Maryann Nunnally



Robert Frost, in a Poem entitled “My November Guest,” wrote that November days are “desolate, deserted trees, faded earth, heavy sky,” which pretty well described the days in the little, upstate New York, rural town where I grew up.  I remember November as a cold, drizzly month with snow flurries and bare trees; even the evergreens looked miserable and shivery.  But I loved November despite the dreary days.  November was Thanksgiving with a magnificent feast with at least two roasted chickens and wonderful fall vegetables.  But better yet, November was my birthday month.

Although we had very little money after WWII, my mom managed to make a fabulous celebration of my birthday.  There was always a homemade cake, flavor and icing of my choice, with weird candy letters on top that spelled out my name and Happy Birthday.  I could choose the menu for the birthday dinner as long as it was a healthy meal, in other words, not ice cream, candy and gum.  I always picked macaroni and cheese with canned spinach, tossed salad and hot dogs.  After dinner there would be some brain games that pitted my brother Wally and me against our parents.  Then I would be allowed to open my gifts.

The month before my birthday, mom handed me the Sears catalog and instructed me to pick a toy or two, not over four dollars total for my gifts.  But the best present was always a new dress.  Because we had little or no cash, my mom made all my clothes, but the new dress was definitely store bought.  One year it was brown and white with puffed sleeves and a wide sash to tie in the back.  Another year the dress had tiny red and blue figures holding hands all around the hem and collar.  What I could not understand was how my mother purchased those dresses for me.  I knew she did not go to the city to shop, and the dresses were way too expensive to have come from Sears.  Still, every year until I was a pre-teen, there was a beautiful new dress on my birthday.

The year I turned twelve, the mystery was solved.  I overheard mom telling my dad that there would be no more missionary boxes coming to us in the fall and spring.  Missionary boxes?  Then it dawned on me.  Each year we would get a huge box that dad picked up at the post office.  Whenever I asked about it, mom would say, “Oh, that is just the missionary box.”  And then she would ask my dad to carry it up to the attic.  I never thought more about it.   Mom often had old clothes, etc. to donate to the church, and I believed that the box contained donations from others to go to the annual giving campaign.

The explanation was not complicated.  Mom had some very good friends in the state of New Jersey who were very wealthy.  Their daughter was a year older than I, and while their son was a year younger than my brother, he was a big kid so his clothes fit my brother, and I could wear the daughter’s beautiful dresses.  Mom kept the clothes hidden, and that’s how I received an expensive, lovely dress for my birthday each year.  The missionary box stopped when the couple got a divorce, and I guess the daughter did not get gorgeous clothing anymore.  At any rate there was never another missionary box with expensive dresses just for me.

I really did not miss the missionary dresses that much.  When I turned thirteen, mom persuaded my dad to drive us to the city.  We went out to lunch, an unheard-of treat, and then mom and I went shopping for a new birthday outfit.  I think now that mom must have saved money out of what little we had and sacrificed her clothing budget for me.  How I wish I could tell her how much I loved my missionary dresses that I believed were brand new, and how much I appreciated the way she kept them hidden so I would never know that they were hand-me-downs.