Finding My Mother: The Red Box

Chapter Seven: “Please Lower the Curtain”


If I had been my mother, I would have been infinitely happier than she was taking refuge in Unzen. I would have been thrilled not to have YWCA deadlines to meet, not to have typhus medications to take, not to have Syracuse-in-China cake sales to organize. But to my mother, it meant everything to be back in China, to be back home.

On January 2, 1927, she wrote Florence, her cherished Syracuse roommate, “The last time I wrote you, I was at St. John’s University, Shanghai, and expected to have to spend the winter there. But the week before Thanksgiving, B.W. wrote me from Wuhu that everything seemed so safe, he saw no reason why I couldn’t come back home at least for a Thanksgiving visit. As soon as boat passage could be arranged, I was on my way back to our dear little home here on Lion Hill after the forced absence of eight months.

“I am certain you can guess how very thrilling it was to be able to return and see all our Chinese friends again and also be here in time to get jelly and jam and mincemeat made before our very distinguished guests arrived for the Anking Diocese Conference meeting held here Nov. 28 and 29th. Think of it – we in Wuhu were the only family in all of our Diocese that was privileged to entertain our Church Commission from the States and the other guests who came along with them. Bishop Sanford of Cal. and Dr. Wood, our Executive Sec. from N.Y., were indeed a real delight to have.”

Carolyn was back to domesticity, back to jams and mincemeat. From the moment he had returned to Wuhu on November 9, B.W. was back to brushes and lots of soap and water. His fervor for soap and water reminded me of the words of Bertrand Russell, the logician and Nobel Laureate, who was in China in 1920 when both of my parents were there. “Americanism,” he wrote, could be equated with “clean living, clean thinking and pep.”

Despite spending almost all of this adult life in China, my father was intensely American, in the ways that Bertrand Russell meant. He said as much: “We reached Wuhu at 8:00 p.m.,” he wrote in November, “but there was a very heavy storm and we were not allowed to land until the next morning. Coming up the road to the gate, it was plain to see that the walls were well-covered with all sorts of ‘anti-posters’. I did not stop to read them, but just as soon as I got a new gateman (the faithful chap who had been there for years had just died of cholera) I had him wash them off. (I had better add right here that they were well-covered the next day by the students of a local school with anti-Christian and anti-Western Education posters.)

“I went into St. Mark’s Church and found the place very dirty, piles of bricks marking all sorts of stalls and providing small stoves. In spots the side walls (cement) were blackened by fires. The carved front of the pulpit had been broken up and burned for fuel. The front porch was blackened with smoke from open fires. The altar had been used as a table and as a bed but was little injured. I had the church cleaned as soon as possible, the front door screwed tight with heavy bars and all the shutters firmly closed after having the Church cleaned and aired.

“Next to check out was Mr. Lund’s house. It had been in almost constant use. The drawers had been taken out of all the pieces of furniture and each drawer was used for one man to sleep in. A long white cupboard with two shelves provided sleeping quarters for four men. But chiefly there was dirt. A good liberal use of soap and water made a very great change. Mr. Gowen’s house was also very dirty. A kapok mattress had been torn up and there was not a room which did not have its share of that mattress. In the Watt’s house, the entire front door had been pushed in and the panes of glass broken. Paint was badly scratched and dirty. Nails (to hang their guns on) were driven in everywhere. The kitchen was black. My own house, thanks to my faithful cook, Ru-I, was in the best condition. Only one pane of glass was broken and the paint was scratched and soiled – he had washed off all the dirt possible and the floors had been washed and oiled. Our mattresses and stuffed furniture had not been touched. Our dining-room table will be historic, for it was used as an operating table during the daytime (pieces of adhesive tape can still be seen on the ends of the table), and it was used for playing mah-jongg at night and is covered with tiny holes made by banging the tiles down on the table.

“It is a bit difficult to describe St. James School. This place has had the brunt of all the occupation and it does show it, yet there is not much evidence of wanton damage except in the kitchen quarters where windows and doors have been taken and where the bathroom was turned into a stable. The main point is that the compound has come through remarkably well in every way and we are much pleased that so very little damage has been done. You cannot leave any buildings for six months or more and expect to find them in perfect condition when no repairs are being made.

“We have had no soldiers since I returned in November. We had for near neighbors last fall a school which was mostly communistic and very anti-Christian. When our Commission was here, they covered our walls with very interesting posters. They supplied us with plenty of names, but it was only amusing to us and not serious. The school has now been closed and many of the students have been arrested as Communists and may have been executed. Except for this school, the people here are most friendly in every way. They make it evident that they want us here.

“It is useless for me to try to tell you anything about the course of political events out here for even we cannot follow them. Don’t attempt to believe more than one-tenth of the stuff which you read in the newspapers for it is mostly rumor, not fact. We have read the most interesting things about Wuhu which we did not even know about here in Wuhu. We have tax problems and we have soldier problems and we have to keep wide awake, but all is as quiet as one could expect when you are living in a place which is in the center of a revolution. We shall not try to open the school for the present as conditions are too unsettled to get a bunch of boys together to provide a free audience for agitators to work upon. When we have a stable government and know just what they want of our Mission schools, then we shall consider the question of opening. In the meantime, I can always find plenty to do.”

For Carolyn, being in “the center of a revolution” was less interesting than in returning to the routines of her daily life. Besides, it was almost Christmas. She wrote Florence just how much she had to do: “On December 10th I returned to Shanghai,” she wrote, “with the sole object of closing up our temporary quarters in the Seaman Hall (on the campus of St. John’s University) and doing the Christmas shopping. B.W. couldn’t be spared to get away to do it. I traveled back on Christmas week with a Christmas tree, a turkey, grapefruit, our clock, Victrola, celery, six boxes of groceries, and three boxes of apples. One box of apples was for Joe Wharton, the other two for us to give out to Chinese coworkers and their children. There were 18 stockings filled for the children with apples, oranges, candy, and cookies. We first wondered if we could afford it and then when we realized that we were the only two foreigners here in our Mission this year, instead of twelve, we just had to do the best we could.

“B.W. had decorated the bungalow so prettily with holly and poinsettias. Although the American Consul is not yet giving formal permission to ladies to live in the Yangtze River port cities, because Wuhu is so ‘sleepy quiet,’ he has promised to do nothing whatsoever to hinder us from staying on once we are safely here.

“We kept up B.W.’s annual custom of giving the best Christmas dinner. Everyone looks forward to this Bachelor maids’ and men’s dinner from year to year. This year we also had Dr. Hyla Watters’s mother and Dr. and Mrs. Brown (head of the hospital) as guests. Joe Wharton declared the dinner the ‘best yet.’

“On December 29th, we entertained 17 American sailors at tea. They were lads from the U.S. destroyer in port who came ashore 1 p.m. and helped put out a big fire which threatened the mud-hut homes of over twenty families. We wished to especially thank the sailors for this voluntary international service. How they did enjoy themselves eating doughnuts and coffee, cookies, chocolate cake, fruit cake, and cream pie – a quarter of a pie apiece. ‘Oh boy,’ was their comment.”

“Oh boy” is my comment, too.

In her next letter, dated February 10, she continued to ignore the political skirmishes, the wounded soldiers, and the cholera victims outside the St. James Lion Hill compound: “How I wish you could know our keen excitement and pleasure over the real honest-to-goodness snow fall we are having. There must be at least 4 inches of snow on the ground now, more than B.W. has ever seen in Wuhu in the ten years he has been here. It is great fun for us northerners. I was out for ¾ of an hour this morning, and we were out again this afternoon. The Chinese children don’t play at all in the snow. ‘It is too cold,’ they say. Nor are folks from the southern part of the States as thrilled as we.

“We were up for tea this afternoon with Mr. Lewis and Mr. Shaw, the two Standard Oil men who are now living in our Episcopal Mission house on the top of the hill. Mr. Lewis is from Georgia (a Phi Kappa Psi) and doesn’t like the snow at all. Mr. Shaw is from Maine (and a Phil Delta Theta). They happened in to see B.W. yesterday afternoon when he was out. The tea table was still set from our having the Wuhu Ladies Sewing Circle here. I invited them in for cup of coffee and some angel food cake. They came most willingly.

“Tomorrow we are having seven or eight in for Chinese food and it is to be eaten with chopsticks. B.W. discovered that some of the officers of the USS Hulbert in port have never eaten Chinese food – hence our dinner. Mr. Lewis has asked if he can come. He asked me if I’d let him pick his bowl up to the level of his mouth. I assured him he could and I should probably do the same. He felt so relieved for I told him I happened to know it was perfectly proper Chinese etiquette. He realized it too but so few hostesses seem to know it.

“Two days ago there was a thrilling British and American sailor soccer game on our St. James athletic field just in front of our bungalow. The British destroyer captain was referee. The British sailors won. The field had been freshly marked, and this was the first real game since our St. James students were here. You see we do miss them. It isn’t safe or wise quite yet to open school until the country is a little more steady and there is greater assurance that a body of students won’t get into propaganda work that will do more harm than good.

“Last night, Rev. Robin Chen, our next door neighbor, was in for a whole evening conference with B.W. over church matters which were puzzling him. It does interest me so much to see many of our Anking Diocese clergymen come to B.W. to discuss with him matters which trouble them. This happened to be about something about which Robin really should have gone directly to our Bishop. How tactfully B.W. drew him out discovering just where this puzzle was. Instead of being upset as Robin was when he came, he departed feeling much more ready to be patient and let the problem work itself out gradually. I was thrilled that Robin felt he could be free to air his difficulties right here before me as I sat with them in our warm study making button holes for Baby Lanphear’s gown.

“Hardly had Robin returned to his home next door when the doorbell rang again, and there at 10 p.m. stood Roland Deng, one of the former St. James students whom B.W. has been educating to become a dentist. Robin stopped here for two days just before China New Year when he came up from Shanghai on his way to his home in Nanlingshein, about a two-day trip from Wuhu. Roland has been studying dentistry in Anking until the trouble last March. Since then he has been in Shanghai at our Episcopal Hospital there. He will graduate there this June as the first Chinese boy whom our Mission has trained to be a real first-class dentist. He is such a fine lad from a poor family.

“It was he who saved all the dental equipment, even instruments, so that nothing was lost or harmed in any way and appeared in Shanghai with it all last May when B.W. was there. After the missionaries had had to leave so suddenly at the command of the American Consul last March, coolies rushed in to see how much loot they might realize. Well, Roland hired a few coolies to go in with him, and Roland looted all the expensive dentistry equipment, directing the coolies just what to carry away as he very carefully packed up each instrument. Of course it was fearfully heavy so he had to have help to carry it. The coolies were more interested in the pay he gave them than they would have been in the dental stuff. No one else was interested in it for they did not know its value.

“Roland did and his carefulness and forethought has saved our Mission quite a lot of money. He also went into Dr. Fellow’s home and looted his new records and carried all this safely to Shanghai. He had it packed up in a fierce old cotton cloth to make it look like some Chinese baggage of no account. Not a single record was scratched or cracked. How he did it is a marvel.

“Roland just left on tonight’s boat for Shanghai. While here we learned of one of his problems at home. Folks there are anxious for him to get married, but his reply is he isn’t interested until he finishes his education and earns enough to support a wife as he should. Maybe you can guess how proud we are of his fine record and the promises for his future.

“Maybe you’d be interested in Roland’s choice of dessert today. I announced he was to decide. He didn’t know the American name but he described what it was so we had Ru-I make chocolate and vanilla blancmange pudding (half of each) with meringue on top. Then for supper we had cream puffs with plenty of custard filling. But what pleased him most was to have his bedding freshly washed, his pillow recovered, and two new pillow cases made. He said he was ashamed how it looked, yet he had not dared to take it home, for the fear robbers would steal it all from him. He even left his suitcase here for the same reason. B.W. had the True Light Industrial workers make his pillow cases out of new cotton cloth and even had one of his quilts covered too. Roland is so pleased. Can you guess a little of how it is the lads just love my husband?”

I can picture my mother there in the bungalow’s warm study, listening to the people who brought my father their problems. When people asked her what B.W. did all day as school had not yet opened, he had told her to say that he “twiddles his thumbs.”

She listened as he kept very busy twiddling his thumbs: “B.W. is keeping station books,” she continued in her letter, “and handling station money for the station accounts of Moulin, Kinghsien, Nanlinghsien, Sanshan, Fangchanghsien, St. James’s Church (in the city), Lion Hill, and now St. Lioba’s. This work of station treasurer has been done by Rev. Lund for years. Now that he has gone home to be retired and all other foreigners of our station are also home, it is more help than you can guess to have one so capable as B.W. handle money and accounts.

“He is planning to give Sister Constance – who returns on February 20th – two hours each morning at St. Lioba’s to take over their accounts and all her correspondence. She can then devote much more time to her medical work. She will be thrilled to be relieved of all the bookkeeping and benefitted as well. Her one weakness is that her charity account is always way beyond what it should be. What profit she makes on her industrial work goes to pay all the cost of her medical work. She has had such marvelous cures that there seems a magic in whatever she does for the sick. She just will not let a soul die. She tries to keep the prices for the industrial work reasonable. That is why she has built up such a big business. One of her women knitted a sweater of tan wool for one of our Wuhu bachelors for $3.00 Mexican or $1.50 American money. It is the regular price but the pay was a godsend to the poor young woman who has lost three babies and is now expecting her fourth.

“Another poor woman (like the one who made our curtains last year) has been sewing here at the bungalow this last week. She is putting collars and cuffs on worn shirts. (Did you ever take material for new collars and cuffs from the tails of shirts?) What I helped her with was to see that she used proper color of thread or yarn to mend golf stockings and expensive wool socks which had been ruined because the bachelor had trusted it all to his houseboy. The bachelor is so grateful that it is hard to decide who is more grateful – Din Nai Nai for a chance to get the work or the bachelor.”

The world about Carolyn may have been whirling with unknowns, and the efforts to unify China were still failing violently – with warlords clinging to their territory and with the Communist and right wings of the Nationalist movement tearing each other apart. But, as always, Carolyn chose to focus on the positive, and now she could add one more positive for the days to come: Sister Constance was returning to Wuhu from her evacuation to the United States.

In her letter to “Dear Syracusans” of March 19, Carolyn wrote “how everything centers on Baby Lanphear’s arrival these days. Baby’s layette in our downstairs bedroom is so lovely. The embroidery the Chinese women have done is so beautiful it is all I can do these days is wait for ‘the event.’ Even beyond these material blessings, we do appreciate so much the fact that Wuhu continues quiet, and we have every reason to be able to plan to go to the Wuhu General Hospital instead of fleeing to Shanghai as we had thought must be done. In fact I stayed here in our little bungalow for ten days absolutely safe and sound while B.W. went to Shanghai for dentistry work, and at a time when he could meet Sister Constance and Sister Helen returning from the U.S.

“The Sisters were with us for ten days for their meals and what wonderful chats we did have about all that is going on in the U.S. these days and all that has been happening here in China. It really is because Sister Constance will help that we finally decided to stay here in Wuhu. She is just all smiles and radiance. Nothing can ever be hard when she is about.”

Indeed, it was Sister Constance who browbeat a ship’s captain into taking three Chinese Sisters aboard to safety as the turmoil of March 1927 unfolded. It was Sister Constance who stood by the gangplank until the guard finally let the sisters and their baggage on board. Then, in 1937, as the Japanese armies approached Wuhu, it was Sister Constance who refused to take down the American flag and hoist the Japanese flag. Instead, she raced for an axe and chopped the flagpole down. And it was Sister Constance who buried the chapel bell, as the Japanese approached, and she who returned in 1941 to dig the bell up and restore it to the belfry.

Carolyn’s letter of March 19 continued, “B.W. has ‘presided’ over the organ at our recent two Sunday afternoon services held in our St. Mark’s Chapel (where we were married). Our two missionaries who can play haven’t returned yet. No one else offered to play, so B.W. tried. He picked it up out here to be able to play for chapel for the St. James boys.”

On April 4, with only a week to go before her due date, she wrote to her “Dearest dear family”: “Am really working quite hard trying to get all correspondence caught up before I go to Hospital, but after I write just so many notes – 5 so far today – I always think of this and that I want most of all to write to you most preciously dear ones there at home, and so here goes for a line or two to you now while my last four letters wait to be answered.

“Today B.W. and I were invited out to dinner at noon at the Standard Oil Managers. Mrs. Shaw was so grateful for the lovely tea we gave in her honor last Friday; I guess she wanted to do something for us. I was glad that I felt like walking way up to the top of this Lion Hill where Lunds used to live – for it is the farthest I’ve been yet from home for 3 or 4 days, but I did it so easily so I guess I’ll be able to walk up to the Hospital Hill on Friday, April 6th OK if I go slowly. Came home and had my nap just as fine as silk – as if I’d never been out to a formal party. Folks are certainly good to Lanphears. Mrs. Shaw is really a lovely American young lady from Maine and a joy. She seems to like us for we surely do like her and so glad she is such a near neighbor now.

“B.W. and I were both trying to hurry up letters to connect with the April 7th boat from Shanghai, due in Seattle April 23rd and in Fairport April 28th. But Mrs. Sawyer came in to see us at tea time and has offered to decorate St. Mark’s Church for Easter Sunday – a great joy to us and load off B.W.’s shoulders. Then Helen Gallaher dropped in for a few minutes too. She had hardly gone when Bishop Huntington came in and up here to our study with white violets which he has picked up somewhere on his walks around here after he left here from having his tea and brought especially for me.

“Wuhu continues to be just so lovely in every way. My but it is a joy to be here this spring – my very first too you see. The trees are not only in buds but now in lovely leaves too. It does seem very lovely indeed to have everything so much like a fairy garden.

“Ru-I is to bake bread tomorrow, and so I’m having him make some hot-cross buns too. I may be here for Good Friday breakfast or I may go up to the Methodist Hill tomorrow p.m., but I think I’ll try to wait till Friday. Think of it, last Easter we were at Unzen, Japan, and here this year in our own lovely fairy-like Wuhu in all the delights of spring and so lovely and warm. We had heaps of lettuce and celery – delicious home grown – from the Standard Oil Co. garden this noon – my but it tasted good.

“Your baby has been most richly blessed, mother dear, and if all progresses as well as has been thus far we will have a wonderfully dear baby. And I won’t have a very hard time of it either for as Hyla says I’ve been most extraordinarily well – more than normally – so isn’t it truly such a rich blessing and joy? I just do hope you are all perfectly well too, and that God will bless us all richly and abundantly this Easter-tide. Your happy Carolyn.”

I was born on April 11, and my mother remained in the hospital an interminably long time waiting to get back home.

I hope she had a huge window overlooking the Yangtze and that from her bed she could watch small, quiet junks slide peacefully by. It is nearly a month after giving birth but phlebitis has kept her in the hospital to wait out the three weeks the phlebitis would take to heal.

Finally, she is allowed to return home, with both Nurse Tu and Sister Constance to keep an eye on her. She manages to pick up her pen on May 8 to write Florence: “How I wish you could see our lovely little girl born April 11th. She looks just like her daddy which completely pleases me. Babe is thriving. Folks all say how rested I look. No wonder with such a good nurse and perfect care. Can hardly wait to get home! It is all so wonderful, Florence, as you know, and we are both so blissfully happy.”

On May 16, my father writes New York suggesting that he and Carolyn start their furlough in July. He confirms that all the soap and water and firm scrubbing and cleaning up has the two compounds in good shape. He notes that ”Wuhu remains very quiet and our work goes along smoothly and quietly. I am hoping that our Diocesan Synod will bring forth some rather definite ideas and plans for the future although it is so difficult, with all the present problems and unsettled conditions, to really see very far ahead. The Northern situation has had no direct effect upon Wuhu except for the fact that all Japanese residents have been removed from the city. They are living on the Japanese hulk or on the two Japanese destroyers which are in port. I find no evidence of anti-foreign feeling. I went through a large group of students (out on an anti-Japanese parade) the other day and not one word was said to me and most of the students just nodded and smiled. Here’s hoping the same attitude will continue.”

It is B.W. who picks up a pen on June 9 to account for Carolyn’s last happy days: “In the midst of trying to pack trunks, to finish up accounts and to close my home, I find that I have a large pile of letters to answer. I cannot possibly answer each letter separately and tell you each the facts which you wish to know so I am going to resort to the use of the typewriter. It is settled that I shall leave Wuhu on July 21st, reach Shanghai on the 4th, sail from there on the 6th on the Dollar Line “Pres. Taft,” Cabin no. 1. Reach San Francisco on the 25th, then to Rochester where I’ll be at Carolyn’s home for a short time and then to Worcester, Mass. And there settle my future plans. I have no definite plans as yet except that Marion and I will plan to return to China in the fall of 1929 if all goes well.

“As some of you already know already, Marion Chapple Lanphear was born April 11, 1928, at the Wuhu General Hospital. She weighed 10 lbs. I oz. Carolyn had a rather difficult time, but we all felt that it was not serious. She made excellent progress in every way and two weeks from the day that Marion was born, Carolyn was able to sit up in a chair. But the next day, an attack of phlebitis appeared. It was discovered at once and Carolyn’s leg elevated and suffered practically no pain. In fact there was so little pain that we thought it a mild case. The Doctor felt she would be OK in the three weeks allowed for the progress of the phlebitis. At the end of the three weeks, we decided to move Carolyn to our home where she could have home food and special rest, etc.

“We had a fine Chinese nurse, Miss Grace Tu, and Sister Constance came over daily. Carolyn was very happy indeed and seemed to be so contented and be making such excellent progress. She made plans for dresses and hats and took such delight in all of Marion’s lovely gifts (over 100 dresses, coats, sweaters, toys, etc.). We were a happy trio in our bungalow.

“On May 23, Miss Abby Mayhew, a very dear YWCA friend of Carolyn’s came to visit her for a few days. On the 24th, we had a fine tea party for Bishop and Mrs. Huntington, Mr. and Mrs. Tomkinson, and Miss Myers who have joined our Mission here. Carolyn did not get up, nor did she see many folks as she was trying to be so careful. She was very happy to carry out this social obligation which was very much on her mind. The next day she had a slight upset. But it did not appear to be anything serious and by night she was quite fine.

“At 9:30 a.m. on the 26th we had a lovely service in St. Mark’s (where we were married) and Bishop Huntington christened Marion. Sister Constance and Miss Robinson were godmothers and Joe Wharton was godfather. Carolyn was taken to the Church in a long chair. She was fully dressed and was so comfortable and so happy. That night, she had a wonderful birthday dinner for me and had such fun preparing it secretly. She did not come to the table as she was ‘playing safe.’ Sunday she woke up feeling fine and we had such a happy day. In the afternoon, she sat up and even put her feet on the floor (Dr.’s orders).

“On Monday she was fine until 10 a.m. when she had a severe gall bladder upset. We shifted little Marion to a bottle. Miss Tu and Sister Constance were here all day and while sore, Carolyn was more comfortable at night. To be sure of the best possible care, we got a night nurse for her. She had a fair night. When I talked to her at 2 a.m., she seemed quiet and with but little pain. At 5 a.m. she asked the nurse to lower the curtain and in another moment, she passed quietly away (blood clot from phlebitis caused heart failure).

“We had a service at St. Mark’s that night and the next morning, I took her to Shanghai. We had a service at Bubbling Well Cemetery on the 31st, and as per Carolyn’s request she was cremated, and I shall take her ashes home to Rochester for burial. Cannot begin to tell you all the kindnesses, lovely flowers, sympathy, etc.

“Sister Constance, Miss Tu, and Miss Myers are taking care of Marion for me. She is holding her own – weighs 13 lbs. 4 oz. – looks just like her Dad – has not much hair and as yet but it will be light – has blue eyes – has fat, rosy cheeks, and is a dear. Carolyn was so proud of her. Carolyn’s last days were happy, and she was content.”



I am now 90 years old as I think back on my mother, dying soon after I was born. I have told people that, even though my mother was not there to help me through my first steps in life, she is here to help me through my last steps in life.

Because I have been fortunate enough to be able to find my mother with the help of the Red Box, she has her arms wrapped around me. She is teaching me how to measure the wonder of life. Back in her YWCA days, she learned that when arms reach around the world, good things happen.

As she lay dying, my mother would have heard about the political chaos in Tientsin, the city where she had made her first home in China. She never lost sight of what was going on around her but she was smart enough to be grateful for the good to be found in each new day. It must have been difficult, especially when wounded soldiers poured into a compound, or cholera, flood, and famine ripped through a community. But she believed that, if you looked hard enough, you can find something positive to appreciate. She built her life on the principle that whatever tomorrow may bring, one needs to be strong enough to deal with it.

Opening the Red Box, I have found my mother. She blesses me daily with a reaffirmation of life, whatever it may bring.