We had invited Larry and Dee Choate to be with us for the weekend, to tell us stories about our African heritage. Larry grew up in Burundi during the colonial era; his parents, Ralph and Esther Chilson Choate, were Friends missionaries. Esther’s parents, Arthur and Edna Chilson founded the Quaker work in Kenya and Burundi back in the early 1900s. So Larry, a Quaker MK (ie, “missionary kid”) intimately knew Hal’s grandparents, Clyde and Mary Thomas, and his uncle and aunt, George and Dorothy Thomas, also Friends missionaries in Burundi. We simply wanted him to share his memories.
And he did. On Saturday afternoon we gathered the clan in Jon and Kristin’s spacious living room and listened for several hours as Larry told stories. But let me back up a little. Grandpa and Grandma Thomas (great-great grandparents to the youngest among us) raised their five kids here in Oregon, waiting until the kids were all married and more or less settled before beginning their missionary career in Africa, thus fulfilling a life time dream. Hal remembers them well and also remembers his sense of the unfairness of it all—his grandpa and grandma leaving him. He must have been around four years old, but the feelings were strong.
Hal’s loss was Larry’s gain. With his own parents totally involved in their mission work, Larry needed live-in grandparents, and Grandpa Clyde and Grandma Mary carried it off with flare, met his need for attention and hands-on love, as well as the occasional disciplinary thump on the back of the head. Grandma Mary (Aunt Mary to the MKs) taught in the compound grade school, while Grandpa Clyde worked in carpentry and construction projects, always taking time to train his young disciples, which included Larry.
The Wimpy stories were among our favorites. Grandpa Clyde bought (“adopted” would be a more accurate term) a chimpanzee on a trip to the Congo, brought it home and raised it. Larry reports that Wimpy was more like a son than a pet, showing very human characteristics. He was affectionate, intelligent, and extremely mischievous. His room was the top of a tree in the yard, and he always stuck his head in a gunny sack (his “blankie”) when he went to sleep or after he had broken some rule and knew he was in deep trouble. Grandpa disciplined him regularly, and Wimpy always responded with great relief.
Wimpy would occasionally hide along the path outside the compound and jump out to scare people. In a better mood, he would simply approach all passersby, his hand stretched out for a shake. Those who knew him would give him a hand; others just got spooked and hurried down the path, much to Wimpy’s amusement. Larry reported that Wimpy loved to ride on the back of Larry’s motorcycle, his head out to catch the wind. When Larry would turn to glance at him, he always saw Wimpy’s big monkey lips flapping in the wind. It inevitably made him laugh.
What Larry remembers most about Grandpa Clyde was his joy. Grandpa smiled with his whole face, eyes sparkling. And he smiled often. He also remembers his long sermons, delivered at high velocity, but full of biblical truth and wisdom. He remembers Grandma Mary mothering him, understanding his particular pain as an MK.
Larry’s memories of Uncle George and Aunt Dorothy are also strong. He reported that George loved to hunt and was skillful, keeping the missionary community supplied with good meat. But at one point, George sensed God speaking to him, telling him that He had not sent him to Africa to hunt, but to be a missionary. George felt God asking him to give up hunting, and Larry remembers well the disappointment of the missionary community on hearing this. Thus followed four years without good meat (from the viewpoint of the other staff), at which time George sensed God lifting the hunting ban, and he began again to hunt game, although with more moderation. What impressed Larry as a young boy were Uncle George’s integrity and obedience, an example he’s never forgotten.
We ended our story-telling session (although it continued informally the rest of the weekend) by praying for Larry and Dee, then asking them to pray for us. We have a strengthened sense of our identity as a family, and a realization of how important these stories are. We also realize that this clan has gathered in many non-Thomas born “outsiders,” such as myself, people who have married into the family, and that we all bring our own stories. These, in turn, become part of the overall family narrative. In future gatherings, we want to give time to listening to more of these stories.
We’re a people on a journey, following our Lord, knowing that what we all contribute makes the whole story more interesting, more complex, more beautiful. It’s been good to listen to some of the African segments of our story. Where is this all taking us? I can’t wait for the next chapter.