(Image created by me, thanks to whomever actually took the photos!)

(August 1964)

Mother's Blue Dress
by Peg Keeley


Part 1

Mara hurried down the small side street towards the small wood frame house that had always been her home near Waligama, Ceylon. She knew her mother would be starting dinner and her father would be home from the tea plantation shortly. Happy sounds of children at play could be heard from inside as she opened the door. "Mama, I'm home!" she called out in Tamil. She hurried to the modest kitchen.

Her mother turned from the two-burner stove and noticed the flushed excitement on her fourteen-year-old daughter's face. "Mara, what have you and Thanuja been cooking up now?" She scowled, but it was all in play.

Mara giggled. "Thanuja is going to Colombo." Her eyes danced.

"Colombo!" Her mother feigned ignorance, but knew what would come next. The remote beachfront town could not contain the adventure of young people. Many of them sought better paying jobs in Ceylon's capitol, Colombo. My child has grown up so quickly!

Mara nodded eagerly. "She says we can make more money there in a week than Papa sees in the tea plantation in a year!"

Her mother snorted. "All dreams, Mara. If you stay here that nice boy, Sanath, will someday marry you."

Mara wrinkled her nose. "He works that plantation. I can make money and send it home -enough for you to have new dresses every year!"

She laughed. "And what where would I go with a new dress every year?"

"Colombo to visit me!" Mara laughed.

Her mother turned back to the steaming stove to hide her feelings. She will leave. This is the way of the young. But one day Buddha guide her home to us.

"What did they say?" Thanuja asked breathlessly as Mara arrived on the beach where the former was picking up shells.

"They were very brave. Papa agreed that it was time to go. I know he understands that there will be more food for the little ones. Mama - well, she understands. Someday we will both have wonderful gifts to bring back!" Mara hugged her friend on impulse.

Thanuja hugged her back. "I have enough rupees to get passage us on the train to Colombo. I can hardly wait!"

Mara, as if realizing their adventure really was about to begin, sobered just a little. Not wishing Thanuja to know she was a little frightened, she giggled. "Tomorrow then? Mama wants me to tell Sanath good-bye."

Thanuja grinned. "Sanath? That skinny boy with the funny knees? Don't forget to tell him you will come back so rich he will not be able to have you for his wife. He is ugly anyway!"

The thump of the 707's tires meeting the tarmac was welcome. As the flaps came up and the brakes began to slow the plane, there was the usual combination of excitement and relief amongst the passengers. Six hours over open ocean could be disquieting to some. Dan Williams waited patiently as the flock of tourists stampeded for the stairway down to where they would be greeted by hula skirted lei-throwing girls. Tour groups liked to arrange for this little extra - it was the expectation of many mainlanders.

As the crowd thinned in the isle, he rose, collected his single carryon and headed for the exit. The flower-scented breeze drifted past him and his childhood washed over him. I'd forgotten the fragrance of the offshore breeze, the warmth of the sun, the sound of the birds. He started down the stairway and looked across the runway to see the young, blond woman standing by the gate.

"Danny!" She waved.

"Marjorie!" He waved back.

He reached the bottom and she rushed forward to give him a quick hug. "Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!" She exclaimed. "Look at you! How long as it been? Two years?"

"Nearly four."

"Four! No!" She laughed, tossing her blonde tresses that shimmered in the tropical sunlight. "We've got a lot to catch you up on!"

"Where's Lew?" he asked, looking around for his life-long buddy.

"Working," she replied simply. "He thinks that if he puts in the overtime it will get him a leg up in the department."

"Sounds like Lew," Danny commented as they entered the terminal and headed for the baggage claim area. "He's always one step ahead of everyone."

She did not reply. They stood in a brief silence, waiting for the carousel to spit out Danny's luggage.

At last they were headed for the parking lot. He stopped to glance at the construction that was going on as the airport was enlarging. Tourism was expanding, so was the need to get the tourists' money into the state. There were new hotels going up all over.

"You wouldn't recognize Waikiki," Marjorie commented. "Millionaire Mile. Big hotels everywhere. Lew and I decided you should stay with us until you get a place."

"That isn't necessary," he countered. "A hotel will be fine."

"Absolutely not!" She insisted. "Lew would never forgive me if I let you go. Besides," she gave a small smile, "remember that teriyaki chicken Lew's mother used to make?"

His eyes lit up.

"She taught me how." She lifted an eyebrow.

"Convinced!" he announced. He threw the bags in the back seat, then slid into the passenger side as Marjorie got behind the wheel.

She smiled broadly. "It really is good to have you back," she repeated.

He gave a small smile. I think it is good to be back. I had never really planned to stay away, it just happened. Aloha 'aina- that's that they call it - some kind of invisible tether that brings us all back here. He took a deep breath, allowing the tropical air to fill him. It's as though I have not breathed in four years.

"We've got a little time. Anything you'd like to see right away?" she asked as they left the airport.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is."

Danny and Marjorie had to wait about twenty minutes for the next ferry, but neither minded. He stood gazing out into Pearl Harbor at the white shrine that straddled the watery burial site of over 1100 servicemen including Ensign David Williams.

No words were exchanged as they were ferried out to the memorial. As they stood in respect before the wall of names in the shrine room, his own depth of emotion stunned Danny. I cannot recall my father as anything but a black and white photo, yet I feel such an intense sense of loss. The father I never knew, the life with him I never had. I have no regrets, no bitterness and certainly Aunt Clara saw to it that things were never dull - but right this moment I miss the life I never had.

Marjorie gave his elbow a gentle squeeze, marveling a little at how quickly the laughter of reunion had mellowed to solemn memories. I should have known he would want to come here first. "You okay?" she whispered gently into his ear.

He gave a single nod. "It doesn't seem right that I cannot remember him."

"You where just a child - little more than a baby," Marjorie answered in comfort.

He stood rooted to the floor, gazing at the wall of names, the letters seeming to run together in a mass, recalling the pain and anger of his youth. When I was old enough to understand what I was missing, it was Lew's father who tried to fill in the gap. It was Lew who became like a brother to me. It is a good thing to come home.

Mara and Thanuja had stared wide-eyed at the countryside flying past the window of their seat on the train. Nibbling on grapes that they had brought along for food, they chattered about what they would find in Colombo, the places they would visit, the things they would buy when they earned all their money. Mara wanted to buy her mother a blue dress - one the color of the sky.

An older woman slid onto the seat across from them. "You are going to Colombo?" she asked kindly.

Their heads bobbed in eagerness.

"You have not been there before," she commented, a twinkle in her eye. "I can tell."

Thanuja looked puzzled. "You can tell? How?"

She smiled a toothy grin. "You are so-" she waved her arms, "-excited. And so you should be! There are many wonderful things in Colombo."

They moved closer to her.

"But, there are many bad things, too. You must be careful."

Mara's eyes widened. "Careful of what?"

"I can take you to a safe place," the woman counseled. "Do you have money for a room?" At Thanuja's nod the woman gave a motion. "Good. You will be able to find a good room if you have money. And I know a man who is looking for workers."

"Workers?" Mara asked. "What kind of workers?"

"Good money workers," the woman replied.

"I don't want to work a tea plantation," Mara snapped. "I never want to go back there."

The woman cackled. "Tea plantation? Not in the city. No tea plantation. I will find you good work - but it will cost you."

Thanuja scowled. "We can find our own jobs."

"Just a little money," the woman hasted to add. "You wouldn't deny an old woman just a little money for her fine service." She looked wounded and gripped her hands in her lap in front of her.

Mara and Thanuja exchanged glances. "She seems like a kind woman," Thanuja whispered.

"She is probably someone's dear grandmother," Mara added.

Thanuja pressed a few coins into the old woman's hand.

She clasped them to her chest. "You are such dear girls, blessings of Buddha on you!"

By the time the train arrived in Colombo, the two girls felt like they had known Old Siji forever. Siji led them from the station, each carrying her small bundle of clothing. They stopped to look at the shop windows and giggled about what they would buy once they had their money.

Mara eyed the blue dress on the mannequin. "Siji, when will I have enough money to buy that dress?"

Siji laughed. "Before you know it! Come along, Mr. Molland will want to meet you."

"Molland?" Mara asked, skipping to catch up.

"Mr. Molland is a rich American. He will give you a job." Siji led them through several streets, away from the high priced shops. She stopped before a wrought-iron gate that had been installed across an alleyway. Through it, Mara and Thanuja could see that a dark garden had been created in what would otherwise have been a dank alley. Siji picked up a metal rod and banged it loudly against the iron fencing. "Come out! Come out!" she shouted in Sinhala. "We have business to do!"

In a moment, a thin dark-skinned man came to the gate, unlocked the padlock with a key and opened the passage. He looked critically at the two girls as Siji brought them inside. He rubbed his chin. "You again, Siji," he muttered.

"You get away," she snapped. "I want Molland." She gave the man a vicious punch to the arm. "You get away from here."

Mara and Thanuja exchanged looks of anxiety. "Is he a bad man?" Mara whispered as the servant shuffled away.

"He is of the dirt," Siji announced.

There were quick footsteps and a pale-skinned, blonde man stepped down into the makeshift garden from the doorway of the house. "Siji!" he said joyously and planted a kiss on her forehead. "It is so good to see you again!" He turned smoothly towards the girls. "And what have we here?"

"Tamil girls," Siji said bluntly.

Molland gave a gentle smile. "So we have." He came close to Mara and ran a hand through her dark hair. "Right off the train?"

Siji nodded. "I bring only the best. Where's my money?" she demanded.

"Patience," Molland murmured. He stepped back from Mara and cocked his head to one side. "You are very pretty," he told her.

She flushed, but an unexplainable fear began to grow in her chest. Why am I afraid? Siji said she would find us a job. Mr. Molland looks so kind. He is dressed so nicely, he must have money. His accent is odd and his Sinhala is so simple. She cleared her throat. "Do you have a job for us?"

He chuckled. "Yes, I believe I do." He glanced back at the servant who stood in the shadows. "Hajjid, take them to their room," he ordered.

The girls, recalling Siji's revulsion of the servant moments before hesitated.

"Go with him," Molland ordered.

As the door closed behind the girls, Siji turned to Molland hands on her hips. "My money!"

"You are so cold, Siji," he said with a laugh as he counted out the rupees.

She was unimpressed with the payment. "These are the good girls. Virgins. I want more."

Molland shrugged and counted out a few more rupees.

She waved her hand again.

Molland's face grew grim. "Get out while you still can, Siji. We wouldn't want them to find your withered body in the ocean now, would we? You want more money? I have a client who would like some young boys. You find me three boys less than nine years, huh? Big money for you."

Disgruntled, she stormed away back into the city. She would ride the train again tomorrow.

End part 1

Part 2
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