|Chapter 5||WIDOW WITH A HUSBAND|
We are all fine ("all" included our four children - David, Evelyn, Dale and Esther). Elmer came home after being away 14 days. There was lots of work to catch up on - a door had fallen off the closet, an electric plug wouldn't work and we were out of most food staples - rice, flour, sugar and other cooking supplies.
In April of 1963, I wrote to my mother:
Elmer will be home a total of eight days this entire month. I do a lot of reading. I wouldn't mind having a TV!
Again to Mom in 1964:
Elmer has been gone three weeks.
Married women missionaries of The Christian and Missionary Alliance are expected to be fulltime missionaries. That policy brought me face to face with two important issues:
1. What was my responsibility to the children God had given us?
2. What was my responsibility to the work God had called me to?
I settled those questions shortly after we arrived in Thailand, when our first son, David, was just a baby. I chose to work in the city where we lived. In the city I could give the best care to our children and also do my best work for God. I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do.
Making that choice, however, meant I would be alone with the children for long periods of time. Elmer's evangelism work took him far out into the country areas. That kind of life - rough roads, danger of robbers and poor living conditions - I felt was just too difficult for the children. Finding suitable sleeping places and proper food for as many as six people, instead of one, would only complicate Elmer's ministry opportunities. Elmer could sleep almost anywhere and food was never a problem for him. So the "city missionary" and the "village missionary" learned to adapt. It was decided that when the last child went off to the mission boarding school, then I would travel with Elmer.
Coping with the "single-but-not-single" life was anything but easy. Just three months before the tragic death of the Johnsons, I took my first long train trip in Thailand without Elmer. I was traveling with two-year-old David while Elmer drove the Land Rover to our new home up on the border of Laos. The train left early in the morning and was scheduled to arrive in Udorn City at six that evening. Paul and Priscilla Johnson planned to meet me at the station. I would go to their home and Elmer would be there the next day. Suddenly, however, the train stopped. I looked out the window. There was no station. All I could see were mountains and thick woods. Tall palms were silhouetted against the moonlit sky. "Why in the world would we be stopping in the middle of nowhere?" I wondered. Soon a Thai conductor came through the car and stopped at our small compartment. David and I were the only foreigners on the train. The conductor said in English, "Train stop long time. You lock door. Close window. Keep light out. Stay here."
I pulled down the shutters on the windows and locked the door to our little room. Peeking through the shutters, I began to understand why the conductor had warned me about locking the door. Some of the male passengers were outside pulling bottles of liquor from their pockets. The conductor, evidently concerned about a young white woman traveling alone, wanted me out of sight of those men. As the hours passed, more and more people left the train to sit outside. A train wheel needed major repair. It was going to be a very long wait. I became a little nervous. I could hear a party in process in the moonlight. I prayed that the drunken men would stay outside.
David and I ate our leftover lunch sandwiches and drank from our water thermos. I was glad I had heeded the advice of an older missionary: "Always take water with you on trains, buses and in your own vehicle." Around midnight the whistle blew and we were on our way again. The train pulled into Udorn at two A.M. Paul and Priscilla were waiting for me. They had made many trips to the station (there were no phones in those days). The station master could only say, "Train will be late!" At midnight, they decided to remain at the station so they wouldn't miss me. Elmer arrived the next day and together we headed for our new home in Nongkai.
There was certainly plenty of city work to do in Nongkai. I started holding children's meetings and when Elmer and the Thai preacher were away on village trips, I taught at the Sunday services and at the prayer meetings. It took hours and hours to prepare those lessons. Another ministry began to develop for me. Students, nurses and even city officials requested English lessons. I told them "I will teach you English, but I will use the Bible as the textbook." They agreed. Classes were held in our home and in government schools, still using the Bible as my textbook. I also spent hours selling Christian books and Bibles at our street chapel. The children and I talked to people, visited the food sellers along the sides of the roads and handed out tracts. Along the banks of the Mekong River we watched the boats and chatted with the people who came to bathe there.
Looking forward to the time when Elmer and I would travel together in the villages, I prepared flannel graph stories in large art books. But in spite of these ministries I was often frustrated. A November 1954 letter to our field chairman, Mr. Chrisman, reveals some of my deepest feelings: I received a telegram last night from Elmer. First news in 17 days. The telegram stated, "Finished survey and meetings in Nongkai province. Now working in Loei province. Feeling fine. Love, Elmer."
Both of the children had the worst colds ever, but we are all fine now. The Lord undertook in answer to prayer. I continue to teach at the services - while a Thai girl watches the children at home. Greet Mrs. Chrisman for me. Tell her that when I start to feel a little lonesome (no white faces here in weeks), I think of how I planned to go to the mission field as a single missionary. Now at least I have Elmer some of the time. I also have two children to keep me company.
Mr. Chrisman replied, "Thank you for your letter. I am very proud of you and others who often have to do the hardest part of missionary work - sticking by the stuff while others go."
My journals reveal how I coped with "sticking by the stuff" for weeks at a time - November 1952: "Elmer plans a three-week boat trip soon with two missionary men. That will leave me the only American in this entire area. I'm not afraid to stay alone, though I'll miss Elmer. This is part of missionary life. Little David is good company - chats all the time."
August 1953: "Elmer was off on a river trip when I became ill with terrible sharp pains in my side. He came home earlier than he had planned. I believe God sent him home to help me and take care of the children. We can hear bombing going on across the river on the Laos side. Many people have told us it is dangerous to be in Thailand, but I would rather die out here in His will (than be any place else]."
When the papers were full of news about a possible invasion of Thailand, I became concerned because we lived near the border. January 1954: "I can still hear the bombs. Nongkai now has a special curfew. No one is allowed out after midnight or before five A.M. except with permission. No meetings of more than five people except with permission. Things are getting tense. Papers are full of the threat of an invasion. All kinds of measures are being taken to ward off such an occurrence. I am seriously considering moving down to Udorn but am waiting and praying to be sure this is God's will. If this area were to fall, I'd be the first missionary to know about an invasion! Soldiers would be at my door - no chance of escape. All the meetings have dropped in attendance; the chapel building might be sold. I might as well go to a place of safety. I think of the children. If I wait too long it might be too late. I really hate to leave. Living at someone else's house will be inconvenient with the children, but maybe better than staying here. I wish I knew what to do."
I never did leave Nongkai.
February 1954: "I can still hear the bombing in the distance but I sleep soundly at night. It is no fun staying alone so much, but God does give me a wonderful peace. My place is with the children. Sometimes I feel I accomplish so little, but just being faithful to God is an important thing."
April 1954: "Elmer came home on Monday. He had planned to stay longer than nine days. I almost fell into his arms when he came in the door. I was at the end of my endurance. I told him, Evelyn has a terrible case of measles. As a result of walking the floor with her, my left arm pains so much I can hardly hold her. The well caved in. I had to have water brought in on carts. The chapel building was sold. The Thai worker who lived upstairs in the chapel has no place to live." It was too much for me. I went to bed and Elmer took over. The baby got worse, but Elmer was there to walk the floor with her.
November 1954: "No lights and no Elmer! He has been gone almost a month. I am using kerosene lamps or candles until the city generator gets fixed. I am getting restless - a month is a long time to stay alone, but home is the best place for the children. Little Evelyn has been kissing Elmer's picture. The Lord is my peace and strength. I'm happy that Elmer is reaching those villages with the gospel."
Later that same month: "The lights were off three weeks. During this month I only saw foreigners three and half hours the entire month!"
Many, many times, over many years, I stood on the Mekong River bank and watched Elmer leave on a passenger / cargo river boat. I never knew if he'd be gone a week or a month. When he returned, we would hear all about the trip: "I spent two and a half days on a 12 by 12 foot bamboo raft. A trip through rapids on a raft is quite an experience! I don't know how the Thai men can judge the water so accurately, but they seem to know exactly when to start rowing to escape the huge boulders. I wished I could be as calm about it all as the cargo of pigs that accompanied us. "
For a brief time, the Mission owned a boat, but from the beginning it was deemed to not be correctly built for the Mekong River." Boats for Mekong River travel had flat bottoms. Ours was rounded. It was also "too high" and rocked precipitously when the current hit it. Eventually the boat was sold and Elmer was back to traveling on those creaky river boats. They were slow and maintained uncertain schedules, but at least they were safer than the Mission boat.
As furlough time drew near, I knew I needed a year in America. Four and a half years of life in Thailand had taken its toll. My journal records the frustration: "Another week and Elmer didn't come home. I am beginning to feel I can hardly stand another day alone. I'm discouraged with the poor attendance at the meetings. Although I keep busy, I am restless. I go for a walk every day. I feel I must walk. A lonely mission station is at times almost unbearable - so little to read, little (if any) mail (people seem to stop writing toward the end of a missionary's term) and no English programs on local radio stations. There is no one to talk with in my own language. Truly the Lord is a close Companion. If it weren't for the strength of the Lord and the everlasting arms, I could not stand the strain. The news reports are bad; there was trouble in Indo-China and talk of war with China. The heat is terrific. Lately I always feel tired. I do need a furlough. I'm more nervous than I used to be."
A week later I wrote in the journal, "I spent a lonely Easter. After the Easter lesson, I spent two hours at the boat dock waiting for Elmer to come. The boat did not arrive. Elmer came home the next day by bus. The boat for Nongkai was not able to leave, so he had to find another way to get home. I was so happy to see him. I just cried and cried. He did not realize how lonely I was. He says he'll take shorter trips now. There is much work to be done in the villages close by. It is so good to have someone to talk to."
There were times when I was concerned about Elmer's safety. The fighting across the river alarmed me enough that I wrote to our chairman, Mr. Chrisman. He had always told us, "Don't take unnecessary risks."
And so I wrote: "I told Elmer I would be writing to you about what I feel is an unnecessary risk. A United States Army man advised us to stay around home now as anything could happen. He told us that if an emergency arose we would probably get on a U.S. Army plane in Udon. I am not afraid to stay alone - I don't feel nervous - but I am wondering about Elmer going off on extended river trips during this time. I feel it would be safer for him to work here in the city or in villages close by. Please let me know what you think."
Mr. Chrisman answered, "It has been my intention to suggest that Elmer cease going on prolonged river trips. He should avoid overexposure to danger. While conditions are so uncertain, it seems wise to work in areas closer to home. I appreciate your eagerness to distribute the Word of God."
On January 1954, Elmer wrote the chairman: River travel is closed now because of what seemed to be machine gun fire on the river. I shall go only on day long trips by Land Rover.
Later that year when the danger dissipated, Elmer was off again on river trips. On November 1954, obviously frustrated, I wrote my report to Mr. Chrisman: "Elmer has been gone about a month. His monthly reports and financial statements will be late. I refuse to do the station books because then he might stay out two months! Maybe, like Blondie in the Dagwood comics, I should have his suitcase ready with clean clothes as he dashes in and out of our house. Or maybe, since our Mission policy now is that single girls should not live: alone, our conference ought to appoint another woman to live here!"
I actually signed that letter "Miss" instead of "Mrs." because I lived alone so much of the time!
Although I was not usually bothered by fear, one incident remains fresh in my memory. Elmer was out in the villages when trouble arose among the Vietnamese refugees in Nongkai. The government ordered the refugees to be fingerprinted, but they did not understand the reasoning behind the edict. Some of the men refused and were put in jail. So about 500 of their women gathered in front of the police station, squatting in typical fashion, to protest. That night I could hear them screaming and crying all through the night (our home was only two blocks away from the police station).
The next day, Saturday, the police used water hoses on the women in an effort to disburse them. I was the only American in the city and I knew that the Vietnamese did not like Americans. I sent a note with our Thai helper to the governor of the province. I told him that I was alone and asked him what I should do if things got worse. He advised me to stay inside the house and promised to send an escort to evacuate me if necessary. His assurance, as well as God's promise of protection, brought a measure of peace to my heart.
The loudspeakers were blaring an announcement: "All people who do not go home will be arrested." Then the message was directed to the local citizenry: "Thai citizens must stay off the streets. Be careful about drinking water from wells. There may be poison in the wells." The next day, Sunday, I looked out of my window just as a group of wailing women were marched past our house. Six armed Thai policemen were forcing them to go back to their homes. The government gradually got things back to normal and peace returned to the area. I was thankful for the people who prayed for us.
There were different ways of coping with the problems the children and I faced. I was happy for my medical training which helped when the children were sick. Also, I kept busy, not allowing myself to sit around and think about things I could not change. Reaching out to other people kept me from feeling sorry for myself and I had the habit of walking every day. This discipline was good both for the body and mind. Photography, writing and reading helped me to relax. Besides all that, I never really felt alone. God was very real to me during those years.
I remember how surprised a woman in the States was when I responded to her question concerning how I faced problems on the mission field. "Who did you go to when you had a real problem?" she asked. I answered, "I went to God!" "No, no," she replied. "I mean a person." I explained, "Where I lived there was no one but God. For years even my husband wasn't around much of the time. God was a very real person to me. He met my needs."
As I checked through the 35 years worth of letters I had written to my mother, I was surprised at the length and frequency of Elmer's village trips.
No wonder the Thai people called me "MAAMY TEE ME SAME" - the "widow with a husband."
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