Story 5: Home
by Anna Hiebert
The telephone rang, breaking the late-evening stillness of the isolation wing of Roosevelt Hospital. The sound, muted by the heavy door, came dimly to my ears as I sat watching by the bedside of my five-year-old daughter Joanne. Engrossed in thought, I was only vaguely aware of the ringing. It meant nothing to me. It was just part of the life that flowed ceaselessly, turbulently all around me. It was part of the American life.
During the years my husband and I and our six children had been in India, life in the U.S. had accelerated and progressed, while we had slipped gradually, imperceptibly into a relaxed culture whose emphases were on the intangible rather than the material. Then war broke out and missionaries were asked to return home. Now, after six weeks of eluding, outwitting and outmaneuvering any submarines that might be lurking in our path, here we were, back in the whirlpool of American life. With a prayer in our hearts and a lump in our throats, we had stepped off the gangplank. We were in America! We were at home.
The Statue of Liberty greeted us as we arrived in America
The uneasy realization that though we were at home we didn't fit any longer into American life came later.
That first night John and I took turns taking the children to the Automat for supper. One of us remained always with Joanne, who had had the measles on the ship and was now listless and feverish with pneumonia. The automat was a source of wonder and pleasure to the youngsters. "You just look through the glass doors and pick out what you want, put the money in the slot and open the door," Paul instructed the younger ones. Fascinated, even Gwen, only six, refused her father's help. "I want to do it myself," she insisted.
Later in our room on the tenth floor of a hotel, we revelled in the luxury of light and fresh air. "Why don't they have blackout here in New York like we had on the ship?" Betty wondered. "Can we leave the windows open for the night?"
"Of course we can. We are in America now!" Grace, the second oldest, replied with authority.
"Time for bed!" This from Phyllis, the oldest, born with a natural mother's instinct, as she rummaged through the suitcases to find pajamas.
My thoughts went back over the last week. "Your child is very sick" had been the doctor's grave verdict as he stood beside the examining table in the emergency room.
"But she won't..." I couldn't say the dreaded word. "She will be all right, won't she?" I pleaded as if the doctor's word could make all right.
"I can't say that yet."
"May I stay with her, doctor? Please!" The desperation and fear I felt must have showed in my face.
"Put her in a single room in the isolation ward. Her mother may stay with her," he ordered, and left the room.
Today, a week later, he had finally pronounced her out of danger.
"Mrs. Hiebert, you are wanted on the telephone," the nurse had called from the doorway.
The telephone stood on a table near the desk where an intern sat waiting for the return of the nurse. I had passed the table many times and had glanced fleetingly, curiously at the contraption so different from any I had ever used. Gingerly I picked up the receiver, not sure what to do. Both ends looked almost identical. One side had more holes than the other. One end was attached to the cord.
Sensing the eyes of the nurse and intern upon me, I could not hesitate any longer. "Which end do I speak into?" I blurted out. My cheeks burned with mortification. Nor did the voice of my husband completely dispel my frustration and discomfiture. It was a relief to escape back to my room, to close the door upon this changed world for at least a little while.
Joanne stirred in her sleep. "Let's go back home," she muttered.
I patted the thin little shoulder reassuringly. "It's okay, darling. Mother is here. Everything will be all right."
Through the window a star sparkled and shone. It's all right, the star seemed to say. God is here. Yes, God was indeed there, and we had each other, all of us, including Joanne. There would be frustrations and heartaches in the year that lay ahead. But we would face them with courage and faith.
Our family in 1942
Postscript: I remember that time in the hospital so well. The thing that gave me nightmares for years to come was the machine they used to give me blood. (Mom told me that she was going to donate blood for me but just as they were going to take the blood they happened to ask her if she was pregnant. She was--with Margy--so Dad donated the blood instead. Turns out he probably had Rh negative blood; I have A positive, which probably caused some jaundice when our sons were born.) I had a crib-style bed and I can remember standing in it screaming when I would hear the sound of the machine being pushed along the corridors. I hated the whole process; it hurt and it took forever for them to put the blood in. I also remember one time when I heard the machine and I was screaming and screaming, and then the machine passed by my door and I was safe for the time being. -Jo