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The Black Umbrella

by Gwen Schroth

Grandmother died last year. My three children and I went to Minnesota to help Mother clean up her big, rambling house. While sorting through Grandma's front closet, I came across an old black umbrella, with two broken ribs sticking out and a lot of smudges on it. A multitude of memories came rushing upon me as I turned it over in my hand and rubbed its cracked bone handle.

We thought at first, I remembered, that our biggest problem would be coats. We had left the warmth of India for a cold winter's trip through Europe and then on to the snow and winds of Kansas. Mother managed to cut Betty's down into a shortie coat for me, mine into a shortie coat for Joanne, and Joanne's for Margie. Shorties had been the rage in America four years before and we expected to be all in style. I don't remember too well what we did for Betty. I think she wore an old sweater of Father's hanging her hands hard in the pockets to make it longer, but that didn't transform it into a smart shortie coat like ours; it still looked like a sweater. She and Mother used to exchange off and on, Mom's black coat for Betty's sweater, when we hit a particularly cold day, like the one in Germany, when it snowed.

My, how we loved that snow! When the train stopped out in the countryside we hopped off and grabbed a handful. We hadn't seen snow for four years, because South India gets too hot for that sort of thing. We got a lot of things in the missionary barrels--old shoes, old dresses and such, but naturally nothing like snow ever appeared.

The passengers really stared at us as we ate the snow, but this was one of the very few times I didn't mind. There was a hideous old umbrella that we were carrying with us and it was when my turn came to carry the umbrella that I minded being stared at. When we were on the boat, that monster of a thing could be stuck in a corner and forgotten, but traveling for a month in Europe meant changing trains, it meant museums, cathedrals, restaurants, and taxicabs, it meant following guides, dashing for buses and running after trams. And all in the middle of winter, too.

The Black Umbrella

At first Betty and I had cried. Take that big thing all the way? We wouldn't be seen doing such a thing!

"It doesn't fit into any trunk and it is wasteful to leave it behind." Father said it once, and any more words from us would sail right past. When he didn't want to hear, he didn't hear.

"Mother!" we wailed.

Mother rarely heard us.

So Betty assigned each of us a day. When we had figured out who would carry what, it turned out that Betty, Joanne and I were the only ones with a spare hand left to carry that atrocious umbrella. Margie held it up to herself and in spite of her missing teeth and uncombed hair, she looked like a beauty queen compared to the ugly umbrella.

"It is just as tall as I am," she squealed. Mother said that this exempted her, which meant that I got a turn every third day instead of every fourth; a total of 10 days instead of 7 1/2.

I dreaded carrying the umbrella, and the first time around I got off the train long after everyone else, carrying Father's pillow under one arm and the umbrella under the other. I kept a distance between myself and other travelers, warily eyeing each one that went past me. Some people stopped when they saw me, but I just held my head very high and tromped on, pretending to be a very important person from another country, in disguise of course. I almost lost my family, I was so busy arranging the look on my face, but Joanne came back for me.

By the time we reached Paris we had each had a turn at the umbrella and we decided that something would have to be done. That afternoon we got lost on our way to see the Bastille. The taxi driver couldn't speak English and Father was shouting at him alternately in German and Telegu. None of us remembered the name of our hotel. It took 45 minutes for us to find a familiar landmark and by then Betty had hatched her master plan.

I pulled for going all the way and dropping the umbrella from the Eiffel Tower, but Betty was always goody-goody and claimed that accidentally losing it was as far as we could go. So, since it was Joanne's turn the next day, she watched for a chance and finally left the black umbrella behind a statue of some tame-looking thing at the Louvre. But Father calmly picked it up without losing a word in the lecture he was giving us on the history of art. I was disgusted with Joanne because I would have chosen some sort of a nude, like Venus or something, and Father wouldn't have had the courage to come within ten feet of it.

So I took the next turn. As we were waiting for a train to Switzerland, I sauntered nonchalantly around the station, and deposited the umbrella behind a dingy bench. That's how the first rib got broken. We safely boarded the train, and were about to sigh with relief when Father missed the umbrella. I had to run back, at the risk of being left, at the risk of my life, and fetch back the ghastly thing. I was about to make it back in time, and in fine shape, when I tripped and fell.

"You broke a rib," accused Father, nursing the umbrella.

"Yes, Father."

"Well, you do it better next time," I hissed at Betty, nursing my knee. "You find a better place, just go ahead and try." Betty always thought she was so smart.

Father had written ahead for reservations in a hotel in Lucerne. Until then we had mainly been sleeping nights on trains, doing our sightseeing during the day. We seemed to be the only guests at the hotel in Lucerne and the man who met us at the door took Father's bags to the desk, dashed around it to register us, put on a special cap, and showed us to our rooms.

Of course, the first thing Mother insisted on was showers, so Betty, Joanne and I went first and accidentally used up enough of the hot water so that when Father got in, it ran out. He got quite noisy about it, sending Mother downstairs to see the man, who turned out to be the plumber, too. This was the chance we had been waiting for. We were delighted to be out of Father's sight for a while and quickly set to work. We went over that hotel room with a fine-toothed comb and finally found a little door that opened to a small attic. We argued over the likelihood of Father's looking there, but Betty won out. Later on I told her that if we had followed my advice and placed it on the ledge outside the window Father wouldn't have found it, and Joanne maintained she had been certain throughout that giving the umbrella to the hotel man would have done the trick. But I'll bet she didn't get the idea until it was time to leave, two days later, and Mother had already asked, "Now check around, girls. Did we leave anything?"

Now, why did she have to go and say that? Of course, we all chimed in together, reassuring her that we had thoroughly checked every corner and under every bed. Then, since we used so many beds, Father got the idea that we probably hadn't checked under all of them and went about double-checking. By then, with Mother's fussing and fidgeting, picking up and putting things down, counting and then saying, "But I'm sure we all were carrying THREE things, not just two," and sort of humming and wailing at the same time, Father got the notion that we had left something. Joanne had to go and tell the taxi driver to wait just a little bit longer. Then Father had Mother sit down and go over the list of things we should have: three suitcases, a diaper bag, a bag to serve for cosmetics and such, the bag for odds and ends, the lunch basket, Father's briefcase, the pillows, and, of course, the umbrella. But Mother didn't mention the umbrella and we sat very still. It wasn't until we were settled in the taxicab that Father thought of it. He dashed back and I cried (my turn was coming up again), Joanne started kicking Betty, and Margie poked the baby, who howled. I was swearing that rather than be seen with that broken, dirty old thing, I wouldn't take in anymore of the sightseeing.

"Of course, dear," murmured Mother, absentmindedly rocking the suitcase instead of the baby, who was on the seat beside her. Father came out then and was in such a rush that he banged into a post and broke another rib on the umbrella.


Now you'd think that at this point he would have discarded it and called it a foolish notion, but Father's notions were never foolish. You'd also be thinking by now that such a useful object, especially in the middle of winter, would come in handy. But when we finally arrived in London where there was fog and rain (the stuff they make umbrellas for), Father didn't even use the umbrella. It wasn't big enough to fit over all of us and rather than have one or two get wet, he said we'd all get wet together. I really think he didn't know how to manage carrying the baby, an open umbrella, and looking after the rest of us in a big city.

By now that everlasting umbrella looked too decrepit to leave at the museum, in a taxi, or even at Picadilly Circus. Actually, we had already tried nonchalantly climbing out of taxis, leaving the umbrella tucked inconspicuously under a seat, but it never worked. The drivers acted suspicious about it and you'd think we were stealing from them instead of generously trying to give them an umbrella. But, as I said, the umbrella looked too awful to leave anywhere. With two ribs broken, the bone handle cracked, and the point rather worn from being dragged every step of the way through Europe, it would have been too conspicuous. The day the Queen went by, even the bystanders looked at Joanne when she waved the umbrella and yelled, "God Bless America."

That embarrassed me an awful lot, but I forgot it the instant we started to board the Ile de France and the hinges of the cosmetic case broke and spewed the contents all over the gangplank, while the waiting crowd watched. Betty scooped, I shoved and, with tears streaming down my face, I plunged up the gangplank, squeezing hard on the cracked bone handle.

A week later we were at Grandma's in Minnesota, eating pickles, apples, and ice cream, enjoying the things we had missed the most over the four long years in India.

I gently touched the umbrella with its familiar, cracked bone handle. I was about to throw it back into Grandma's closet, when on an impulse I went to show it to Father. He gave it no more than a glance and said, "That old thing! Why, throw it away; who'd ever want such a thing?"