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May 2018

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The Island Dress

She chased after us, waving her arms and yelling out. We didn’t see the aging woman, and kept on driving. Minutes later the phone rang, and in a run of desperate Bislama, The woman, whose name I didn’t even know other than ‘Jennifer’s mom’ told us we had to turn around and come and talk to her. In Vanuatu, we had long ago learned that there is no better time for people than right now. Eric obediently turned the truck around and drive back to the place in the road that led to the older woman’s house. Smiles wrinkled their faces and with trembling hands her and her daughter presented Eric and I with a hand woven mat and a brightly coloured island dress. I held it close to my heart as kissed them both.

‘Thank you, thank you’ she whispered into my ear.

We were both crying as I pulled the neatly folded dress to my face and breathed in the smell of the fabric. I knew this was the last time I would see her in a very long time. 

More hugs and kisses and we all waved goodbye for the last time. The first part of our adventure had come to a close, and in just a few hours we would be leaving this island home that we had grown to love so much.

When I got home, I carefully hung the island dress up and added it to the collection of dresses that had  been ever expanding since our arrival over 13 months ago.

I remembered when we had first arrived in Vanuatu, how strange everything had looked. New smells, new colours, new foods and new fashions. Amongst those was the puffy sleeved, brightly coloured island dress. It seems there was only one dress pattern on the entire island and it was the island dress. Worn by little girls and grandmas alike, the island dress was by far the most popular item to own in ones closet.

photo credit: cecile-au-vanuatu.over-blog.com

The strangely fashioned article never really grew on me, and in the beginning, I didn’t understand the significance of the garment or the proud way the woman wore it.

But now here I was with my eighth island dress and I was finally beginning to see.

I remembered when I was given my first island dress by the mom of a boy that my kids had adopted into our home on dozens of occasions. He struggled with the pain of loss and addiction, and we had tried our best to wrap our love around him give him a place in our hearts. His mom, grateful for a family that loved her son,  had lovingly made Eric and I matching island clothes for Christmas. With the traditional colors of their village- bright green and yellow, the dress was by far the most elaborate island dress that I had seen so far, with lace and frills on everything. I went into my bedroom and pulled the dress over my head, inspecting my reflection. I look oddly decorated and frumpy, but knowing how well I would fit in, and how happy it made other woman to see me dressed up, I wore it anyways.

Wearing the first island dress I had ever been given

When I came out of the bedroom, the young man took one look at me and said “Rebecca, can I tell you something? Right now you look so beautiful.’  Suddenly the strange image I was holding of myself in this dress melted away, and in it’s place was a warm feeling of love, a reflection of myself that was much more becoming than the one I normally think of myself with.

The second dress I owned came from one of the mammas of a tiny village far on the North end of the island. We had visited the village of Taka on a camping trip and fell in love with all the kids that spent long days and late nights at the beach or around the campfire with us. The grandmother of the village had told me that we were the first people to play with their kids that were not members of their own family. When the time came for us to finally leave, the mammas of the village had piled shell necklaces onto our heads and filled our truck with fresh fruits and woven mats. The village was so far away that we hadn’t visited it again for months, but when we did stop by unexpectedly, one of the mommas quickly sent her daughter to fetch a bag that was all wrapped up. She handed it to me through the truck window as we were leaving, and told me that she had been saving it for me. It was a lovely brightly colored tie dyed island dress. 

Wearing my tie dyed island dress with Zaby

The third was given to me by a barely there, wisp of a grandma, who we had met in Teaoma, a small village nearly 40 minutes away. We knew her grandchildren quite well and one time had dropped off some food for their family. She never knew if  or when we would come back. But when we did two months later, she ran out, and cried as she hugged me tightly and gave me a lovely red island dress that she had been saving for me.

Hugging the beautiful grandma who waited for 2 months to give me this dress she had made

 The fourth, fifth and sixth dresses were given to the little girls by a girl in church who whose grandma sewed island dresses and who had fallen in love with my curly haired, white faced little girls. 

The seventh dress was given to us by the wife of one of our workers, after we visited their home late one Sunday night. And the now the last island dress, was being given to us by Jennifer and her mom.

Jennifer’s life has been hard. And as her husband tried to earn money working as a migrant worker in Australia, she coped with a brand new baby, as well as two other kids and all of this in a 10ftx10ft one room house.

Jennifers baby- Annalise Talia

I never found out why her 70 year old mom lived alone, but I did know that she sold pineapples and sweet coconut bread on the side of the road to earn money. Skinny dogs by the dozens chased skinny chickens in her yard and she wondered why the eggs weren’t as abundant as last year. But however she managed, she always did it with a big smile and a warm hug.

Jennifer’s moms chickens 🙂
Jennifers two older daughters- Louise & Kasin
Annalise Talia

We would sing to Jennifer and her mom on warm Sunday afternoons. We would also fight over her beautiful baby girl, and my kids would beg me to adopt her after every visit.

Every time we left after a visit, Jennifers mom would fill up our arms with stalks of sugar cane, island pumpkins or flowers from her garden. We gave her a flashlight and umbrella once, and she wept as though we had given her the world.

Tom’s mothers and sisters

Today, as I hung up the 8th island dress, I cried. I cried because I finally realized what made those unfashionable dresses so special, and it wasn’t the pattern of their fabrics or the lace trimming. Every dress I had been given was a symbol of 💕 love. In the kindest, most humble of ways, the woman in the island gave dresses and mats as a way of saying ‘I love you’, ‘thank you’, or ‘you are special’. And now with my very own collection of island dresses I was proud every time I wore one, knowing that it was a symbol of love from women who had become friends.

This Mothers Day I will remember the strong and beautiful woman that I have loved so much. 

 

Numbers 6:24-26

24 The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:

25The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:

26 The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

Leaving Paradise and Heading Home…

My freezing cold body sunk down into the hot water, and I sighed out all the stress of sleepless nights and long days of travel that come with flying and driving with babies.  I was now taking the first hot bath I had had in over 1 year! It felt magnificent, and after I soaked, I dried off in a fluffy white towel, as I stood on a lovely bath mat, made of woven organic cotton and dyed various colors of blue. I couldn’t believe how clean, and white and beautiful everything was. 

It was 1:52am but the entire family was still wide awake. We were wandering around in a daze looking at and touching things like we had never seen them before. None of us could sleep. I had already tried tucking myself between the crispy white sheets spread tightly across my master bedroom bed, but nothing was working. I felt out of place, in this spacious, lovely decorated, house that looked like it had come straight out of a magazine.

White walls, curtains over the windows, carpets, lamps, sparkling chandeliers, paintings, soap, a dishwasher, a fridge…I couldn’t believe they even made fridges that big! It was all so pretty, and so big, and so surprisingly unfamiliar.

We had left Vanuatu nearly 36 hours ago, and we had just arrived for our first night home in Canada. I tried so many times to fall asleep, but the silence all around me felt like a great big black blanket, that I wished I could throw off me. The familiar sights and sounds of our home in Vanuatu had kept me company for the last 13 months, and now I was missing them desperately.

Where were those noisy crickets and frogs that kept me awake at night? Where was the steady beat of the ocean surf, coming and going?  There was no village music drifting through the warm tropical air, no whirring fans blowing off the mosquitos from our feet which stuck out of our damp sheets, or drunk men laughing outside, no dogs barking at every person that walked by all through the night.

I sighed, and cried, and prayed, reminded myself that God is the Master Planner and it’s He who knows all things and eventually my exhausted body succumbed to sleep.  In the morning, I told Eric I thought we should hop back on the plane and go home. By home, I meant back to Vanuatu. He agreed immediately.  Half of the kids said no, the other half said yes, but the bank account was the real thing that stopped us from turning around.

A couple hours later, real bacon was sizzling in the pan,  filling up the house with an aroma we had only dreamed of.  My daughter caught me drinking a bottle of maple syrup which had screamed my name when I discovered it in the fridge. Before long, my house was filled to bursting with the squeals of children who my heart had ached for this last year. When coming home, we had decided to keep it a surprise from everyone, just for the fun of appearing out of nowhere. The tears and amazed squeals from cousins was totally worth all the work it had been to keep our secret!


I had long visits, in a language I understood, with my best friends and sister, and I was reminded again of the real reason that I had missed Canada so much. It wasn’t the house, or the cars, the computers. It wasn’t even the strawberries, bacon or maple syrup,  it was the people. The same thing that had stolen my heart in Vanuatu had my heart in Canada, and now I felt so unsettled, not knowing who I was or where I belonged.

I found my daughter holding back tears in the corner, and I wrapped my arms around her, and we cried together. Cried because we had left home, and cried because we had found home.

$22,000 USD is what it cost our family to fly to Vanuatu. Then we paid an additional $4500 in Visa fees to stay as long as we did. We both knew that if we were going to go back, it would take another monumental effort, a lot of hard work and a fair bit of faith. Faith was starting to come a bit easier to us nowadays, as living day to day really has a way of making you dependant on God and His goodness and wisdom, but we still struggled with it.

I sat on my best friends couch, giggling like little girls, and it felt as though we had never been separated. When she asked me why I had decided to come home, I tried to explain all the reasons that had made up this life changing decision, but my mind suddenly went blank. I honestly couldn’t remember why we had decided to come home. ‘To go to the dentist’, I lamely explained.

When I came home that day, I asked Eric to refresh my memory on all the reason why we had left paradise. He reminded me about our two daughters that had already left Vanuatu ahead of us, and about working- like that thing people do to earn money, and about my health, and about a dozen other reasons that sounded so convincing when I had booked the tickets a couple months, but that hardly seemed critical now.

I admit, I am afraid. I am afraid that I might be the same person I was when I left. I am afraid that I’ll get busy, and start caring more about things and less about people. I’m afraid that I won’t know how to minister to Gods children, because they are all around me in great big houses, with families that look so content. I am afraid that everything that happened on that tiny island will fade away, and with it all the love and adventure and memories will be gone.

 

Faith is the great healer of fear.  I feel like a little child learning something for the first time. Falling again and again, unsure of how to go forward without all the pain of repeated failures.  Faith is such a small word for such a big lesson, and I pray that God will send me an extra dose of it to navigate these next few months with my family.

‘I cry unto my God in faith and know that He will hear my cry’