In the 1950s, you could tell you were getting close to Akron before you saw it—an acrid smell of burning rubber and sulfur permeated everything. Tall brick smokestacks above dark, dingy tire factories coughed up oily black soot that coated everything—your clothes, your hair, even the insides of your nostrils. When you sneezed into a handkerchief, it came out black. You could see a haze that shut out the sun over Akron from miles away.
My dad worked in the international division of Goodyear, which was headquartered in Akron, and our first overseas assignment was Bukavu in the Belgian Congo.
My parents hoped for the best—a one-year assignment—but prepared for the worst—a two-year stint. After two years outside the country, Goodyear employees were granted a one-month home leave back to the U.S. to maintain ties with families, friends, and colleagues at headquarters, and to be re-exposed to their native culture. When the month was up, they were sent back out into the field. They called it repatriation, and it was supposed to ease that final transition back home, which was, by then, just another foreign country.
Who knew what it would be like in Africa? Were my sisters and I too young to move to another continent, another country, another city, before we could grow roots in our own soil? Would we slip our moorings and become unraveled from our own culture in the face of another? It was 1958, and I was seven, my sister Leslie was five, and Jamee was three.
Before we left for Bukavu, my mom and dad wanted us to identify with our home, so they built a world of American memories for us.
We ate cheeseburgers and fries with thick chocolate milkshakes at Heggy’s, a small diner in Canton.
“They probably don’t have cheeseburgers over there,” my dad said. “They do have French fries, but they call them ‘frites’.”
We ordered Zavarelli’s pizza—everything but anchovies—and each Friday night, we ate it while we watched The Honeymooners and Ed Sullivan on TV.
“Remember this, kids. Pizza and TV. Only in America.”
We went to London’s Candy and bought bags of raspberry- and vanilla-cream-filled chocolates.
“I’ve heard that Belgian chocolate is the best,” my dad said. “But nothing beats this.”
We spent a lot of time in department stores, where my parents bought us shoes, ankle socks, and dresses. And toys. Who knew if there were toys in the jungle?
I loved department stores. There were grand staircases from the first floor, where perfume, makeup, and gloves were sold, to the second where clerks measured your feet on metal slide-rule contraptions for a proper shoe fit. There was floor after floor devoted to different merchandise, with one entire floor just for toys and another for Christmas tree ornaments, decorations, and lights. There were elevators run by women wearing uniforms and white gloves.
But the best memory I have of department stores was when our parents took my sisters and me to the Georgian Room, the expensive restaurant in O’Neil’s.
The Georgian Room was elegant. There were chandeliers and linen tablecloths and flowers. The wallpaper was a blue- and apricot-flowered print and the wainscoting was Wedgwood blue. The children’s menus were shaped like circus tents with green and yellow stripes. My sisters and I ordered the “Little Red Hen” dinner: creamed chicken served in a white ceramic chicken tureen that was trimmed in red. Mashed potatoes came with it, and you lifted the top off the tureen and scooped out the creamed chicken onto your potatoes. We got milk in an Elsie the Borden Cow pitcher. For dessert we had an upside-down clown ice cream cone. The cone was the hat and the scoop of vanilla ice cream was decorated to look like a clown face.
It was around Christmas, so the Sugar Plum Fairy, who wore a pink glittery dress and carried a wand, came to our table. My dad mentioned we were moving to Africa soon, very soon.
The Sugar Plum Fairy said, “My, how exciting. What lucky little girls you are.” Then she tilted her head and said, “Goodness, I think I hear Santa calling me. You stay right here, okay? I’ll be back.”
And she did come back and she gave my sisters and me Christmas mugs with tiny mice wearing elf outfits painted on them.
In Africa, there was no sooty haze, only hot steam that lay like fog over the ground. Walking down the ramp from the plane, however, the smell of the air was pungent and suffocating. It was a combination of urine, red clay, wood smoke, and sweat. I held my breath as long as I could. But now, I miss it. I get homesick for that air. And I’ve never met anyone who’s left Africa who doesn’t dream of going back and breathing it in again.
We arrived in Bukavu on the cusp of Christmas, where there were no Sugar Plum Fairies, no elves, no reindeer. And no Santa Claus. But the Belgians had their own version. He was a frail, solemn, unsmiling old man with a long white beard, whose name was Saint Nicholas. He wore bishop’s robes and carried a staff with a hook at the top, like Little Bo Peep’s. Instead of a red stocking cap with a white fur tassel at the end, Saint Nicholas wore a bishop’s mitre trimmed with gold and ribbons down the back.
I stood in a long line of students from L’Athenee Royale, the school my sisters and I went to. My classmates and I were herded into a large room to meet Saint Nicholas. When it was my turn, I got pushed up in front of him.
There was no “Ho, ho, ho.” There was no “Have you been a good little girl?” There was no “What would you like for Christmas?”
He bent over and gave me a small orange molded out of marzipan, a gritty paste made from ground almonds and sugar with a strong almond taste. I loved it. I still do. Even now, fifty years later, it’s a holiday staple for me.
When I first met Saint Nicholas, he scared the shit out of me. But not as much as he did Sebastien, the Congolese man who worked for us.
Christmas morning, Sebastien took my dad aside.
" Quelqu'un est entré par effraction dans la maison la nuit dernière … Someone broke into the house last night,” he whispered.
"Vraiment … Really?”
Sebastien led my dad over to the fireplace and pointed. There were two big footprints in the ashes on the flagstone. My dad explained, or tried to, that he’d made the footprints so my sisters and I would think Santa Claus had come down the chimney.
Sebastien looked at my dad and said nothing.
My parents had brought the family Christmas decorations: little choirboy candles, delicate reflector tree ornaments, mini cardboard cone angels made with pipe cleaners. And tiny villages of pasteboard houses and a church. At night, I’d lie on the floor under the Christmas tree and look in their cellophane windows to see my imaginary people inside. Did they have a tree? Did they sing carols? Did they bake Christmas cookies?
We did, but first my sisters and I had to pick the worms out of the flour that my mom sifted into a metal mixing bowl. What was left—the dewormed flour—was used for the cookies. I don’t remember it spoiling our appetite for the cookies, which was a good thing. And I don’t remember what we did with the worms, which was also a good thing.
My parents shipped our Christmas records, too. My sisters and I danced and sang “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” with Gene Autry; “Two Front Teeth,” by Spike Jones and his gang; and Nat King Cole’s “White Christmas.” It didn’t matter that there was no snow, to us the magic of the season was still real.
Sometimes late at night, past my bedtime, my mom and dad played records on the stereo console in the living room. From the top of the stairs, I watched them sit together on the couch and listen to the Christmas music. Once, when a Frank Sinatra record dropped on the turntable, my mother leaned over and put her head on my dad’s shoulder. He kissed her cheek while Sinatra sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I could tell she was crying. I realize now how young and in love they were. And how scared and lonely.
There were other American Christmas customs the Congolese and Belgians weren’t familiar with—like wreaths. Sparkling red cellophane wreaths with bows, and pink-flocked bottle-brush wreaths decorated with plastic poinsettias that looked sad and gray compared to the live ones in our garden. Nevertheless, my mom put the biggest bottle-brush wreath on the front door and we thought it was beautiful.
Sebastien and his wife gave us their condolences. My schoolmates wanted to know when the funeral was. And the American missionaries laughed and laughed. My mom took the wreath down.
The first time my mom and I met Sebastien was at the kitchen door. We’d just moved into our house in Bukavu, and we were unpacking one of the wooden crates with our belongings. My mother dug out Revere copper-bottomed pots, a glass candy bowl, and a CorningWare casserole dish and lid. There was an electric coffeepot and floor lamps that were useless without voltage converters—massive black blocks that had to be lugged wherever you wanted to use an American electric appliance. You plugged the appliance into the converter, which you plugged into a light socket. Then you stood back and hoped there’d be no sparks or smoke.
Everything in the crate was wrapped in pages from the Canton Repository, our hometown newspaper from Ohio. My mom tried not to tear the paper. I remember how she laid the pages on the kitchen table and carefully smoothed them out. Looking back, I imagine she hid them somewhere, maybe in her nightstand, because I never saw them again. Maybe she saved them to look at when she was homesick. But at that moment, she sat on the kitchen floor littered with newspaper, like wrapping paper on Christmas morning, and she cried. I didn’t understand why she was so sad. I wondered if it had something to do with Frank Sinatra. It scared me to see my mother this upset, so I began to cry, too. It seemed like the right thing to do.
We both looked up and saw a short barrel-chested Congolese man on the other side of the kitchen door. He wore pressed knee-length khaki shorts and a shirt to match; his shoes were worn, but polished. He looked straight ahead and stood as if at attention. Sebastien spoke first.
“Madame is from America. You need someone to help you. To buy food, cook, clean, do laundry. I can do these things. I have worked for white people. My name is Sebastien.”
His French wasn’t the quick dismissive kind the Belgians and French spoke; it was a softer, slower kind my mom could understand. She did need help, as well as an ally, a friend. So, she hired him. He took off his shoes, stepped into the kitchen, and helped us unpack.
In ten years, we moved eight times, and every time we unpacked the Christmas decorations, they were a little shabbier. The last time I saw the pasteboard houses, the cotton snow on their roofs was rubbed off and what was left was wispy and gray. There were black holes where the cellophane windows used to be, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t see the families living in there anymore. Homes, I’ve found out—real or not—don’t often survive too many transitions.
The choirboy candles became yellow and cracked, the wax pieces dangling on the wicks, the only things holding them together. The glass ornaments, light as a whisper, were crushed to a crystal dust. Over time, the records became brittle, warped, and scratched. Or sometimes, they shattered, leaving black shards in the wooden crates they were shipped in.
Now, all those family Christmas decorations and most of the records are gone. The Christmas mug the Sugar Plum Fairy gave me, like so many other things, disappeared, too. I’ve looked and can’t find them.
I asked my sisters if they knew where they were, but they didn’t. They may have forgotten about them, anyway. But I haven’t. I remember us singing and dancing throughout the house to Spike Jones and Gene Autry. I remember watching my parents comfort each other while they listened to Sinatra. I remember the paper-thin glass ornaments lit by the Christmas tree lights. And the tiny worlds of glittery houses and their families.
I found letters from my grandmother, addressed to different places in the Congo, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Germany, and Belgium. I dug through photographs of my parents and their friends at nightclubs and cocktail parties in Istanbul—the women in long black dresses and painful high heels, the men in dark suits, white shirts, and ties. I found my high school yearbook from the International School of Brussels (did I really look like that?). I unwrapped beer steins my dad bought in Frankfurt, Germany; my mom’s collection of spoons from around the world that she displayed in all our houses. But no remnants of my childhood Christmases.
I miss the lost places of my past. I miss the homes I can never go back to. I miss my strange childhood.
The Christmas decorations, the records, and the pasteboard houses are gone, I know that. But I still look for them. Maybe there’s a box I overlooked. Maybe they’re at the bottom of some forgotten crate. Maybe we pitched them. Or maybe they got lost in one of our moves.
You can lose a lot when you move that much.