by Gwen Schroth
The ladies aid spent all of the summer sewing clothes for us. Every day they would come to Grandma's house, where we lived, bringing their needles and pins. Every day they magically put together beautiful dresses and shirts and lacy underthings, enough to provide for eight children. We were going to be on the mission field for seven years, so they made clothes for when I would be 12, clothes for when I would be 13, and so on, all the way through high school. They did the same for Paul, Betty, Joanne, Margie and Lois, as well as for Phyllis and Grace, who would be going off to college in the States.
As I helped my sisters fix the afternoon vaspa each day, scurrying back and forth from kitchen to dining room, I would peek at the marvelous ladies. The underthings were being made in the front parlor because it was more secluded. The dresses were sewed in the main living room, and any necessary fitting was carried on behind the closed doors of one of the six bedrooms.
My, what hustle and bustle. The kitchen smelled of baking zwiebach and hot coffee and steaming dishwater. In the dining room Grandma kept a permanent station in her rocker, from which she could survey the library and parlor to her left and the front room to her right. Her Anna, her only daughter, was following That Man to the heathen land once again, and she disapproved severely. But, if she couldn't exert her influence on her headstrong daughter, she could on the ladies. She gave orders for packing, she inspected the sewing, and she shouted orders at us, her granddaughters, as we went past, busily setting the table or clearing up, whatever the case might be. We were always doing one or the other, since the ladies were fed in shifts. Sitting around the large dining room table the ladies chattered busily, complimenting Grandma on the jelly, asking for her recipe, exclaiming about the flavor of the coffee, commenting endlessly on the weather, and exchanging the latest gossip which they later digested in whispered detail.
In the evenings, the house seemed unusually still with the ladies gone and Grandmother rocking one of the younger children and Mother quietly resting in her room. It was then that Joanne and I would steal quietly into the now so-silent parlor and spend long, awe-filled moments gazing at the garments the marvelous ladies had so meticulously fashioned. The magic of dusk filled the room, and as we lightly fingered the clothes, we believed the day would never come when we could wear these beautiful garments. India and a boarding school seemed a long way off.
September came. The ladies were very busy working on tea towels and blankets. Time was growing short and their needles moved more quickly.
Father enrolled us in the school near Grandmother's, carefully explaining to each teacher that we would be there only until Christmas. I was in the sixth grade and was to have a cousin in my class, which my Father considered fortunate, because she could show me around and help me get accustomed to the new school.
The day before school started, my cousin came to the house with a box of clothes. Mother intended to save the ladies aid dresses until we got to India and had sent to various places for clothing we could use until Christmas. My cousin was larger than I, and what she grew out of, I grew into. It made little difference to me. I was accustomed to hand-me-downs, and my cousin's clothes were almost as lovely to me as those packed away in the steamer trunk in the hall. My cousin knew about those clothes in the steamer trunk but our classmates at school didn't.
"Tha-a-at's Lois's dre-e-ss, tha-a-at's Lois's dre-e-ss," they teased as I came up the walk tothe front door and as I later rode the merry-go-round at recess. In the classroom they poked each other and giggled as they looked at me, and whispered behind their hands. A bolder child accosted me in the aisle. "Why are you wearing Lois's clothes? Don't you have any?" she simpered. Miserably I made my way to my seat, unable to cope with this unexpected onslaught. By the time four o'clock came I was finding it increasingly difficult to hold back the lump in my throat. I fiercely turned my back on the taunting children and raced for home, finally releasing the tears.
As I burst into Grandma's house I was greeted by the familiar smell of warm zwiebach and the chattering of the ladies aid. I shut the door behind me and stood for a moment, savoring the smell and the noise. Slowly I sat down on the steamer trunk and rubbed my hand over its smooth surface. A pleasant, new feeling came over me. "India is not so far away, after all," I thought. "We're going, I know we are."
The next months went more rapidly. The sewing was completed and the packing done, and finally, in January, we docked in Bombay. Father whisked us off to boarding school, not wanting our education to lag for one single day.
We bounced up and down on the rickety bus seats. Excitement was high as we neared the school. Phyllis, Grace, Paul and Betty had been there before, but for Joanne and me it was a new experience. Before we left the States, Grace had already spent long hours telling us about the tough times ahead in boarding school and Phyllis had reminisced about the hiking and camping that was a regular part of the week-end activities. Now on our way up the mountains Paul refused to say anything, and Betty recounted endlessly the pranks she had played upon every authority the school had.
As we drew near I saw that it was a large place, set on a hill. There were many stone buildings, and the whole compound was enclosed by a stone wall, five feet high.
Within an hour we were at our respective dormitories, Paul at the boys' and we girls at the large building called Boyer, for the girls. Joanne and I were to go upstairs and Betty would be downstairs, with the older girls. As Joanne and I entered the upstairs hall we were met by a large, forthright woman of crisp manner who introduced herself as our matron. She showed us to our rooms and said, "Your trunks are there by your beds. You may begin unpacking. The first bell means wash your face, the second means you are to go for supper, and don't be late." With a stiff smile she marched off down the hall.
Joanne and I set to work unpacking our trunks under the watchful eyes of our four new roommates. Their envy soon became apparent as we drew forth one beautiful garment after another from our trunks. There were rustling red dresses, soft blue frilly ones edged in lace, there were plaid skirts with matching tops, there were stockings to match everything, and at the bottom of the trunks were fragile, lacy undergarments.
The room soon became a circus of happy, giggling girls, each completely absorbed in arraying herself in one of the lovely dresses. Each tried on first one and then another, exchanging, laughing, and admiring, her own and the others. The bell rang all too soon and we hastily but happily washed our faces, and hand-in-hand, skipped to the dining hall, our faces reflecting the magic of the beautiful ladies aid dresses.
The news spread quickly and the next afternoon, when classes in the big building were dismissed, there was a rush of small girls racing for the dormitory and the two bursting closets. Joanne, being the fleetest afoot, ran ahead and almost collided with the matron, who was standing in the doorway. We all stopped in astonishment as we gazed upon the scene before us. The closets were virtually bare.
"Girls," the matron said briskly, addressing my sister and me, "five dresses will be sufficient for this school year. One for Sunday, four for week-days.I have selected the most practical five. The rest have already been packed in the trunks. Mary, will you call John to come and take the trunks away."