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Mother

by Gwen Schroth

I would like to tell you about my Mother.

You take a family like ours, seven girls and one boy, and take a man like my Father, a globe-trotting missionary, and you find that one ingredient is necessary--someone who can make this all jell; someone who can physically do the work, but also someone who won't sink when you are stranded in a desert at night and the car won't work; someone who won't quit when her house is surrounded by men with guns they are itching to shoot while her husband is off meeting a train in town; someone who can dress her girls in warm winter clothing for a trip through Europe in December when no warm winter clothing is available. Fortunately, our family had that someone, our Mother.

When the car stalled in the desert she jumped agilely from the car and said, "Now, who would have thought we'd get a chance to camp out in a desert! My, aren't we luck." And she immediately set to work fixing up sleeping quarters for everyone, some in the car, some on cots outside and some on the top of the car. (Father had built a full-length rack on the station wagon and what could make a better bed?) We were so busy enjoying our good fortune that no one mentioned the fact that we hadn't had supper, or that we were in snake country.

The time the Indian marauders had surrounded the house Mother said, "I know; let's sing. Come, Betty, you play the piano. I'll be they haven't ever heard this kind of music." And at the top of our lungs we sang our favorite hymns, happy in the thought that we were giving a new, enjoyable experience to our audience.

But the winter that we made the trip through Europe, Mother's spirit was put to a severe test; this was one of the few times she ended up with nothing to say.

It was time to return to America after a term on the mission field in India. The decision to return to America at this particular time came rather suddenly so Father found, in booking our passage, that we would have a three-week layover in London while waiting for a ship. He saw this as a marvelous chance to take a trip through Europe. He thought we could just pick up our coats and leave.

Mother realized that this would be a bit difficult because, in the first place, we didn't have any coats to pick up. But she rallied. If we needed warm clothes, we would get some. Making the clothes was out of the question; wool was scarce and very high priced. She turned to the one source of inspiration that she had--the missionary barrels. She had been through them often enough, but never with a trip through Europe in mind, and of course it all depended on your frame of mind.

She found three coats, three wool dresses and a pair of men's long underwear. Father decided against the underwear and it was given to the gardener, who was so delighted with it that he wore it for a week before Mother got up the nerve to explain to him that it was supposed to be worn under your clothing, not on top.

Next Mother hired the dergy to come and sew for a full week. We started with the coats. Laying out the catalogues we had been relying on for the past five years for patterns and ideas, we explained to the man that since the coats were too short we wanted them made shorter. He didn't seem to understand the logic of this and we tried to explain that hip-length coats were very popular in America and that we would be right in style. He went ahead with the job, and did a fine one too, but would mutter crossly to himself every time he used the scissors.

Betty, Joanne and I, being teenagers and the oldest, were very anxious to be dressed properly for the trip and claimed the three dresses for ourselves. Unfortunately they were too small and we were dreadfully discouraged. We needed these dresses. How could we make a cold trip through Europe in our clothes made for the hot weather of India/

Mother looked at us and looked at the dresses. She pursed her lips for a moment and I held my breath.

"I know," she snapped her fingers. "We'll cut them in half."

"Cut them in half?" Our spirits fell.

"Cut them in half," she said firmly. "The bottom halves will make nice skirts as they are. The tops can be trimmed up and opened in front and you'd get to have bolero tops to match your skirts."

"Boleros?"

"Boleros. Joanne, get the catalogue. I saw them yesterday. Here, see. Those are ordinary skirts with blouses on top and over that goes a short jacket. It says down here, 'A Matching Bolero. $1.89.' See. Isn't it pretty?"

And so we, too, could have boleros! Talking all at once, we explained to the dergy what he was to do. We showed him the picture, gave him the dresses and that was all there was to it.

The dergy was a fat man who pedaled the sewing machine furiously. He always kept pins in his mouth for the frequent fittings, which we enjoyed, and which seemed to be so necessary. By the end of the week the coats and the dresses were done and my sisters and I were beginning to feel quite sophisticated and even snooty about the wardrobe we had acquired.

The three of us, Betty, Joanne, and I, were to share a suitcase. Into this we packed the fancy boleros and skirts, some white blouses and a pair of fairly new American Oxford shoes that came out of the barrel, and which we had agreed to share. At the bottom of the suitcase we had hidden from Father's disapproving glare a box of face powder and a tiny bottle of perfume which our roommates at school had scrounged together as a going-away gift. The coats we planned to wear at every opportunity to show off our stylishness.

Our patience was wearing thin before our first opportunity came. We had to finish the heavy packing, make the trip to Bombay, and wait for the ship. When finally aboard, we discovered that the cool weather wasn't due until after we had crossed the Indian Ocean. Mother then decided that it was cool enough to get out our woolens and we did so very eagerly. By the time we were dressed for dinner that evening, we were getting quite cocky with looking in the mirror, putting on powder and perfume, and strutting about showing ourselves off to Mother or even Father, when we could get his attention.

"My, such lovely daughters I have," Mother said, clasping her hands as she admired our bolero dresses. "I am such a lucky woman."

Mother and her lovely daughters

Joanne, Betty and I shared a table with an English woman who had a habit of peering over her glasses and saying whatever came to her mind. For years after that trip we would just have to nudge each other and say, "Remember the English lade?" and practically roll on the floor with laughter. She was as English as they come.

At the first faint sound of the dinner gong we dashed off to the dining room. Our English lade just stood and stared at us for a moment and then, in her usual blunt way, she said, "What sort of costumes are those?" My throat stuck; I couldn't say anything. Betty muttered something under cover of her napkin. But Joanne looked her right in the eye and said, "These are not costumes. They are the latest style in America."

What do you call them?" she said shortly, not believing a word.

"These are boleros, and these are blouses and these are skirts," Joanne spoke as though dealing with a simpleton.

"Haven't I taught you better manners than that," Mother was really cross that night. "Good heavens, you should know that an English woman wouldn't recognize American styles. I'm really ashamed of you." She stomped around angrily and finally put us out, saying that Joanne would have to apologize. But Joanne's apology didn't help the situation much. She and the English lady quarreled for the rest of the trip.

Joanne insisted on wearing the bolero dress every evening from then on.

"Why is that top--what do you call it--that thing you're wearing, why is it so short?" the English lady would ask.

"What are those ribbons on there for? It looks as if you just cut up a good wool garment," she would sniff.

And finally, at the end of the week, "Why do you keep wearing that horrid thing? I see your sisters have more sense." She pointed to Betty and me. We had long since lost our courage.

But we regained it in London when Mother told us not to expect all English people to be so backward. It also helped when Father said we were to have a room to ourselves across the hall from theirs.

For a few blissful days Joanne, Betty and I could live the life of the coquette. Without the English lady to hamper us we could don our fancy clothes and strut from museum to museum. Every hour in the hotel was spent in powdering and repowdering our faces, and dabbing perfume on our earlobes. Every hour away from the hotel we luxuriated in the knowledge that we were typical American teenagers, dressed in the latest fashion. When people's glances sometimes lingered extra long, we were confident that it was the natural curiosity we found everywhere. "After all," Mother said, "Europeans always stare at American tourists."

From London we went to Holland, but Betty and I spent most of the two days there in getting our beauty sleep. In Paris we were so busy sightseeing that we were too tired to look long at the latest Paris fashions we occasionally saw in shop windows.

Father had planned to include in our trip a visit to a refugee camp in Germany. He explained to us that these people had migrated to Germany and were staying in these make-shift camps until they could find homes in other countries, and then he launched into a story of history and politics that was far too involved for us.

"Now, be very cheerful, girls." Mother had something to say too. "Smile at the people and be nice. Don't stare at anything and be impolite. Some people just are not as fortunate as we are." And she fussed over our collars and buttons, making her usual check on us.

In spite of all they said, we were not prepared for what we saw. There were no walls, just blankets for partitions between rooms. Whole families lived in a room, one blanket square. They seemed so poor and so quiet.

"Don't stare," Mother chided, holding her head high. She hated poverty.

But Father was having a wonderful time. He visited loudly with everyone, in broken German, not noticing the blankets or anything. He laughed and talked, shook hands and poked the children. By the time we got him out it was growing dark and we were annoyed. Father wanted to return the next day; Mother didn't. While they were arguing, we were shivering in the snow. We were about to tug at Father's arm when someone cam rushing out from the refugee camp and, handing Mother a parcel, talked rapidly to Father in German.

"What is it, what did they give you? What's in the parcel?" We all spoke at once. Joanne tugged at Mother's sleeve. "Come on, Mother, show us." We harassed her mercilessly.

"Nothing. Nothing at all. It's time to go." She kept on walking.

Now Joanne was jumping up and down. "Come on, show us."

"Oh, it's, well--oh, nothing."

"Why, of course, Mother, it's something," Father said loudly. "Those dear people wanted to give us something to wear. They saw how poorly we're dressed. May God bless them," he beamed.

That was one of the few times Mother had nothing to say.