Excerpt From the Book:
Missionary Kid: Born in India, Bound for America
Playmates, snakes, and elephants
Dorth and I had an ayah (nanny). Her name was Hannah. She was our constant companion, keeping a watchful eye on us throughout the day. She gave us our baths and put us down for our naps. She taught us catchy little songs in Hindi. (My first words were in Hindi.) Hannah made me feel safe. She was like a second mother to us, but she didn’t scold us like our mother often did. She took us for walks, pushing me in my stroller-cart or carrying me on her hip. Sometimes she would take us to her little house off the compound, and we would play with her daughters: Shusheila, the baby, and Helene, who was a little older than Dorth. Helene showed us things she knew how to do to help her mother. She could sweep the floor and build a fire. She even knew how to cook! Hannah would show us how she oiled and braided her daughter’s beautiful long, black hair. Helene took care of her little sister, who was a little younger than me. Sometimes Hannah brought Shusheila to the bungalow, and she and I played with my doll. I wanted to be like my playmates and go barefoot, but whenever I took my shoes and socks off outside, my mother would reprimand me, and sometimes she would spank me. “Don’t ’pank me, Mama!” I would plead. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t enjoy the same freedom from shoes as Helene and Shusheila did! I’m sure my mother did not try to explain to me that hookworm might be lurking in the soil.
Prema was another of my playmates. Her father was our mali (gardener), Jacob. He worked hard, hauling water in tin petrol cans hung on either end of a pole that he balanced on his shoulders. He made trip after trip from the water tank all the way across the yard to the flowerbeds in the front yard. He took great pride in the flowers he cultivated: Yellow and orange marigolds, colorful zinnias of red, purple, yellow, and white, cosmos, and purple asters. Prema and I liked to pick the marigolds, making little bouquets and presenting them to my mother. Sometimes we would hide among the flowers, jumping out to surprise Jacob as he approached with the watering cans. When Jacob took a break, squatting in the shade of the imlee (tamarind) tree, Prema and I would sit with him and watch him smoke a beerie (cigarette). When he smiled, I saw that his teeth were colored red from the pon (betelnut) he chewed.
I noticed that my skin was a different color than that of my playmates’ and ayah’s. I don’t remember asking my parents about it, but I can now imagine the explanation they probably would have given me: “God made people with lots of different colors of skin, Margie dear, and He loves everyone, no matter what color skin they have!” And then we would sing a song together — “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, brown and white, they are precious in His sight; Jesus loves the children of the world!”
One hot, sticky morning, as my sister and I played with our dolls on the verandah, I became aware of a change in Hannah, who was sitting, as she often did, in a squatting position off to the side. She suddenly stiffened, getting our attention by commanding in an urgent whisper, “Stay very still. Don’t move!” Even at two and a half years old, I knew instantly that something was terribly wrong. Hannah had never spoken to us like that before! At the same moment I turned my head to look at Hannah, I saw the snake. It was coming right toward me. My slight movement must have startled it, because it stopped, reared its head, and flattened it out on both sides. It was looking right at me! I froze, just like Hannah had instructed. I felt fear — but also a child’s fascination. What was on this creature’s mind? Where was it going? Just as suddenly as it had stopped, the snake lowered its great head and slithered off in a different direction. I know now it had to have been a cobra. I don’t know if Hannah ever reported this incident to my mother. There is no account of it in her diary. It is one of my earliest and most vivid memories.
Not far from our bungalow, but far enough to travel to by car, was a Hindu temple, where two elephants were kept. One of the elephants was proclaimed to be the largest in all of Central Provinces. On my third birthday, my parents decided it would be fun to take the family to see the elephants and give me a ride on one of them. Another missionary family who lived in a neighboring town was invited to join us on the excursion. They also had two girls, Carolyn and Betty, who were our occasional playmates. We took two cars. As our car approached the temple, Dorth became very excited when she saw the enormous creatures, their trunks swaying back and forth. She wanted a ride, too! Everyone scrambled out of the cars . . . except me. I was terrified of the elephants. I locked the car doors and curled into a ball in the back seat. I covered my eyes and trembled with fear. Finding it was useless to try to persuade me to get out of the car, my parents left me there, unattended, while they watched Dorth and Carolyn triumphantly ride the largest elephant in the province. Despite this vivid, unsettling childhood memory, I overcame my fear of elephants and later on in my life enjoyed collecting elephants of all sizes, colors, and materials.