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.
Many 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 me 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