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Read Part I here.
Arizona and the swimming pool far behind us, ensconced in our plush burgundy interior, we pressed on toward our vague summer destination in D.C. as the American landscape flashed past our windows. Long trips can mean being entertained by small things, such as the trick of the eye where, if you fix your gaze on the telephone poles, your vision will slide up the pole and down the drooping wires in a repetitive, undulating motion.
For most of the trip, however, having few real trials of my own, I buried myself in the challenges of a headstrong character named Dicey who’d had to walk her younger siblings across a large geographical area in search of a home. In the evenings, we’d set up our two-room brown tent and camp for a few dollars a night. One chilly, wet evening we heated up beans at dinner time, my mom commenting on how extra good these things tasted when one was camping. She was right–the warm beans hit the spot as we ate together in the makeshift front room.
Washington, D.C. glowed with green foliage. The Bible college campus where my parents would attend training was green, too, with big, old trees and classic buildings that pleased me as we pulled in and maneuvered through the parking lots. Still with no expectations for a riveting time, I liked it even better when our family was assigned a small suite of rooms that included air conditioners in every room purring out their constant cool breeze. I could live with this, I thought, with air conditioning to lean against in the afternoons, and books to read, and a little make-up to wear.
But the nice thing about having little hope for a storybook summer vacation, besides making disappointment virtually impossible, is that when the unavoidable actually does turn out pleasant, fulfilling–and dare I say even lovely–it’s so much the better. After the drive into the verdant grounds and introduction to our quarters, campus life kept delivering. Soon, we were summoned to dinner, to a dining hall with good food. We started meeting the other prospective missionaries, families with young children and babies to befriend. One little red-headed guy in particular, although he was only eight months old, loved someone to hold him up by his two chubby hands so he could mime a comical, foot-dragging approximation of walking. And often that someone would be me.
Once the classes for the adults started, I found that, in a hidden basement nursery accessed by an elevator ride, childcare for the little ones was provided each morning. Somehow, instead of hanging around by myself for weeks, I was squirreled away in the depths of the building helping to staff the operation. The baby was there, the red-haired one who liked walks. He fussed for his mom and preferred me to comfort him. He would crawl to me and hang around my feet. And there was two-year-old Michaela, perfectly turned out every day in tasteful, hilariously scaled-down outfits, in particular a tiny brand-name jean skirt. While huddled over a plastic teapot with her three-year-old brother, she held conference in halting toddler English. At snack time, I helped put a few goldfish crackers in each little paper cup at the table. Later, after lunch in the dining hall, Michaela and Joshua’s mom paid me–paid me–to sit outside the family’s suite and read a book while the children napped.
My parents were one of the most mature couples there. Among the growing families, there were several newly married young husbands and wives, who to the surprise of us ungainly teenagers, engaged us in conversation. In a wide upstairs common area, they constantly played a game they called “Spades,” and seemed to always be having a fine time at it, besides enjoying each other’s witty observations. They decided that we should learn Spades, too, so they invited us in, scooted out, widened their circle, and taught us the game. Another couple fresh from China who had an interesting backstory was expecting twins, the mother still tiny and slender, but at that stage of her pregnancy feeling so delicate that my mom felt bad for her.
Life on that campus slid into a smooth routine, becoming a small, cool universe of its own: air-conditioned nights in the top bunk; a clanking, delicious din at the dining hall; elevator ride to nursery duty and diminutive toddler fashions; a book to read each afternoon with cold air blowing at my back or while I earned income in the hallway; a baby’s hands clutched tight around my fingers, his fat legs working awkwardly down polished hallways and around trim lawns. Spades in the evenings with the laughing grown-ups. Then back again to the bunk bed, to rest before starting it all again the next day. We began to think it would go on forever, this untroubled daily pattern with its comforts, its amusing small children, and its connections with adults who treated us as equals.
But it was not to be. Our weeks there did come to an end, and we would find ourselves tested by our next chapter, with its boredom and uncertainty punctuated by some of the richest days we’d ever known.