THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
March fifteenth, Nineteen-Nine
Do you remember the day I was talking to you about the mother-in-law problem and I said I was put to it to know what to call her? You said, “Don’t worry, it won’t be long before you have somebody to whom she will be grandma, and you can get out of it gracefully by calling her grandma, too.” Isn’t it queer to think that I through my motherhood shall place you in the grandmother generation? As I look back to Cloverton days and my grandmother, I envy this baby of mine. There is something about a grandmother that is pretty fine. They thought I was a great kid at grandma’s house—partly because of my unshakable belief that my grandmother was beautiful. How I used to stand beside her chair stroking her cheek, telling her, “You are beautiful.” She used to smile with her eyes while her lips protested, saying, “How can I be beautiful with all my wrinkles?” I suppose it was the Irish coming out in me: for I remember distinctly telling her that she had no wrinkles, except pretty laugh wrinkles on both sides of her eyes.
Don’t hug secret reflections about growing old. When you and I and the grandbaby meet IT will be Helen’s responsibility. You will be free to play with the baby. That has not happened to you since you were a little girl and had dolls. I shall say: “Oh, Mother is there, so baby is safe.” The meeting of the three generations will eliminate worry. Nature means young fathers and mothers and babies to have grandmother near. You must come to Paris next winter.
You have made a jolly start in grandmotherhood. It was better than Christmas, when Daddy Christie and Herbert opened your box. I have my small steamer trunk right beside our wardrobe, and am playing it is the baby hamper. The trunk is nearly brand new, and will do very well when we leave here in June, for it will hold all the baby things.
A perfume can whisk your mind five thousand miles from your body. I am sitting beside our white iron bed, sniffing. There is the faint unfamiliar odor given out by my cedar woodwork, the smell of fresh whitewash on new walls, the warm breath of a log fire. Dominating it all is the clean clover sachet you sprinkled among the baby clothes. The sachet carried my memory straight back to home, for it smells like your upper bureau drawer.
The baby things came this morning, and I have arranged them on the bed, so that when Herbert comes back from teaching his Greek class, he will get the full benefit. Dresses and petticoats, silk-and-wool shirts and bands, didies—all six months size. Do you fear that I will not be able to nurse your grandbaby, that you sent all the condensed and malted milk?
Next time you have to go to Doctor Smith’s office, give him my thanks for his kind message. I can hear him gravely telling you to advise me “by all means to go to the nearest hospital.” Take with you my old geography, and put your pretty forefinger on the right-hand upper corner of the Mediterranean. Show him that we are where the map begins to turn around that right-hand upper corner down towards the Holy Land. Then tell him the nearest hospital is a two days’ sea voyage away. Do you suppose Herbert’s salary could send me to Beirut? And could I take the journey alone?
You are quite justified, however, in your wish that I make plans now for baby’s coming. The only trained nurse in Cilicia is Miss Hallie Wallis. She is forty miles away. She receives at her house at least one hundred natives a day and has more work than her limited strength can accomplish. Moreover, she has such a mixed crowd that it might not be wise for her to handle a baby case.
If we had taken the little church in Squeedunkville we used to talk about in Princeton days, instead of setting out to see the world like a couple of fellows in a Grimm’s fairy tale, you would now be forwarding the bassinette Grandma gave me when I was born. Some nosey old parishioner would be trimming it up for me. I am a Presbyterian, turned Congregationalist on account of geography, but “conformity unto” would give me fits when it came to parishioners’ notions. I am much too hasty and human to suit anybody.
Your grandbaby will open its eyes five thousand miles from its grandmother. The family heirlooms must wait for the second grandbaby.
Some weeks ago I had the school steward (name, when spoken, sounds like Asturah) go to a Fellahin village near Tarsus and have a basket made for me. A Fellahin village itself looks like a dusty unfinished basket turned upside down. The houses are made of a crude reed matting, and the side walls have the reeds untrimmed and upright at the place where you expect to see eaves.
I figured out the size for my cradle basket, then cut strings of the right length for the various dimensions. Through an interpreter I explained that the basket must be oval. As wide at the top as my blue string, as wide at the bottom as my red string and as deep as my white string. A week later the basket was brought to our balcony. Herbert and I climbed into the thing. It was big enough for us to sit down in it Turkish fashion, both at the same time.
I got my cradle finally “by some ingenious method.” (One of the students is always saying that.) Funny how the boys here pick out bookish expressions and use them for everything. I collected my strings again, suspecting that they had not been out of Asturah’s belt pocket since the day I gave them to him. You ought to see those belts! The natives take a square of wool material with a striped blue and brown and red Persian design, fold it corner-wise, and attach one end to their potato-sack trousers. Then they wind this affair around and around their middle and fasten it on the other side. The shawl is pretty big to begin with. They keep an amazing number and variety of things in the fold of this belt; dagger, package of bread and cheese and olives for lunch, and a little brass contrivance for holding pen and ink. There is really some sense to this kind of a belt in a blow-cold, blow-hot country, for it keeps tummies warm and protects from intestinal troubles. No wonder natives get along without expensive Jaeger cholera belts.
This time I sent Socrates with my strings to the tinsmith in the bazaar. He made me a tin affair according to my measurements. Baby’s bathtub. Next I sent the bathtub to the Fellahin with orders to make a basket covering for it, the same shape as the “tin dish” to protect it during a long journey we expected soon to take. The weaver then had in his mind’s eye just how tub and basket would be strapped on one side of a pack-saddle. For these people, a journey means going somewhere on horseback. When we sail for Marseilles in June, I will put the tub into the basket, pillows, didies and mattress into the tub, cover the whole with a Turkish cradle shawl we bought yesterday, and fasten it with a big strap. The cradle shawl is two yards square, made of coarse woolen material. If you please, it is dyed brilliant red and green, with alternating checks. How is that for something dainty for a baby? In the middle of the shawl, about a yard apart, are round buttonholes. One is worked in green and the other red. A native mother would hitch these buttonholes to little pegs that stand up at either end of the box-like affair she uses for a cradle to protect the baby inside from fresh air. Germs are carefully tucked into the cradle with the baby. Never mind, I am going to give my cradle shawl a good cleaning, and I expect it will serve me well as outer covering for the package I shall make of the tub and bed and bedding. I must plan thoughtfully for that journey. It will be worth while to do this because we have to go to Egypt in order to get a good boat for Marseilles and that makes a twelve-day voyage.
Cotton crops are coming in. I bought a pile, and had a man fluff it up with a stringed instrument that looks for all the world like a giant’s violin bow. On the first windless day I put it on a sheet, spread out in the tennis court, for a day’s sunshine. The sunshine here reminds me of Nice at its best.
In the bazaar I bought white material, something like piqué. When I washed and ironed it, I cut out two oval pieces a little larger than the bottom of the basket, joined the two ovals with a band five inches wide, stuffed this with the cotton,–and behold a jolly little mattress! Lucky thing I am so attached to those two wee pillows I had at college. Lucky, too, that I bought a new set of pillow cases for them before I left home. After I find suitable material and make a pair of blankets, my cradle will be ready. When the Queen of Holland’s baby comes, it won’t find a better bed.
We have been laughing at Daddy and Mother Christie. One night there was chicken for dinner, and by accident not quite enough to go around. Daddy fussed and made jokes, and we soon forgot all about it. Not so Daddy. He went to the bazaar, and came home with the announcement that he had bought one hundred chickens. Boys were hastily put to work to make a pen, and fenced off a run! The chickens arrived that same afternoon, and Daddy laid down the law to the two chaps who were to take care of them. He said his chickens would cost the school nothing. He was paying for them out of his Civil War pension. The chickens were photographed. Dr. Christie had a lot of prints made and sent to America. On the back of each photograph he wrote: “The lay workers of Tarsus.” Now he has the laugh on all of us. The photographs and Daddy’s inscription have already brought in much more money in gifts to the college than the chickens and photographs and postage cost. Typical! Such a darling he is. He looks like Carnegie. If he had Carnegie’s fortune, we should have to call him Daddy Christmas.
This is a great life. We may have evil-tasting fat made of melted-down sheep-tails, and no butter for our bread, but there are bowls of thirst-quenching bonny-clabber and rolled pats of buffalo cream. The rice may be half-cooked, and the bread may taste sour, but almost any day I can send to the kitchen where the students’ food is prepared and get a plate of bulgur made of coarse ground wheat. We have fresh figs stewed or raw and honeysweet, and oh, the oranges. I am guilty of one “notion.” I eat quantities of these golden oranges, about fourteen a day. I may feel the limitations of life in Turkey in many ways, but until I outgrow them, I can put on my khaki riding things, swing into my Mexican saddle and at sunset ride like the wind across the Cilician Plain with the crying of jackals and the chant of the muezzins in my ears. The law of compensation is a fact, my dear, and let me tell you this—don’t feel sorry for missionaries.