On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile.

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.

In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

Dr. Michelle Harwell

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?

As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

Dr. Michelle Harwell

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self:

Let them grieve the walls that have moved! Those walls are so much more than just safety from the elements. The walls and roofs are places that provide comfort and safety when the outside world feels too much. Let them grieve the memories and people who have wandered into that space. It will never be the same, and they need room to grieve this – whether they understand it or not. Let them grieve the stuff left behind.

Let them find their sacred spaces and their sacred objects, for sometimes it’s all they feel they have. Give them time to reclaim what was lost, for reclaiming is an Edenic quality.

Let them grieve, and then walk with them as they move on. Encourage their tentative forays into new relationships and hobbies. Remind them that they can love two places without being disloyal. Listen to their faith questions and encourage them to seek truth. Help them to understand saudade and how to “kill the saudade.”

Learn the language of transition and use it in your family. Even if others don’t understand, your family can grow in their connection and understanding of each other through a language of transition. Find transferable rhythms, rhythms that are more than place. Reading and tea times, portable traditions, and regular times of remembering are transferable across geographic boundaries.

Build in them a sense of resilience by connecting them to the bigger family story, the bigger spiritual story. The research on resilience being integrally connected to knowing they are part of a bigger story is critically important in this conversation.

Let them know that God is a God of place, creator of space. That through His story is a thread of remembrance and redemption; woven in his word is a story of home and belonging. Give them glimpses of the eternal as they struggle with the fleeting.

And know that it will be okay.

How do I know? Because I now have the privilege of friendships with five adult children spread across four time zones, three states, and two countries. I have listened in wonder as they each articulate their own stories. As we have talked through some of this with them I have marveled at their grace and forgiveness toward two parents who didn’t know, two parents who loved deeply but didn’t have the tools of transition and navigating the third space and defining home. Two parents who continue to find rhythms of transition and figure out this mobile life where place matters.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

Danau Tanu author of Growing up in Transit
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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture. https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/

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