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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

|

MARCH 2017

89

REFLECTIONS

The Wish Book

BY M I CHE L E I VY DAV I S

T

he fat Sears catalog was called

“The Wish Book” when I was

growing up. It had more than

1,000 pages of the necessities

and luxuries of life: everything from bunk

beds to bicycles, and fromwaffle irons to

well pumps.

But to my younger sister and me,

it was so much more. It was our con-

nection with things American—with

ready-made clothes, American styles

and trends, and a life that was passing us

by half a world away.

After I graduated from elementary

school in the 1950s, my Foreign Service

family was sent to its first post over-

seas—Madras, a small seaport town on

the southeast coast of India. It was a

time of propeller planes and ship travel.

Communication with “the States” was by

letter or telegram.

In Madras most of our clothes were

made by a tailor, because there weren’t

any dress shops that sold European-style

clothes. Even our shoes were handmade;

although after the shoemaker completed

a pair of loafers for my sister, Diane, that

looked exactly like the picture but made

her look like she had clown feet, we gave

up on that.

My mother would prop the big catalog

on the coffee table, opening to the page

that told how to determine clothing

sizes. Then she would measure our arms,

Michele Ivy Davis is the daughter of the late FSOMichel M. Ivy, economic officer at

the consulates inMadras (now Chennai) and Bombay (nowMumbai) during the

1950s. She was 12 when her family left the United States and 17 when she returned.

A grateful recipient of an AFSA scholarship, she studied at the University of Mary-

land. After owning several businesses, she and her husband retired to California, where she is now

a freelance writer.

necks, backs and legs carefully with a tape

measure. Finally, she would get out pieces

of white paper and a pencil and carefully

trace around our stocking feet to send

with the shoe order. How it tickled!

After having us try on friends’ clothes

of various sizes, recording our latest mea-

surements and relying on her intuition,

she would guess how big we would be

when the clothes arrived by ship three

months later—not an easy task with rap-

idly growing teens.

Meanwhile, my sister and I would pore

over the catalog, picking out first what we

needed and then what we would like to

have, staying within the boundaries our

mother had set. Shipping was expensive,

so we had to be careful.

At last the ship would arrive, and the

package would be delivered to my father’s

office. We were always excited when he

brought it home, but he and my mother

would whisk it into their bedroom and

firmly close the door.

We had to wait impatiently as they

removed secret birthday presents and

Christmas gifts. Finally they would allow

us into the room. On the bed was the

wonderful box, packing paper scattered

and clothes folded very flat, smashed

from their many months’ journey.

We never knew what we were going to

get until the box arrived. Sometimes items

were out of stock. Sometimes the store

substituted something “similar,” although

we did not consider the box of clove Life

Savers a fair substitution for the fruit-fla-

vored ones Mother had ordered as a treat.

When the style of shoes I had chosen

arrived inmy sister’s size and hers in

mine, I learned that they could alsomake

mistakes.

But things didn’t always go wrong;

sometimes when things arrived, they

were perfect. In one of those perfect

orders, we each got an entire outfit—

pedal pushers, knit turtlenecks and

pendant necklaces.

Another time I got some low-cut

saddle shoes with tiny black buckles on

the back of the heels. Some of my friends

said that you unbuckled them if you were

“available” and buckled them if you were

going steady. I wasn’t sure about that,

so I just kept them buckled. I wore those

shoes until they fell apart.

After a few years overseas, we came

back home to department stores, the first

shopping malls and all things American.

But while we were in India, the Sears-

Roebuck catalog was not just a way to

acquire necessities, it was our window to

our homeland.

n

My sister and I would pore over the

catalog, picking out first what we needed

and then what we would like to have.