This story starts with my sister praying for a dog at bedtime. I know my sister well enough to know that she really wasn’t praying for a dog, this was a coded message to my parents. Finally, my parents got the message: my sister wanted a dog.
We lived in Recife at the time, in a beautiful apartment directly across from the beach. This was one of my favorite homes we lived in while in Brazil. You could see the beach from our front balcony, the sea breeze would fill our apartment with a cool and refreshing air. There were only 3 apartments in the building–one on each floor–we lived in the first story apartment. This was not the missionary’s home of missionary lore–this was not a simple house in the jungle, nor was this a simple house amongst the Brazilians my parents worked with. This was an upper class luxury apartment.
In the mid to later half of the 1980s, Brazil was going through serious economic struggles. However, the currency exchange favored the dollar. Even though my parents didn’t make a large salary, since they were paid in dollars we lived a very comfortable upper middle class lifestyle and were able to afford our current home. Homes such as our would even come with maid’s quarters–usually a small bedroom and bathroom in the back of the house.
My sister and I attended the American School that catered to international students. Usually we would ride the bus home, but on this specific day, our parents were coming to pick us up after school. When the car pulled through the parking lot we could see that on my mom’s lap was a little puppy. My sister’s prayers had been answered. We had a dog.
My father named the dog Sheba. He had purchased her from a random person on the street with a box of puppies (you could buy a lot of things off the street in Recife in the 80s). Sheba was a sweet mutt that had traces of Pomeranian and Pekingese. Sheba let my sister dress her up and push her around in her doll stroller. She would even let my sister feed her from a spoon while she sat in Valerie’s doll high chair.
I don’t remember taking Sheba to the vet for the first time, but I do remember the instructions that he gave my parents. We should buy ground beef, make balls the size of Sheba’s head and freeze them. Then we were to feed a little ball of ground beef to her every day. So we did.
My mom would buy an extra package of ground beef at the grocery store and it was my job to roll out little balls of ground beef and put them in the freezer. When it was time to feed the dog, I would take out a little ball of ground beef, thaw it in the microwave, mix a bit of kibble with it and feed it to Sheba. Of course, as any dog would, she gobbled it up.
About the same time as Sheba joined our family, my parents hired a maid.
Her name was Na–short for Natalicia. She was a small woman, who lived in a nearby favela (slum). She was a converted alcoholic that had found Christianity through the Brazilian Pentacostal Church. She worked for our family and another missionary family on alternating days. When people in the US found out we had a maid–they were shocked–how could missionaries afford such a luxury? My father would always explain that if you could afford extra help, it was a cultural expectation to hire someone. Whether or not that is true, I have no idea. But I tend to believe that this might have been an exaggeration–an excuse.
Na would arrive at our house around 8am and spend the day cleaning. Many times, she would also cook dinner for us. It would be dark when she left our apartment to get the bus back to her home. Often, she would take home the leftovers from our dinner. I know my parents paid her, but I have no idea what her salary was. I would like to think they compensated her well.
I know there were times when we were not going to be home in the evenings and my mom would ask Na to please feed Sheba. So, this woman who lived in a slum, would take a little ball of ground beef out of the freezer, thaw it out in the microwave, mix a bit of kibble with it and feed it to the dog. This is the same woman who could not afford to buy that extra package of ground beef from the grocery store. Instead of cooking it and eating it herself, she fed it to our dog.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was struck by the callousness and absurdity of this situation. Our dog ate better than many of the people my parents ministered to. Our dog ate better than the person that was hired to cook and clean up after us. Our dog ate better, on a nightly basis, than many people across the country.
As a 46 year old adult, even though I had no control over the situation, I feel guilt for something that I participated in as a 12 year old. I am the type of person who has never taken many risks so I can honestly say there are only a few things I feel guilty over. Participating in this is near the top. And frankly, I have no idea what to do with this guilt. I can (and I do) pay it forward to others that are not as fortunate as I am, but that doesn’t make my guilt go away. Even though it is not mine to own, I am ashamed that my parents were not able to see and understand what they were doing. I could apologize, but who would I apologize to? Na wouldn’t be able to hear them. The only thing I can do is be a different kind of parent to my kids than my parents were to me. And just maybe, by seeing my own kids make deliberate and compassionate choices towards others, because of me being an example of the right thing to do, I can begin to feel forgiven.