THE ROOTLESSNESS OF THE MISSIONARY FAMILY was felt most by its children when the time came to return home on furlough.
For American Baptist missionaries in India it came regularly at the end of seven-year terms. Dad and Mother’s first term extended from 1923 to 1930. The second was 1931 to 1938, and their final term in India would be from 1939 to 1946. We children always felt we were temporary, really belonging to some other place, although India was, in fact, where we had lived for most of our lives. We weren’t Indians, though some of us were born there, or British/Europeans, despite being classified in India as such, or even a permanent part of the local Christian community. We were definitely Americans, but of a different kind.
Introspection about personal identity, however, wasn’t a problem for me at this early age. Lack of local roots and a life on the move between the plains and the hills in India was simply a fact of life. And world travel was a part of growing up. The long voyages, the dockside and shipboard routine, the foreign ports of call and the ocean, itself, were just the kind of experiences one had. So I didn’t really understand envious comments from our American relatives and friends, in part because they, themselves, had an enviable life in America! But during adolescence and later, when I wanted to merge with my peers and all of this foreign experience seemed to be a hindrance, I kept quiet about it unless directly asked.
Our final destination was Coraopolis, a town on the south bank of the Ohio River ten miles downstream from Pittsburgh, and Grandma and Aunt Jean’s house at 1051 Vance Avenue. Coraopolis Junior High School, just two blocks from the house, was my school. The Coraopolis Baptist Church was our family church and the boys my age who lived on our block became my companions.
Living in Coraopolis made tangible the rather vague idea of America which I had formed over the years in India. Not all of it was wonderful. Household chores came as a rude surprise. Aunt Jean, in a rare critical comment, told Mother that the children had been spoiled in India by servants. She particularly had in mind an episode when Frances and I threw our apple cores behind the couch, to be picked up from there by somebody else. My duties included mowing the lawn with a creaky push mower, scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, helping Grandma empty the washing machine by dumping the smelly soapy water by the bucket full into a sump hole in the middle of the basement floor and shoveling black messy coal in the basement from the coal bin into the furnace. Somehow that wasn’t as exciting as stoking a Bengal Nagpur Railway engine! These chores don’t look like much but they seemed very burdensome at the time. Perhaps Aunt Jean was right. But the worst chore of all was spring cleaning when we faced the task of erasing grime from the walls. It was done by rolling a rubbery ball of cleaner by hand over the wallpaper, one narrow strip at a time, with the ball getting ever blacker, until the job was done.
The inner dynamics of our family began to change. John was mostly absent. He disappeared by Greyhound bus into the interior of Pennsylvania, where Bucknell University welcomed him as a member of the freshman class. That left Frances alone with me, the brother who had honed teasing into an art. Mother’s advice was the answer to her prayers. “Just ignore him,” she told Frances, “He does it to get a rise out of you.” The simple act one afternoon of going to the bedroom, closing the door and not responding in any way to my pleas and threats, set in motion a new kind of relationship, one that eventually evolved into respect and appreciation. Mother must have marveled privately at how wonderfully the advice worked. Frances remembers that event as the turning point for the better in my dealings with her, although they were still a long way from perfect!