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Seven Stories

Story 6: Work

by Anna Hiebert

Upon our return to the States after years spent in India, my family had many adjustments to make. For my husband and me these adjustments did not pose too great a problem, for after all we had both grown up in the United States. For the children it meant learning a whole new way of life. Whether in boarding school up in the beautiful forest-clad mountains of South India or at home with parents in the warmth and sunshine of the Hyderabad plains, their life, in spite of many privations and inconveniences, had been rich with the warmth of the country and the people.

Life in India went at a slower pace

Older kids heading off for Kodai

There had been time to cycle down the dusty village street past herds of slow-moving buffalo plodding homeward, and barefoot children and their elders on their way to the bazaar. There had been time to jog along in an oxcart to a nearby village for a week's camp. There had been time during the school year to hike out into the forests along narrow, overgrown trails to the tops of steep mountains or down the mountainside to the village sprawled in the heat of the noonday sun, where in a small shop one could consume cup after cup of the most delicious Brahmin coffee. There had been time for music and games, for family outings and fun.

Gwen and Joanne with Friend

Mom enjoyed her time in the villages

And now suddenly, with only an ocean voyage between, here was life in America, in the sunbaked valley of central in this promised land to which they had looked forward so eagerly, they found to their dismay that life seemed to be all WORK! There were no servants to cook the food, sweep the floors and tidy up the house, no kitchen boy to clear the table and wash the dishes. There was no dhobi to wash and iron the clothes, no ayah to look after the baby. It was up to us to do everything that needed to be done. Everything! There seemed to be no end to the things that needed doing in a family of nine.

From the experience of others, my husband and I had anticipated a real adjustment to physical work on the part of the children. Climate and local customs as well as circumstances had made it inadvisable and impractical to let children do more than a token share of household duties in India. In the few years we would be on extended furlough, we hoped to prepare our family for future life in America--to teach them industry and self-reliance and willingness to bear their share of responsibilities.

Gwen and Joanne learning Industry

Life on a ranch in California lent itself to this purpose admirably, providing innumerable work opportunities indoors and out. This was grape country. Around us stretched grape fields where luscious seedless Thompsons waited to be cut. The whole family could go out, each one cutting and spreading at his or her own pace. In peach season, huge boxes of over-ripe peaches were carted to a cutting shed a bit removed from the ranch house, where they were cut and pitted and placed on wooden trays to be sulphured and dried--a job well suited to untrained fingers. For the older ones there was the turning and rolling of raisins drying on paper trays, or even picking of peaches and nectarines. And always there were the jobs in and about the house--mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, making beds and sweeping floors, cooking and cleaning and washing the dishes. Washing the dishes! Of all jobs, this one was the most unpopular. They hated it!

It troubled me to see the children working so constantly at a job they hated. My mind kept working towards a solution to this situation, but I could come up with no practical answer. I kept working towards a solution to this situation, but I could come up with no practical answer. I did have visions of a table with a hole in the center for the quick and final disposal of dirty dishes, but I wisely kept such visions to myself. An automatic dishwasher would have been a heaven-sent blessing...I am not sure they had been invented at that early date.

But there were shoes to buy, and boots and winter coats, and flour and sugar and meat. There could be no thought of luxuries. The dishes would have to be done by hand. Oh, to be back in the spacious dining room of our bungalow leisurely nibbling sweets and peanuts while the white-coated houseboy glided silently about on his bare brown feet clearing the table and brushing the crumbs from the white tablecloth, the distant clatter of dishes and a low murmur of voices from the outdoor kitchen falling reassuringly on our ears. Here, no matter how good the food or how pleasant the conversation at the table, all was ruined by the inevitable, "Time to do the dishes!"

The stacks of dirty greasy china piled up in the sink and spilling over onto the countertops and the stove after every meal must have seemed like mountains to the eyes of the younger ones. Certain it is that their usual excuse "I have to go to the bathroom" was all too often the signal that they were going to disappear completely. Loud calls from the back door brought no response...there was nothing but silence. Occasionally an exasperated older sister would drag them out from their leafy retreats among the grapevines, struggling and protesting. There would follow the usual contention about whose turn it was to do what. "It's your turn to dry." "No, it isn't. I dried yesterday." "No, you didn't." On and on to the accompaniment of the clink and clank of cutlery and china, the running of rinse water, the shuffling of feet.

Then one day I became aware of a change. Flights into the vineyard seemed to be less frequent. After the initial confusion of clearing and stacking, noises in the kitchen died down and I could hear the soft murmur of a low voice rising and falling gently, rhythmically. Intrigued, I very casually passed the kitchen door. All hands were working automatically, eyes held that unseeing faraway look, ears were intent on the unfolding drama of the life of one Mitveesil, a creature of my oldest daughter's fertile imagination. They did not notice me as I withdrew softly, smiling to myself. Night after night the prospect of listening to more adventures from the life of Mitveesil was the magic that brought peace to the kitchen and charmed the drudgery out of dishwashing.

The gang that lived in California

In the ensuing years, as the children grew up they were faced with more and ever greater adjustments, many of which could not be resolved as simply as the dishwashing problem. After another four years in India, they came back to new schools, new and very conservative church groups, and new and strange communities. To begin with, the old clothes which stamped them as "strange" must be discarded in favor of new fashions, and the process of winning new friends must be begun. Gwen, one of our younger girls, came home from school one day and threw herself on her bed shaking with heart-rending sobs...the cliques in her class did not readily admit or befriend newcomers.

As I look back, it is with mingled regret and pride: regret that life held so much hardship for my family, pride when I remember how courageously they took over when suddenly their dad became ill and could no longer work. Continuing their full-time studies at college, they supported the family by doing odd jobs after classes and in the summer--teaching piano, wrapping butter at the creamery, typing and doing office work, running a cement mixer. Those were years to test the soul.

And now these years of adjustment are over, at least for most of the family. As teachers and homemakers, married to ministers, doctors and educators, my daughters are making their contribution to their country. The only son, following in the footsteps of his missionary father, is temporarily teaching anthropology at Kansas University during a prolonged furlough. But for my youngest, presently a sophomore in college, and me, having returned just a year ago to a changed, confusing homeland with its mad pace of life, its struggle for affluence and material possessions, its violence and racial problems and its hippies--for us the adjustment has once more just begun.