Focusing in: SEVENTH GRADE

What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

French, girls’ choir, anatomy, mission work

By the time we returned from furlough in the USA there were no openings in any school. This time I was sent on my bike to the home of my mother’s friend, who was a former school teacher. She had agreed to tutor me every morning so I could take the seventh grade state exam at the end of the year. One of the subjects on the exam would be French, so she started with that. I learned a few rules, some vocabulary, and the song “Frére Jacques, dormez-vous?” (Are you sleeping, Brother James?). I suppose she covered math, geometry, grammar, and literature, but I have no recollection of that. After a couple of hours or so (less, as the year progressed), she would allow me to practice on her piano until time to go home at noon. Our new piano was being shipped, which meant 6 to 9 months’ wait. I was not taking lessons, but was learning every piece of piano music I could lay hands on.

The church where we attended had an abundance of single ladies, a couple of teenagers and others not young. I only recall one then or two single men, so the situation was rather desperate and the pastor’s wife decided to do something about it. She created a “Coro de Señoritas”, that is, a ladies’ chorus which she took on tours to sing in churches she carefully selected for having a preponderance of available men. I was the youngest, being only thirteen, but also the tallest so no one noticed. And I could sing any part that was needed. Usually, we would sing a special number for church, and in the evening put on a special program. The church members would take us home for dinner, and the local young people’s society would entertain us in the afternoon with boat rides on the lake, or hikes in the countryside. It worked! My Dad’s secretary was one who found a mate, and there were others.

One day, Dad opened a drawer that had been neglected awhile, and called me to see what was in it: a nest of tiny mice, each about an inch long. He set a trap for the mother and dropped the babies in boiling water to quickly end their life. Then I asked him if I could dissect them…. With a razor blade I cut into their soft bodies but was surprised to discover what looked like cottage cheese in their stomachs. “We don’t have any, Dad. How did they get cottage cheese?” He reminded me that they only ate mother’s milk, but that their stomach acid turned it into cheese.

Dad traveled mostly by train, up and down the southern half of this long narrow country visiting churches, preaching, baptizing and doing other church work. When he had to head up into the mountains or down near the sea away from the train lines, he would take the car and often the family. One trip I’ll never forget was to the Indian reservation. We stayed overnight with a German family, and the next day set off on horseback. That is, Mom and the little ones rode in a covered ox cart, and I rode bareback behind Dad’s saddle on the horse—for three long hours! At last we came to a river that was deep enough for the baptism. We had brought along the little folding organ; it made a nice seat for those in the wagon. Now, I set it up and began to play the hymns for the service. Several people, including the Indian chief’s wife, were baptized. Then, after a picnic lunch, we mounted the horse for another three-hour journey back to our car.

Native cultures, the poor, agronomy, socials

Temuco is the capital of the Indian territory called Araucanía. Many of the natives lived out in the country and would walk into town barefoot, putting on shoes when they entered the city. The tribes are matriarchal in nature. That is, though the chief is male, a woman is the priestess and has the actual decision-making power. However, I noticed that when they came to town together, the wife always walked several paces behind her husband. The ladies would come by our house selling flowers, wild berries or mushrooms, and Mom would ask them to teach her a few words in their language. Most of them wore their native garb, a black shawl with a pink stipe if they were married, or a green stripe if they were single, their hair braided with many colored ribbons. The ladies carried the family’s wealth in in the form of silver coins attached to a band around their head, almost like a crown. And they wore a large silver “breastplate” with more coins and symbols. The men wore regular clothes plus a heavy wool poncho, (blanket with a neck opening) against the heavy rains of that region. In those days, many still lived in rucas which were round houses made of straw tied together over a wooden frame.

Sometimes mission work leads to tragic discoveries, such as the three-month old baby found in a poor neighborhood who was close to death from malnutrition and dysentery. The father was an alcoholic and the mother had one or two older children who were also in need of help. The church could supply clothes and food, but the only hope for the baby was to remove him temporarily from the situation and try to nurse him back to health. A doctor examined the baby and instructed my mother as to the 24-hour care he needed, then she brought him home. His tiny arms and legs were just bones and skin, so he need medication and food every couple of hours round the clock, and we had to carefully wash him with olive oil. I was drafted for daytime duty, while Mom took over at night. Slowly, he began to improve and gain weight. His mother came a couple times a day to breast-feed him, and eventually was able to take him home along with the bottles of supplemental formula. Talk about a learning experience for me!

One day, Dad returned from one of his many trips visiting isolated church members—with a goat! One of his grateful members had donated the milk goat and now we had to figure out what to do with her. We had a pretty big back yard and, being summer, there was room in the wood shed for her to sleep. Mom was adverse at having anything to do with it, but she offered me a tin can in which to collect the milk. Now I set about to milk the goat. I had watched farm people milk cows, so I had some idea of the process. But only a few drops of liquid came out. I thought the family of boys who lived not far away might know more about it. So the next day I invited them over, and one by one they tried their hand, assuring me they knew how to milk goats, but they were only able to collect a couple of spoons full. The following week I was heading off to boarding school, so Dad took the goat back to the farmer, saying there was no one who could look after her properly. Sometime later, Dad saw the farmer again and he said that just a few days later the goat had been delivered of twins. No wonder she wasn’t ready to be milked!

During this year I tried to make friends at church, but my parents were loath to let me visit the girls in their homes. They seemed to think that the occasional church socials were enough, but I hated church socials. The adults would play silly games such as “Musical Chairs”, and the main purpose seemed to embarrass each other. The ladies would show off their culinary abilities and the best cakes were auctioned off to raise funds for the church. Mom always made an angel food cake, expertly decorated with her special frosting. It was certainly unique and always fetched a good price, since none of the local folks knew more about German kuchen (apple crisp) and Chilean torta de mil hojas (a many-layered cake with sweet sauce between each layer). I never learned the skill of making cakes, but I did learn to cook simple meals and make some of the characteristic native dishes. All in all, my thirteenth year was not an easy one, but there were certainly many learning opportunities.