In 1956, when my husband, Horrie, and I were settling into our appointment to pastor the Hamilton Seventh-day Adventist Church in Victoria, we received a call to mission service. We were asked to go to Aoba (now called Ambae) in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).
If I had tried to tell the story of our mission experience by relying on memory, so much would have been lost.
We had several years of hoping and overcoming serious medical difficulties before being blessed with our darling daughter, Judith Anne. My initial reaction to the call was, How can I take my precious baby to a remote mission station that looks like a small pin-point on a map of the vast Pacific Ocean? For Horrie, the call spelled adventure!
We had promised to go where God called, so we would go. We were encouraged and supported by a family friend, Alma Wiles, a pioneer missionary with vast experience; and by former classmates, Pastor Barry and Norma Crabtree, whose place we would be taking at the Redcliffe Mission Station.
Horrie’s years of ministerial training, his experience growing up on a family farm, his work as a student on Avondale College building projects and his practical abilities gave him an excellent background for what would be required of him. My nursing training at the Sydney San (now Sydney Adventist Hospital) would also prove valuable.
Being so far from home—and from loved ones—I made it my practice to send duplicated letters to our parents, family members and two close friends, so they could feel part of our mission service and not miss the children’s early years, even if they could not interact with them. Posting the letters often proved difficult, so I numbered the envelopes when completed. Sometimes it could be weeks and, in the early years, months before they could be posted.
Unbeknown to me, my sister, Elva Manners-Fietz, had saved many of the letters. It came as a surprise when she gave me a carton containing them. It was a special thrill for Judi because she loved those early years on Vanuatu and then on Bougainville. It had been her dream to write a book about that time. Now, with these letters, she would have much of the material needed to help bring those years to life. Sadly, it was not to be. An accident claimed her life and shattered our family.
The letters and the dream were forgotten until one day as I searched through a trunk, I came upon the carton and thought there was now no reason to keep the letters. I spoke to Loren, our son, about burning them and he said, “No, Mum, don’t destroy them.”
The carton was once again stored and forgotten.
Horrie and Margaret Watts.
While talking to my friend, Dr Robyn Priestley, I told her of the letters and how sad it was that Judi’s dream had died with her. She suggested we read the letters together.
Robyn is a historian who knows about examining, documenting and compiling letters and making them into a story. She has spent years researching and deciphering letters of long-dead, 17th-century men and women to understand how they lived and related to each other. She thought it would be exciting to read the letters, mostly typed, with me, the writer, sitting next to her, ready to answer any questions and provide more detail about people and places.
This was all new to me, so I watched with great interest as the letters were gathered together in an orderly way. Then we set about reading them. Those years of long ago came to life vividly for me as we read, and Robyn and I felt that not only our children, Loren and Debbie, would enjoy reliving them, but also our grandchildren—and, perhaps, even a wider audience would appreciate them. My sister, Elva, saved only a few letters before the middle of 1964, but after that it is possible to trace the development of some stories through several letters. If I had tried to tell the story of our mission experience by relying on memory, so much would have been lost.
I may have written the letters, but they are published in this form because of a daughter who had a heart for the story they tell, a sister with the desire to keep alive the memories they contain, and a friend with the passion and skill to bring that story to life.
Robyn and I hope that, in publishing these letters, we honour the hundreds of mission wives who worked to keep their families functioning successfully and happily in often-difficult circumstances. We want to also honour the children who grew up in lands and cultures different from their own. These letters portray ordinary family life in places that were very much out of the ordinary.
Now I invite you to journey with me through these letters for snapshots into the life of a missionary wife and her family on remote mission stations in the 1950s and 60s.