I was born in 1941 in Talca, Chile, a prosperous, temperate farming region. I was the youngest of three and
grew up in a house run by a General, not my father. No, it was my mother. She was the daughter of a French mining engineer who believed that daughters should marry well and young. After her father tragically died in a shipwreck, along with her brother, she got an education and became a CPA. She was able to later support her husband, my father, in starting his engineering firm. My father was the oldest of nine. He learned to work hard from his German father, and how to love from his Swiss mother. Our house ran like a clock. Morning and night kisses and a “sleep with the angels” mantra was our daily bread. They were parents who encouraged me to venture out in life and become who I am today.
One of my memories as a child was traveling by train to visit relatives. My mother wore a hat and gloves, and we three kids, dressed in our Sunday clothes, would go to the railway station in a horse drawn coach driven by Don Pedro, dressed in a black suite and a tall black hat. We spent our summers at a RUSTIC, wooden hotel in the Andes mountains. Preparations to travel took several days. We even had to take our mattresses, sheets and towels. There was no phone, TV, or radio at the hotel, so nature provided our entertainment. We hiked to waterfalls, rivers, and rock formations, often encountering local vendors selling fruit, home baked bread and charcoal. On one of these hikes, we came across a man on a donkey on his way to the nearest village. He was holding a parrot, and we convinced our mother to buy the parrot for us – we named him Joaquín. The next day we forgot to close a footlocker with all our clean clothes, and while we were out, Joaquín entertained himself by cracking all the buttons. I don’t even want to remember my mother’s reaction, but we kept the parrot!
My brother, who was two years older, and had an ingenuous mind, would always think of something to trick our parents so we could go out and have fun with our friends. As we got older, we became more daring and started driving our father’s car, with no driver’s license. We would pick up friends and take off to a beautiful river bend to fish and play in the water. On one occasion, a friend of my mother’s asked her “where were you going yesterday with a car full of kids?” That ended our sneaking out in the car!
In Talca in the 50’s, there were no restaurants, only tea rooms. I have great memories of my father and I going out on hot afternoons to have tea and ice-cream at Calaf, my favorite chocolate factory. Going out for dinner as a family was not customary, so our meals were always at home. Our main meal was a four-course lunch, and my favorite was empanadas.
After I finished high school, I went to the University of Chile in the port city of Valparaiso. I majored in English Education, and because I was the only protestant student in my class, one of my professors, a Scottish Anglican Priest, invited me to a special service at his church where Prince Phillip would be attending. My parents were in town, so the three of us went. As the prelude began, the British Fire Brigade, dressed in their elegant uniforms, escorted the prince to his seat in a pew just in front of us. At the appointed time he stood up, read the Scripture and returned to his seat without any protocol or introduction. At the time of passing of the peace, he turned around and shook our hands. At the end, he quietly recessed, escorted again by the British Fire Brigade. As we journey through life, we never imagine who will cross our path in the least expected way!
After I graduated, I went to work at a high school and a year later applied for a master’s degree at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where I knew a professor who I had met when he worked as a missionary in Chile. I graduated with a master’s in religious education. I will never forget processing in cap and gown in a big church, to the sound of loud trumpets. I felt as if I were entering heaven! The only regret was that my parents, who had made all this possible for me, were not present.
I then went to Miami, Florida with a student visa to work at a church that had an English and a Spanish congregation. At my graduation, I had received several gifts, including a surprise gift from a male student friend of mine, a cute and colorful bikini. He was preparing me for the Miami beaches! My roommate in Miami turned out to be perfect for me. She spoke Spanish, had lived in Bolivia, and had lots of friends. One evening she invited her neighbor, a college student named John Powell, just out of the Navy, for dinner. I am sure he thought that I was some kind of nun, coming from a seminary. However, the next day John knocked on the door to invite me to the beach. After he saw me in that colorful bikini, he never stopped knocking at the door. A year later he became my permanent roommate, and he still is, 53 years later.
John & I settled in Miami with a son and a daughter. John worked as an engineer for the electric company, I as Christian Education Director at local churches, and the children attended a Christian school. We were living a comfortable life, but one day John received a call to interview for a job in Saudi Arabia with Aramco, an oil company we had never heard of. The job was customized to John’s expertise. He was offered the job and given one week to decide. I did not want to leave Miami, but after discussing the list of pros and cons, John said, “I still want to go.” I ripped up the list and said, “let’s go.”
After a year of working on a project in the US for Aramco, we boarded a charter plane full of new families, arriving in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on a hot November day in 1981. We were taken to a small Dutch Compound of small prefab houses with gravel streets. My kitchen had only a stove and a sink; the beds had sheets and blankets but no covers. We had no curtains and no shelves. An Indian carpenter found a door and made it into a kitchen counter, and with the sewing machine that I had brought, I made curtains and bedspreads. One morning while sewing, I heard a spark. I looked up and the ceiling was in flames! I called the gate keeper to get the fire department, but he, knowing only Arabic, did not understand me. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed the ceiling. When the fire engine finally arrived, the fire was extinguished, and I was all wet and covered in soot. That day I decided to enroll myself in Arabic lessons, which later helped us live and travel in the Middle East.
I decided to enter the workforce with Aramco and put in my application papers at the Casual Employment Office (wives were called Casuals). I was offered a job in the Expec Computer Center (ECC). Being a woman, I had no authority to sign the Work Contract. John had to sign it. In the ECC I was trained in computers – DOS was just starting in those days. Later I became an instructor and taught computer applications. Many times, I felt that I was only a page ahead of the students! I was transferred and promoted several times and ended as Training Coordinator of 250 Reservoir Engineers. It was my best job within the company, and I had my best boss ever – a Turkish-Armenian Christian who now owns a consulting company in Houston and with whom I keep in touch.
As a family we enjoyed traveling to different parts of the world. Traveling was one of my “pros” when we were deciding on moving to Saudi Arabia. Over the years we have visited 60+ countries in all seven continents. John and the children were scuba divers, so one year we planned a trip to Cozumel. Not being a diver myself, I spent my days sightseeing. As soon as we returned to Saudi, I enrolled myself in diving lessons because I didn’t want to miss out the next time. I was 44 then. It took me three tries to pass the swimming test, but I received my Beginners and Intermediate Certifications, and I was never left behind again. That same year our family went to ski in Austria during Christmas. I again did not want to be left behind, so I took ski lessons. My ski instructor, a young and handsome Austrian college student had the patience of a saint. He would say to me “Violeta, come to me” and I would respond “I wish I could!” It took me two years to graduate from beginners, but over time I became an expert skier.
During our life in Saudi Arabia we lived through four Middle East wars, but the one that impacted us the most was the First Gulf War. The US responded quickly, and tanks, ships, and airplanes surrounded our area. We were no more than two hours from the Kuwaiti border, and the military airport was in our back yard. We heard planes taking off every 10 minutes. Children and adults had to carry gas masks at all times and when necessary, wear them and be ready to go to a shelter when the siren rang. Marines were stationed very close to us, and in order to assist them, the ex-marine employees of the company organized the entire compound in groups by neighborhoods, each group led by a warden. Once a week the marines came to our homes for dinner, washed their clothes and called their families in the US. We supplied them with immediate needs like toothpaste, pen and paper, stamps, etc. On weekends, we drove in a caravan to the border and regularly fed around 2,500 marines.
Despite our humble beginning and hardships along the way in Saudi Arabia, we shared many adventures in traveling and learning the language and customs of our new home. Although there were many hardships while living in the Middle East, those were some of the most wonderful days we had. We helped each other, our children played and went to school together, we became one big family and the friendships we made were for life.
Traveling in the Middle East was fascinating. John and I traveled through Lebanon and into Syria. We went to Palmyra, now destroyed, Chres de Chevalier and other crusader castles. In Damascus we walked on the Street called The Straight, and visited the house where Paul was let down through the window. If we hadn’t known some Arabic, we might still be there, walking on the road with our suitcases in tow. I also visited Iran with 12 women, prompted by an adventurous friend. One of the most exciting and dangerous experiences in my years living in the Middle East was visiting Qom, the second holiest city in Iran and entering Fatima Masumed’s Shrine. She was considered a saint and the holiest child. This was a sacred shrine totally forbidden for “infidels” (non- Muslims). While at the gate, a woman approached four of us and brought us in. We think she might have been an American married to an Iranian. While touring the Shrine we realized we were in danger of being caught. We ran out bare footed, holding our sneakers in our hands, and got back to our van and disappeared. We did not realize until later the danger that we were in. We could have been arrested, and even punished. After touring Iran, it took us two days to convince the authorities to allow us to leave the country. Even though there were scary parts to the trip, I do not regret having gone at all!
We retired to Breckenridge, CO in 2003 and bought a house at a 10,500’ elevation. We fell in love with the beautiful mountains for the hiking, skiing and the gorgeous sunsets. Those mountains reminded me of Chile. We became perennial volunteers. On one occasion, as a mountain volunteer, I found myself unexpectedly at the top of a zip-line tower as a guinea pig, to test a new line that linked two peaks. Because I was not heavy enough for the line, the operator suited me with a heavy backpack full of whatever he could find for me to have the appropriate weight. After hanging in the air for some time due to a delay caused by a heavy wind, suddenly the gate opened, and I went flying in the wind. When I finally landed on solid ground, I could not believe what I had done. I was 75 years old then.
We enjoyed our life in Breckenridge. The magnificent views, the community, and especially our “Historical, Little Yellow Episcopal Church” which brought many friends and love into our lives. But the time came when we realized that the altitude, the snow shoveling, and our big garden were getting to be too much for us. After 18 years there, we decided to move closer to one of our children. We have a son and family in Kansas City, MO and a daughter and family here in Charlotte. Southminster offered us a nest where we could live the rest of our lives, and we are thankful for that. Now we are with you, who welcome us as part of the Southminster family, and continue enriching our lives with your life-stories, kindness and love.