An Unrooted Childhood

Front CoverBy the time I was 14, I had lived in nine different homes and attended school in eight different locations. This includes moving from one house to another at one mission location, living temporarily with relatives, being home-schooled by my mother in two separate stints, attending three boarding schools in two countries, and transitioning from Africa to the U.S., back to Africa, and back again to the U. S. Several years ago, when I read Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global, edited by Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel, I found words to describe how I often felt during those years:

Enrichment: “Unrooted children…sample experiences around the globe and move among cultures and identities – and [are] enriched by them – while they are young, pliant, and still forming their personalities.”

Estrangement: “Unrooted children ache for the comforts of extended family, the rhythms and rituals of tradition, an ongoing circle of friends who know them…. There can be drama in every new move,…but there can also be intense pain in severing the familiar, in the physical and emotional distancing of loved ones.”

Rootlessness: “Nomadic children who grow up beyond their national borders return to their parents’ home countries. They are expected to integrate smoothly…. For many, the transition is difficult… They feel more like new arrivals or hidden immigrants than travelers coming home, and their sense of displacement and culture shock can be extreme.”

Identity: “Telling our stories is one way to establish our place in time…. Finding a voice can be difficult when language and location are always changing… Unrooted children have myriad encounters to write about, many cultures to report from, and constant transitions to chronicle. Telling our stories binds us in an act of remembrance.”

When my family returned to the U. S. on furlough in 1954, we first lived for awhile with my aunt and uncle, two cousins and grandmother in rural Pennsylvania. I briefly attended the local one-room elementary school with a cousin before our family headed west to California, doing the missionary itinerating thing along the way. My brother John had already gone to California so he could start school on time in the fall, so it was just my parents and my younger brother Rich and me traveling across country. In general, I hated itinerating; staying in different homes and going to different churches all the time was often torture for a shy child like me. One vivid memory I have of that trip was an incredibly hot and humid night my mother and I spent in someone’s upstairs bedroom in Ohio with one little window high up on the wall and no fan.

In Upland, California, I attended second grade and learned to know more aunts, uncles and cousins I had never met before. My favorite cousin was Rosemary, who is just eight days younger than I am. Finally, I had someone my own age to play with. (Even though we rarely see each other now, Rosemary and I have maintained a very special connection, made easier in these days of Facebook.) That Christmas, my mother’s entire family (her mother, four sisters, one brother and their families) gathered for the first time since before my parents left for Africa eight years earlier. By mid-summer 1955, we were on the road again, itinerating some more, sight-seeing in the Canadian Rockies, and visiting my dad’s family in southern Ontario, Canada. We returned in the fall to my aunt’s home in Pennsylvania and I went back to the one-room school house for a few weeks until November when we sailed out of New York back to Africa. This time, John did not go with us but stayed in North America to finish high school and attend college. We didn’t see him for six years, and the only form of communication with him was by snail-mail.

My mother home-schooled me for one more year, and then I went to my first boarding school for one year (interrupted twice by my illness – see “Boarding School and Rheumatic Fever”). At the end of that year, my parents were transferred from Mtshabezi Mission in Zimbabwe to Sikalongo Mission in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). I remember crying bitterly when my dad told us we would be moving. In Zambia, I attended Beit School in Choma for three years; the boarding hostel was for girls only, while boys also attended the school. After two years at Sikalongo, my parents were transferred again to Macha Mission, also in Zambia. This time I didn’t need to change schools. However, after one more year, I “graduated” from Beit, and had to change schools again. By then, Brethren in Christ Missions had established a boarding hostel for missionary children in Bulawayo, so I went back to Zimbabwe for high school. That was only for one year before my parents’ missionary term was over and we returned to the U. S., this time for good. Our family settled in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and I attended Mechanicsburg High School, entering the middle of tenth grade in January of the year I turned 14.

If your head is spinning by now, trying to keep track of all the moves, just think how this felt to a child and young adolescent! By far the most difficult move was back to the U. S. at the end of 1961 when I was 13. Being 13 is difficult enough under ordinary circumstances (a fact I can attest to with my own children), but for me leaving the predictability and rigid structure of British-style schools for the relative informality of an American high school was especially difficult. I was academically advanced (the result of the curriculum my first year in high school, not because of any advanced intelligence on my part), so my parents and the guidance counselor decided the best fit would be in the second half of tenth grade – fully two years ahead of others my age. Academically, I did fine, but socially and emotionally I was not ready for tenth grade.

I look back on those first few years after we returned from Africa as among the most emotionally painful of my life. The reasons are varied, perhaps the subject of another post sometime. Suffice it to say that the four words related to “unrooted childhoods” (enrichment, estrangement, rootlessness and identity) explain a lot about who I am today. Moving around frequently as an MK during childhood, and then settling in the U. S. as an adolescent, I had no roots or established relationships beyond my family. It’s particularly telling that even though I have friendships and the significant bond of a shared history with my MK peers, my dearest and most long-term friend is someone I didn’t meet until I was a senior in high school; as a pastor’s daughter she had her own history of rootlesseness. I have no lasting deep friendships from earlier in my life.

I have also put down roots and planted myself firmly in central Pennsylvania, leaving only for two years of graduate school right after college, and I have no desire to move some place else. Even though I enjoy traveling and seeing other places, I like knowing I can come home to familiar places and people. In this I am similar to the rootless children described in Unrooted Childhoods who “seek security of roots in adulthood and teach themselves to stop in one place,” as opposed to some other MKs I know who “keep traveling, a learned restlessness working against their choosing a career, establishing a family, or creating a sense of permanence.”

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10 thoughts on “An Unrooted Childhood

  1. I can’t speak for all of central PA, but I’m glad you settled here and devoted so many of those years of stability to your concerns for peace in our community, denomination and indeed across the whole MCC “stage.”

  2. Harriet–your experience is once again a common thread for me. I think you may have me beat by one school, but the moving around, the temporary stay with relatives, etc. all resonate. That experience was the genesis of my article in BinC historical journal on “Third Culture Kids”–in that term of TCK I too found words to explain my growing up. There are positives–adaptability, great enrichment in exposure to a wider world, self-sufficiency; and negatives–rootlessness, restlessness, loneliness.
    I too settled down and stayed put. Now, my traveling is the trips my husband and I take–and it’s always great to be back home. I have talked about this with my siblings–who had similar, yet differing experiences. The addition of Youngways ameliorated this experience for younger missionary children. You and I were among the last of the “old school” MKs.
    Of course, I also shared with John the staying in the U.S. experience.
    By the way, you nudged my memory and caused me to produce a new blog on climbing the Matopo Hills.

  3. I am here by way of Donna’s blog. I too am a MK, born in South Africa to Canadian parents in 1955. I can see the effects of enrichment, estrangement and rootlessness in myself and my brothers to this day. But I do not regret my early childhood travels. I am interested in reading what you post this month.

    • Ruth, thanks for checking out my blog. I too don’t regret my childhood travels and feel as though my life has been enriched by my MK experience, despite those things that caused pain sometimes.

  4. I love reading your writings!!! You’re describing my children’s lives. You’re describing the children we’ve worked with for the last 13 years. I really click with everything you share. Thank you for including us in your story!!! Blessings!

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