December 22, 1961 is the marker between two lives: my life in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and my life in the United States. On this date in 1961, my parents, my younger brother Rich and I arrived by ship in the New York City harbor, having left Africa several weeks before. My parents packed up our belongings at Macha Mission in Zambia while Rich and I were in school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and then traveled to Bulawayo to meet us. Rich and I left school before the end of the term, and as a family we took the train to Cape Town where we boarded one of the Cunard ships to Southampton, England. There we boarded another ship (the S. S. United States, I think), bound for New York.
Even though I was 13, I don’t have all that many clear memories of the trip. I do remember thinking it would be cool to arrive in the U.S. in winter with a tan from summertime in the southern hemisphere, and so like a teenager, I tried to work on my tan on the deck of the Cunard ship while we were still in warm weather. I also remember a day off the ship in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. That day is particularly memorable because my mother and I went alone while my dad stayed on the ship with my brother who was having one of his nine-year-old meltdowns.
The morning we arrived in New York I was so excited. We hadn’t seen my older brother John for six years – since the day we left New York for Africa in November 1955. In the meantime, he had grown from an awkward teenager to a college senior, and I was now the awkward teenager. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for my parents to finally see their son again after so long. As I recall, five people came to meet us in New York: my brother John; my maternal grandmother; my uncle Glenn (married to my mother’s sister); Jacob Kuhns, representing the Brethren in Christ Board for Missions; and his daughter Marian who was then a freshman in college home for Christmas. After going through customs and collecting all our luggage, we set out by car for Pennsylvania, stopping once along the way for something to eat.
Although we were headed to my aunt and uncle’s home in Mifflin County for Christmas, we stopped briefly to unload most of our things at the house in Grantham where we would be living. In the evening, as we neared Grantham on Route 15, someone pointed out the lighted steeple of the Grantham Church on the Messiah College campus. I’ve never forgotten my first sighting of the steeple of what has been my home church ever since. The next day, we went shopping for winter coats and boots. In my memory, it either had recently snowed or it snowed that day, so the boots were important.
Before 1961, my Christmas memories range from special holiday parties at boarding school at the end of the term, to missionary get-togethers where the adults and kids exchanged names and gave gifts to each other, to Christmas Day services on the mission stations when people came from the surrounding villages with their containers to receive a gift of salt from the mission. I also remember Christmas 1954 when we were on furlough and living in southern California. My mother’s entire family was together in one place at the same time: my grandmother, the six siblings and their spouses, and the fourteen grandchildren. The only person missing was my grandfather who had passed away in 1950 while we were in Africa. The cousins exchanged gifts. My cousin Art had my name and gave me a toy baking set, complete with miniature Betty Crocker cake mixes. I was enthralled, and believe it or not, I still have a few pieces of the baking set left that my grandchildren play with now!
For Christmas in 1961, it was just my grandmother, my aunt Mary and uncle Glenn and two cousins Andy and Peggy, and our family. It was important not only because our family was together again for the first time in more than six years, but also because it was the boundary between my two lives. The only gift I remember from that Christmas was a crew neck sweater that John gave me. Either by happy coincidence or because my mother and brother conferred beforehand, the sweater perfectly matched the wool plaid pleated skirt my mother had made for me in Africa before we left from fabric one of her sisters had sent her from the U. S. The sweater and skirt together created my most fashionable outfit, which was really important for me as a shy and socially awkward 13-year-old desperately trying to fit in with American culture.
After Christmas, we settled in the missionary home in Grantham, and when school started after the Christmas break, I entered the second half of tenth grade as a 13-year-old (see “Re-Entry” for what that was like). So much of who I am today was formed by the 13 years of my life before December 22, 1961, but so much has happened since too. Today, as I reflect on this 52nd anniversary of my family’s arrival back in the U. S., I am nostalgic about the past but also incredibly grateful for the present, filled with the prospect of another Christmas with my wonderful husband of 42 years, our two children and the beautiful people they chose to marry, our three grandchildren, and new little one due to make her appearance early in the new year.