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That Place We Call Home
by Marilyn Lamin

first published in English in Texas, Fall/Winter 2001

 

Perhaps of all the art forms, I am most fascinated by the mosaic.  The exquisite poignancy of Michelangelo’s virginal white marble sculpture, the Pieta; and di Cambio’s somber bronze, St. Peter, with his foot worn away by the countless hands holding it in reverence—these two magnificent works of art probably attract the largest numbers of tourists thronging the vastness of St. Peter’s Cathedral.  But on my two visits to Rome, separated by a thirty-year period, I found myself leaning into the rails that guard the ‘paintings’—which are not paintings at all:  every ‘painting’ in St. Peter’s is actually a mosaic.

Creating a work of art with oils and brushes, whether or not while lying on one’s back painting a cavernous ceiling, is an astonishing feat, filling me with enormous envy. Like most artistically-challenged people, I humbly bow in obeisance to the painter—to the water colorist—the caricaturist—even the police sketch artist.  But producing a glorious ‘painting’ as those in St. Peter’s from bits of stone surely exemplifies the greatest of human artistic endeavors.

Today as I sit writing, as I do most days now, I am blessed with one of Joyce’s epiphanies as I see clearly one of the truths of my life: I am a mosaic.  I have been created—or have created myself—out of bits and pieces of Texas and Africa and points between.

What is ‘That Place I Call Home’?  Certainly the Piney Woods of East Texas, spending my early formative years from ages three to sixteen in a very sheltered, small town existence.  Going when I was five to the only family reunion I have ever attended—to a lakeside cabin named ‘Plum Nelly’ by my Great-Aunt Kate—because it was ‘Plum’ out of town and ‘Nelly’ in the country….summers spent on that same small lake, where swimming out to the ‘raft,’ a sturdy wooden structure boasting two diving boards, required great courage and stamina for the ten-year-old.  Even today, over forty years later, I can still feel the squelchy coolness of that mud between my toes after I held my breath on a dare and forced myself down the ladder to the lake bottom, bringing up ‘proof’ that I had indeed touched it.

The pieces of my mosaic in my young life were pretty homogenous.

My insular existence changed when at the vulnerable, impressionable age of sixteen, I found my world turning upside down:  within a period of six months, we packed up our house, our dog and cat, and moved twice. My father worked in an oil field, and looking back now, I realize how unusual it was for us to have lived in that same little East Texas town for so many years.  I vaguely remember that a few of my father’s co-workers, and the children who belonged to them, had been forced to move to Saudi Arabia and other distant places, like Midland or Odessa.

We moved first to ‘the Valley’—which might just as well have been categorized as another country, despite the geo-political maps that put the Piney Woods and the Rio Grande in the same state.   From a small city, newly home to me, I seemed to view Life through a kaleidoscope.  New shapes and shades evolved all around me.  I had moved from a racially segregated society, oblivious to the colors or the cries of others, and now for the first time, I called the values and mores of my life into question and set myself on a path that would not always be easy, but one that would always be true.

As I write this, I am made newly aware that my sixteenth year was in many ways the most important year of my life.  Perhaps that explains why, after teaching for thirty-two years, my happiest classroom memories--whether in Texas or in Africa--are those when I found myself teaching fifteen-and sixteen-year-olds, an impressionable age when a teacher can plant the seeds of altruism and good will and hope they will grow. At sixteen I realize that I was acquiring the first contrasting bits and pieces of the mosaic that would eventually be me

Three months in the valley and then we settled on the Gulf, not far from Matagorda Bay. I found my niche in a not-so-small town    I dreamed of performing on Broadway—or at least of being a star in the local high school Thespians Society and the Community Little Theater—and saving the world afterwards.  Broadway aside, the remaining theatrical aspirations were easier realized, and I acquired several trophies, medals, and honors--along with the corresponding mosaic pieces--during the year and a half I lived there before high school graduation.

My first step towards saving the world was, naturally, to attend the University of Texas.  In those days, going almost two hundred miles away to attend university was considered meritorious in itself…and according to conventional wisdom, attending UT ­that bastion of liberalism—was widely viewed as a threat to Texas conservatism.  Twenty-some-odd years later, teaching in rural parts of Texas, I was both amused and proud to discover that it has retained that reputation.

Intent on finishing my education and embarking on my mission to save the world, I listened and learned and broadened my horizons in the three years and two summers that it took me to complete a B.A. in English.  Austin became my home—what wonderful memories I have of Barton Springs, Mansfield Dam, and little trips in a friend’s Volkswagen to the surrounding Hill Country!  Who could not feel an overwhelming sense of Texas pride upon seeing the glorious acres of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spectacular springtime Hill Country? Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Town Lake—links in the Colorado River, squeezed out by dams here and there, affording swimmers and boaters endless hours of summer fun for eight months of the year. And who, walking across the UT campus that August day in 1966, would ever be quite the same after Charles Whitman in the Tower? Austin provided me lots of shapes and pieces for my mosaic. Those memories—good and bad-- would have to last me a very, very long time.

At the age of twenty I had called East Texas, South Texas, Central Texas, and the Gulf Coast ‘home.’    But for the next twenty years, my home would be in Africa—in a small country only one-tenth the size of Texas.

I joined the Peace Corps as a young, liberal-arts college graduate eager to do my bit to ‘save the world’—in short, just like most of the thousands of others who swelled the ranks of the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties.  It was a marvelous time to be alive—to be unashamedly idealistic—to be filled with the burning desire to rid the world of evil—to eradicate racism, suffering, disease, and poverty.

 From the moment I arrived in Washington, D.C. for the first stage of my Peace Corps training, I felt my world almost physically expanding—meeting young people from all over America—all races—all religions—all friends. We welcomed the challenge of living in a developing country, one that had recently gained its independence from Britain.  We avidly read from our recommended reading lists and studied the languages and culture of Sierra Leone taught to us by Sierra Leoneans studying in America, who had been hired as trainers for our group.  We sat up late at night earnestly discussing the U.S. ‘s role in Vietnam and our role as ‘Ambassadors of Good Will.’  We shared our hopes and dreams—and our fears:  leaving our families, friends, American culture—and probably Coca-Cola—for two long years. 

Who knew that in two years, as my friends were leaving, I would make a decision to remain in Sierra Leone for the rest of my life?  And, who could foresee that, eighteen years after that decision, I would feel a strong pull to return to Texas, to that place which I first called home?

When I look at the mosaic pieces of which I am composed, I am very aware that many, many of the little tiles are African.  My children’s father is Sierra Leonean, and thus my two sons are truly children of two worlds, only having come to Texas when they were junior high age.  They are very cognizant of the fact that they have roots in two cultures, though one now works as an investment banker in London and the other as an art director in an ad agency on Madison Avenue. The three of us carry on secret conversations in the lingua franca of their childhood—Krio—occasionally to the annoyance of others. We have a love for African music, African art, and African food as our separate homes and menus reflect.  We are in regular contact with our African friends and relative--by phone, email, or by the quite effective ‘grapevine’ method of sending messages via travelers to and from Sierra Leone.

When I pick up a photograph album in my house, I may be sent back to my Peace Corps days; I may remember my first trip ‘up-country’ to the town where I would live for four years—the four and a half hour journey of seventy­six miles, traveling in a Land Rover, jostling and jangling us along the laterite road made almost impassable by the heavy downpours of the rainy season. I see myself surrounded by my Sierra Leonean students as we walked home from school along the bush path leading to town.  I recall how jubilantly we celebrated with other Volunteers when, alongside WHO workers, we heard the Voice of America broadcast telling us that the World Health Organization had eradicated smallpox from the face of the earth. I remember how we wept at the assassinations of, first, Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy.

With the birth of my sons, the photographs in my album took on a different focus. I am reminded of the masked devils dancing in honor of the birth of my first son, Jason Sahr—Sahr being a Kissy name for ‘first son.’    I see Jeremy Lendor, peeking out as a two-year-old, from behind the chair of a New Zealand visitor’s to my husband’s village as we watched the ‘Goboi’—the fearful dancing spirit from another world.  I remember the touch of Cleo, my chimpanzee who wrapped her arms around me tightly and gave me kisses for the nine years of her life, and I see the photograph of Jason and Cleo going down the little wooden slide together on his fourth birthday.  I recall the infrequent trips to Texas when my sons were small, greeting their American relatives and friends with their infectious smiles and loving innocence, born of a culture where race was never an issue and hardly a word.

In the same album, I may laugh at a much later photograph of Jason, wearing his electric blue tux with a multi-colored cummerbund, in his role as the Junior Class President in his East Texas high school.  I see the sports photographs when at their high school banquet one brother won MVP for basketball and the other for football.   I see Jeremy holding up his award for Best Art Student in the sixth grade and Jason holding his U.S. Savings Bond for a seventh grade Rotary Essay Competition. I am reminded of the proud moments in ‘the Drum’, watching my younger son Jeremy playing for the University of Texas Runnin’ Horns, and Jason in his boots and bandanna raising money for charity on behalf of the University of Texas service fraternity, the Texas Cowboys.

When I dream, I often dream in Krio.  When I see a house in my dream, it may very likely be one of the Sierra Leone houses I lived in.  When I dream of a classroom, it may very likely be a Sierra Leonean classroom filled with my Texas students—or the other way around.

If I have not saved the world, I have embraced much of it in my life---and the mosaic I have created reflects that.  I long ago realized that if my life had a purpose, it probably was not to go to Africa and teach English for twenty years; rather, it was to return to Texas with my two biracial sons and teach here.  Oh, the class schedule most often said ‘Sophomore Honors English’…but I pride myself on having introduced a good measure of world literature, global understanding, and racial and religious tolerance along with the standard fare.

‘That Place We Call Home’—I now live in North Texas, adding once again to my personal Texas resume of residences … but I am a mosaic, composed of my many parts and pieces. I proudly recognize that I am more than a Texan. Sometimes I am fractured—I have had two separate lives, and moving between them has on occasion caused tension and strain. But how blessed and proud I am to have had so much of Texas and a small part of Africa to call home!

 

©2004 Marilyn S. Lamin, All Rights Reserved.