Renewable Resources: Growing Up With Sarge Shrivers Biggest Fans
Adrienne Benson Scherger
My brother is the black sheep of the family. He married a year out of college and went to law school, which he loved. Soon afterwards he became a lawyer and a father. I admire his rebellious spirit. I, on the other hand, split up with my college boyfriend just before graduation. He went back home to Alaska, and I packed a backpack and headed for the Himalayas to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. I always was the dutiful daughter.
Ever since I can remember, Sargent Shriver’s name has been a household word. My parents would often pause in the middle of a story about their Peace Corps experience and sigh, “Good old Sarge Shriver.” In Zambia, when I was a small child, my parents were work-ing for the American Friends Service Committee. Those were the days of little extra money, and we used to vacation by taking extended camping trips in our VW van. Driving through the game parks, my brother and I would bounce up and down shrieking, “Whoever sees an elephant first gets a brownie!” My mother would turn from her position in the passenger seat to say, “Settle down, you guys. Let me tell you about the time I lived right by the ocean.” Nothing would calm me like imagining my mother with her long, black braids setting up a home in a bamboo house, a house on stilts at the edge of a Philippine island.
My father would enrapture us with stories, as well. He’d pause, mid-sentence, to twist up the edges of his handlebar mustache and launch into a story of the Rajasthan desert—narrow escapes from deadly asps or trying to teach Hindu camel herders to raise chickens. He even claimed to have learned to hypnotize chickens in Peace Corps training.
My mother, formerly Pamela Cohelan (Philippines 10), and my father, David Benson (India 5), were both Peace Corps Volunteers. They served under Kennedy, under “Good old Sarge Shriver.” Growing up with their stories and their commitment to development work, there was never a time when I didn’t dream of joining the Peace Corps myself.
My parents even met one another through the Peace Corps. My mom closed service and embarked on a round-the-world trip. She was headed home to a job at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. My father closed service, but stayed on in India by taking a staff position at the northern regional office. During her visit to India, my mother met some Volunteers, one of whom was my father, and the rest is history. They laid eyes on each other and suddenly a job at Peace Corps headquarters didn’t seem quite so appealing. My mother found herself a position with the Peace Corps regional office in Calcutta and six weeks—yes, six weeks!—after they met they were married in a church in Bombay. He sweating in a dark suit; she wrapped in a crimson sari.
When I was accepted to Peace Corps almost 30 years later, my parents were thrilled. When they heard I was going to Nepal, they began planning their trip. I had grown up in Africa, so Asia was a welcome new horizon for me and, of course, a cause for nostalgia for them.
Some things about being a second-generation Peace Corps Volunteer were great. My parents understood my angst-filled, sometimes lonely letters home. They could talk about sustainable development and the frustrations of village life. They laughed with me in recognition of generic Peace Corps stories, pit latrines, and overcrowded buses. My mother and I found solidarity in the classic female Volunteer weight gain and in the multitude of marriage proposals from strange men (my father’s proposal to her not included).
As a Volunteer in the 1990s, I was often told that things are much easier for contemporary Volunteers than they were “back in the day.” I’m sure that’s true in many ways. However, when my parents first made the hike into Pula Bhirmuni, my village under the edge of a cliff in the Kali Gandaki river valley, both of them said that my site, my Peace Corps life, was harder than theirs had been. Of course, much of that assertion had to do with the fact that I am their baby daughter, but I still felt, upon hearing it, that I’d arrived.
The women in the village were so impressed that I had a family. Many hadn’t been convinced that I was not simply some unconnected entity, with them because I had nowhere else to be. A young, unmarried woman voluntarily so far away from her family was simply too bizarre to imagine. My mother wore a shalwar kameez (a long tunic with baggy pants), which was a huge success. We spent a day down in the rice paddies with the women. The tiny, terraced fields were emerald with the new rice growth and were bordered with golden, blooming soybeans. Amongst the laughter and singing of the women, we tried our best to work the rice. The women shrieked with mirth, “Aasa!” they yelled my village name, “your mother can do this better than you can!”
From Nepal, my parents continued on to India, where they visited my father’s old Peace Corps site. Thirty years after his service had ended, they were given a wonderful reception. Everyone still remembered him and his chicken projects.
I hope that there are some people in Pula Bhirmuni who will remember me if I am lucky enough to go back in 30 years. I have two children of my own now whom I hope someday will clamor to hear my Peace Corps stories. Maybe they will even be third-generation Peace Corps Volunteers, children raised on images of their mother making a home for herself in a little stone house in the shadow of the mountains in Nepal.
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