THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
The Wish Book
BY M I CHE L E I VY DAV I S
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
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
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
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
My sister and I would pore over the
catalog, picking out first what we needed
and then what we would like to have.