team run five miles every day—before practice!

Fast forward to 1982. I was a newlywed, in my senior year of college. I went to see the school nurse about my allergies. The school nurse was also the wife of the missionary in residence, and had spent over 20 years serving in West Africa. By that time we were already becoming friends. As we chatted about this and that, and about my husband’s and my hope to become full-time missionaries, she brightened up and rummaged around through some papers before producing a little brochure.

“You and Walter would love this place,” she said. “It’s just starting up, but it sounds like the kind of thing that would be perfect for you. You should check it out.”

She handed me the brochure and I saw it was about Mission Ready, a new training program being developed for remote-area missionaries. The couple heading it up were Paul and Betty Lou Teasdale. I wondered if they were related to Bobbi, or to her cousin Bill, who had also been at school with me and currently attended the same college as me.

The training center was in North Carolina, though, and we were penniless, so I just saved the brochure after showing it to my husband.

Later that year we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at my in-laws’ insistence, and after a very tough year there we took our first real vacation as a couple in late summer 1983. As we planned our frugal camping trip in North Carolina, I thought about Mission Ready. It wasn’t too far from where we’d be camping, and I thought maybe we could stop by for a visit.

I dug out the brochure, took a deep breath, and called the phone number. Betty Lou Teasdale answered. I asked her if she was related to Bobbi, and it turns out that she and Paul were Bobbi’s parents. Soon we had arranged to visit for a couple of days at the end of our camping trip.

What an amazing visit that was. Paul and Betty Lou’s vision really captured our interest. We slept under the stairs in their cabin and the next day we helped Paul clear and burn brush in what would someday be the lake bed. Paul was still recovering from a horrific sawmill accident but he still put us to shame with his hard work.

The next year, we went back again, camping at the same place and then visiting Mission Ready. By then, they had the “shop” built, with storage and workspace on the ground floor,  a big kitchen/dining area and classrooms on the second floor, and a couple of motel-type guest rooms with a separate entrance too. We stayed in one of the new guest rooms and again helped with whatever needed doing.

Master's Misson Shop

Shortly after that, we moved back to Texas and Walter went back to work for the university. We thought about Mission Ready often, and about all they still needed to do to get the place up and functioning. Roads needed to be built and improved, the dam needed to be finished, cabins had to be built for the trainees, and so forth.

Walter came up with a brilliant idea: what if he got a bunch of college students together and took them up to Mission Ready for spring break? They could get a lot of work done! We had already got Paul and Betty Lou invited to the college’s annual missions conference in January, so there was at least some exposure to the mission here.

Walter started trying to generate interest in the idea during the fall of 1986. By spring break he had a good group of students together. The mission said they’d feed and house the kids for free in exchange for work, so the only expense was gas money. They took the college bus and I think only had to pay about $50 each for gas. They got a lot of work done, and the kids ate it up. There was even enough money left over to reimburse the mission for food.

I didn’t get to go that year, because Lina was just a baby, but I did go the next year when Lina was a toddler. We had a bus full of enthusiastic college kids, a faculty couple, and a woman from church. The faculty couple were none other than Dan and Nonie Larsen, who were so captivated by the work the mission was doing that they left the university and became full time staff at the mission. One of the students who went in those first couple of years later went through the program and became a missionary. He and his wife are now on staff.

Over the years, as Walter continued to lead groups to the mission for spring break, a couple of things happened. Mission Ready became The Master’s Mission and we had to learn to use the new name! They also became a sending organization as well as a training center. Eventually, Paul and Betty Lou sort of retired and passed leadership on to their sons Jim and Dan.

When we were preparing to head to Africa as missionaries ourselves in the early 90s, we had a difficult choice to make. The Master’s Mission really wanted us to go Kenya with them. We had already begun the process of applying to another mission, the one my parents had been with. After our service on the field ended so traumatically, it was hard not to wonder if we had made the wrong choice. We love The Master’s Mission so much. Even during our brief 18 months in Zambia, we could see how valuable their practical training would be for so many missionaries, especially the ones who don’t have a mission field background.

Another thing that happened was that Walter’s idea of using spring break for something useful caught on. The university began organizing spring break mission trips to Mexico and other places. Eventually, to our great dismay, the university took control of all the trips, including the ones to The Master’s Mission, which meant that it was no longer the ultimate budget option. Everyone, regardless of destination, had to raise hundreds of dollars if they wanted to go. Suddenly it was no longer possible for us to go as a family.

The only “good” thing about this change was that Walter was sometimes able to go as a staff sponsor, which meant he got paid time off without taking vacation days.

One year, we even had a family reunion at the mission during the summer. I think it’s the only time we’ve been there when it was warm enough to swim in the lake!

Eight years ago, we went as a family at the same time as the university group, but not as part of it. Although we worked alongside them every day, we found that we were shunned because we had circumvented the system. That’s one reason why we didn’t attempt it again until this year, although Walter continued to go with the students when he was able.

This year things went a little better in that the students seemed more willing to accept our presence and we enjoyed getting to know some of them. It was the biggest trip in years–16 students! The Mission has grown and there are many more buildings than in the old days. The program is still world class. In addition to practical skills, the trainees get an hour and a half of Bible classes every day. I’m envious of everyone who gets to go through that program!

As I started to think about writing this history of our relationship with The Master’s Mission, I was hit by an overwhelming realization. I mentioned that our time on the field ended traumatically after only eighteen months. Our dream of being missionaries was crushed. Our hope of raising our kids on the mission field in Africa was dashed to pieces. It is a hard, hard thing to have your life’s dream taken away from you.

At the time, everyone told us, “God has a purpose for this. One day it will be obvious to you why He let this happen.” “God allowed this because He had something better for you.”

We could not see it. Year after year, we looked back on the suffering we had endured, and we saw no purpose in it, no beneficial outcome. We were stuck here in Texas, doing what had to be done to raise our family, but it was not the life we wanted. Our only outlet for “ministry,” we thought, was our monthly chai parties for MKs and international students. It has been especially hard on my husband.

As I began to organize my thoughts for this essay, though, I found myself brought to tears as I saw the hand of God has been at work after all. If we had not visited the mission in 1983 and been captivated by the work they planned to do, the students at this university would never have heard of The Master’s Mission, let alone established a tradition of sending a team there to work every year. The Larsens would never have spent so many fulfilling years on staff there. Hundreds of students would never have been exposed to missions and been challenged to be involved either directly or indirectly. So many lives have been changed!

In fact, in reality it is thousands of students who have been impacted over the decades, because it was Walter’s enthusiastic promotion of The Master’s Mission spring break trips that led to the university’s decision to embrace the idea and send large numbers of students out to various ministries for spring break every year.

True—we still would rather be in Africa. But I am astounded when I think that one man’s loyalty to an organization he really believed in could lead to so many changed lives over the years. I don’t know if that’s why God blocked our path back to the mission field, but it at least makes it easier to accept!

Walter chucking wood