Tuesday, March 9, 2004

"It is Better to Give Than Go"

We were at the Kingston Airport in Jamaica. This was a tearful goodbye for our family. Daddy had, under much pressure, decided to leave for New York, then by convoy to Africa. It was evident that his experiences in Ethiopian affairs were more important than his replacement as president of the college in Mandeville.

There were other logistics to consider. Mother, Shirley and I would have to pack and leave for America. Once in America we would have to locate near a college and, as it turned out, not have our father with us for three years. The solution to the packing and moving was made easier by the knowledge that one of Mother’s sisters would come to help. Mother’s sister, Dollie, was chosen. Of all the efficient Danish sisters, she was the most efficient. Unmarried at the time, she had lived on both east and west coasts and had volunteered her services. By the time she arrived in Miami she had followed all of Mother’s suggestions. “You will have to come on standby,” Mother had written. “It is wartime, so you will not be allowed to bring any American money. We will be in Mandeville, so let us know when you get to Kingston.”

Aunt Dollie arrived in Kingston. She did not know anyone. She followed her sister’s instructions and arrived with only the money to get her to the Myrtle Bank Hotel. She was sitting in the lobby, wiping perspiration from her face, and wondering what to do, when Douglas and Patsy Pond happened to walk by. “Doug, that looks like Maggie’s sister,” exclaimed Patsy. They walked up to her and she explained her predicament. The Ponds called the college and let Mother know that her sister would be arriving “sometime” depending on the advance of money from Tim Walters and the train ride from Kingston to Mandeville.

Aunt Dollie was the one person in the Hanson family who was equal to any challenge. She was the one who could give advice on child rearing, having no children of her own. There was nothing she couldn’t do. But she was about to live through the most frightening experience of her life. She told us about it for days afterward, and we found her most entertaining, for we considered our existence to be that on an island paradise with all possible conveniences. Aunt Dollie followed us everywhere, clutching on our arms to emphasize her story.

“First of all,” she told us, “I didn’t know if I could trust this Tim Walters who loaned me the money and took me to the train. He is very tall and very black. Next was the train. I have never seen anything like it. Everyone sits on wooden benches. The windows are open and the smoke from the engines comes right in. Don’t tell me that the people on the train speak English.” This, we knew, because the dialect, “patois,” is not easy to understand. The women on the train have these big baskets with mangoes, guavas, breadfruit, and on top of everything are squawking chickens. Mother had sent a driver and car to wait at the Mandeville station. “How many times I thought I would not make it to your house,” said Aunt Dollie. The hours of travel were followed by days of packing. Each day brought a new experience. “Why don’t you have screens on the windows?” she asked. “No wonder there are insects in the flour and sugar. And what do you think of that black lizard running across the table? It blows up a red balloon on its neck.”

Each day Aunt Dollie would answer the streams of people who came to the back door to beg. Many would produce a “begging note” probably written by a friend and would conceal the illiteracy of the beggar. Aunt Dollie would especially train her eyes on the unmarried women who were standing there with protruding bellies. She proceeded to give each one a lecture on the evils of their life style. We were all quite composed to Aunt Dollies remarks. If only she could have visited us in Ethiopia!

With traditional efficiency, Mother and Aunt Dollie had us packed and we were on our way to Lincoln, Nebraska. We were fortunate, indeed, to have so many loving aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In Lincoln, we would stay with Aunt Hazel and her two small sons. Uncle Grover was a medical officer in the war in the Pacific.

Mother had to get us ready for school. I would be in college, and Shirley in the academy. Shopping for school clothes was first on the list and it took weeks to find a warm winter coat for Shirley. She had her own idea of a belted, fitted coat when “boxy” coats were in style. Mother patiently tried every store in Lincoln. She was not as exasperated with Shirley because she herself had always liked to be in style.

It was in Lincoln that Mother traded her full-length leopard coat with full fox collar for a smart black coat. The leopard had been sent from Ethiopia to Sammy Manquewitz in New York. It was beautifully lined and had her initials sewn into the lining.

An important decision was to have Shirley and me live in the girls’ dorm for a few months. We did not room together. One of Shirley’s first questions was, “Who will wash the floor?” and “Who is going to polish my shoes?”

Best of all was Aunt Dollie’s version of the trip and of nerve shattering daily life in Jamaica. Her conclusion, when she told the story to her local church was, “Believe me, it’s better to give than to go.”

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