Holiday Grace

by Marilyn on July 3, 2013

Tomorrow is the 4th of July – Independence Day in the United States and a national holiday. It’s a day that causes laughter and cross national joking in expatriate communities where those from Britain and the United States work and play side by side; where nation building dissolves and friendships build strong.

I grew up knowing Holiday Grace. Grace that seemed shaken together, running over, doled out in extra measure during holidays celebrated far away from family and passport country.

Because holidays were times when my parents, native to Massachusetts where picture book houses and white picket fences abound, would feel the tug of  home and family. Home and family would grab the heart and squeeze with a vice-like grip of unbelonging and a loud ‘What am I doing here, six thousand miles from all that is familiar?”

Holidays were the times when it was too easy to use the words “God forsaken” knowing that God does not forsake. Holidays were the times when it was easy to feel ‘foreign’. 

There was the time when my mom felt desperately lonely in a small city with no other English speakers, no other expatriates. The large house we lived in was surrounded on four sides by mosques, the Call to Prayer loud in the morning hours and lonely in the evening. It was Christmas time and her heart throbbed with a longing for Christmas at home in New England. Her mind was far away with real Christmas trees, snowy evenings, and family – but her body was in a small town in Pakistan. Holiday Grace came when missionaries from a town two hours away made the long trek on a dusty, partially unpaved road to surprise our family on Christmas eve.  She had gone up to the flat roof and was looking over the city, tears of longing and pity welling in her eyes, when she heard the ever familiar sounds of “Joy to the World.” She thought it was angels heard from the rooftops. And in many ways she was correct. These friends brought Holiday Grace to a young woman’s aching heart as they sat and drank hot cocoa and laughed together until late in the evening.

There was the time when we had no sugar, no flour, and little butter at Christmas. But somehow Holiday Grace abounded and our kitchen was full of spicy goodness. There were Thanksgiving meals at an international boarding school, where those who were not from the United States celebrated hard and graciously. And there were the Eid celebrations when we were invited to join the feasts of our Muslim friends, experiencing the Holiday Grace of acceptance from our adopted country.

Each holiday seemed to be met with this extra grace, Holiday Grace.

I went on to raise a family overseas and began experiencing Holiday Grace as an adult. But it was in our fourth year living in Cairo, Egypt that Holiday Grace came in a way I could never have imagined, much less orchestrated.

It was text-book unmerited favor surrounding me.

It was the 4th of July, Independence Day for the United States, and six months prior I had given birth to our fourth child. The summer was well upon us, the heat broken by trips to the swimming pool at the International School. My husband was in full-time Arabic language study and many of our friends had left for either their passport countries or holiday spots in Egypt. With four kids I was quickly running out of ideas for fun. I was in survival mode.

Added to this, my maternal grandmother had died a couple of weeks before. I felt the absence of family acutely. I  heard about the funeral through letters, but missed family so much that it throbbed.

Then came the holiday – the 4th of July.

4th of july 2Many of us who have lived overseas know that embassies celebrate their holidays well, no matter what country. The parties put on by U.S. Embassies were legendary. Free food, entertainment, swimming, games, face-painting, and raffles from large companies that donated prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders were all there in abundance.

For a time my sadness was in a welcome reprieve.

Accompanying our family were some students  my husband had befriended from the U.S. They were facing inevitable culture shock and when he told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” several of them jumped at the chance to come. They were ready to head back to “real Cairo” where fuul beans, busy streets and the charm of the Middle East flourished,  when they asked my husband if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he said yes and so we had in our possession six tickets to holiday prizes instead of two.

And the raffle started. In what could only be Holiday Grace – I won. Not one prize, but two. The first was a breakfast for two at a large 5-star hotel in the city.

The second? A round trip ticket to anywhere in the United States that I cared to go. Anywhere. That meant a trip to see Family!

I can still remember walking up to the staged area to get my ticket, the feeling of  God’s arms enveloping me like the warmth of the Cairo summer. The missed funeral, the absence of close relatives to celebrate our growing family unit, the lonely ache for people who shared our family history – all that had crushed during the weeks before faded into Grace.

This was my Holiday Grace. And I would never forget it.

What is your experience with holidays? What extra measure of Grace have you felt during holidays overseas?

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    You’ve got to stop making me cry, Marilyn. Recalling now the death of my grandfather, the funeral I watched a few months later on a DVD, my grandpa and myself the only family absent. And then the death of my grandmother last summer, just days before we left to come back and I was able to be there the night before she died and for the funeral. Holiday Grace. Oh, and I love that you won those prizes.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Oh – I remember watching a video of my youngest brother’s wedding and sobbing like my heart would break. We make these decisions the best we can given distance and finances but there are some decisions that I still regret. When the conversation comes around to why God seems closer overseas, it’s because of all of this – because I can’t go to the wedding or the funeral, and it hurts in a way that I know no human around me has the capacity to comfort. It sends me running to God knowing that somehow the tears mean something to Him. And those prizes??? Oh my gosh – it was my favorite Airline – Swiss. That made it the icing on the proverbial cake.

  • Liz K

    oh my word…I was in tears over this because I so understand! This Easter I was the lowest I’ve been since we moved here. That was the week God worked out through amazing supporters to bring my parents down for 18 days! Holiday Grace, for almost a whole month!!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Such a great story of Grace! I remember those lows….they are hard to describe aren’t they?

  • I love this post Marilyn! Thank you for sharing such heartfelt moments from your real life. Here in Bolivia they have fireworks almost every night for some reason or another. The night we have the “real” fireworks is for San Juan (Saint John must have been a fiery preacher), which just passed. Recently on the radio there have been congratulations going out to all Cochabambinos for their restraint during this religious celebration. You see, our city, Cochabamba, is settled in a basin surrounded by mountains. They publish contamination warnings if the pollution is at a dangerous level. So for weeks before San Juan they tell people to NOT use fireworks and NOT have the traditional “fogatas” (bonfires). I used to consider San Juan my 4th of July. But now that we are being such a responsible population I consider the tiny amount of nightly fireworks as my own, tiny, personal Holiday Grace reminder of the U.S.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      My first thought when I read this was how much responsibility sucks:) because of its interference with celebration But I love this story of your own personal holiday grace. Thanks Angie.

  • Tim

    This is interesting. I never thought about whether my folks missed US holidays. We celebrated birthdays and Christmas and Easter, but I don’t remember celebrating Thanksgiving or July 4 more than a couple of times as a family when we were overseas.

    Our little MK school in the city celebrated US holidays , so I knew about Thanksgiving and Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays and Pearl Harbor Day and so on. Our first year in Medellín (probably 1967) the Consul threw a huge party, and we won a basket of fruit in the raffle. There was also a big American Christmas party that year. I don’t remember going after that; either the celebrations stopped or my parents decided not to go.

    I don’t remember celebrating Thanksgiving as a family more than once or twice, but we might have (although turkeys are expensive in Colombia). In high school that was our week of fall break (my brother and I boarded at Lomalinda, the Wycliffe base in eastern Colombia) so we spent the week shopping, going to movies, swimming, and other touristy stuff with whomever we had dragged to the city with us.

    Probably the closest I have to a holiday grace story is from the year I was in Honduras working with refugees. My birthday came around with no one to celebrate it with; my roommate and my new girlfriend were in the capital working on the agency budget. But that day’s MAF flight brought me a crumb cake and a carton of orange juice, which I had been craving, sent by my girlfriend. It made for a nice birthday after all.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      My guess is that it was the best tasting orange juice you ever had. My experience was quite different then yours in that we never celebrated or knew about pearl harbor day or any of those historical days but thanksgiving and the 4th were a part of our lives. In fact to this day my US history is pitiful!

  • This was perfect. You speak so truly to the realities of missing holidays– such a hard practical, longing that creeps in when we long for sparklers and hotdogs on the grill and the national anthem and . . . friends and family that get us. Thanks for beautifully speaking to something that I KNOW so many are tasting today.

    Love, love, love your voice in this space!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Laura- thank you for these lovely words. I’ve been contemplating the themes of Jesus the expat or Jesus the TCK recently and your comment fit right in with that. The joy and sighs of our Lord as he celebrated holidays and weddings on earth even as He knew he was from another world. Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage indeed!

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  • Renee Johnson

    This was a bit of a different situation but surely Holiday Grace! I was 19 and an Army Medic, and found myself in the desert on Thanksgiving of 1990. I was still in shock at being sent to war and was not looking forward to eating another MRE, especially for a Holiday meal. In the late afternoon a group of Bedouins came by our camp. We could only communicate with a few simple words and gestures but they were very friendly. They build a fire and killed and cooked a lamb, and served us a feast of meat, dried fruit, and vegetables. This was the first and not last time I felt God’s love and protection while in Desert Storm!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love this story Renee – and I bet lamb never tasted so good! I’ve had it cooked over an open fire like that and it defies description! Thanks for sharing your holiday grace.

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  • alphabetjo

    A couple of Christmases ago we were discussing favourite chrismas memories at the table. Both my parents said our first christmas in badin whère after church the only other missionaries in the area spontaneously invited us to their home for lunch. We had a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches and played games. Not the most “normal” christmas but their invite saved my parents flagging spirits and helped us kids stop missing our grandparents .

    My favourite holiday grace moment happened ten years before I was born. My aunt, on finding out her new uni room mate Annie was an orphan who had to pay to sleep on the childrens home floor, invited her back to the vicarage for the holidays . Her brother Richard took a liking to Annie and the rest was history, they married and had three kids. Im kid 2!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I Love this! Thank you for sharing! And yes – that’s quite the holiday grace.

  • Claire

    I remember my first Thanksgiving on the mission field (I was serving on a mission ship which was in Singapore at the time). Somehow, not only were we NOT celebrating Thanksgiving, but our kitchen ran out of food before I got there! I had a tearful moment as I felt sorry for myself & felt incredibly homesick, then I went off to find myself some food. When I got back there was a phone message for me that read “Your mom called, she said Happy Thanksgiving and that she loves you.” Such a simple thing – but it reminded me that even from a distance I was still loved and certainly not forgotten – and that my family back home was also experiencing their first Thanksgiving without me! Put things into perspective for sure 🙂

    • Marilyn Gardner

      yes! That’s exactly how I felt when sugar, butter, and flour were rationed. And it’s true, we can never underestimate the power of a phone call or letter at just the right time!

  • Christmas was the worst time of the year for me. I longed for home, family, snow…or even a little cold!!! 3-4 years ago my oldest son started to make paper snowflakes “for mommy to have some snow on Christmas”!! He was so sweet. That was the first Christmas I really enjoyed on the mission field and making paper snowflakes has become a family tradition for us. Thanks for this post Marilyn =)

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love this – and sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve noticed the same with my kids — their sensitvity to our sense of belonging coupled with their own. Hmm – now there’s a blog post! Thanks so much for reading!

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