by Betty Dahl
The Debate and Beginnings of a Relationship
Several girls had an eye on Carl Dahl, a tall, dark-haired senior with the highest grades in class, the valedictorian. He certainly was worth a second look, I decided. Unfortunately he was only in speech class with me, so our paths did not cross often. A golden opportunity to make him take notice of me came in the form of a debate on capital punishment. Margie Dick (also a missionary's daughter) and I paired up for the debate. Carl and a partner were also in the competition. Margie seemed hopeless at first; she just couldn't seem to get the hang of the formal debate process. But she and I persisted due to the energy the competition generated. I so wanted to win. And win we did, to the astonishment of all, including myself. I felt half guilty when I saw how surprised and dismayed Carl was, and wondered if I had nixed that relationship before it had begun. Later Carl would tell me that he noticed me more at church as a pianist and family singer. He hadn't paid that much attention to the debate after all.
Carl was the church youth leader and actually more into religion than I was; Kodai had been very ecumenical whereas the Mennonite Brethren churches were very conservative in their beliefs. Carl also sang in choir and the young men's chorus, and since I was the accompanist for both I would see him at practice and during church.
One night Carl stayed after choir practice and asked me if I would like to have him walk me home (all of three blocks). Great--a start! I was overjoyed. I got a lot of teasing from my siblings when I came into the house. Did you kiss him good night? No, good grief--this is the first date, if it could be called that. Then I wondered if Carl would ask again. How distressing it would be not to get a second call. What did I say and do that might have offended him? Why didn't he call? Did my sisters put him off by their teasing? Would he call before the next choir practice? Would he wait again by the organ and say he would wait and walk with me? No call beforehand, but as my good fortune would have it, he stayed to walk me home. After a few such walks, he brought his black Ford. I liked the idea of the car even though it was drafty and cool in winter--a good reason to sit closer, I thought. Having a car made dating more fun. Carl would turn what was called a "Come on Darling" corner (COD corner). The turn was so sharp and fast that the person beside the driver ended up in the driver's lap. We could also go to surrounding towns and cities such as Wichita, McPherson and Newton.
I mustered up courage to ask Carl to the Sadie Hawkins carnival (girls' choice) and he accepted. Rumors began to fly and my competitors were not at all enthused with my walking off with their prize eligible male. I ignored them because I felt all was fair in love and war. I got miffed when I found that the males in chemistry class had leaned on Carl to keep me out late so I could not study for the next day's chemistry test. What they didn't know was that once I knew I was going on a date, I studied far ahead and was well prepared; moreover I got up early and reviewed. The tactic was not working as they had planned. Competition just energized me. I was used to being number one in my class. I think I got this as a personality trait from both parents (double dose!) as well as from my observations of siblings and classmates.
It was summer and Carl and I went to play miniature golf, swim, and to see movies in Wichita. The first movie we attended was "Brigadoon," a musical, and the charm of it was so romantic. For a time I repressed the church and college stand against going to movies. My cousin Irene, who now was attending Tabor College, kept asking if Carl had kissed me yet. I clearly recall that first kiss. I couldn't sleep out of excitement. I loved the feeling of being in love.
Some of my sisters were also dating, and it was not uncommon to have three or four cars parked outside on the front street or driveway. If someone was blocked in and wanted to leave, each had to back out and let him or her out. The neighbors watched our comings and goings with interest. It was difficult to find a place in our house where we could talk. There were the front porch, the back steps, the living room, and the nearby park; all spaces were utilized. Often my sisters answered the phone when Carl called and teased him before calling me to the phone. We only had one phone and it was located in the dining room, a room with heavy traffic, so it was difficult for me to get to the phone first. There was no privacy at our home. Anyone who dated a Hiebert girl had to take the family antics and teasing as part of the bargain. Mom told me that Carl needed to "lighten up" if he planned to join our family.
Mom asked me to invite Carl over for a curry and rice dinner so he could meet the family members. He sweated from being nervous but also from the hot curry flavor that was unfamiliar to him. He later invited me to have angel food cake and to meet his parents. He had been telling me all about his mother's great cake.
Carl's mother, Beatrice, had a brain tumor, but it was not diagnosed for some time. In the meantime her behavior became peculiar--she burned things on the stove, put pillows on the heater vent, wore old, men's shoes. Unkind neighbors said his dad was working his mother too hard. Finally the diagnosis of a tumor was made, but it was too late for her. She died during our freshman year in college. It was hard on the family. His mother had favored Carl, and his father did not take charge and distribute the work. Life went along rather haphazardly.
I had a sense of loss that I had not learned to know Carl's mother as a well person. She had been particularly attractive and intelligent, with a keen sense of humor as well as a clear sense of duty to her family. When Carl's Dad, Henry, asked her to marry him, she said she first had to raise her siblings at home. She taught school to provide the income for the family. Thirteen years later they were married.
Esther was their first child, born when Beatrice was 42; Carl was born when she was 44 years old. Henry said it was a major adjustment in their lifestyle. Having resigned himself to the absence of children, he had come to enjoy the freedom to come and go without strings attached. He was not a demonstrative man and expressed his regrets in his later years about missing Carl's scholastic and athletic events. Having been raised by an unloving stepfather who was unkind to him, Henry had no model for close interpersonal relationships and togetherness. The family did not take vacations, as my family was accustomed to doing, primarily because the work involved with milking cows was a demand 365 days of the year. Milking cows, however, was more lucrative than just farming. Carl detested being so tied down: cows want an ordered life with milking done at a rather precise time of the day. No days off!
Beatrice spent all nine months of both pregnancies in bed in order to keep the growing fetus from aborting. This put a heavy burden on both of them. After Esther was born, Henry wanted to be content with one child, but Beatrice was adamant that she wanted to try again for a boy. After the birth, Beatrice was worried that Carl would be retarded because the birth had been so difficult. She assigned Esther to supervise Carl's learning every day. As it turned out, both were good students.
Carl's life in Hillsboro was not too eventful. His home was located on the outskirts of Hillsboro. He played with the neighborhood boys while Esther was kept home after school to learn home skills like cooking and cleaning. He was smaller proportionately in grade school, but grew taller and heavier in high school. This growth allowed him to compete well in basketball, football, and tennis. He also became academically competitive in high school, whereas the girls had held the spotlight in grade school.
It was not uncommon for me to see Carl most days of the week after both of us finished work. Mama would complain that I was spending too much time with him, that we would get serious too soon, that Carl was not leaving me enough time to do my own studies. Mama worried about sex and pregnancy, though she said she trusted us to do what was right. It was only much later when I was parenting my own adolescents that I fully realized why Mama worried so much.
Carl worked hard in the summers harvesting wheat. He frequently would not wear a shirt because he was so hot on the tractor, but I suspected he wanted me to see his strong muscular body. We often saw each other late in the evenings because we both worked. Walking around Marion Lake was a common date, a walk of about three miles. On one occasion I walked on high-heeled shoes and ended up with very sore feet. I don't recall what I was trying to prove. I decided that was pretty stupid.
Carl and I both of us attended Tabor College, as both of us were Mennonites and both of us were good students and had received a scholarship to Tabor. Carl could work with his father on the farm, and we could continue our relationship. One day Carl talked about leaving Tabor and attending Kansas State University in Manhattan. He had the grades for taking a degree in agronomy (plant breeding). He envisioned teaching and farming together to make more money. One of his teachers got ahead financially that way, and that seemed to have potential for a better life than he would have just farming. Since the local high school did not given ACT or SAT exams, neither of us knew how our academic abilities stacked up to national norms, nor were we given any guidance in selecting a college. We did not know anything about available scholarships to ranked colleges. I knew I would miss Carl terribly if he left, but I knew he would never be happy at our church school that stressed Bible study and music, and had no agricultural and few science courses. Transferring to Manhattan was the right step for him to take.
Later Carl told me that he didn't like to get all A's and be ranked behind me because I had one A+; yet he had made up his mind to marry an intelligent girl. This also influenced his decision to transfer to another college. Good thing that I didn't know how he felt or I would have been in a dilemma--not study as much and be second, or risk a relationship.
I continued my studies at Tabor. For me, college was a means to an end--a job for money and entry into the next level of education. I had little fun during those years as the days were filled with work and study. Home life was in turmoil because Dad had become mentally ill and could no longer function as president of the college, so bills began to mount. We needed money to help Dad get medical care; we needed money to keep the house; we needed money for tuition; we needed money for eating and incidentals. Money was a clear and present problem. We felt deserted by the mission board and our church.
Dad was in a nearby hospital for awhile, and then moved to Mt. Lake to seek work; Mom, Margy and Loey went with him. God knows what they expected Dad to do in Mt. Lake, although Mother could take care of Grandma Jungas. Later, when Dad was transferred to a mental hospital in California, Mom and the two youngest sisters moved to Fresno where they could live with Phyllis. With the stress of Dad's illness, folks didn't leave any instructions about paying for food, rent, tuition or any expenses. Paul, Phyllis and I took over the earning of the money and we assigned Gwen and Joanne to household duties. This arrangement was marginally functional because no one wanted a sibling to be the boss; yet there needed to be someone to direct traffic and make decisions. Most often that role fell on me and I felt unprepared for this role. I drew the expected adolescent rebellion, particularly from Gwen.
I needed more money so I taught about 19 piano students and worked all available hours at the creamery; usually this was about 40 hours unless we had to pack butter at night, in which case I put in about five hours extra. It was easier to pack butter at nights because it was not as hot and the butter remained firmer so you could put the four sticks in the box. The night crew was jovial despite the late hours, and there was a lot of camaraderie. Days I was assigned to pack cottage cheese, work in the creamery lab checking milk samples for bacteria, and doing other jobs as the demand arose. I found many friends at work since they admired my tenacity in earning money to pay for a college education. Lydia was a widow who needed money to survive, Fern had worked in the lab for years, Jake was a jolly, overweight man who would come to help me lift the milk cans so I could pour milk into the cottage cheese vats. Alma felt she had sinned against everyone, so she prayed and cried about this matter every day. Nothing would convince her that her sins were forgiven since she would find new sins. This was an interesting but caring group, quite unlike any social unit I had been in before.
It was a lonely, difficult life. Time seemed to stand still. "All work and no play make for many a dull day," to quote the nursery rhyme.
At the end of the first semester of his senior year, Carl announced he wanted to shift majors and attend medical school. He was confident he would be accepted. To my dismay, he had filled out his application in pencil, crossed out misspelled words and corrected them, turned them in way past the deadline, and seemed unconcerned about the whole process. I feared he would be rejected on those accounts, but his stellar academic record and a phone call by a caring professor sold the medical school. I was greatly relieved because I feared Carl would not take rejection well. His Dad felt Carl was overshooting the mark in aspiring to become a doctor. My mother, on the other hand, had told me that Carl would never end up on a farm because he was too bright and would be bored riding a tractor.
I knew it was getting down to decision time for me as well. What ever would I do with a music degree? Though I had won some important state competitions, I knew there was a level above me to which I would need to aspire, one that entailed hours of practice and more money for lessons, money that I did not have. Clearly working for a living seemed to be my only option due to lack of funds for graduate school. I decided I could teach during the academic school year and take graduate courses on weekends, evenings, and summers. But did I want to teach music or get the courses to teach in elementary schools? Suddenly my music major seemed like a frivolous choice; I felt as though I had been having my head in the clouds. It was the day I felt I grew up; at least I most certainly became more reality-oriented.
Moreover, though my relationship with Carl seemed serious, I wondered if Carl had any intentions of getting married, and if he did, whether he would get married before going to medical school. I thought of seeking a scholarship to graduate school, but had no idea what field I wanted to do graduate studies in or if going on to graduate school would mean separation from Carl permanently. I finally asked Carl how serious he was about the relationship because I wanted to take the next steps in my work and education ladder. He was very quiet and noncommittal. I went to bed feeling that I had better plan a course of action for getting a job in the day and taking evening graduate-level courses. I decided that the most feasible way I could manage was to teach elementary school--either one of the elementary grades or music. In those days one could easily switch majors. I found that I could get a teaching certificate by taking 12 hours of education each of my senior semesters and two summer sessions at Kansas State Teachers' College in Emporia, giving me an extra six hours of credit.
Not long after that discussion, we were on a date when Carl parked his car at his homeplace. He was very quiet. I thought he was tired from working and that he was falling asleep or was going to tell me that he had found someone else or had been offended by my inquiry about our relationship. After what seemed a very long time, I suggested that he should take me home if he was not going to talk. Instead he turned to me and asked me to marry him. What a surprise after scolding him for not talking! He teased me and said I was slow to accept, but his proposal caught me entirely off guard. Naturally I changed moods fast and happily accepted. I was in seventh heaven, though we were very unsure of the future. It was a blind act of faith perhaps. Two poor college graduates with no sure job, but a guarantee of a spot in medical school and debts: that is faith.
When I got home and broke the news, no one seemed surprised. Mom said Carl had asked for my hand in marriage prior to asking me. She had made some remarks in his presence that suggested that asking for a girl's hand in marriage was the appropriate way. Needless to say, I was too excited to sleep that night.
Life was changing course quickly. Carl was going to medical school, and I would need to have a good job to pay for medical school and daily expenses. Teaching seemed the best option, so I mailed out resumes and applications. I obtained an appointment with the county superintendent of schools in the area surrounding Lawrence, Kansas, where Carls first year of medical school would be. Uncle Waldo was driving to Kansas City for a meeting and offered to let me off at the office of the superintendent and pick me up late in the afternoon at a downtown coffee shop. I brought a book to study, as I knew there would be plenty of time to kill. I had not realized, however, that the county office was several miles from downtown Lawrence.
When I entered the building, there was a lady sitting at a desk in what appeared to be the main office. She acknowledged me with a nod but did not come out to talk. I thought she was the superintendent, so I finally knocked and introduced myself. It turns out she worked in maintenance; what a let-down that was. I called the superintendent's home after I had waited a rather lengthy period of time, and found the superintendent was out of town and had not called me to change the appointment. My heart sank because I was counting on this interview for a job. Getting a ride to Lawrence had been difficult, and to come all that way and leave without an interview didn't seem fair. Also, the superintendent had agreed to let me off at the coffee shop following our interview, and now that ride was gone. What to do for a whole day?
I decided to walk to the office of the superintendent of the Lawrence city schools and put in an application even though I had been told there were no openings. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain if the office was open. I had worn my dress shoes for the planned interview with the county superintendent, and now found that I would have to walk several miles to downtown Lawrence in these shoes. It was a long walk, and I wished I had brought along some comfortable shoes. Fortunately for me, when I finally got to the Lawrence office, the superintendent himself was in even though it was Saturday. I explained my dilemma. He asked how I got to his office, and I told him I walked from the county office about five miles away. "In those shoes?" he asked. I explained that I took them off most of the way as I was used to going barefoot. He laughed and said I had guts.
When the superintendent heard that my parents had been missionaries and I'd grown up in India, he shared some thoughts about his philosophy of education and told me he was actively involved in missions in his local church. We shared missionary stories. Then he had me fill out my application and told me I was hired to teach in a blighted area of town. I shed a few tears of joy and relief, and he handed me a Kleenex. I told him I would enjoy the challenge. I left feeling someone up above was looking after me. I was so relieved to have the job.
The next hurtles were to finish my courses, move my belongings to Carl's Dad's house, where we would live until medical school began, and prepare for my senior recital. With a job in hand, we planned our wedding, or I should say I planned it as Carl was in Manhattan finishing a busy semester of sciences in preparation for medical school. It became clear that Dad would not be able to come with the family from California. That made me so sad. I so wanted him to come. He did write me a letter.
Mom, Phyllis, Margy and Lois came the day before the wedding. Earlier I had sent my body measurements to Mom and she had sewed my wedding dress. The first time I tried it on was the afternoon of the day before the wedding. That made me nervous since our wedding pictures were scheduled for the morning. Luckily it needed very few changes and I had lost a little weight so it was plenty big, which was certainly less of a problem than making it bigger! I was thankful that Mom had made the dress as I needed to stretch my dollars to pay for the wedding.
Mom took me aside and asked me if there was anything I wanted to ask before getting married. I grinned and told her that she was a little late in asking that question and that I had already found out as much as she knew or would tell me. I had seen a doctor who seemed to delight in pointing out some of the intimacies of marriage and checked for VD, virginity and readiness for intercourse. Mama had not been told about sexual matters before marriage and had the philosophy that finding out was part of the fun after marriage. I think she knew I had read about sex, so probably wasn't worried about that aspect.
What a week. My senior piano recital on Saturday, exams on Monday and Tuesday, graduation on Wednesday, wedding rehearsal on Thursday, wedding on Friday, honeymoon on Saturday and Sunday and school on Monday. I was exhausted mentally and physically and felt I could sleep a week straight.
The morning of the wedding we were to take pictures. I kept my hair rolled up with bobby pins, as was common at that time. It made my hair curly and less natural, but in tune with what many girls did those days. My sisters helped me get my wedding dress on for the pictures and again for the wedding. The photographer was not happy that I had not done my hair before coming there but my sisters helped me do my hair. We kept the wedding simple as we were paying for it ourselves and had little money, and it didn't seem right to have a fancy wedding when people were helping us pay Dad's expenses. Thus we had no groomsmen or bridesmaids. Margy and Travis, a cousin of Carl's, lit the candles while Loey served both the functions of ring bearer and flower girl. Ric Zapata, a faculty member from Tabor, and the choir director provided the music. Uncle Waldo performed the ceremony and Uncle Lando gave a little sermon. Phyllis played the organ. I was in a daze and didn't remember much of what the sermon admonished us to do. I do know that we said the traditional vows that included a promise by me to obey my husband. Carl teased me about that all during our marriage. I would respond that he promised to treat me like God treated him--which was a high standard.
Hillsboro was a small town of under 3000 people; thus many knew our family. They also knew I had worked a long shift at the local creamery, worked as organist or pianist at most church services, played for weddings and funerals, taught piano to about 20 children, and attended college. They were thus generous in giving time and gifts at the wedding. One couple donated the cake, the women's missionary circle hosted the reception, my uncles did the service free, the musicians wouldn't take any money, and my piano pupils played at the reception. I felt rich in friendships and overwhelmed by their kindness.
So we got through the wedding. Off to get Carl's car, which was hidden at his uncle's farm. We got in but the car wouldn't go anywhere. Someone had found out where the car was, painted it with the typical "Just Married" signs, and set it up on cement blocks so the tires would just spin in place. Enough of the relatives and friends came to see us off so they helped lift the car off the blocks, and off we went. I would have been disappointed if no one had cared enough to paint the sign on the car, and was happy people would see the sign and honk their horns as they passed us. It was early in the morning when we made it to our motel in Wichita.
Our honeymoon was a day in Wichita, about 50 miles away. We spent Friday and Saturday nights there and returned to Hillsboro on Sunday in preparation to start school on Monday. We both had enrolled in Emporia State Teachers' COllege (which has since been renamed Kansas University at Emporia), a 60-mile drive one way from Hillsboro.
And so childhood and adolescence were behind me, and I assumed the new roles of wife, elementary school teacher, graduate student, and daughter-in-law. Gone was Lizzie, who had her head in the clouds, and gone was the affected Bette, who thought she was really a child of royalty, and in came Betty Dahl, also known as Elizabeth A. Dahl or Mrs. (Ms. was reserved for single women in that day) Carl Dahl, or eventually Doctor Dahl, any of whom were far more in touch with reality. As I studied developmental psychology for my advanced degrees, I found out a great deal more about Lizzie's transformation to a mature adult and made peace with my parents, my siblings, and my past.
Whether I continue this story, I will not say. It will depend to a large extent on my ability to handle Parkinson's and on how many other projects I wish to complete. I have also made peace with God, though I once blamed Him for all that was unpleasant while failing to give Him credit for the good things (and of these there has been an abundance). God honored my bargain and kept me alive longer than I thought I asked. He planted me in the midst of a fun-loving and caring family and gave me a loving husband and four wonderful children who, with their spouses and children, have given me room to thrive and enjoy life. Hopefully I in turn have given them their own space to thrive and enjoy life.