by Betty Dahl
Mama played the role of dutiful housewife. Unfortunately for her and for the family, she had given up driving the car after going into a ditch on a road in India. She never gave us details, but it shook her up so much that she vowed never to drive again, and she didn't. This made things difficult for Dad since the children had music lessons, programs, church, and school requirements. Someone had to drive, and it was Dad or a neighbor who did not mind taking us along to an event such as Bible School. We became embarrassed to ask for rides because we never could return the favor. The family was poor and could not afford a second vehicle for the older children to drive. Transportation was always an issue at our house. I rarely had a chance to ride bicycle since all of us had to share the one bike we owned; as a result I never learned to ride one.
Mom did the endless wash for the family. We washed clothes in a tub with a scrub board at Ootikamund Hill Station; washed laundry in a vat at the mission stations or sent our laundry to the local dhobi, which was fairly inexpensive. Diapers were made out of cloth and needed to be washed soon after being soiled, so we usually washed them out by hand. It was not uncommon when we traveled longer distances for us to be hanging a few diapers out of the window of the car to dry them quickly. It became our banner signaling to the world that there was an infant on board. We thought life was much better when in Reedley we had a wringer washing machine. After two or three loads, the water was emptied and clean water put in for the next three loads. Then the clothes had to be hung out to dry, brought in, folded and sorted. Those that needed ironing were usually sprayed with starch and rolled up to be kept moist until ironing time. There were so many things that needed ironing: full skirts, Dad's white shirts, cotton dresses and blouses, and many other garments. It was the most detested of all jobs, I think. If the clothes did not all get ironed, they were put into the icebox to keep them from molding. It was not until after I was married and Carl and I moved to Galveston that I had my first automatic washer and dryer. I felt rich.
Saturday mornings were reserved for work at home. Each child was expected to work towards the good of the family. We thought Saturday mornings were a drag except when the fresh zwiebach came out of the oven. Mama always made enough so we could have one fresh one just out of the oven. Gwen usually swept the dining room and living room floors, and we complained that she mopped the dust under the furniture instead of getting rid of it. Joanne dusted, and I helped with baking zwiebach and bread for the Sunday meal. Grace or Mom washed the kitchen floor and after it dried covered it with newspapers to keep things clean until Sunday, when the newspapers were discarded. Sometimes Mom would wax the floor and we would skate on it with old socks to polish it. In addition to the general cleaning, we all had to clean our bedrooms. I don't recall who cleaned the one bathroom that was in constant demand, especially after we'd had watermelon for supper.
Phyllis, by virtue of being the oldest of the children, became a surrogate mother; Grace would step in as she felt like, but usually left this job to Phyl since we younger siblings were often an interruption in her social life. Phyl had the job of assigning duties to the younger children and to equalize the work. She conscientiously made a chart of assigned duties, which helped reduce the constant arguments about chores. Even so, we would try to beg off saying we needed to practice for a recital, do homework, and sew on a dress or a myriad of other excuses. Phyllis stood firm and saw through our excuses. She never yelled but wouldn't budge. "Fair is fair" was her motto. Dish washing was our most detested job; with such a large family, the number of dishes seemed endless. Phyl somehow enticed us to participate in this hated activity with a reduced degree of grumbling by telling us "to-be-continued" stories or playing games. Joanne remembers the game where each of us guessed the number of dishes there were to wash and dry, with the winner getting the much-sought-after prize of being the winner! There were times when Jo would surreptitiously slip a few items back into the sink if she saw the number she had guessed was too high. As we look back at those times, we younger siblings are amazed at the way Phyl taught us so much about cooperation and doing our share of the work.
In the evenings lights were turned off or turned low due to the blackouts, and the children would gather around the one radio the family owned to listen to "The Shadow" and other spooky stories. Sitting huddled in the dark made our imagination more vivid. Some nights it was hard to sleep for fear of something ominous happening. Other radio favorites which came on after school or in the early evening hours were "Captain Midnight," "Henry Aldridge" (my favorite), "The Lone Ranger," "Phantom," and "Digbi Odell, the friendly undertaker." The comics were also popular and it was a race to see who would get to read them first. "Boots and Her Buddies" was my absolute favorite. Grace and Phyllis made numerous paper dolls of Boots for us.
Summers were spent picking or packing peaches, cutting grapes from their vines and spreading them on paper trays to dry into raisins, shaking nuts from trees and picking them up. All the children had to work to help earn money for clothes. The hot summers made it difficult to work in the vineyards over the noon hours so work began early in the morning. Tales of black widow spiders hiding under grape leaves intimidated us, even though we wore gloves. Bending down to cut grapes and to spread them was a back-breaking job as one never came to a full stand between trays. Only the older children were allowed to sort and pack peaches. Younger ones had odd jobs running errands, such as checking the culls (discards) for useable fruit.
We received minimal compensation for this work but we pooled the money and by the end of the summer there was enough to buy us each an outfit for school. The week before the start of school, much discussion was held regarding our purchases. Because we were close in age, we shared many of our clothes and purchasing clothes was a collective decision. "I will buy a red sweater if you buy a blue one." "I will buy a pleated skirt if you buy an A-line skirt." Somehow we never saw the money. I longed to see it and at least hold it and maybe keep a little for something I wanted, but it was not to be. I daydreamed about getting rich enough to buy things in a store by myself and for myself. Then it would make me feel guilty because I knew there was real poverty in India, and I was rich compared to them. The limited money was something that we lived with; we were poor in material goods but would not have traded our family life for anyone else's. Yet I did at times imagine a god fairy that would befriend me.
Matters of Religion
Often Gwen, Joanne and I would talk when lights were turned off. I would tell them my version of Sunday's sermons by Rev. Hubert, which invariably were on the book of Revelation. I elaborated on the sermon for my younger siblings, sermons about the last coming of Christ, which Hubert said was near. I provided the details of the sermon--the horsemen, the earthquakes, etc. Each day we repented lest we be left on earth and not be caught up with Christians to be in heaven. Later as adults, Gwen and Joanne told me how fearful this had made each of them. I was aghast that I had such a negative impact on their religious beliefs! Yet I too was terrified of being separated out from my parents if I sinned. I could see them in heaven, with me left on earth.
Dad also took the older children to hear Gypsy Smith, a popular flamboyant evangelist in the l940's, who was an itinerant speaker who gathered big crowds under a huge tent--very similar to Billy Graham of the last decades. He was so convincing that he had a number of us children walking down the aisle to repent night after night. Finally Dad talked to me privately and told me that I could tell God about my concerns and get forgiveness by just talking to God. I did not have to repent publicly. That comforted me greatly, and I never again went down the aisle to recommit or repent. My commitment was a private one between God and me. A big burden had been lifted off my shoulders.
I also remember the day I was in front of the church asking to become a member. We were quizzed hard about our faith and the event of being saved. When asked when specifically I was saved, I noted that since we were in India, I could not recall a time I did not believe so it was harder to name a specific event that finalized being saved. Church members could ask questions and so many questioned me about sins and my nonspecific day of salvation that finally I looked up at the pastor with tears and said, "I don't remember any more sins." He chuckled and said I had gone through enough questions. We were sent into a back room to await the vote. I was worried but very relieved when I found I was accepted for membership. I would have been so embarrassed had I not been accepted. My parents teased me about various sins I could have mentioned but conveniently "forgot." I sank back in the back seat of the car and kept silent. I refused to answer now that the church had accepted me as a member; I was afraid they might decide to undo the vote if they knew more about me.
Most Sundays we attended three church services and an hour-long Sunday School class. In addition we went for two hours on Wednesday evenings. The morning service had a sermon in English as well as one in German for the elderly who had not mastered English well. Girls my age found church very boring and we would devise many activities to relieve this boredom. We claimed a section of the balcony and spent the time looking up verses of scripture that had any body parts mentioned, particularly those in The Song of Solomon. We passed notes between us and teased the boys. We giggled and sang the wrong verse. We drew pictures of the minister. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would get caught, but three hours of religion seemed like punishment, particularly the German sermon. I knew if I got caught, I'd have to sit with Auntie Wiens down in the older ladies' section of church. That was a strong incentive to behave--or at least to not get caught.
Rules, Roles and Expectations
Each family develops its own society with particular rules and regulations that govern family life. Moreover, this places a burden of expectations on children as they try to make their way through the world. In our family, with its eight living children, there were definite rules and expectations to prevent chaos. In spite of these rules, we children knew our parents wanted a big family and this led to a sense of being cared for and the development of closely-shared values.
Unwritten rules are very common and often exert greater pressure than those that are spoken. Some of these unwritten rules in our family included:
-You can survive without much money; trust God and He will provide.
-You can make A's if you apply yourself.
-Academic activities take priority over any other activity other than religious ones.
-Behave yourself so you don't shame your family. If you don't behave and the congregation feels Dad doesn't have control of his family, he could be taken off pulpit duties.
-Verbal violence is more acceptable than physical violence. We are Mennonites and accept the doctrine of nonviolence, even when the country is at war.
-Sunday is a day you do not work; you devote it to God and relaxation. Included in work is needlepoint, even if you feel it is your relaxation.
-Dancing is sinful because it promotes body contact between opposite sexes; a girl dare not put her hand on her boyfriend's thigh--too suggestive. No public show of affection.
-Going to movies is a sin. Even if the movie is a good one, you support the sinful lifestyle of movie stars by seeing the movie. Similarly, watching TV is also a sin. However, listening to the radio is a good thing to do--even though the radio personalities might also be living lives of sin.
-No swimming with the opposite sex.
-Always dress modestly. That means no makeup, flashy jewelry (especially earrings) and suggestive clothes. Sleeveless dresses are suspect; wearing bathing suits in front of the other sex is banned.
-Eat what you put on your plate because there are thousands of starving people who would want and need it.
-Obey your parents for this is a command by God.
-Don't tell family secrets or problems to other people. Work things out at home.
-Don't express feelings openly in public.
-Attend church on Sunday (all three services) and Wednesday evenings.
-Attend family daily prayers in the evening, even if you have a big test you need to study for.
-Adults get to be served meals first when company comes. Children eat separately after the adults get served.
-We may be poor but we can be smart;
-We may be poor but we can be clean.
-One validates life through service to others; their needs come first.
Thus virtue in family terms included respect, study, work, thrift, and some limited fun.
The strong work ethic was a mixed blessing in adulthood and we see it in the next generation as well. As a child, Dad had to do his schoolwork, milk cows, care for the cows, and deliver milk early in the morning even in winter. He took a sled, and if it tipped over he had to go back and refill the bottles. Besides these chores, he did evangelistic work in western Minnesota and southern South Dakota. In summers when school was out he worked for a family that had lost their mother. He needed to work to help his parents raise a family of 10 living children (2 had died) with 3 sets of twins. After high school graduation he took a small church at school class. Mother also worked hard as a child, helping Grandma Jungas run the family hotel while Grandpa rebuilt the hardware following a fire. She helped make beds every day because linens were always put on fresh daily. She dusted, swept, and helped cook. All this occurred after school, where she also worked hard and was first in her class. Both parents set a high expectation of working hard and doing one's best. As a result, I have never heard that any of us have been accused of being lazy--just that we work very hard and sometimes too hard.
End of the War
Growing up these years near Reedley seemed to put the war far away for the most part. There were some reminders of being at war. Electricity needed to be conserved, and the town lights were turned off at night so as not to be a sitting duck if enemy aircraft would make it that far inland. It became customary to give servicemen a lift if you had room in your car to take them in their intended direction. With so many children in our family, it was rare occasion that we had space for one, but upon occasion we all piled up in the back so we could stop and help. All the servicemen we picked up were so polite and grateful for a ride. Many times families drove out of their way to get the servicemen to their destinations. Girls would "oh" and "awe" over the young men in uniforms, thinking they were so cute, especially when they wore their hats. They were given a lot of respect because they were out there risking their lives.
The day the war ended started much like any other day at the Hiebert household. Those who were helping with the peaches went out early. Discussions were held to determine whether there were any new casualties, any word from the front, news about D-Day or the bravery of the young men. Then the radio announcer stopped talking and said important news was imminent. Then came the words: "Ladies and gentlemen of America, the war is over." Everyone cheered and cried out of joy. The boss said everyone could go home and celebrate. Horns blared, bells rang, people shouted and waved at each other, flags were hoisted and the country went wild. I remember shivering over the emotions people expressed; it was another significant event in my life. Two families from the area found out that their sons had been killed after the ceasefire because the two sides did not know the war was over. This was very sad.
With the end of the war, Dad began to talk of going back to India. He had been taking courses in History at University of Southern California (USC) and graduated with a Master's Degree. As part of his work there, Dad had been assigned to revise a famous history textbook used by most colleges; yet the professor did not even give him credit in the acknowledgement page. His graduation ceremony was held in the football stadium at USC, and we all attended. We thought we'd see Dad go up on the stage for his degree, but instead we saw the graduates walk into the stadium about 8 to 12 abreast; no individual recognition was given. That was disappointing because we knew Dad had worked very hard. The sound system was set up in a way that we heard the words from one speaker just after we heard it from another. Helen Trauble sang. Her powerful voice boomed out twice through the two speakers, making a memorable sound. The speakers' words were garbled and the program lasted for well over three hours. We were tired out by the end, but proud of Dad's accomplishment.
USC offered Dad a teaching position. The decision whether to stay at USC or to return to India was a hard one, and we could tell it weighed on Mother's mind. She knew she would have to leave Phyllis and Grace in the States to attend college, and the thought of separation was hard on her; yet she dutifully said God would let us know. For Dad, staying would have meant far more money each month and that was attractive to both of our parents. The offer also affirmed his scholarship. I was skeptical and didn't see any sign from God or hear any call, but my parents finally decided that it was God's will that they return to India. I wondered how many signs from God I had missed because I never determined how God signaled my parents. In assessing this decision when we became adults, many of us sisters felt Mother was more at home in India where she had a lot of help with the family and costs of living were low. They were also accorded a degree of honor that was not given to the family in the U.S. She felt like the poor relative in the U.S. and hated to be dependent on the goodwill of church members for an income. Dad just loved to travel and liked to work with high school students and teachers. Our parents ended up spending 28 years in India.
The thought of parting was not only hard for our parents. Each of us children had friends we would leave behind. At first I thought my world would come to an end because I would have to leave Leroy and all my friends. Also, Grace and Phyllis would not be going, and I wondered who would braid my hair. (As a typical young adolescent, I was more concerned with my looks than about separation from sisters.) I decided I would just let it grow long. I had liked Kodai and thought of friends there I would likely see again. And surely there would be boys there too. I thought positively about life where I did not feel I was being judged by clothes and material wealth. So I set myself to the task of choosing things to go with me to India.
For each of us children heading to Kodai, all our material goods in life had to fit into one footlocker. Naturally this meant choosing among such things as toys, books and clothes, and leaving behind many favorite belongings. I can vividly recall how hard it was to decide between a book and a sweater. I wanted the book but needed the sweater. Mama persuaded me that books could be bought in Kodai, but a sweater was needed aboard ship as well as at boarding school. It was hard to pack all the things I needed into this one footlocker. New clothes were made by the church sewing society and shoes had to be bought for there would be no store in India that would carry the Size 8 shoes I needed. I would moan about the little room left for paper dolls, dolls, books or any play items. When asked for one item to be given by my class, I asked for a romantic book. In the end it was left behind because the space was needed for an extra pair of tennis shoes. I donated the book to the church library.
What one chose to put in the footlocker began to define us as it represented the end product of many choices. I, for example, kept my autograph book from grade school, my poetry from 8th grade, some essays, menus from the ships, my sports award. Others do not have any memorabilia like that. At that time I chose these because I was sure I would become a great writer, and people would value these items.
(To be continued)