My succulent garden was the last thing that I had to give away. It was the week we were leaving South Africa in March of 2013 and all of our possessions had either been packed up or given away. All of them except this one: an arrangement of cactus and succulents that had a home on the table we kept on the back porch. It was beautifully set into a rose-colored short, wide clay pot that looked like a potter had spun it on a wheel.
The florist said it was a typical South African succulent garden when I asked him about it.
“Is anything in South Africa typical?” I asked him, rhetorically.
He smiled at me but didn’t answer. I related it to myself, in a way. It looked out of place here at SPAR, it reminded me of Santa Fe.
“Look at that,” I showed it to Mario as we left the store. It was near the exit, set up in a display in a way that I wanted to buy it. Mario, on the other hand was put off by the price.
“Can’t we do this ourselves?” he glanced at the price tag and laughed.
Later (three months later, to be exact) I was in the hospital, recuperating from an emergency hysterectomy when Mario came to visit me, bringing with him the succulent garden.
“Thanks, babe.” I whispered. It was the best hospital flowers I had ever received.
I loved it, and its home on the back porch was perfect. We would relax in the evenings, with most of our day’s work behind us and the succulent garden was there, needing no special attention or care from me and still bringing me beauty and joy.
Our decision to move to South Africa wasn't made overnight. Mario and I carefully thought and prayed about it before we responded to an invitation to step out of our comfort zone and join a team already in place to spread the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the continent. We had made trips before to Sub-Saharan Africa and we finally made a decision to move there. After a trial move, we returned back home and sold our home and most of our belongings to do it once and for all. We applied for – and were given - temporary residency by the South African government and we began to walk out a dream.
It didn’t take long to realized that life was different in South Africa.
Moving countries is never easy, but the things you think will be hard turn out not to matter so much. We found out we could live without Hershey's chocolate and Starbucks (I even learned to survive without Mexican food!) We learned how to live without electricity (which was always going out) and a reliable phone line (we only had cell phones). I didn't need a tumble dryer, laundry day meant that a whole day was for washing, hanging out and then ironing our clothes. The City water supply was constantly an issue, so were the roads populated with illegal vehicles. Even so, these things aren’t the things that were ever hard for me.
What's very hard (and no one can prepare you for this) is the unfamiliarity of the world you are catapulted in to. In Greek, the word, “xeno,” denotes someone who is a “stranger,” someone that is not one of us, someone outside our culture. This is the root of the the word “xenophobia,” or fear of the stranger.
I was strange there. I was now a wife to a man in full-time ministry and I was very different from the “typical South African wife,” (remember, there is no such thing as typical South African anything). My laugh was too loud, my jokes were too crass, the verbage I used to describe things was wrong. I tried to listen and learn, but no matter how disciplined and careful I was, I was still me.
“I wish the ground would swallow me up and spit me out as a South African,” I would say to Mario. “Instead I am hopelessly American…”
“You are who you are,” he’d say. “And I don’t think you can change that.”
Everywhere around me were wives who championed living a quiet life, softly and contentedly supporting their husbands. As an American, I held a deep belief that Mario and I were partners – equals. Whatever he was doing I wanted to do; wherever he was going, I wanted to go. After all, I had sold my house and belongings and moved here. I had left my job, my kids and grand-kids….my whole family to move there.
What if this was a disaster?
Little by little I learned how to do it. I learned how to accept myself and when I did it was easier for others to accept and love me. I had incredible support from friends who became my family. Their love and honesty of heart were so wonderful that I began to feel at home. Now and then, I met people who I knew could barely tolerate me. With them, I learned to spend very little time.
We tucked into “the work” and loved it. Days turned into months and then months to years. There is always much to be done in developing countries and South Africa is no different. There was always something new; always people who needed us. Even when major things happened back at home, we never felt like we were supposed to move back. When the deadline came for us to file for permanent residency we did, and after a nightmarish bureaucratic mess, we were South African permanent residents.
As the work continued, so did the realization that my heart was more and more being drawn home. There was never an easy way to separate my heart from my family. I loved SKYPE but it was no substitute for face-to-face. Holidays were reduced to speed-visiting and each time I had to leave, I ached and wept for days.
Six years into our stay, as Mario and I prayed, we realized that our season was coming to an end. We made a decision to move back to the USA.
Even after missing home, it was difficult to leave South Africa.
I sat on my back porch, waiting for my friend, Yvonne to come over and collect a gift I had for her. Yvonne was one of the friends who had become my family in South Africa. She came over a lot for dinner and parties and did kind things because she loved me. When she heard I was a test gardener for Jackson Perkins, she took me to a rose farm to see the spring glory of South African roses. We made it a special trip every year. My backyard was home to eighteen on them, including my favorites, Johannesburg Sun.
I had decided to give her the succulent garden. It would be impractical to take with us and it really did belong in the beautiful Johannesburg climate. She pulled in her grey bakkie (pickup) and greeted me with her usual cheer and confidence.
We talked for awhile and sat for awhile. Eventually, she had to go and I walked her out to the front.
“So you’ll keep the American succulent garden for me,” I said, winking at her.
“It is a typical South African arrangement,” she said. “But it does have an American appearance. Maybe because it belonged to you.”
As her bakkie left our driveway, she took part of my heart with her. She still has it, probably living there in that succulent garden. I miss her so much. I watched her drive away, dust under her wheels and the sun setting behind her.
I remember that I was tired from packing and ready to go to bed since we were loading the moving van the next day. Even so, I watched the horizon and drank it in. It was a glorious red sunset; one that is very native to this part of the world. So red, so wild….
It was a typical South African sunset, you might say.
But like I said before, nothing is typical in South Africa.