Timeline of Grace

Journey through the Seasons

Category: south africa

An ex-pat’s Thanksgiving

Happiness is….sitting down in a clean house after the carnage of a busy day celebrating. We just finished shifting the furniture back to where it belongs after clearing a space in the conservatory for everyone to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner. Celebrating it overseas is not easy. You really have to work hard to make it happen. It’s a lot of fun sharing it with people, and introducing them to the delights of pumpkin pie and green bean casserole….but at the same time, you are in that mode of “making it happen”

I now think my husband gets it. He didn’t before, but after five years of marriage, he is starting to.

First thanksgiving overseas, 2001. Ireland! I was on a total high just by the very fact that I was living there. Missionaries from Cork graciously invite me to theirs for Thanksgiving but I had not been away from the states long enough to really truly appreciate it. Had a lovely time though.

Second Thanksgiving, 2002. Was fully into the swing of not living in America, and was really not bothered about the day. In some ways I was almost doing the “I don’t need to celebrate Thanksgiving, I live in Europe now”. I had a lot of other things going on in my life and it seemed pretty insignificant.

Third Thanksgiving, 2003,  I’d JUST moved to England, as in, I think i’d arrived the week before. Random people I’d only just met decide we should celebrate thanksgiving. Memories are of  not having a car and slogging back from the supermarket on the Saturday with ready made pie crust and ingredients for a green bean casserole. I also remember it being a huge massive ordeal getting the tinned pumpkin of the internet. Anyway, we did the meal, I hardly knew the people, and to top it off….someone put a steaming pot of mashed potatoes on the coffee table and ruined the French polish. I was totally mortified! Nice way to impress my hosts!

Thanksgiving 2004…not too bothered this year, but my mom was actually visiting, so she cooked up a Thanksgiving meal for Jon and I, and his family which was really sweet. Also, we went to Ex-pat party in Liverpool on the Saturday and ate lots of pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving 2005. This was the year it really hit me. I had just gotten married, and four years of “I’m not homesick in the least” caught up with me. I missed everyone as they had all recently been over for my wedding. Marianne to the rescue with Chinese take-away and everything remotely American she could find flying through Tesco at 7:00 PM. So family was far away but friends were near to cheer.

Thanksgiving 2006. Not so bothered this year as I was 9 months pregnant. However Marianne organized baby shower/thanksgiving party at her’s for me….no pumpkin pie or anything but a lovely thought and a nice night.

Thanksgiving 2007…AMERICA at last!!! Very excited. Jon experiences it for the first time, complete with Black Friday shopping. We go to my Aunt’s house whom I consider an expert at warm fuzzy Thanksgiving tradition. There are tons of people, two tables, mismatched chairs…all that. Somehow I managed to end up with a piece of store bought pumpkin pie, however the whole week was great…lots of Starbucks coffee.

Thanksgiving 2008…South Africa!!! With the help of friends who are totally up for it and raring to go, we have a storming Thanskgiving. We invite loads of people to our small house and the the neighbours totally kick in and help. Everyone brings a traditional recipe that I’ve assigned them,  and we have a massive feast. They all vow to keep the tradition going and can’t get over how much fun it is. Jon finally turns to me and says “ok I get it now….thanks for this!!!” I vow after this to make it special for our family in years to come.

Thanksgiving 2009….back in England…just had Judah, living in Sandbach..not in the best of spirits…I am completely fine with not celebrating this year but committed to celebrating in future. However good friends John and Rebecca have us over on the Saturday and I made some of the traditional recipes and we mark it nonetheless.

So that brings us to this year. Jon actually booked the day off work! Iona is old enough this year to start to really get it and appreciate it. I start planning a menu and making plans and inviting people. I was excited to be doing it on the day itself. However, a week before, our oven element breaks!! We order a new one but are uncertain of when it’s going to arrive! The day before I get all emotional and cry and say how stupid it is to try and be celebrating it..I’m stressed about the oven…etc. The day itself arrives and I have a back up plan sorted out…but then at the last minute the oven part arrives and all is well. We celebrate that evening and it’s all nearly perfect. The only thing missing is overnight guests…will have to work on that for next year. In many ways, this Thanksgiving was a great reflection on this year for us…it’s been a huge year of drama….and more highs and lows than ever..but we now have so much to be thankful to God for. A stronger marriage, a beautiful new home, a sense of finally putting some roots down and being settled, and of course good friends.

I think next year I’d like to find some stray ex pats to include in the celebrating…I love introducing new people to the holiday but it’s also great to share it with people who share the memories and for whom it means something to. I know to some extent I am always going to the one having to “make it happen” over here…it’s just one of the consequences of being overseas. I can either get all sad on the day and bemoan how it’s “not the same” as it is back home, (which it isn’t, no matter how well I do at it, it won’t ever be quite the same) or I can put myself out there and make the effort. It feels a little bit foolish…but, it’s worth it, especially for the kids..and for those who get to experience pumpkin pie for the first time!

Does it matter?

It arrived in the post today. A fresh copy of the newly revised “Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”.  As I stared at the front cover….I felt this excitement well up in me. It’s like I have this giddy zeal inside me that makes me want to share it with the first pregnant mother I see. Yet, with that excitement and zeal, I feel this sense of…sadness really.

When I first decided I wanted to help other mothers breastfeed, I was so excited. I remember running around the hills of Mt. Pleasant, my daily workout while living in South Africa…and my mind always drifted back to the antenatal class the NHS provided on breastfeeding, and the mothers to be who sat in a circle less than enthusiastically. It felt a bit like school really. It was not inspiring, and in no way was it empowering. The midwife did her best but the general response in the group was a resigned “well..i’ll give it a go…but if it doesn’t work out…it’s fine” Breastfeeding was presented and understood as some sort of lofty ideal, that some magically seemed to be able to do, but that the majority struggled with, and that many simply “couldn’t do”. This is not what was said in words but it was how it felt really. So as I did my daily run, my mind would swirl with ideas….what would have made that session more productive? What would have really inspired those mothers? what would have empowered them? What would have opened their eyes to consider this issue as something really worth doing?  I had all sorts of ideas.

I came back to the UK and hit the ground running. I joined the world’s leading and most longstanding breastfeeding support group, and threw myself into digesting information and learning as much as I could about the subject so that if anyone needed help or advice, I would know what i was talking about and actually be able to help them.

But the further I have gotten into it, the more mixed feelings I have. It is simply not straightforward. It is not just enough to enthusiastically encourage someone, provide them with information, support, and whatever they would need. It sort of feels like I am up against a great big wall. I want to help people, but I worry about being pushy, about being judgemental, about being pressurising. I suppose I naively think most woman  want to be helped. I was not prepared to hear while helping out at a breastfeeding cafe “If i had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do it” or for this general feeling that the breastfeeding experience is a hard slog that we have to get through  and when we’ve “done our bit”  we can breathe a huge sigh of relief and get on with our lives. I also did not expect to hear such inaccurate information at times with regards to the subject, often given by health professionals.  I knew that I fell somewhere on the attachment parenting spectrum when it came to my parenting but I didn’t expect to get labelled as “extreme”. As much as the issue was important to me, I didn’t realize how quickly it would define me as a person in other people’s eyes.

It sort of dawned on me recently…that a lot of women, simply do not want to be helped. They know in their own minds what they want to do, and they simply do it and get on with it. If they have a question…they’ll ask their health visitor…so just stay away..you’re being pressurizing, interfering…extreme…even if all you have done is say “how are you getting on with it?”  Even quietly modelling it around other mothers can be interpreted wrong….

It’s been a hard lesson, but it’s made me take a step back and realize that all I can do is simply be there for those who want help. It’s hard. It’s always hard when you hear misinformation being given or certain perceptions expressed on the subject.  Yet,  we do live in the Western world…and this is just how it is here. It almost makes me want to give up on the whole thing and just forget that it was even an issue that was important to me. “it’s not worth it” I tell myself…surely there are other things that are more important in life…..other causes I should get stuck in to.

But when I opened my parcel and pulled out the crisp new edition….and saw that beautiful picture on the front, tears welled up in my eyes. My heart tells me, it IS important…it IS what I should be doing….it does actually matter.

South Africa….one year on.

So it’s been about a year now. Last year at this time we were in Cape Town, basking in the sun, devouring gorgeous smoothies from Kuaui, and seeing all the sights. We knew our time in South Africa was nearing it’s end, but it had become such a part of our everyday lives by this time, it felt like our reality. England seemed so far away.

So we said our goodbye’s. Those goodbye’s you don’t really think are real because you can’t imagine not continuing to be  in constant contact with those you’ve gotten to know so well. However, as we took our seats on the plane, our South African  reality quickly started to fade into fuzzy memories. By the time the cold air of the UK whipped across our faces, it all started to feel like it had been a dream, and after a few weeks of settling in, we realized, we truly had passed through the wardrobe, out of our alternative reality, and back into our home.

This last weekend I was watching Avatar with my husband. A few minutes into the amazing cinematic experience and I thought of Phumeza and Noluthando. They once told me they had never actually been to the cinema. All at once I wanted them to be there with me. I wanted them to experience this beautiful movie. Not that getting to go to the cinema is really what’s going to make the difference in their lives, but i would have loved for them to have that experience.

The other morning I cut up a mango for my breakfast. I remember Sisanda hovering around me in the kitchen whenever I was cooking. I remember her taking the peelings from the mango and eating the scraps out of them. She would eat anything I made….no matter what it was. It was more food than she had ever seen before. We have her picture on our fridge, and I never look at it without feeling a little bittersweet. Especially when it came time for 3rd birthday and she suddenly started talking about Sisanda again and wanting her to be at her party. I wanted her there as well.

I spent most of this last year pregnant with my son Judah. I found out i was pregnant just a few days before leaving South Africa. My next door neighbour Annie was the first person I told, and the night before we left, she and Nicole stayed up making me a special toy for a baby they would never know…at least not in his “baby” stage.  So many times this year I wanted to run next door to thier houses, drink tea, and share this new life with those precious neighbours. I remember Phumeza telling me over a feast of KFC, that it was most definitly going to be a boy and I remember speaking to her in a rare phone conversation after my 20 week scan, and being able to tell her that it definitly was.

When you only spend 12 months somewhere, you barely scratch the surface. I talk about the wonderful friends I made but the reality was that although we had shared some pretty intesne experiences together, I had only started to experience the potential of those relationships. People ask me if I keep in touch. I’d love to say that we write to each other weekly pouring out the details of each others lives and remaining as close as ever. In truth, it’s more like the odd text message here and there, a few emails through third parties, and one phone call that I got out of the blue one day from Phumeza as I was pulling out of my in-laws estate. I pulled over to take the call and ended up getting in trouble with a very irritated driver who told me i was parked “most awkwardly” little did he know I was on the phone with a 22 year old HIV mother in South Africa.

I managed to write Noluthando’s story in full and I am hoping for an appropriate place to share it someday. It was a great encouragement to hear how she has moved on and really made a success of her life. I was worried for her when we left, afraid she would sink back into the darkness of township life…fufilling negative steriotypes…what little faith I have at times. She is doing brilliantly now looking after children who’s mothers have to work, mainly picking rubbish in the local tip. She has even managed to get the backing of an overseas charity and is now overseen and supported by them. A miracle really. I miss her. I want to visit her house…the first house in Walmer township I was invited into. I want to listen to her tell me all the local gossip and laugh.

But here I am…a year later. So very far away. Iona’s blonde highlights have darkened and In some ways the events of that year almost seem a bit sureal now. When I tell their stories in passing I feel like I must be exaderating, but…I’m actually not. That year did happen…..and I hope to keep it alive in my thoughts and writings so that it does not just fade to fuzzy memories. There are stories I still need to tell and there are lives that I intend to keep up with and give updates on.

We feel a little sad as the media turns to South Africa to showcase the world cup. We wish we were there….not to see the matches, but to take part in moaning with the neighbours about the rediculous things the government is implementing in order to prepare itself.

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