Early African Memories

My memories from early childhood are vague, consisting mostly of murky mental images of episodes rather than full-blown narratives with all the whos, whats, wheres, whys and hows. My earliest memory is of falling off a child’s wagon at Matopo Mission in what is now Zimbabwe. My beloved African nanny was with me. I was not yet three years old. I also dimly remember being “quarantined” with my brother during our holiday in South Africa when I was three. John had been exposed to chicken pox at boarding school before we left, and of course after he came down with it, he passed it on to me. My memory is mostly of darkness and gloom, probably stemming from being cooped up in a cottage under trees away from the main house at the missionary retreat center where we were staying in Pretoria. According to my dad in his autobiography, “you would have thought we had the plague…. they isolated us in some thatched cottages away from the main buildings. These cottages were cold; it was midwinter in South Africa. Gladys [my mother] took care of the children and they wouldn’t even let her come over to the dining room for meals. I went over for my meals without my family.”

https://i0.wp.com/cdn100.iofferphoto.com/img/item/162/367/151/aMNbl9yLmQgrSOx.jpgWhile we were on that holiday, I also remember going with my dad to a bookstore to buy a book I desperately wanted. This was during the nine-month period I wasn’t speaking to him (another story for another time!). In one of her frequent attempts to trick me into speaking to him, my mother sent us off to the bookstore together. She instructed my dad not to buy the book for me unless I asked him for it. I don’t know whether I asked, but I know I got the book—a Little Golden Book called Katie the Kitten, published in 1949, the year after I was born. I suspect he asked me if I wanted it, and I nodded (or perhaps shyly whispered yes), and, soft-hearted man that he was, he bought it for me.  (A few years ago, after I told this story to a friend, she found a copy of the book online and gave it to me. It looks exactly as I remembered it, and the story had that proverbial feel of “deja-vu all over again”!)

I remember meeting my baby brother Richard for the first time when my parents brought him home from the hospital. I was about four and a half years old. The year I turn six, my mother started to homeschool me. I was more than ready to learn to read. I remember the joy of being able to read the New Testament my grandmother sent from the U.S. (she gave New Testaments to each of her grandchildren when they turned six).

Soon after I learned to read and write, Dr. Alvan Thuma, a missionary doctor stationed at Mtshabezi Mission, came with his family to Wanezi Mission where we were living to provide medical services at the mission clinic. His older son Meryl is just a few months younger than I am, but he had not yet learned to read and write. Meryl “wrote” me a note and proudly presented it to me. I am embarrassed that I didn’t respond very graciously to his “scribble-scrabble note” and threw it down the outhouse hole. Meryl was crushed and I remember him trying to fish it out of the hole with a long stick. He told his mother what happened, and she reportedly said something like, “Well, Meryl, you might as well learn now that girls are like that sometimes.”

My mother’s passport photo


My thumb in 2013

In July 1954, we returned to the U. S. on furlough. We traveled for three weeks on a freighter from Cape Town to Boston. Imagine my parents with three children ages 13, 6 and 21 months confined for three weeks on a ship with very few people and not much to do or room to play. No wonder my teenage brother amused himself by teasing his little sister. I remember him threatening to throw my precious doll Peggy overboard and I can still picture him dangling her over the deck railing and taunting me. The doll survived and is still safely in storage somewhere in our house! Early in that trip, I crushed my right thumb in a heavy cabin door when the ship rolled on a large wave. There was no doctor on board, but when the ship docked near Walvis Bay (on the south west coast of Africa, in what is now Namibia), a doctor from town took a motor launch out to the ship to treat my severely damaged thumb. As the thumb healed, the nail fell off and never grew back properly (see photo). To this day, I have a visible reminder of that trip as well as a foolproof way to tell my right hand from my left.

These are most of my memories from my first six years. When I read other people’s memoirs, I often wonder how they can possibly remember their very early years in such vivid detail. I find myself asking questions: Do they have much more highly developed memories than I do, or are they just more intelligent than I am? Do they really remember all that detail, or are they imagining how it might have happened? Have their parents, siblings, friends and neighbors filled in lots of gaps? Or do they just make up the details that seem plausible in the context of what they actually do remember and the emotions they still carry from various events? To what extent is the memoir factually accurate or, if the truth were known, might it be more like factually-based fiction? I don’t have enough specific memories from my early years to fill even one chapter of a memoir—they can almost all be recounted in one blog post. But at least I can say with confidence that I didn’t make anything up.


12 thoughts on “Early African Memories

    • That really is a story for a whole blog post of its own because I believe it says a lot about who I am today and what I care about. Stay tuned!

  1. Having known you from before you were born, I will follow your blog with great interest. I am somewhat introverted,but also somewhat extroverted. Standing in front of audiences does not hold a terror for me. At my nearly 94 years of age now writing a blog a day woukld challenge my physical endurance.

    • Thanks, David. Watching for tomorrow’s entry where Donna will figure somewhat prominently! Even at my age of not-quite-65, writing a blog a day is challenging me already.

    • It was called Brook House but I have no idea where in Pretoria it was. According to my dad’s autobiography, it was a familiar destination for BIC missionaries. During that holiday we also stayed at Concord in Durban and Andrew Murray in Cape Town. I have clearer memories of Concord and Andrew Murray because we stayed there again in later years.

  2. Uh oh–I will make sure to tune in tomorrow. I was about to comment–what, no memories of our childhood friendship? And then I saw your response to my dad.
    It is interesting how memory is more like a patchwork quilt than a seamless weaving of narrative. When I first began blogging, I wrote several on childhood memories. I am glad now that I did as I can go there to refresh my memories!

    • Donna, I think your family was in Northern Rhodesia during my parents’ whole first time which was the period this post covered. Tomorrow’s covers the one year I was at Coghlan with you. I’m enjoying the trips down memory lane.

  3. Harriet, I was fascinated to read about the thumb injury. I have a partial amputation of the tip of my right pinkie. I don’t remember the incident, but apparently I was still a toddler–maybe even a crawler–at about 16 months. I reached out at the same moment my mother slammed a door so I wouldn’t follow her outdoors for a moment. She recalled that the door had an extra impact because it was windy and the wind increased the force. Anyway, my pinkie was sheared off. Esther put it on ice and we went to the ER, but the doctor told her not to worry–that it would grow back normally since I was so young! However, that didn’t happen. I felt for my right little finger many times over my life when someone said something about right or left. An odd habit we share.

    • Rosemary, it is indeed a very interesting thing to share. Can’t tell you how many times I have instinctively felt my thumb to check right and left–especially since I am in fact a tad “directionally dyslexic.” I wonder whether you and I ever talked about our mutual injuries during those months my family was living in Upland–my thumb injury would have still been pretty fresh in my mind. I certainly don’t remember, but there are lots of things I don’t remember!

  4. Pingback: Stubbornness or a Case of Selective Mutism? | Pieces of Peace

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