by Madeline Sharples
From January 1977 to September 1978 I lived with my family on an island in the South Pacific – Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. The island is a military base, and my husband Bob managed a military-funded program there. We had a slow and easy life on the island, filled with all kinds of beach and water activities. When we arrived our sons Paul was five and Ben was two and a half. When we left Paul was seven and Ben four. Ben was glad to leave; Paul could have stayed forever.
However, when we first stepped off the plane (a military carrier with no windows) I wanted to be any place but there. I had had to take a leave of absence from my job at the same company where my husband worked, so on Kwajalein I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time.
It took me six months to learn to love and accept my life of leisure. Still I had plenty of things to keep me busy: playing tennis every weekday morning after taking the boys to Kindergarten and preschool, running, going to the beach or the pool with the boys in the afternoons, snorkeling, taking Yoga classes, painting and doing needlework, volunteering at the preschool, going to the boys’ t-ball games, managing the Micronesian handicraft shop, taking a course in Cobol programming, teaching a children’s art class, vacationing in Micronesia and Hawaii, and entertaining several dozen people at small dinners and large parties in our home.
Only 3000 people lived on this small island – only three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile and a half long, and we became quite close with the people Bob worked with and many of the other families from other companies. We are still connected with many of them to this day.
Being on the island also was the beginning of my writing days. I got up early with Bob, and after he left by bicycle for the flight that would take him to another island for his work, I wrote in my journal until the boys woke up. That writing resulted in my first published piece – an article about our life on the island for my company magazine.
Eventually the day came to leave. With shell and flower leis draped around our necks we drove off to the airport – one of the few times we traveled in a van on Kwajalein rather than by bicycle. Across the street many, many friends – Bob’s work colleagues, our social friends on the island, my tennis buddies, and our Marshallese house keepers – were waiting under a tree we called “Yum Yum,” for a familiar ritual to bid us goodbye with champagne in hand. They had come to say “Yukwe Yuk,” sort of like saying “Shalom” in Marshallese.
I was happy and sad as we boarded the same military airplane for the states. Leaving Kwajalein is such a final thing. I never got used to that finality.
Madeline Sharples is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide – in poetry and prose (Dream of Things) and co-author of Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press). She co-edited The Great American Poetry Show Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and wrote the poetry for The Emerging Goddess photography book (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her articles appear at Naturally Savvy and Aging Bodies and on her blog, Choices [madelinesharples.com]. She is currently working on a novel.