Finding My Mother: The Red Box

Chapter One: An Introduction to My Mother

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It was a simple red wood box – height 5 ½”, length 16”, depth 11 5/8” – made from cheap pine and stained a Chinese red. I could make out a “Canada and Dominium Sugar” brand on two sides and a couple of large Chinese characters torn from paper and pasted on the wood. I put my cell phone on a small bean bag next to the box on my kitchen counter so that my daughter Carolyn, who lives in Nashville, could share opening the box with me via FaceTime.

On the very top lay a gown fit for a court attendant in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) if not for the Empress herself. It was a magnificent, long, gauze-like, blue silk-and-cotton gown with dragons embroidered in layers of gold. Next was a pair of blue slippers, just short of four inches long, the normal length for a mature woman with bound feet.

Next came a hundred handwritten illustrated pages of “A Window in China” – obviously written and illustrated by my mother. Each sheet had its own delicate sketch: a man pulling a rickshaw, a pair of elaborately sewn shoes for bound feet, a young school boy with a long queue, another young boy bursting with pride as he prepares to fly a paper kite, a coolie carrying a long pole with large bundles balanced on each end. The beautifully handwritten text began:

“CHINA! It is beyond our imagination to picture the vastness of this ancient land – a country comprising more than four million square miles and with a population of more than four hundred million people! Even before Rome was born, China was ancient in historic lore. Marco Polo, the greatest and most celebrated of travelers of the Middle Ages, wrote of his journeys in Cathay (or China) – records and experiences so fantastic they were deemed exaggerations until the journeys of later travelers proved the observations of Polo were reasonable.

“Such marvels! Such contradictions of progress! Today you will see burden-laden camels plodding through the streets of a city like Peking, the old capital of China – and from the same city you may depart on your journey aboard railway trains built on the most modern American design!”

The “rare” objects were next. Among them, pasted on black construction paper, was a pair of “Chop Sticks,” with a caption written in white ink in my mother’s careful handwriting: “This is a small ivory pair of Chop Sticks, such as are used by the Chinese people to eat with. They are held in one hand and the rice, or such food, is grasped between the two points. They are made of different materials, such as brass, lead, or wood.” Next were “Toys” consisting of a paper-doll-like figure of a Chinese man on two long sticks. His eyes were empty sockets, with eyes connected to the sticks. ”By moving one of the sticks the eyes are made to move. This is very interesting to small Chinese boy and girls.” (Also interesting to two grown women.)

Digging deeper, I found more than fifty photographs with captions describing Chinese people, old and young, male and female, going about their daily lives. Again, the gifted photographer had to be my mother.

At the end was a prose poem by this multi-talented woman who, it turned out, was my mother:


Lumbering slowly down the street, the heavily laden camels come.

Their driver, patient-eyed as his beasts, goes first
Breaking a way in the crowded city street
Through which the camels shoulder a wider passage.

Men walking step aside to give them way,
And even motor cars are made to stop to let them pass.

The old camels shamble slowly on, giving no heed to right nor left,
But the baby camel, tugging at the rope that ties him
To his mother, tosses his little head in proud disdain,
And shakes his hump as he goes by.  

It was quickly becoming clear that my mother had sent this box and its contents to her two nieces and nephew in 1920 or 1921, when her oldest niece was approaching middle-school age.

Much less clear was the identity of the person who had sent the box. I knew from an old passport I had inherited that she had set sail for China from San Francisco on August 22, 1917, on the Korea Maru – but little more.

I also had an official passport application from June 13, 1917, informing me that Carolyn Edith March was

Age: 27
Stature: 5’6 3/4”
Forehead: Medium, plain
Eyes: Hazel
Nose: Medium
Mouth: Medium, small
Chin: Round
Hair: Auburn
Complexion: Fair
Face: Round, full

The “Purpose” of this visitor to China was “to DO Young Women’s Christian Association work.” (The DO was firmly underlined.) A woman named Susan Clute testified that she had known Carolyn Edith March, a “native citizen,” for two years, and that all of the submitted data was correct.

I read and re-read Sara’s genealogy of my mother’s family. Looking for any mention of Carolyn Edith March, I also contacted the Archives Department at Smith College, which houses the materials from the YWCA. I contacted Syracuse University, where my mother had graduated. And I contacted the Burke Library at Columbia University Archives, which houses materials from the Student Volunteer for Foreign Missions. I scoured my own “archives”: scrapbooks, and photo albums, as well as every reference to my father that I had found in the Episcopal Church Archives at the University of Texas in Austin.

To my astonishment, in my own library, I found a Journal that my mother had kept from 1910 to 1926. I also found The Linguist, a directory published in 1924 of students since 1912-1913 who had undertaken Missionary Training at the University of Nanking. There she was – and my father as well – with a photo to prove it. They were listed in the Student Directory for 1917-1918.

I learned from Sara’s genealogy that my grandmother, Elizabeth Mary Chapple, was born in Bermondsey, Surrey, England in 1859. She emigrated with her family to Canada in 1873. There is no certain date of her migration to upper New York State, but it is thought to have been 1881. She then married Henry C. March in 1886. My grandfather worked jobs as both a wagon-maker and a carpenter before buying a fifty-acre farm and the Sherman House in Penfield. His obituary of 1909 noted that he was the manager of the baseball club in Penfield the year my mother was born, and that it was the best amateur team in Western New York at the time.

Carolyn Edith March graduated from Syracuse University in 1910 with a Bachelor of Philosophy. As an undergraduate, she took a Mission Study class on China. She was quite sociable: She belonged to the Somerset “Y” Silver Bay Club and she was a member of the Student Volunteer Band, where she played the ukulele. Upon graduation, she became a high school teacher in Honeoye, New York, for two years. A YWCA Training School came next, and then four years as Social Extension Secretary in Paterson, New York, before leaving for China.

Why did she choose China in order to travel “the world in service to others”? Had she ever come across anyone from China? The 1900 census states that there were 27 Chinese residents in the City of Syracuse at the time. Despite the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a result of racist and economic fears, by 1920, some 22 more Chinese people listed an address in Syracuse. There were Chinese laundries on three different streets and at least one Chinese person had opened a restaurant.

Had she by chance read Mark Twain’s stereotyped comments on Chinese people, written when he was a reporter for the Enterprise from 1861 to 1864 in Virginia City, Nevada? Twain wrote that he ate “chow-chow with chop-sticks in the celestial restaurants.” He added that “he received protective Josh-lights from the hosts and ‘dickered’ for a pagan god or two.” He admired the Chinese bookkeeper, whose agile fingers figured up the bill by racing up and down and across the bars of an abacus.

In choosing China, was my mother familiar with the rest of the mid-nineteenth century’s curious ideas about China? Some of those ideas were very positive. There had long been in the United States a strong taste for the products of the China trade: silks, porcelain, and lacquered furniture. For many Americans, China was a graceful willow tree shading three figures as they cross a bridge, with two birds flying above them. What could be better than sipping tea from such a lovely cup, or visiting such a lovely country?

But many of the average American’s view of the exotic East, especially China, were not so benign. Barnum and Bailey for a short time exhibited the “circus freak Siamese Twins” who shared an abdomen and a liver. Born in 1811 in a Siamese fishing village to an ethnically Chinese family, the two men became U.S. citizens in 1839. Upon viewing them, a New York politician said that “their faces are devoid of expression, and have that stupid expression which is characteristic of the natives of the East.” Retiring early from the circus, they entered business, married two sisters, and fathered some 21 children. Another eye-catching story came in 1834 when a businessman charged admission to gaze upon 14-year-old Afong Moy as she “twaddled” about on shoes “four inches” in length. It was noted at the time that “the iron shoes” she had had to wear throughout her childhood in China might be one explanation for her deformity.

By the early twentieth century, China was regularly in the news. Capt. Robert Dollar, President of the Robert Dollar Steamship Lines, and Mr. W.H. Booth, Vice-President of the Security Trust and Savings Bank in Los Angeles, went to China in 1913 with a group of Pacific Coast businessmen. They wrote home that a revolution had just taken place, “and in an incredibly short space of time the government was changed from an absolute monarchy to a liberal form of republic.” One of the group commented that “the great American corporations doing business in China could well afford to pay all the salaries of all the missionaries in China for the civilizing influences which are advance agencies of trade.”

The Open Door policy announced by the U.S. government in 1899 made sure that the United States would have rights of trade and influence equal to that of other countries eager to do business in China. By 1903, with the acquisition of the Philippines and Guam following the Spanish-American War of 1898, Americans had a justification for expanding trade and influence into China. With heady pride, they claimed it was obvious that God had made this destiny manifest. President Theodore Roosevelt now proclaimed that our Manifest Destiny was to open “the commerce and the command of the Pacific.”

I don’t know if my mother was aware of these hyped curiosities and important political developments of the time, but I think it likely. Her Journal entries witness the breadth and depth of her interest in the world about her.

In a Journal entry from 1910, my mother spelled out her own destiny: “By the unconscious effort of what I am and in the deliberate premeditated things that I do for others – and in everything, Lord, help me to be a blessing.” She was still at Syracuse University when she wrote that. Like other college students, then and now, she was ready “to do for others.” While campaigning for the presidency exactly half a century later, Senator John Kennedy asked some 10,000 students gathered at the University of Michigan if they would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world. As President, he would launch the Peace Corps. Looking back, I can hear my mother in the words of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address delivered on January 20, 1961, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Helping others certainly was the destiny my mother had mapped out while still an undergraduate at Syracuse. She belonged to the Somerset “Y” – or YCWA. When I was a teenager in Massachusetts, the YWCA I knew was an empty cave of a building where I took accordion lessons. But unlike me, my mother focused on the “C” of the YWCA. Both the YMCA and the YWCA started in England in the mid-nineteenth century. A self-consciously Christian group, it sought to help those who had migrated to the city from rural areas find work. It also offered safe, affordable lodging, healthy food, physical exercise, and recreation.

I was fascinated to read that the first YWCA “hostel” in London was used by Florence Nightingale’s nurses heading to and from the Crimean War. World War I had begun on July 28, 1914. We did not officially join the fighting in Europe until three years later, when my mother set out for China. By then, more than two million American men were at war, and, more to the point, two million women were working in war industries. Away from home, these women desperately needed all of the services that the YWCA offered. I vividly remember the World War II posters featuring “Rosie the Riveter” plastered everywhere. My mother lived during the earlier World War, but those posters from my own early life make it easy for me to picture what it meant to recruit women to work in war industries during the time when my mother was in training in Paterson, New Jersey, for a career in the Y.

While my mother was an undergraduate, both the YMCA and the YWCA had begun to engage in the recruitment of missionaries. There were calls for the Y’s at different colleges to connect and collaborate in spreading “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.” These intercollegiate Y’s focused not just on forging campus Christian fellowship but on urging college students to go out to the world as missionaries to share that fellowship. As colleges became more secular, a new message of social justice broadened the missionary undertaking. There were increasing numbers of intercollege conferences and conventions to energize college students.

I found reference to a Syracuse undergraduate student, a man named Gordon Hoople – my mother would later know him well in China – who attended a convention in Kansas City in the fall of 1915. He and a fellow student, Leon Sutton, were powerfully inspired by one particular speaker, Dr. Edward Hume from Yale-in-China. Dr. Hume first went to China in 1905 as a medical missionary. (A predecessor from Yale, a man named Dr. Peter Parker, had opened an ophthalmic clinic in the Canton area of China in 1835.) Having heard Dr. Hume, my mother’s friend, Hoople, who was majoring in geology, decided to switch his major to medicine like Sutton so that they could both to travel from Syracuse to China as medical missionaries.

I found no evidence that my mother attended any of these conventions when she was a student herself. She probably never heard an electrifying missionary speaker such as Dr. Hume. However, by 1915, she was in the middle of all the political, economic, and social changes sweeping across the YWCA and the United States. For me, her faithful Journal was all the evidence I needed to know how well she fit in. One entry, in particular, was a “Prayer for Women Who Toil”: “O God, we pray for our sisters who are leaving the ancient shelter of the home to earn their wage in the factory and store amid the press of modern life.” By then she had found a job as the Extension and Social Secretary of the Y in Paterson, and I am sure this was a prayer for young women all over the world. The YWCA emblem on the first page of her Journal pictured women joining arms to embrace the world. It appeared ever clearer to me that for my mother the YWCA was a destiny mandated by God.

Unlike Hoople and Sutton, she may not have heard the life-changing words of distinguished speakers, but she had her mentors. They were the writers and poets she included in her thick, leather-bound Journal, and whose words she treasured. The list is long and their words carefully chosen. Among her distinguished mentors were Joseph Conrad, Kipling, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Greenleaf Whittier, Browning, Goethe, and President Lincoln. She quoted Lincoln saying, “Crushed by it I may be, Bow to it I never will.” Some of the quotes in her Journal were anonymous, including one that said, “Make not tragedies of trifles. Shoot not butterflies with rifles.”

The poem “My Little Wild White Rose” was entered in her Journal twice, both during her time at Syracuse University in 1910 and during her time with the YWCA in 1913. This rose growing in her “life’s wider garden” was always too high for her to reach. There were “buds of promise, too, beyond our reach to gather, but not beyond our view.”

Having set her sights on a life in China, it is impossible to imagine that she didn’t consume the most important writings on that country that would have been available to her at the time. So I read what she must have read, trying to picture the land she was forming in her mind.

In particular, while at Syracuse, my mother must have read China: The Long-Lived Empire by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, the first female board member and Foreign Secretary of the National Geographic Society, a book that was published in 1900. Ms. Scidmore asserts that “China is very old, very tired, sick. It is a land of contradictions, puzzles, mysteries, enigmas. There are reverse and inverse processes in the workings of the yellow brain.” She does balance these insults with comments on “our crude, young, boisterous Western side of the world.”

Another book that I feel certain my mother must have read is Chinese Characteristics by the missionary Arthur H. Smith. It was published in 1894 by Revell, the same company that had published Mr. Smith’s Village Life, which she also must have read. Revell modestly calls the two books “the very best books which have ever been published by any author on any country at any time.” In Village Life, Smith explains that he tries to note only those characteristics that had made a strong impression on him and others, ranging from “Filial Piety” and the “Talent for Indirection” to “Flexible Inflexibility,” “Contempt for Foreigners,” and “Patience and Perseverance.”

The Linguist recommended a book by Herbert A. Giles on Chinese Literature, so she must have devoured it.

The Linguist also recommended China: An Interpretation by James Whitford Bashford, published in 1916, the year before my mother arrived in Tientsin, as the “best general book on China.” The next book on the list was China of the Chinese by the British diplomat Edward T.C. Werner. It was said to be “a discussion of the actual conditions in present-day China” but also describes the country’s physical world and its history. He discusses at great length China’s industrial, commercial, and educational life. Like Arthur H. Smith, he lists what he sees as Chinese “traits” – a list that includes “virility and industry, intelligence and reasonableness, and common sense.”

I was impressed with Bashford’s characterization of religion as being “practical,” since it deals with this world as well as the next one. His choice and description of proverbs was also eye-opening. Bashford explains that “no nation attaches more importance to proverbs than do the Chinese. They are constantly used in conversation and in public speech, and the orator in China who can find proverbs covering the issue he is presenting usually gains his point. Nevertheless, all Chinese scholars affect to despise proverbs – on the ground that such work is unworthy of a scholar. The scholars themselves seem to be supplied with countless wise sayings with which to spice their speech.”

Bashford adds that “William Scarborough, a Wesleyan missionary, published in 1873 a collection of Chinese proverbs numbering two thousand seven hundred and twenty.” Bashford selects his favored proverbs from among those 2,720, and specifies the pages on which they appear “so that readers of Chinese can consult the original.” Eventually, my mother could have read them in Chinese and she must have found them delightful.

“Page 179: Business – Without a smiling face do not become a merchant.

“Page 675: Divine Providence – Misery and happiness depend on oneself.

“Page 1928: Avoid Suspicion – Don’t lace your shoes in a melon patch or adjust your hat under plum trees.

“Page 1906: Gratitude – Lambs have the grace to suck kneeling.

“Humility (no page number given) – Falling hurts least those who fly low.

“Page 832: Service – One generation plants the trees; another sits in their shade.

“Page 1742: Women – Never quarrel with a woman.”

The British diplomat E.T.C. Werner writes about Chinese superstitions, myths, and magic in his China of the Chinese, published in 1919, two years into my mother’s time in Tienstin. He ranges from the feudal and the monarchical to the republican periods and finds that the ceremonies connected with the dead are more tenacious than any others. Concerning Chinese etiquette, Werner notes that the manner of bowing to another person is crucial. He stresses how important it is to know the precise manner if “foreigners want to understand why they are long regarded as cultured barbarians.” He also points out that “the rules for eating together are laid down with great punctiliousness: When eating with others from the same dish, one should not try to eat hastily to satiety. Do not make a noise in eating – do not crunch the bones with the teeth. Do not put back fish you have been eating. Do not throw the bones to the dogs. Do not snatch at what you want. Do not bolt down roast meat in large pieces.”

My mother may also have been aware of Kenneth S. Latourette, who was affiliated with Changsha’s Yale-in-China program in 1910 before he was forced to return to the United States for medical reasons. Back at Yale, he became a professor of Missions and Oriental History. He was known to say that “the Church had become a partner in Western Imperialism and could not disavow some responsibility for the consequences.” He also said that the “importance of China is only dimly appreciated by the modern Occident.”

Grace Coppock, however, was one Occidental who did fully understand China, and one who must have been known to my mother. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Coppock went to China in 1906 to work for the YWCA. A year later she became the first General Secretary in China. A University memorial tribute to her many years later noted that “it was necessary for her to face stubborn odds in order to bring Chinese women out of the actual physical bondage to their families and homes. She took the first step in securing for them some measure of personal freedom, and an opportunity to improve their physical and social welfare.” The tribute stressed her goal that Chinese women be led in so far as possible by Chinese YWCA leaders.

The more I contemplate my mother setting off for China, the more I admire her extraordinary curiosity and courage. Leaving the East Coast of the United States for the other side of world must have been daunting.

For many Americans traveling there, the lure of the East was in its exoticism. In 1844, Alexander Kinglake wrote in a book called Eothen (From the East) that, when he embarked on a Grand Tour, he “believed his eager eyes would see the Splendour and Havoc of the East.” Whether or not my mother read Kinglake, she must have been familiar with Melville’s Moby Dick. As the Pequod approached Java, what lay before the crew was “an inexhaustible wealth of spices, and silks, and jewels, and gold, and ivory” enrichening “the thousand islands of that oriental sea.”

Victor Segalen, a French doctor, poet, novelist, and archaeologist, lived in Tientsin as a professor at the Imperial Medical College in 1911-1912, and returned there in 1917 as part of a military mission, about the same time that my mother was there. Segalen argued that the differences among people had genuine esthetic value.

But I don’t think my mother would have boarded the ship for China thinking about the esthetics of diversity. I think she would have been focused on the presence of a caring God. Her thinking would have been more aligned with that of the Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. De Chardin was well-acquainted with a Tientsin that my mother would come to know. Egypt was his first encounter with the East, and there he felt the East “flowing over him in a first wave of exoticism. He “gazed at it and drank it in eagerly – the country itself, not its peoples or it history (which as yet held no interest for me), but its light, its vegetation, its fauna and its deserts.” These triggered for him a form of religious meditation that established for him a “Divine Milieu.”

For my mother, I think, China was to become her Divine Milieu.