My Mother, the Missionary

It’s mid-morning in Maryland, and the day is clouded and dull. The air hovers thickly: heavy and rain-scented and electric, evidencing the stormy weather we’ve been subject to all week. We lounge in the family room, my mother and I. The ruby shadows of a red lampshade encompass us; without sunlight filtering in through the bay windows or the stained glass, artificial lighting is necessary even in the morning. The happy jumble of noise from the kitchen suggests that the rest of the family has communed there, while the dog’s tail thumps exuberantly from her place on the carpet. All about lies the evidence of a home lived in: books, shoes, DVDs, and guitars are strewn around, encircling us two. My mom leafs through a stack of old film photos, their edges rounded. Some are shaped into circles, some as squares, as though they had once been featured in an album or book. Whatever their original status, they have now made their way out from a grubby plastic ziplock. Yet, my mother touches them tenderly. Her eyes glimmer as she thumbs through the stack, well-worn images flashing through her fingers, triggering long gone memories. She carefully searches the faces, pausing to smile or sigh. The year was 1988, and the photos don’t lie. My mom, twiggy and permed, dressed in oversized T’s and shorts. My mom holding crocodiles, leaning out of a grass hut, so different from the manicured woman who sits beside me now. She picks out three photos for me to see, but we end up talking about just the one.

It’s a darkened room she stands in, but my mom assures me it was early morning. Another morning, twenty-three years ago. A different hemisphere. A time worlds away. “It was called Irian Jaya then,” she tells me. Papau: An island peopled by the primitive. “The Dani tribeswomen used to come to us, the missionary hospital, to give birth and then go home.” She tells me of these village women, their nakedness and strange strength so unlike any other women she’d seen before. The photos depict them grinning, hugging the missionaries close, kneading out their sago paste. One of these women had traveled from her village to the hospital to birth her child in the cool hours of the night. I ask my mom if the woman brought anyone with her, for support or comfort. “No, they don’t have girlfriends,” she laughs. Without her husband there beside her, in the midst of these white-demon strangers, the Dani tribeswoman birthed her child in the dark hours of a new day. It was the first birth my mother had witnessed. The photo depicts a room crowded by a bed and a few medical supplies, my mother cradling the wide-eyed baby, swaddled in a white blanket, a shock of black hair crowning his head. She stares down at the infant, her expression tender, comfortable. Perhaps she thinks of one day cradling her own child in her arms. Perhaps she will treasure this memory as she carries me, her firstborn, a few years later. The tribal woman would give the child a title of her own, one that would fit his place in the village. But to my mother the tiny newborn would forever be Benjamin.

My parents married when they were in their mid-twenties, fresh out of Bible College and anticipating missionary life. Together they ministered to the poor immigrants in the slums of Chicago. That summer in Irian Jaya had been a precipice for my mom, a hill from which she could see her life spreading out before her. Now, two years later, she and my dad began to understand that God laughs at the plans of men. I was the product of their first year of marriage, and my sister arrived soon after. Unforeseen joy entered their home as their many plans ebbed away. We left our tiny yellow house in Wheaton, Illinois for a new home in Arizona. There, beneath the expansive desert sky, my brother was born. Their missionary dreams slowly faded. This previous life, this ministry life, was foreign and forgotten, abstract and distant to me. The stories that defined their former endeavors were no more than amusing legends of my parents’ youth. I never realized that the pictures portrayed something real, that the images reveal a part of their person I never knew.

I stop short at this concept and pause to inspect it. My mother was a missionary. There is a part of her that I do not know, kept safely in the confines of a plastic bag. I think of my goals and aspirations, and the impending arrival of parenthood. What part of me will I lose when I become a mother?

I step out of my reverie as my mom stares deep into the photograph and grows silent, holding it cupped in her hands. I ask her what the picture means, why she chose it. She thinks a moment, studying the image, and explains the feelings of awe and amazement at seeing new life ushered into that dark room. She remembers the quietness of the Dani woman, the crude scale made from what looks like fishing nets. “I wasn’t there to perform medical procedures.” It was an opportunity, unexpected. A special memory. My mom is quiet as she remembers, and then laughs as she speaks of my Dad’s incredulity at discovering that his squeamish fiancé was present for this birth and other procedures. Unexpected indeed.

She smiles, and I ask her if the photograph brings back fond memories. “Oh yeah,” she replies. “It’s a very special memory.” That summer was filled with new experiences, but she places this one as a specific highlight of the trip. She describes the mission trip as being “like National Geographic, but in person.” And assuredly, the photos she took of Papau seem magazine-worthy. Swarthy and wild men standing beside their dugout canoes, grass huts, a dark man peering in through an open window hole, a great grin on his face, bones puncturing his nose and lip. These photos are the foundation of the many stories of my mother’s summer in Papau: the fruit bats startling thumps in the night, the shock of discovering that the friendly natives were cannibals only twenty years before, the wild pig that ran through the camp and interrupted the Jesus film. They were the anecdotes passed down to us children, the stories of this previous life. Mythological; we could not understand that our parents had been people before we arrived.

I peer over my mom’s shoulder; she looks at the photo in her hand. “It was a life changing summer,” she tells me. Because of the novel experiences, the things she witnessed. I look at my mother now, three children later, a woman who went to school and prepared for years to be a missionary to far off places. A woman who instead raised a family in Phoenix, stayed home with her children, who never did return to the darkness of Papau’s jungles. And I picture her thinking back to the life worthy of National Geographic as she nursed babies and raised children. Did she miss it? Did she pine for the wild intoxication of “unexpected opportunities?” I wonder if she ever wished to be back on that precipice, immersed in strange and foreign cultures, dizzied with love, anticipating a life of this. Does she wish to have raised us up in the midst of the natives? To have birthed us in the dark rooms of a missionary hospital? To have been the necessary woman, the healing woman, the white-demon missionary woman? To be the woman she intended to be? The woman I never knew.

And then I think of the many photo albums of my childhood, the photographs lining the halls, the frames that inhabited each nook and shelf with our images: my sister and I as toddlers, our choir photos, school pictures, family portraits. The piano serves as tribute to the musicians who once lived here. Our art graces the walls. Above the couch we sit on now hangs an ornate frame, holding our most recent family photograph, and in our hands are the faded memories of Papau, unearthed from their forlorn storage.

I don’t wonder anymore.

There stood for many years a model canoe houseboat on our bookshelf at home. My sister and I imagined the type of men who would operate the boat, we pictured the women in their huts making sago paste, the little tribal children singing praise songs in the missionary choir. Images furnished by the videos of Papau village life we watched. But before this day I had never heard of Benjamin. I didn’t know that my mother witnessed his birth, held him, asked for a photograph of the moment. And where was he now? Living in some primitive village, eating sago, spearing fish from his dugout canoe? Perhaps his own mother told him stories of his birth: the dark room, the woven scale, and the white-demon woman who held him close. He is twenty-three years old now, a year younger than my mother when she witnessed his arrival, two years older than I am now. He exists worlds away from us as we tell his story, worlds away from the photograph of his birth.

The light begins to grow dimmer as we converse on the couch. Raindrops trace trails down the windows and we pause to add some extra lighting. I ask my mom if she has changed much since that summer in Irian Jaya. She notes that she’s had three children of her own in the past twenty-three years. She’s moved to three different states, changed churches and theology, grown to understand their faith as the reformed men of old had taught. She schooled us, mentored us; she was our chauffeur and our coach. My mother mothered many. My parents never became missionaries. Life was not what they had expected. Is it ever?

My mom was twenty-six years old when she became a mother. She received her college diploma over a protruding pregnant belly. She and my dad decided against finding out the gender of the baby before the birth. A surprise. They waited those nine months impatiently, somehow sure of a son. They brought boy’s clothes to the hospital. There, beneath the bright lights my mother gave birth. Surrounded by shining white surfaces I was born. They named me Sarah, “princess”. But had I been the boy they were expecting, my name would have been Benjamin.

Our conversation dwindles, and we look through the pictures, lost in thought. Soon enough it is not just the two of us looking over the memories anymore. My brother and my husband are intrigued, and can’t help but make their way into the living room. They kneel before the coffee table, heads knocking together above scenes of Irian Jaya. I can’t help but grin as my husband leans in closer, brother to my own brother; my mom glowing happily as the stories begin to emerge. The wild pig interrupts again the Jesus film, and lo and behold, the tribesmen were cannibals not so long ago. A dark and naked man grins through an open window, his neck entwined with a necklace of bones, the sago is mashed and pulsed in rhythm, the little children stomp about and sing. Papau as I knew it. And here we are, telling stories of this former life from the recesses of the living room. God knows we love this life. I catch my husband’s eye and smile, glad for this moment, for this epiphany. Glad for him to see my mother as the person she used to be. Who will we become?

My mother was a missionary. She never returned to the jungles of Irian Jaya, never saved those souls. The memories were bagged away in a battered ziplock. My mother had three children and taught them at home. My mother raised us far from tribal villages; she birthed us in bright rooms. She surrendered her expectations, forgot the woman she intended to be. She became something better. My mother was a missionary to us, her children; she forged a way into our heathen night and brought with her a great light. She entered the heart of darkness and saved the souls of young savages. She shaped our minds, our lives; poured out herself unto us and became foot-washer to her little natives.

My mother, the missionary.