Back to Stories

Part 1

by Betty Dahl


My parents came to India in 1929 with one child, Phyllis Jean. Our grandparents, Nicholas and Susie (Wiebe) Hiebert were missionaries to India before them. They all belonged to the Mennonite Brethren Church and came out to India under the auspices of the Mennonite Church. Both of my parents grew up in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, and the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church in Mountain Lake was particularly helpful in funding our parents in this endeavor.

The intersection of life as a Mennonite child living in a foreign country in a large family of eight living children, and attending boarding school ten months of the year about 500 miles away from parents all worked to make our life quite different from the lives of our own children. Thus I am presuming that this chronicle will be of some interest to my children and to my grandchildren, who have at times requested that I put these memories down for them to read.

Early Years: Wanaparthy, Andhra Pradesh, India

Wanaparthy, my birthplace, was located in a fiefdom called Hyderabad. It was in Hyderabad City that the Nizam, the Muslim ruler of this fiefdom, lived in a palace with his more than 400 wives. The forebears of the Osmani dynasty came to India from Baghdad, and in 1724 the Moghul Governor of the Deccan, Asaf Jah, Nizam ulMulk, Qamar ud-din Khan, established himself as ruler of the Deccan with Hyderabad as its capital. The rulers were Muslim, but the populace (over 16 million people) was mainly Hindu. There was continual strife between the two that intensified rather than lessened over the years our family lived there. In turn, the Nizam was ruler in a land governed by the British Empire. For a time the Nizam's successors took an active part in supporting the efforts of the British army and won favors. Hyderabad became the largest (83,000 square miles) and premier princely state in the Mogul empire. Later there were additional problems since many felt India should be independent. There were two sets of law--those imposed by Britain and those handed down by the Nizam. There were even two kinds of money, the British rupee and Hyderabad's haliska (halley) rupee and they were not of equal value. Bookkeeping and shopping were complex, to say the least.

The Nizam in power at the time I was born was the seventh Nizam to rule over Hyderabad. He reportedly had a cane with a gold handle. Reader's Digest had an article about him in which it was reported that the Nizam was one of the wealthiest persons on earth, that he had solid gold place settings for 100 people, and that pearls were kept in big bins in a warehouse and even in wells. Other reports stated that he had asked his servants to clean and sort his pearls, but they gave up after three days as it was too tedious and time-consuming. When a truckload of gold came to his palace, he had no place to put the gold so he had the truck parked under a tree with guards around it. It was still sitting there some two years later. He also owned a jungle, hundreds of thousands of acres, because he wanted to hunt and bring friends with him.

Each day the Nizam would go twice to the mosque for prayers; he insisted that all traffic stop and let his group pass uninterrupted. We would urge Dad to get in behind the line, arguing that no one would know the difference. We could then drive quite a distance very quickly. The fact that a whole city came to a halt for the Nizam's cortege and the many stories of his wealth and extended family of 400 wives and countless children were the subjects of many conversations we held while in Hyderabad. The Mongols were Persian invaders, and the Nizam's first wife had to be Persian to keep the bloodline to Iran.

The Nizam tried to maintain Hyderabad as an independent state when the British withdrew in 1947, refusing to join either India or Pakistan. Unfortunately for him, his constituents were primarily Hindus. In 1950 the newly established independent India invaded and annexed Hyderabad through a police action. The Nizam was given a ceremonial post, but he resigned his office. In 1956 Hyderabad was split and dismembered along linguistic lines. The state we had come to know as children, a state that had prided itself on cultural and intellectual superiority, was no more.

Wanaparthy, along with Hyderabad City, Mahbubnagar and most of the locations selected for Mennonite mission stations, became a part of the state that is now called Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh is the fifth largest state in India with 23 districts, many of which produce a variety of rice that is popular with the Indians and British. Thus Andhra Pradesh came to be called the Rice Bowl of the South. The ancient shrine of Vittaleswara was located in Wanaparthy, and the Sariasagar project located there boasted the biggest siphon dam in the world.

Folks and Balzers at Wanaparthy

My Birth

August in Wanaparthy, a considerably smaller city than Hyderabad City, is very warm, often 100 degrees in shade and 105-108 degrees in full sun. No one wants to work or even move over the noon hour. Mama was uncomfortable and in pain during the last month of pregnancy, and the relentless summer heat did not help her frame of mind. Yet the increasing discomfort meant that birth was near, and she could soon resume a more normal life. So many children in a row (I would be the 5th pregnancy in 6 years) were taking its toll on Mama.

No doubt it would have been more difficult had Mama not had an ayah (a fulltime nanny) for the babies and children. Ayahs changed diapers, helped mother get in and out of bed, watched for the safety of the children as they played, and essentially took care of us so mother could manage other work related to the mission of bringing Christianity to India. This struggle between being a good mother and a good missionary was one that plagued mother all her life. She felt she short-changed both roles.

The morning of my birth, Mama said she distinctly saw angels and that from then on she knew I was her angel. Perhaps the medicine for pain had a hallucinogenic effect (in later years she would hallucinate after pain medicine given following her surgeries). Mama, in her memoirs, reports becoming very agitated with labor pains and calling the nurse to pray with her. The blue-eyed blonde baby was unlike her other children, who all had dark hair, darker complexions and, for the most part, dark eyes. This confirmed mother's feelings that an angel had visited her and touched the baby, turning her hair and complexion to white-blonde.

Furthermore, my birth was notable for a race with the clock. Dr. Schellenberg, a Mennonite missionary doctor, was to attend my birth. She worked in Shamshabad, several hours away by train. Dr. Schellenberg was aware that birth was near and came by train to check Mama. The doctor decided she had just enough time to go to Shamshabad to write checks for her employees. She planned to return the next day. Meanwhile Mama went into labor and was in severe pain. Natural childbirth was the only method available to women in those days. Mama worried whether the baby would come before the doctor returned, so the village midwife was called to be available in case Dr. Schellenberg did not make it back in time.

Morning broke over the horizon on August 9, 1934, and Mama knew the baby was going to come soon, doctor or not, and she tried to prepare Papa for the event. Mama kept saying, "I see angels." Papa thought she was dying or hallucinating. Just then Dr. Schellenberg walked in and took over. She had taken an earlier return train than she had planned because she began to worry about the baby coming. As it happened, that was the last train she could have taken to return in time for the birth. Maybe I was an angel because I waited for the doctor to come.

Word of my birth reached the local village. Most of these villagers had never traveled outside their village and thus had never seen a blue-eyed blonde. When events occurred that they did not understand, the villagers often gave them a religious interpretation. Some said I was a special child of God and that I had gifted powers. Other villagers, not understanding the possibility that a child could inherit two recessive genes for blue eyes or blonde hair, thought a blonde missionary fathered me. When mother tried to explain this situation, they nodded in assent, smiled, but still believed what they wanted.

As I grew older and my hair remained fair, many Indian villagers tried to snip off strands of it to keep for a charm. Mama began to braid my hair very tightly so there would be less tugging on my hair and fewer attempts to snip some off. Nonetheless, I was definitely an attraction in the villages. I later grew to suspect that this was in line with the Indian tendency to deify anything or anyone they could not understand, including persons who have hallucinations and breaks with reality. The community declared such people to be holy and housed them in the temple and fed them so the gods would bring favor to their family and village. There were no mental hospitals, so no one was confined to a mental institution.

I was named after Queen Elizabeth of England, the queen who became Queen Mum to so many Britishers after she handed the reign to her daughter, also named Elizabeth. My middle name Ann was a shortened form of Mama's name, Anna. Mama also thought that the two names "belonged together." Thus my name reflects the British influence on India those early years before India became independent. The queen was often in the news at the time and the national anthem, "God Save the Queen," was often sung at events. At first, I thought of it as a rather regal name, but it was, sadly, a name that seemed to invite a nickname, and so I acquired various nicknames. The first was "Lizzie." It stuck until I rebelled at age 9 because the boys called me "Lizzie" or "Lizard" to tease me. I asked for a more respectable name, and so Dad proclaimed that I would from hereon be called Betty (spelled with a y). The family adapted, but the boys in school kept calling me Lizzie, Liz, Lizard, or Dizzy Lizzie.

For a time I viewed myself as so unique that I figured I must have really been born into French royalty and been given up for adoption. Being blonde and blue-eyed, I couldn't see how I fit into a family with dark-haired and dark-eyed (except Joanne) siblings. I seriously thought of legally changing my name to reflect this uniqueness, though I had not yet settled on any particular one. However, there never was extra money to spend on such an action, so during high school I decided to change the spelling of "Betty" to "Bette" to demonstrate to others my sense of being unique. There were too many Betty's in the schools I attended. When Dad got cross with me, he called me "Elizabeth Ann"--I knew I was in trouble when I heard my full name. Thus I had no special affinity for this name, though now I use it in legal documents. I was always glad my initials EAD didn't end up with some bad word as some others had to endure, such as GAS or DUM or worse.

My Siblings

I joined a family of three children: Phyllis Jean, born in Mt. Lake, Minnesota on July 15, 1928; Grace Luella, born in Shamshabad, India on November 10, 1929; and Paul Gordon, born in Shamshabad, India on November 13, 1932.

Dad and Mama with Phyllis........then with Phyl's little sister Grace

Mama with Paul and me

Mama was still mourning the death of her third child, Helen Luetta (born in 1931), who had died at the age of 7 months, most likely of encephalitis. Mama wrestled with her faith and with what she perceived as God's failure to honor her prayers and let Helen live, an issue that plagued Mama all her life. She often quoted scripture to back up her point. She had dedicated her life to God and yet Helen was buried in Hyderabad City, Andhra Pradesh, India. We visited the grave each time we went to the city.

Mom holding Helen; Helen's Funeral

Four more children were born after me: Gwendolyn Jeannette on September 29, 1936 and Joanne Ruth on November 30, 1937 during our stay in Salem, Oregon; Margaret Suzanne in Mountain Lake, Minnesota on January 6, 1943; and Lois Kathleen in Kodaikanal, India on July 27, 1949. I was in the middle. Later I tried to persuade sisters that I was the only planned-for child in the family because I read an article that stated that most planned-for births are in August.

My siblings were also given names with special meanings. Phyllis meant Philo or love--so romantic of our parents, we thought. Grace meant God's grace; Helen was named after a grandmother, Paul was given the name of a Biblical stalwart, Elizabeth was named for a queen, Gwendolyn was the heroine of a story book Mama was reading at the time, and Joanne was a combination of our parents' names (John and Anna). Margy was named after Princess Margaret; Lois's name was picked by family vote.

My understanding of sex, pregnancy and childbirth were hopelessly immature even in high school as the topic of sex was taboo in the family as well as in boarding school. Much of what we learned was gained from equally uninformed dormmates and friends. By the time I reached high school I had checked out enough books and taken enough biology to have a rudimentary knowledge of the events leading up to the birth of a child. Yet I recall being shocked when we met our parents in Ooticamond in May, 1949, and I realized that Mama was pregnant with Loey.

Compared to Phyllis, who had been born prematurely below 5 lbs., Grace, who was often sickly and jaundiced in India, and Paul, who as a child was always very thin even though we called him Paul Garbage Can Hiebert because he finished everybody's leftovers, I was a healthy, plump baby with a strong desire to be active. During these early years I had three bouts with disease: malaria, diphtheria of the eye (we had to wait on penicillin, which had just come out in the USA), and removal of tonsils (this used to be fairly routine in childhood at that time). Though these illnesses were serious and frightening, I managed to come out not too much worse for the wear.

Paul was the only boy in our family. The Indian people wondered how Dad had sinned as the gods were clearly punishing him with so many girls and only one boy, though many felt Paul made up for the sad situation by being such a stellar son. We sisters tended to envy the fact that he always had a bedroom to himself while we girls all had to share rooms and beds. Paul and I were playmates, as often our family was isolated from other American children due to the distances between mission stations. A large family certainly provided live-in playmates.

Me with my playmate Paul

The ayahs would care for us while mother and father did their mission-related tasks. We enjoyed the freedom the ayahs gave us as they did not discipline us much, though they were careful for our safety. As Mama had received some training in nursing, she did some screening of people who sought medical help at the mission station but would send serious problems to the missionary nurse or doctor. Dad set up high schools for the mission. He organized them, trained teachers, and taught some courses in English. I recall the day Dad introduced the concept of "snow" to his class. The Indian youth could not imagine cold hard or soft water dropping out of the sky. No television and few films were available in those days to give them a global perspective.

Wanaparthy has few memories for me other than those told to me as an older child. One of the stories Mama told me occurred when I was very young. The Wanaparthy church was located across a large field of grass from the missionary's residence. Mama was used to walking across this field to the church. Mama did not see the bull and started across the grassy area towards the church with an infant in her arms (me, she thought). Suddenly she became aware of the bull charging toward her. She knew she could not outrun the bull, so she put the baby down and yelled at the bull as loud as she could, shaking her fist at it. "You will have to get me first," she yelled. "Get away." A very surprised bull stopped dead in its tracks, and a very surprised mother picked up the baby and went on her way to the church. Several versions of the event hit the village, and Mama gained more prestige with the villagers.

Mama also told me that her belief in Satan, or an evil force, was strongly reinforced by events at Wanaparthy. For new young missionaries to India, the task of starting a church and school among Hindus and Mohammedans was daunting. Nevertheless the church was in the process of being built when some of the builders ran to tell Mama and Dad that the devil was inside the church. Hot bricks were falling on the floor from the ceiling, and yet no missing bricks were found in the construction of the roof. The workmen left the premises in fear, feeling the evil spirits were telling them to stop work on the church. Mama and Dad prayed to God to overcome this evil force, and miraculously the bricks stopped falling. Mama did not talk of this event much to others because she felt most would think she was suffering from the heat or having delusions, yet she told me it was true and thus a very moving and frightening experience. She said a second time when she felt she faced an evil force head on occurred while watching a Hindu festival: she observed young men dancing in the heat until they were in a trance, yelling obscenities and unintelligible gibberish.

When I was a teenager, I went back to Wanaparthy to visit the Balzaars, an older missionary couple that was living there at that time. "Auntie Balzaar," as she was fondly called, sent us at school homemade marshmallows that simply melted in our mouths. What a treat to get them in the mail, and how hard it was to keep some for oneself as they disappeared fast once friends found out they had arrived.

When the Balzaars returned to claim residency at Wanaparthy, our family was moved to Hughestown, on the edge of Hyderabad City. I have recollections of later visits but none of my early days there.

Back to the USA: Salem, Oregon

After seven years of service in India, missionaries gained a furlough back to their homeland. Thus our family went back to the US in 1936. After a short stay in Mt. Lake, our family moved to Salt Creek, Oregon, located near Salem, where Dad pastored a small church. During that time he finished his B. A. at Willamette University. I was a two-year-old at the time. Two more sisters entered our clan during our stay in Salem: Gwen in 1936 and Joanne in 1937. I have no recollections of siblings from these years, neither older nor younger. I did, however, hear stories from Mom of a house fire and of living so crowded in a very small house that all the girls were bedded in one room. The house had three rooms, and we were now a family of 8 people.

Our family home at Salt Creek, Oregon

I have just a few memories of living out in the country near Salem. Foremost among my earliest memories are climbing and jumping experiences. I have vivid picture memories of a hayloft where we would jump from a barn window on to the haystack and would roll down the haystack to the bottom, where we tumbled around enjoying throwing the hay and exercising our lungs. Another picture memory is of a stone wall about two feet tall and about six inches wide. I would try to balance and walk the wall or try jumping over it. My knees were constantly a shade of black or blue. Then came the memorable occasion when I fell out of the apple tree I had climbed. If that were not enough, I kept jumping from the upper stairs inside the house to the landing. I felt I could fly. I have had that feeling many times in my dreams: I effortlessly coast down a set of stairs without having to put my feet down on each step. One day I tried to jump from a step just a little higher than I could manage and cut my tongue badly. Off to have stitches in my mouth and tongue. It shut me up for weeks, though I persisted in my jumping for years later.

I turned to more acceptable jumping in sports and entered jumping events like standing and running broad jump with enthusiasm. I still hold the Kodai school record for standing broad jump, only because it was discontinued as an Olympic sport after I had won my place in the record book. I tried pole and rope vaulting, but girls were not allowed to continue this sport because it was thought that such strenuous activity would harm their "girl parts" needed for childbirth. I cried that night. I didn't understand how jumping sports related to babies, and while I did want children, I also wanted to jump. I got the nickname "Jumpin' Lizzie" from all these sports.

Family Roles

Psychologists tell us that each family member develops a role to play within the family setting. One could say that Phyllis had the role of surrogate mother, a role forced on her as the oldest child. We took marching orders from her more frequently than from mother. Grace had the role of social leader. Paul's kingpin role was assigned to him by virtue of the fact that he was the only male sibling in a male dominant society. Gwen had the role of black sheep because she tended to be more obstinate; Jo was the dreamer. Loey and Margy were 6 years apart, so each became the spoiled kid for a few years longer than others. However, their lives were more affected by dad's illness than were the lives of the older ones, by more chaotic parenting, little consistency of locale, and fewer financial resources.

Being the middle child, I was ignored more than the older or younger ones and thus from an early age I tended to fend for myself. My life as a child was well configured to teach me independence and self-reliance Years later, at a psychology faculty workshop, each faculty member was asked to provide a nickname for all the members in the department in such a way as to characterize that faculty member's personality. Characterizations of the other faculty members received a varied response. In my case, 7 of the 10 faculty members had written down the same nickname: "Free Spirit." I do not recall asking permission to do things as a child. I just did them and took the consequences. I look back with amazement at the freedom to roam the ship, check out museums, etc. without close supervision. How trusting my parents were, perhaps out of necessity.

My role as a middle child was rather ambiguous. I was to follow instructions of the older girls and yet be a leader of the younger set. It has been said that this situation benefits a middle child because they learn skills of listening as well as leading as they learn to adapt to both younger and older siblings. Over the years, many in the family sought my advice on the basis that I tended to use problems as a problem-solving situation requiring objectivity in decision-making.

(To be continued)