I'll Be Seeing You
Praise forI’ll Be Seeing You
‘I devoured this story in one greedy, glorious gulp. Oh, the women! I love them. I love their families and their voices and their stories. I bet you’ll love them, too.’
—Marisa de los Santos, bestselling author of Love Walked In
‘A delight! I’ll Be Seeing You made me want to get out a pen and paper and write a friend a good old-fashioned letter.’ —Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March
‘Original and heartfelt … Set in World War II, yet somehow timeless, this novel is as beautifully written as it is captivating. An absolutely terrific debut.’
—Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Opposite of Me
‘Women on the WWII home front faced loneliness and terrible fears. But I’ll Be Seeing You tells the compelling story of two women who endured, bolstered by duty, love and, most important, friendship. I read this sweet, compassionate novel with my heart in my throat.’ —Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
‘Vivid and well-crafted, I’ll Be Seeing You poignantly illustrates the hopes and struggles of life on the home front. Readers will laugh, cry and be inspired by this timeless story of friendship and courage.’ —Pam Jenoff, bestselling author of Kommandant’s Girl
I’ll Be Seeing You Suzanne Hayes & Loretta Nyhan
SUZANNE HAYES is the author of the novel The Witch of Little Italy (under the name Suzanne Palmieri) and her essays have been published in Life Learning Magazine and Full of Crow: On the Wing edition. She lives with her husband and three daughters in New Haven, Connecticut.
LORETTA NYHAN has worked as a journalist and copywriter, and currently teaches college writing and humanities. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and family. I’ll Be Seeing You is her first novel.
To all the women who have waited …
and to those who continue to wait
January 19, 1943
Dear “Garden Witch,”
I’ve stained my fingers blue trying to do this right.
Tonight, though, I’m feeling rather lonesome and overwhelmed, so I’m throwing caution to the wind and finally writing to you, a woman I do not know, with the honest understanding that you might not have the time (or desire) to write back in return.
I guess the best place to begin is at the beginning, right?
There’s a ladies’ 4-H group that meets at the church hall on Wednesday afternoons. I don’t really fit in, but I’m trying to pass the time. Anyway, they didn’t give out real names, only these addresses, you know? And said if we felt lonesome (which I do) or desperate (which I didn’t...but I feel it creeping in on me day by day) or anything, we could sit down and write a letter to another girl who might be in the same situation. The situation. I just loved the way Old Lady Moldyflower (Mrs. Moldenhauer) said it. What does she know about our “situation”?
They passed a hat around that held pieces of paper with fake names and real addresses. I suppose the purpose is anonymity, but I figured if we are going to write, why not know each other? The paper slips hadn’t been folded, and the girls were sifting through, picking whichever struck their fancy. The whole exercise felt silly and impractical, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t going to take a name at all, but Mrs. Moldenhauer nudged me so hard I believe she left a bruise on my upper arm. To spite her, I picked last. I guess the other girls skipped over you because you have “witch” in your fake name. I feel lucky I got you. I could use a little magic these days. I’m seven months along now, and Robbie, Jr. is only just two. He’s a holy terror.
Well...here’s hoping you get this and you feel like writing back. It’ll be good to run to the mailbox looking for a letter without an army seal on it.
My name is Gloria Whitehall. I’m twenty-three years old. My husband is First Sergeant Robert Whitehall in the Second Infantry.
Nice to make your acquaintance.
With fondest regards,
February 1, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I hope this letter finds you well.
I apologize for its lateness, but to be honest I spent a week debating whether or not to pass your letter along to Mrs. Kleinschmidt, my next-door neighbor. She dragged me to the Christmas party for the 4-H, which is when we war wives scrawled our phony names on those slips of pink paper. I was in an awful mood, hence my choice of pseudonym. I do, however, have a lovely garden from late spring through early fall. I can’t say it’s magical, but it definitely has personality. I planted sunflowers last year and they grew to enormous heights, nearly reaching our gutters. Mrs. Kleinschmidt pronounced them “vulgar” and claimed that staring at their round, pockmarked faces gave her headaches. Of course, this is only incentive to plant more this year.
Now, lest you think I truly am a witch, I should tell you about my “situation,” as your Rockport version of Mrs. K. so quaintly puts it.
My husband, Sal, is too old to fight in a war but signed up, anyway, right after Pearl Harbor. Until then he’d been teaching biology at the university here. He spent some years working in a hospital when we lived in Chicago, so they placed him as a medic with the 34th Infantry. Last I read, his division was in Tunisia. I had to look it up on a map.
My boy, Toby, turned eighteen on Halloween. By Christmas he was in Maryland starting his basic training for the navy. On the day he left I was still making his bed and pressing out his clothes, so I’m worried sick about how he’s going to manage. I can’t imagine the drill sergeants are patient.
Toby also looks young for his age. His cheeks are still rosy, and his hair is the color of the corn that grows on every square foot of this state. My parents were from Munich, so I’ve filled him with schnitzel and potato dumplings since he was as old as your Robbie. I’m hoping if he’s spotted by the Germans they’ll take one look and mistake him for one of their own. The Führer’s dream!
Your boy sounds like a rascal. Toby was always quiet, but I do remember those toddler years—chasing him around the backyard, up the stairs, down the street. I didn’t treasure them. I couldn’t wait until he grew old enough to talk to me while we ate lunch. When he did, all he wanted to do was stick his nose in a book.
I also understand about loneliness and not fitting in. I’ve lived in this town for ten years and only have one woman I can call a true friend. Her name is Irene and she works at the university library. We met at a weekday matinee showing of The Thin Man back in ’35 at the Englert Theater here in Iowa City. I was dead sick of sitting by myself at the pictures, so I walked up to Irene and said her pretty dark hair made her look just like Myrna Loy. (It doesn’t, not even if you squint.) She laughed at the empty compliment and we’ve been friends ever since.
Irene is a few years younger than me, shy and unmarried, but I’ve come to realize those types of differences become mere trivialities with the passing of time. She and I meet for lunch almost every afternoon, freezing our behinds off on a metal picnic bench because the navy shut the cafeterias down for aviator training. I would think that kind of instruction would mostly take place in the air, but what do I know? We moan and groan, but I honestly don’t mind the chill. In fact, the lunch hour is the highlight of my day.
So that’s me. Marguerite Vincenzo. Almost forty-one years old. Garden Witch.
It’s nice to meet you over these many miles, Glory. You said you need some magic? Well, I need something glorious. This town doesn’t provide much in the way of that.
P.S. The people here call me Margie. I hate it. Sal calls me Rita sometimes, so I’d like to go by that. I hope you don’t mind.
February 14, 1943
Rita? Like Rita Hayworth? Oh, gosh, I love that name. Do you have red hair? Oh, Rita, I’m so glad you wrote back. I was scared I might have chased you away.
And then I read your letter every night. Thinking about your boy and your husband, Sal. He’s Italian? I wish I was. I think it would be very romantic to be Italian. I spent some time in Italy when I was growing up. Sometimes now, when I think about this war, I wonder about the beautiful places I’ve been, the people I met, and worry. What will the world look like after all this violence?
Your words gave me a much needed respite from worry. Thank you for that. I laughed and laughed about the sunflowers. I want to learn to do something with this rocky patch of land I have here behind the house. It’s falling down due to a lack of upkeep, but lovely just the same. Robert wants me to move in with his mother who lives in Beverly, but I can’t leave this place. It was my family’s summerhouse (though since I married Robert, we’ve called it our permanent home). It’s so soothing, with the sea on one side and the woods on the other. I’m only ten minutes from town and the bus stops right at the end of our road. I wish he wouldn’t worry so much. I’ve been independent all my life.
So, your Sal is in Tunisia? How exciting! My Robert is in Sparta, Wisconsin, training. I guess it’s going to be cold over in Europe. Funny, I always remember it being warm there. I find myself thinking more and more about the past the bigger my belly gets with this baby. Isn’t that strange? But I suppose this war makes thinking about the future too difficult.
Tell me more about you, Rita. Tell me what else you grow in your garden and how you grow it. Should I be doing anything now in my yard? Tell me what it’s like to have a grown-up boy. Robbie might just kill me. He already hates the baby. I’m trying to tell him everything will be all right, but how can I say it with a straight face? My son’s no idiot. He knows when I’m lying.
The medicine won’t taste bad.
The bath is not hot.
Daddy will be safe.
I’m so big now I can’t do much. And the snow...it falls and there isn’t any relief. I go to the market once a week and then come home.
So thank you, Rita. Thank you for writing back. Because life is so closed up...and now it feels more open, like a wide, wide field in Iowa.
I’m enclosing a sketch of my square bit of earth here on the cliffs that I call a backyard. It’s sunny. Tell me what I should plant in my victory garden, Garden Witch.
And tell me a better lie to tell my son so he grows up as good and open and pure as yours seems to be.
With great newfound affection,
February 19, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I wish I had red hair! Once my hair was as vibrant as Toby’s, but now it’s faded and pale. I wear bright coral lipstick all the time so people have something else to look at. Thank heavens for Mr. Max Factor.
Anyway, your letter came just before lunch yesterday. I read it while picking at a hamburger plate in a dark leather booth at the Capitol Café. Irene is in Omaha visiting family, so I’d planned on staying inside with some egg salad and a cup of tea. Then the postman arrived and I got ants in my pants so I grabbed what he brought and hoofed it into town.
The emptiness is hard to get used to. It’s the middle of the academic term, yet I could roll a bowling ball down Washington Street and not hit a soul. I’m sure the weather has something to do with it (a whopping eight degrees at noontime), but more likely it’s this war. With so many boys gone overseas the university might as well rename itself Sister Josephine’s School for Educating Ladies. And those gals have no time for meandering—they are busy bees indeed.
It sounds like you have your hands full as well. Robbie will come around, but he is at a tough age. Now that I think about it, all the ages are difficult, even after they leave the house. Take my Toby, for instance. Turns out you were slightly mistaken in your assessment of him—he isn’t quite on the shortlist for sainthood.
I had just returned from the café yesterday when someone knocked on the front door. My heart nearly stopped beating—the unannounced visitor is about as welcome as the devil these days—and I ran to the window to see if a government vehicle sat in our driveway. I wanted to start dancing when I saw it was a girl standing on the porch. She was a colorless, skinny thing, mewling like a cat, and when I ushered her inside she started crying, tears so big and fat I worried she’d drown.
Her name is Roylene.
“My daddy owns Roy’s Tavern? On Clinton Street? By the co-op grocery?”
Everything is a question with this girl, like she doesn’t trust herself enough for the declarative. I took her coat and snuck a sly glance at her tummy (flat as a pancake, thank God), and poured a cup for her. She slurped at it like a Chinaman.
Apparently when my Toby turned eighteen he headed straight for the enlistment office, and then took a detour through Roy’s Tavern on his way home. Instead of going to class last November he sat on a bar stool writing in his notebooks and spouting poetry to Roylene. “My daddy says I’m no good behind the bar? So I work in the kitchen? Toby sits between the sacks of flour and potatoes and keeps me company?”
At that last question she started crying again. I swear, Glory, I did not know what to do. I patted her hand, which was all bone. That girl might work in a kitchen but she sure isn’t doing any eating.
“Have you tried writing to him, hon?” She cried harder at this, her small frame racking over my kitchen table.
“I’m no good at it? I thought I’d just wait until he came back? But I can’t wait anymore?”
“Do you want me to include a message from you when I write to him?”
Her face lit up, and for a few short seconds I could see what kept Toby interested.
So she’s coming back next Monday, her day off. I have no idea what Toby really thinks of her. I’m tempted to write him a letter first, to ask, but now that just seems mean.
I have been giving some thought to your garden. I’m spoiled—Iowa’s soil is rich and loamy. I was stumped, so I asked Irene. She said to think about the rocky places we’re reading about in the newspapers—the shores of Italy, the mountains of Greece. What do they grow there? Oregano? Lemon balm?
Or, you could simply throw down a few inches of compost and fake it. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Do the best with what we have? It’s not lying, dear. Don’t look at it that way. It’s hopeful pretending. Consider it your patriotic duty.
February 20, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Pfc. Salvatore Vincenzo
I can fit exactly fifteen lines on these damn things. Sixteen if I don’t sign my name. You’ll know who it’s from, wontcha? Maybe I’ll seal it with a kiss and the censor can get lipstick all over his fingers.
I miss you. The nights are quiet, but the mornings are worse—this town seems cleared out, like everyone snuck off without saying goodbye. I know what you’re thinking and I am trying to keep myself busy. Promise. I have a war wife pen pal (surprise, surprise) and Mrs. Kleinschmidt has me down at the American Legion rolling bandages. I hate the look of them. Bandages have only one use, you know?
I guess you do know. But I’m not supposed to write about things like that so I won’t. The thought of you getting a letter with the words blacked out is just too depressing.
Anyway, Toby wrote last week. He said the air in Maryland smells like fish soup and his bunkmate’s name is Howard. He neglected to mention anything about the girl who came looking for him a few days ago, some scrawny thing named Roylene. Ring a bell for you? Didn’t for me. I suppose she’s harmless enough.
Now I’ve done it. Only one line to say I love you. And I do. Be safe. XO Rita
March 1, 1943
I’m so glad you are good at telling stories. I haven’t curled up with a good book in a long time, since before Robbie was born. When I was a girl, I’d spend the day at the beach with only a blanket and the latest Nancy Drew mystery. I loved her outspokenness. She was never afraid. I admired that so.
And what a mysterious situation you find yourself in. I wonder what your boy is up to. Do you like her, this girl? I couldn’t tell from your letter. I guess it doesn’t matter. At least you have something to take your mind off Sal.
My Robert’s mother, Claire Whitehall, doesn’t like me. Never did. She thinks I’m “new money” because my mother wasn’t technically part of the New England aristocracy. Imagine. I was brought up summering right here on these rocks in this town. I’d barely even kissed a boy until Robert. And even though I’ve known her my whole life, I can’t seem to get her to accept me. I’ve almost stopped trying. Almost.
An herb garden sounds lovely. I’ve ordered seeds from the Sears Roebuck catalog and my dear friend Levi Miller is going to fix up a big square like you said with all that good soil. Then I’ll put in all kinds of things. And some big sunflowers just for you.
Levi can’t fight. He’s got a bad heart or something. You’d never know it from looking at him. As children, we played on the beaches together every summer right here in Rockport. He never seemed to have any difficulty keeping up with Robert when we were small. Or me, for that matter—have I told you I was considered a tomboy? Still am, in some ways, though you’d never suspect it if you saw me. It’s Levi who plays with Robbie now that I can’t run around anymore. I’m almost due. Any day now, actually. I’m not even a bit scared of the pain. Does that convince you? It doesn’t convince me.
As I write this letter I’m watching Robbie, my little love, play in the snow. My heart aches for Robert. Rita, will it ever stop? The missing? I just don’t know. Everything is the same, and then new, and then the same again (only not really the same). The best thing for me is to keep on going about my day as if my sweet husband were to walk in the door any moment, picking up Robbie with one strong arm, and folding me close to him with the other.
I still cook for him. I know it sounds crazy. I’ve been making this recipe every week. It’s so easy, and doesn’t touch the sugar ration. Enjoy.
Beer Bread! (So simple and good.)
Mix one bottle of beer, three cups of self-rising flour and 1/2 cup corn syrup. Bake at 375°F for 45 minutes.
Let me know if you like it.
March 9, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
You would think Iowa would be oozing with corn syrup—corn grows everywhere here. Would you believe I once saw a stalk shooting up through a crack in the sidewalk? Our grocery was all out, though, so I borrowed some from Mrs. Kleinschmidt. She’ll probably lord it over me, but the bread was worth it. Completely delicious.
My heart goes out to Levi. The men left here walk around town like they forgot where they parked their cars. Do you know that look? Something’s missing, and probably will be for their entire lives. Are they the lucky ones? I don’t know. I am glad you’re giving Levi something to do. Have him get that soil in fast so you can let it set a bit before you plant. Treat new soil like a newborn babe—lots of rest, lots of food, lots of love.
Roylene came back, scratching at the door again like a stray. She wanted to add something to the note I was writing to Toby. “Well?” I said as we sat down at the kitchen table. She jammed one dirty fingernail in her mouth and bit down. Her eyes looked everywhere but at me.
Patience is indeed a virtue, but I had dishes to wash and wasn’t feeling particularly virtuous. “Spit it out,” I said.
She flinched. “Tell him I finally got the potato soup right?”
So I used one of my precious lines of V-mail for an update on Roylene’s cooking skills. I didn’t ask her to stay for dinner. Heck, I didn’t even pour her some tea. Maybe this war is making me mean. I haven’t heard from Sal. Not a word, Glory, and it’s driving me nuts. To answer your question, the missing never stops. For me, the wondering is even worse. We’ve been married for twenty-one years. I’d like to think I’d know if he died. I’d feel it, right?
When I stepped onto the porch to see Roylene out, Mrs. Kleinschmidt stood on her front lawn, staring hard at both of us. I watched her look down her ski slope nose at the girl’s tatty coat and men’s galoshes. My conscience started poking at me.
“Roylene,” I called out as she latched my front gate.
“I’ll come to the tavern and read you Toby’s letter when it comes.”
She smiled, the little bit of brightness in that girl coming out. I waved and Roylene shuffled down the road, head hanging low between her bony shoulders. She was barely out of earshot when Mrs. Kleinschmidt started in about Okies and vagabonds and the progeny of Mr. Roosevelt’s handouts. I stuck my tongue out at her haughty face and she put a cork in it, stomping up her porch steps without another word. I felt guilty later so I wrapped up half the loaf of beer bread and brought it over as a peace offering. She knew right off it was a day old, and her complaints followed me all the way home. It was good the second day, and the third, too. Irene even said so when I brought her some for lunch. We ate it with stew made from every leftover vegetable I had in my icebox, along with some Spam I chopped up and added to the mix. Cook that stuff with an onion and you might as well be eating filet mignon!
Take care of yourself, hon, and let me know when that baby comes.
March 16, 1943
This baby will NEVER come. The doctor predicted I’d have it two weeks ago. I know these things can’t be rushed or even speculated about. But with each passing day I get heavier and more sluggish. Like a big fat slug in the garden.
Also, my temper is short. This adorable little girl ran up to me in the market yesterday and said, “Is that a baby in your tummy?” and I snapped back, “What do you think it is? Do you suppose I’ve swallowed a watermelon?”
Her sweet little eyes filled up with tears and I thought her mother might yell at me or glare, even. But no...she looked at me with soft forgiving eyes that told me she understood. She’d been there, too. Women know one another, don’t we? We can peer into our deepest, hidden places.
Well, maybe not all women.
I grew up around fancy things, Rita. Nurseries and nannies. My mother? Well, let’s put it this way—she was a side dish more than a main course in the banquet of my youth.
Father and Mother traveled a lot. It’s funny, I don’t remember missing them. Mostly I was excited to see what presents they brought me from wherever they went. Swiss chocolate, Spanish flamenco dancer dolls, music boxes.
Gosh, sitting here doing nothing but growing large is making me remember strange, forgotten things. And I’m noticing things, too.
Like the way I sway back and forth even if I’m not holding Robbie. I see other mothers do this, as well. You swing, lulling them to sleep even if they’re not in your arms.
My mother never swayed. She stood up so tall it was as if a string held her up from heaven. “Don’t slouch, Gloria. If you slouch like that the world will treat you like a pack mule. Good posture is the key to independence.”
I have to admit I still slouch sometimes.
And also, her hands. My mother’s hands were always perfect. She wore gloves when she went out, but when at home she kept a pot of hand cream (rosewater and glycerin) near her at all times. Rubbing it in methodically. Cuticles first, then nails. The backs of her hands and then up each finger. I believe her hands were soft like rose petals. But I hardly ever felt them.
She died three years ago, my mother. From the cancer. I miss her every day.
I’ve been thinking of her hands a lot. I can’t imagine having such perfect hands. Mine are rough, but strong. And my son knows them well.
I suppose this is all nonsense. Nonsense written by a woman very tired of carrying this weight. (And who might be at the end of her rope!)
I suppose my childhood was lonesome, too. I’ve promised that my own children will never feel alone.
But there’s a funny thing about promises. It’s easier to keep them before you make them.
P.S. I’ll write as SOON as this baby makes his or her appearance. I promise!
April 1, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Pfc. Salvatore Vincenzo
(Got your letter yesterday. How’s that for a turnaround?)
Husband of mine,
Happy April Fool’s Day! (Though I don’t feel much like foolin’.) Remember the time I hid all of your underwear in the freezer? You sure got me back. I’m fairly certain Mrs. K. is still not recovered from the sight of my brassieres hanging from the fence posts.
I did give her that boy’s name from your squad. I can’t imagine being so far away with no one to write to. Mrs. K. grumbled a bit, but snatched the address up so quickly I will now pay even less attention to her rheumatism complaints. When it comes to the war effort, it seems that woman has nothing but time. She’s got at least a dozen soldiers on her V-mail list, and manages to post her letters twice a week. God knows what she tells them. Still, something is better than nothing, even if that something concerns the fine points of making wienerschnitzel or crocheting a dickey.
And...about that other stuff. I’d be a fool to expect hearts and flowers all the time. Please continue to write about what you are really seeing, without worrying about what might be upsetting to me. If I’m in this war, too, then I should be upset. You know I’m not the type to think collecting bacon grease and scrap metal will keep anyone from dying. How about you give me the words so you don’t have to hold them in? It’s the least I can do.
If I sound like a broken record, so be it—take care of yourself. Irene says you should keep your feet dry. She came across some articles about trench foot, but given her filing skills they could have been from the last war. And, no, I won’t set her up with Roland. He’s half her height and twice her width. Come up with someone better.
P.S. You’ll probably need a magnifying glass to read this letter, but I can get twenty-two lines on these things if I shrink my handwriting to Lilliputian proportions. I believe I’ve developed a permanent squint.
April 4, 1943
As I write this letter I sneak glances at my sleeping baby in her Moses basket. The sun is pouring in through the window. Spring’s come early in many ways.
Robert came to the hospital after she was born. He was granted a leave and he came. I swear, Rita, I thought I was dreaming when I woke up and saw his face.
Labor was harder this time around. I thought it was supposed to get easier? This one was plain stubborn and turned all upside down. They had to pull her out by her feet. I don’t remember it because they put me out. Thank God.
But when I woke up there he was. My shining man. Holding our baby in his arms.
And for a moment I thought we were all dead. And it was heaven. Heaven through a field of yellow tulips. How Robert managed to get those tulips with such short notice is nothing less than a miracle. This whole thing feels miraculous. She’s here, my sweet baby. And she got to meet her father. That’s more than many, many women can say these days.
As I woke, Robert leaned over me, his mouth against my ear. “You fought for this one. You’re a tough gal. I’d go to battle with you at my side any day,” he murmured.
We named her Corrine. After my mother. I was so glad he didn’t want to name her Claire, after his mother. But I think my dear old mother-in-law was angry about it. She left the hospital in a huff when we told her.
“Don’t worry, she’ll get over it,” he said as he smiled down at Corrine.
“Oh, I’m not worried,”
”No, you wouldn’t be.” He laughed. “You don’t worry about things even when you should.”
I smiled at him and reached up to take off his hat so I could run my fingers through his thick, golden hair. Only, Rita, he doesn’t have any! His hair is cut so short. He’s a true soldier now.
“Do you like it, Glory?” he asked.
“Well, it reminds me of when we were little, in the summer. When your mother made you crop your hair.”
“I can’t tell if that means you like it or not. You play unfair, Mrs. Whitehall!”
“Ah, it is my job to remain enigmatic so you will remain forever in love with me,” I said.
I meant it as a joke, Rita. But then he looked deep into my eyes and pulled my face toward him with his free hand.
“I will never love anyone else. You’re my girl. You always have been,” he said.
When Robert left the hospital I promised him I’d be brave. That I wouldn’t cry. And I didn’t...until he left. Then I cried a river.
For my mother.
For my husband.
For my little boy who now has the big-boy responsibility of being a big brother.
Things are slowly getting back to normal. Levi, my childhood friend who helped with the garden, has also turned out to be a help with Robbie. You should see how he’s transforming my yard. I told him what you said on how to treat the soil. He said you were wise and a good friend to have. He’s right.
And Mrs. Moldenhauer, that woman who dragged me to the 4-H what seems like ages ago, has been a great comfort as well (even though I make fun of her). I’ve employed her “roommate,” Marie, to nanny for me. Robert insisted. She’s much younger than Mrs. Moldenhauer. Nicer, too. She cares for me and fusses over us. She’s been cooking meals and bringing them over still piping hot from her own stove.
But I have to admit I’m also warming to Mrs. Moldenhauer herself. She’s written short stories featuring Robbie as the main character to keep him entertained. And she has this powder-white hair piled up on top of her head. I think she’s a liberal Democrat. And guess what? She’s also some sort of preacher! Keeps trying to get me to come to her church in Gloucester. But I steer clear of religion and politics.
I only wish Marie cooked better, but thankfully I’ll be up and around and off this stupid “REST” soon. Robbie misses my chicken soup. Keeps asking for it, the sweetheart. I’ve been making it with chicken feet lately. I really have. It tastes better, I think.
What about you? I took your last letter with me to the hospital and read it over and over.
When I close my eyes I can see your place. So open. Almost like the ocean.
With love (And peace soon?),
April 11, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
Congratulations on the birth of Corrine! How blessed you are, and how brave.
The thought of you waking up to your husband holding his new daughter had me smiling for days. I don’t believe in miracles, Glory, but sometimes there are moments when everything seems to line up in the right order. I’m so happy your family was together for such a momentous occasion.
The blanket that accompanies this letter was knitted with Mrs. Kleinschmidt’s best light wool. I told her it was for the Red Cross, so she didn’t give me the business about using it. Don’t worry about the lie—I did my penance by sitting with Mrs. K. while she wrote her twelve daily V-mails to enlisted men who would probably rather receive letters from Mussolini. In between missives she told me, quite frequently, that I hold the yarn incorrectly and my shoddy technique would give me arthritis in my old age.
I hope Corrine likes it, even if it is green.
So, Miss Glory, I have some news myself. A letter from Toby came yesterday! He’s still stateside, but will ship off to the Pacific soon. Yes, he’ll be halfway around the world from Sal. I think Toby naively assumed Uncle Sam would drop him into his father’s lap in North Africa. To be honest, I was hoping that, too.
Toby predicts he’ll be granted some form of leave before shipping out, possibly as much as three days. He plans on coming home, even if for just a few hours. I told Toby I’d meet him halfway if it meant we could spend more time together. And what else is there to do in Ohio but drink coffee and chew the fat?
At the bottom of Toby’s letter was a message for Roylene. It said: “Send me the recipe.” That’s it. At first I thought, maybe he doesn’t know her all that well. And if he did, why wouldn’t he write to her on his own? But then it hit me—it’s a code! Maybe I’ve been going to the movies too much, but I’m his mother and I know when something’s up. I’m going down to see Roylene at the tavern this week to see what this business is all about. Don’t worry, I’ll be real sly—a regular Sam Spade.
Well, I can’t wait to hear all about your victory garden. Digging in the dirt will help you reclaim your figure in no time. I’m about to head out to give my soil a good flip. I just saw Mrs. K. leave, and I want to get it done before she returns or I’ll be pulling double-duty.
Take care of yourself,
P.S. I’ve taped a dime to this letter so Robbie can go to the drugstore to buy a candy bar or two with his OWN money. Big brothers need their sustenance!
April 25, 1943
Oh, dearest Rita,
Thank you so much for the lovely blanket. I wrap Corrine in it every day and think of you. And Robbie loved having money of his own. It went straight into his piggy bank (he’s so like his father!)
When I was a little girl, I used to cherish having money of my own, too. My father’s family was and still is very wealthy. My father was probably the smartest man in America during the crash. He was smart all around. I wish I’d known him better. But money can do that to a family, make them strangers. There’s something closer about a family that struggles together. A bond. I watched the difference between me and Robert and then Levi, growing up. Robert and I came from another world.
We were summer people in this town. Wealthy and comfortable. And then there was Levi. Working-class and a year-round resident. But his family was so, so close. I used to wish his mother was my own. She never sat back on the shores and watched us from a distance under lace umbrellas. She always jumped into the waves next to us. And she collected “mermaid toes” (little peach-colored glittery shells shaped like toenails). Her name was Lucy and she died when we were all eleven years old. I try to be like her every day.
This war has been what I like to call “the great equalizer.” I feel comfortable living here in our summerhouse. And I don’t feel above or below anyone. Women and men, too, are acting as if they both have things to give to society. Everyone has a straight back as they walk through town, as if we are all carrying the pride of a country. It’s good to feel like that.
Enough about the war. Let’s talk about my garden!
My garden is just lovely. I have all sorts of herbs and vegetables starting. Lettuce is already coming up. I can’t wait to see it in full bloom. My hands are fairly caked with dirt each day and my apron, too. I love it. I love feeling the earth on my skin.
Now, your mystery girl and Toby are obviously saying something in code to each other. But what? Oh, it’s like reading a novel. Keep me posted on this!
With hope of peace in the near future,
May 2, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Seaman Tobias Vincenzo
I think there is a distinct possibility surrounding yourself with all that water has done something to your Midwestern brain waves. She’s a stranger, Toby. The thought of being stuck in a train car with someone incapable of making declarative sentences is enough to send me running for your father’s bourbon.
But...fine. If it’s really important to you, then I will ask her to come along. If we end up staying at a motel, she will bunk with me and I’ll pay for your very separate room. Am I making myself clear?
I don’t feel comfortable doing any of this without speaking to her father first. Yes, yes, I do realize you are both adults, but crossing a birthday marker doesn’t require anything but the ability to wait for time to pass. It doesn’t prove much.
See you in Ohio.
I love you.
P.S. I am not a carrier pigeon. If you want to write to this girl, then write to her, and vice versa.
May 9, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I’ve just returned home after a lovely Mother’s Day mass at the aptly named St. Mary’s. As I watched the darling young schoolgirls bring their floral offerings to the statue of Our Lady, I thought of you. I hope you are adjusting well to a new baby in the house, and this letter finds you well. If the world can’t be at peace, then maybe you can find a little in your living room.
Now...I have so much to share—hold on to your hat....
First, I finally received a letter from Sal! Large sections were blacked out, but I was able to piece together enough of it to know that he is fine. Sal’s primary responsibility is sewing up wounds (which is pretty funny, as he grew up in the back of his family’s tailor shop on the west side of Chicago). Some of the other guys wrote Stitch on his helmet, and the nickname has stuck. At least, he told me, they didn’t write Old Man.
Getting his letter was like Christmas morning and my wedding day rolled into one. It’s amazing what a few lines on a V-mail can do for a person. The worry doesn’t stop, but, to borrow a military phrase, it retreats in the face of its enemy, which I guess is hope. Sal’s taking care of himself, and besides the end of this war, that’s the most I can ask for.
I’ve heard from Toby, as well. I’ll be seeing him next month, when his leave is granted. We’re meeting halfway, in Columbus, and it looks like he’ll have a full forty-eight hours to visit.
If you sense a certain lack of enthusiasm in my words, then you really are starting to get to know me through these letters. I am remarkably unenthused. Toby requested I bring Roylene with me to Ohio, and—believe it or not—I’ve agreed. Yes, I will be sending my son off to war with that skinny gal standing next to me blubbering away. I was about to refuse, but this is what my son wrote in his last letter: “Ma, don’t you always say to never walk away from an opportunity to do a kindness? Well, here’s a golden one. Be nice to Roylene.”
The thing is, I don’t always say that. Sal does.
I have no idea if Toby’s interested in this girl or if she’s his charity case du jour. My husband and son have always been suckers for the underdog. Not me. We’ll see what happens.
Give those little ones a kiss,
May 11, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I’m in a mood today. Writing to you probably isn’t the best idea, but I’m going to do it, anyway. Will you still write back if I reveal a few blemishes on my character?
I’ve just finished picking slugs from my garden. Most satisfying thing I’ve done in a while, watching those vile things drown in a cup full of sudsy water. I’m a menace to all the living today. The reason for my destructive state? Guilt. It makes me mean. And I’ve been feeling guilty as hell all morning.
Yesterday I finally got around to visiting Roy’s Tavern. I did try once before, when Toby’s first message for Roylene came. That evening, she was taking the garbage out when I approached, and I flattened my back against the wall so she wouldn’t see me. I watched her struggle with the bin’s lid. A bottle fell out and hit the pavement, bits of glass rolling every which way, but I stayed where I was while she ran back into the tavern for a dustpan and broom.
Roylene cleaned up every shard, slowly and methodically, as though the act was the only thing in the world she was meant to accomplish, as though she’d been placed on God’s green earth to do that, and only that. She had no reason to hurry. Her life is set. She could have been eighteen or eighty.
The sight of her filled me first with sadness and then a strong sense of revulsion. There should not be a place for Toby in such a life. If he hadn’t been about to ship off to war, would my son have reached out to someone like her? Shouldn’t their relationship—or whatever it is—be another casualty of history? I practically ran from the tavern that night, with no intention of going back.
I do realize how this sounds. I suppose I am a snob, but please see me as a mother who wants the best for her child. If it makes any difference, I did make a genuine attempt yesterday to discuss the Ohio trip with her father.
I talked Irene into going with me, figuring she’d keep me from changing my mind. We arrived at the tavern at the lunch hour, and only a few older men sat drinking their meals at the bar. The interior was a picture of gloom, none of the early-spring sun filtered through the dirty windows. Irene gave me the eye, but I made a quick peace with the mission to accomplish, and nudged her forward. We scooted our bottoms onto a pair of bar stools and ordered two ginger ales and a corned beef to split. The barman, short and skinny with a shock of white hair atop his head, gave us the once-over.
“Who’re you?” he demanded.
I figured this was the eponymous Roy. I introduced myself and mentioned Toby’s admiration of his establishment and my acquaintance with his daughter. The man leaned over the wooden bar, his clay-colored eyes boring into mine.
“We don’t serve Krauts,” he growled. “I told your son as much.”
My mouth fell open so hard my chin nearly landed in my lap.
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“You heard me,” he said. “Get the hell out.”
Irene yanked me off my seat and we did leave—not too fast, mind you, and with our heads held high. We stood on the sidewalk outside Roy’s for a minute, our shock rendering us momentarily speechless.
Irene wanted to take a walk around campus to clear our heads and find something to eat. “Wait,” I told her, and I marched right back in that tavern and up to that horrendous man. “My son the Kraut is fighting for you,” I said, and, oh, boy, was it hard to keep my voice level. “You should be thankful.” And then I did get the hell out of there because my legs were shaking like gelatin.
By the time I got home, Irene and I had rehashed the experience so many times it stopped making my heart pound and I could just laugh. What a creep!
I put my key in the door, and all I could think about was what a kick Sal would get when I told him the story. Then I stepped into my living room and realized I was alone. I wanted to cry. Instead, I turned right around and headed over to Mrs. Kleinschmidt’s. A fellow German, I figured she’d appreciate the story and, I figured, if she ever ran into Roy he’d rue the day.
Mrs. K. sat at her kitchen table, with approximately one million V-mail letters open in front of her, painstakingly copying the same message on each one. It struck me as ridiculous, and though I shouldn’t have, I said, “Why do you make yourself crazy over this? You do enough for the war effort.”
Glory, her look could have froze a lake in the middle of summer. “Ich bin Deutscher,” she said.
“My family is German, too,” I countered. “What does that have to do with it?”
She returned to her letter writing. “You have an enlisted husband and son to secure your reputation as a good American. I do not.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
Mrs. K. drew herself to standing and slammed one hand on the table, sending the papers in all directions. “Du bist eine dumme Frau!” she spat.
And you know, she was right. I am a stupid woman. I saw Mrs. Kleinschmidt every day, yet I never recognized her fear, so distracted I’ve been with my own petty concerns.
I helped her clean up the kitchen floor, and then I let myself out. I went to bed that night feeling shamed. Is my quickness to judge the sign of a small mind? How little I understand of the world. Why haven’t I been paying attention?
This afternoon I’m going to purchase two train tickets for Columbus, Ohio. Adjoining seats. Lord help me.
May 13, 1943
V-mail from Gloria Whitehall to Sgt. Robert Whitehall
How are you doing? I miss you like crazy. And the baby? She misses you, too. Even though I know you won’t believe me. Babies know...they do! Anyway, I’m taking lots of pictures like you asked. Robbie told me to tell you that Corrine spit up on his favorite bear. I’ll let him know you think it’s tragic. I was happy to read, in your last letter, that you’ve come to your senses and admitted that I was right. It’s better for us all in the Rockport house. And I know you like us being closer to Levi. And thank you for that bit of romance you gave me. We certainly do belong near the beaches where we fell in love. I cried and cried when I read those words. (Happy tears.) I told Levi to fix the latch on the gate as you asked. And you were right. Robbie is wild now that Corrine is born. He would have run straight into the ocean. Thank you for always taking good care of us.
May 16, 1943
Two letters from you in one day! They feel so solid in my hands. That’s such a nice feeling with everything so faint and weightless around me now. And the truth is, I’m beginning to wait for your letters with bated breath. They are like talismans for me.
How awful, being treated like that. I can’t imagine. I’m not German but, it seems to me, American is American. That man should be punished.
I told Mrs. Moldenhauer all about it. She’s been coming over even more since Corrine was born, and I’m growing quite fond of her. She said, “Obstinate thinkers will be the ruination of Freedom.” I remember it verbatim because it was just so...profound. I’m not political at all. Or religious. Is that terrible? I suppose I should begin to believe in something, so I can give tradition to my children. I simply haven’t decided what to believe in. I went from debutante to war bride. Maybe Mrs. Moldenhauer can teach me a thing or two.
She even convinced me to go to that church of hers last Sunday. I took Robbie, but Corrine stayed with Levi because Marie was at the “service,” too. He’s been such a help around here. When Robert left for Sparta, we saw him off together at the station. It seemed only fitting. I mean, the three of us have been thick as thieves for as long as any of us can remember. And Robert’s last words before he left were to Levi, not to me. “Take care of my family, Lee,” he said. “You know I will,” said Levi. And so far, he’s made good on his promise. Anyway, Mrs. Moldenhauer’s church isn’t like any church I’ve ever been to, Rita. It’s full of women talking about peace and love. More like a movement than a sermon. Mrs. Moldenhauer is a feminist! Can you believe it? An old lady like her? And a member of some sort of socialist party. I have to admit I felt a little guilty as my heart rose with her words. My father was a staunch Republican whose favorite saying was “Damn the Democrats!”
I might go again.
I’m glad you got V-mail from Sal. I just got one from Robert, too! Maybe everyone is getting letters this month. That would be nice. There’s so much blocked out on them, though. I don’t know if he’s still stateside or not. It kills me.
I have to tell you that I’m so happy you will bring that skinny girl with you to see Toby. Though I understand your reservations. I look at my sweet Robbie and wonder how I’ll feel when he takes to a girl. Then again, Claire Whitehall doesn’t like me. I think I’ve told you that. But what you don’t know is that she hasn’t liked me since I was a little girl. It has less to do with ME and more to do with my own mother, who she deemed inappropriate. New money and all that.
The mystery part about your boy and that Roylene is the fascinating thing. What are those two up to? I was listening to I Love a Mystery the other evening (I try to catch it every night, but it’s hard with the baby) and I was thinking your story would be a great plot. Better than theirs.
Keep strong, Rita. I’m happy to hear I’m not alone in my growing fondness to old-lady neighbors. Don’t let anyone else bully you or I might just have to take a train and wave my wild little son around. “Take THAT!” I’d say.
He’s been so naughty he’d send any bigot running.
Yours in true friendship,
May 21, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I’m sitting on our patio this early morning, with a cup of tea to warm me before the sun makes its appearance. My garden is doing well, though I think if I eat any more spinach I’ll turn into Popeye. How is yours coming along?
I got a kick out of your last letter. That Mrs. Moldenhauer sounds like a suffragette. I’m old enough to remember those. My father called them “dirty birdies.” I think our pops would have gotten along.
I also think you should go back to the church meetings. What could it hurt? Sal always says it’s our responsibility as human beings to never lose our curiosity. He is absolutely right. And let’s face it, we’re not the ones doing the heavy lifting in this war. The least we can do is not let our brains atrophy. Get in there and see what these gals are all about. New ideas leave the old ones shaking in their shoes, don’t they?
Then again, those most eager to tell people what to do are often those most in need of guidance. You are getting advice from a hypocrite, my dear. I haven’t talked to Mrs. K. since that incident in her kitchen. Not a word. She peers at me over her blinds, but I look away. I’m a big chicken, afraid of an old woman. Squawk! Squawk!
The situation with Roylene is even worse. I did buy those tickets, just as I promised. They sat atop my dresser gathering dust for days, a constant reminder of a mission unaccomplished. Oh, but how Toby’s expectations gnawed at my conscience! When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I squared my shoulders and planned another visit to Roy’s Tavern. Irene refused to go back—she claims Roy is a madman—so I was flying solo. I got all gussied up in my most expensive-looking suit, and applied my makeup with the precision of a surgeon. I pulled on my baby-pink day gloves and shoved my feet into a pair of tan pumps with ankle straps. (I still have decent ankles, kiddo.) I was ready to take on that mean little man.
Only I never made it past the front gate.
A few mornings later, Roylene showed up on my porch, wearing a flour-sack dress and a hand-knit sweater the color of wet sand. I was mortified that it was she who came to me.
“I saw you at the tavern?” was all she said.
The morning still held the chill of spring, but I didn’t invite her in. “Wait here,” I said, and dashed into the house to retrieve the train tickets. I gave her one of them and explained the departure and arrival schedule. “You’ll need to get permission from your father,” I stuck on to the end of my lecture. “I don’t think he’d appreciate you running off.”
She stared at me, blank as a barn door. Her eyes are a dull hazel, unable to decide between brown and green.
“You’re very welcome,” I snapped. I hadn’t meant to sound overly harsh, but maybe I did because a crimson flush crept down the steep slopes of her cheeks. She opened her mouth, then decided fleeing was her best option. Roylene nearly tripped down the steps trying to get away from me. I would have hightailed it for the safety of my living room as well, but a moth hole on the back of her sweater caught my attention—it had frayed into a crater.
“Roylene!” My tone brought her to a halt.
She turned, slowly, a look of complete terror on her face.
“Give me your cardigan.”
Her fear slid into confusion. “It’s my only warm-weather sweater, Mrs. Vincenzo? Don’t you own a bunch already?”
“I want to repair it,” I said, struggling to soften my voice. “Don’t you want to look your best for our trip?”
She handed the decrepit sweater over like she was giving me one of her kidneys, and then ran down the street without a backward glance.
We leave for Ohio in five days. Wish me luck.
May 26, 1943
How nice of you to offer to fix Roylene’s sweater. I’ve been getting handy these days, too. Marie is teaching me to knit and crochet. And I’ve picked up some embroidery on my own. Sometimes I wonder about my mother and what she did with her free time. As far as I know she never cooked, cleaned or made anything with her hands. I’d feel robbed if I couldn’t do these things. There’s such a sense of accomplishment.
The days are slow and soft with a new baby. Marie has moved in for the moment, so I can better care for Corrine. As I’ve said, Robbie is full of energy and more than a little attention deprived since her birth.
A few days ago, we were all sitting on the porch having breakfast and something terrible happened. Marie and I were talking about the war, Mrs. M.’s sermons and ration cards. Robbie was trying to get my attention but I insisted he stay quiet. I had little Corrine at my breast. (I decided to breast-feed her. Mrs. M. said it was my patriotic duty. I’m enjoying the closeness. I didn’t breast-feed Robbie. Claire Whitehall, the mother-in-law of all mother-in-laws, told me it was a disgusting habit and gave me a jar of some powdered milk.) Anyway, Robbie walked right up to me and smacked the baby on her head!
I wanted to hit him, Rita. I wanted to throw him right over the railing of the porch. And that feeling...the rage that rose up so suddenly made me remember another time. The only other time I’ve ever felt violence surge in my blood.
Robert, Levi and I were about twelve years old. We’d just reunited on the beaches here in Rockport and the day started out lovely. Then Levi started to tease me about how my body was changing. I didn’t want to become a woman, so I was sensitive to it. I was so afraid that if I changed too much, we wouldn’t be best friends anymore.
“Stop looking at me like that, Levi,” I shouted.
“He can’t help it, Glory. You’re turning into a Ladygirl right in front of us. What are we supposed to do?” asked Robert.
Somehow, Robert saying that made it so much worse. And I noticed they’d changed, too. They looked like young men. And they were both so handsome in their different ways. Robert light, Levi dark.
Levi elbowed Robert. “Hey, leave her be. Race you to the sandbar!”
And the two of them took off without me. When they returned to shore, falling on the sand laughing and out of breath, I walked right over to them with my hands on my hips. I wanted to bury them both in the sand and leave them for dead. So I did something that I’m not proud of...and it’s worse than you not inviting Roylene into your home. I kicked Robert in his side. Hard.
I didn’t know what my foot was going to do until it did it. Moved by the anger, not by my own will. I wanted to make both those boys suffer the way I’d suffered. But I learned that all I did was create a great chasm between us. (And I hurt my foot rather badly!)
And that’s war, right, Rita? Two sides hurting each other, acting out in violence, before trying to resolve any feelings? Or maybe that’s too simple. I’d like to think that America is like Levi’s mother. The grand negotiator.
Robert didn’t speak to me for an entire week. In the end, Levi was the one who brought us all back together. Making jokes and reminding us that no matter who we became, we’d always be friends. He was probably taking the advice of his wise, wise mother. But it worked.
So, there I was, sitting on the porch, my hand encircling Robbie’s wrists in a fierce grip. But instead of walloping him, I got up, gave my cherub-cheeked baby to Marie and brought Robbie inside. I went to his room and let him pick out some books.
“Let’s read, just you and me,” I said.
He climbed up on my lap and I read to him, one hand pushing his hair from his brow and placing kisses on his head between pages. After the first book he said, “I’m sorry, Mama.”
I gave him one more kiss. “I know, Robbie. Sometimes we do things when we are mad and scared, and we don’t mean them at all.”
I was so glad I’d kicked Robert that day, and remembered what it felt like, because if that hadn’t happened...I would have spanked my poor boy.
Anyway, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. I love being domestic. Robbie’s helped me roll up all these balls of tinfoil to bring to the local junk man who does something with them for the war effort. We’ve even got as far as peeling the foil from gum wrappers! And we’ve begun collecting milkweed pods. Mrs. M. says there’s a factory out in Michigan that’s turning the silk from the pods into parachutes. Can you imagine?
Oh, and I’ll leave you with a ration book idea:
Take the lard you’ve bought and put it in a bowl. Mix it with yellow food coloring and you can almost fool your taste buds into thinking it’s butter!
Love, love, love,
May 26, 1943
SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN OHIO
Greetings from the (rail) road!
We switched trains in Indianapolis about two hours ago. There are so many uniformed boys in our car, I feel like I’m heading off to war as well. They joke and play cards and drink from small, cheap bottles of whiskey. One rather inebriated fellow squeezed between Roylene and myself as we returned from the dining car and said he was caught between two slices of heaven. I laughed—how could I not? A little fun is in order. They mightn’t have any idea what’s in store overseas, but my Sal’s letters have given me enough of an impression. I wanted to buy them all steak dinners and kiss their ruddy cheeks. Instead, I sat across from Roylene and busied myself extracting pen and paper from my bag. I kept one eye on her. She bit her fingernails and wiped the cuttings on her seat when she thought I wasn’t looking. A moment ago, I offered her my Women’s Day to give her hands something to do. She’s flipping through to be respectful, but I don’t think she’s reading.
We’ve exhausted the standard small-talk topics. During the interminable journey from Des Moines to Indianapolis, I learned the following, and not much else: 1. Mrs. K. was right—Roylene is from Oklahoma. Roy went north to escape the dust when everyone else, including his wife, went West. The poor thing hasn’t seen her mother in years. 2. Roylene slaves away at the tavern six days a week. 3. She doesn’t like egg salad (too spongy), but blueberry pie suits her fine.
Fascinating stuff. My boy likes Whitman and Poe. What in the world are they going to talk about? I guess it doesn’t make any difference. I have a lot to say to my son before he ships off to God knows where. The girl won’t get a word in edgewise.
I must admit, ragged fingernails aside, Roylene’s taken a smidge more concern with her appearance. She’s rolled her hair for the trip, and she’s wearing a clean dress and the summer sweater I mended. I found a ruby-red doily I crocheted ages ago and cut it up to trim the collar and cuffs. It offsets the odd yarn color, giving it a rich maple hue. A dab of scarlet lipstick would seal the deal but that’s probably asking too much.
The magazine lies open on her lap, but Roylene’s eyes are closing. The soldier boys have also quieted, settling into a drunken snooze. They still have quite a trip ahead. Our stop is only an hour away at this point, give or take. There is a chance Toby will be waiting for us at the station.
Oh, Glory, I can’t wait to see him.
May 27, 1943 (3 or 4 o’clock in the damn morning)
SANDY PINES ROADSIDE MOTEL, OUTSIDE OF COLUMBUS, OHIO
There is neither sand nor pine trees in the vicinity of this motel, only a deserted gravel parking lot lit by the dull blue glow of a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. It’s not the middle of the night but close enough. Even the earliest risers are still tucked in their beds.
Except Roylene. Her bed is empty. The coverlet lies in a crumpled heap. She didn’t have the decency to tuck a few pillows under it to trick my sleepy eyes.
Honestly, it is preferable to think some maniac broke into our room and stole her in the dead of night than give a second’s thought to what is really going on.
I’ve spent the past twenty minutes trying to decide whether or not I should march over to Toby’s room and bang on the door. I’m tempted, I’ll tell you that. But to be truthful, my motivation is not to break up their tryst but to assuage my loneliness. I came here to see my boy. I haven’t gotten my chance with him yet.
The man who picked us up at the train station was barely recognizable. After they cut Toby’s hair, they must have taken a chisel to the rest of him, chipping away at the boyish layers, sharpening his features as though his face was one more weapon to ready for battle. He waved at us, and I could hardly raise my hand in return. Roylene yelped and jumped on him like a bedbug.
“You look pretty,” Toby said, his fingers drifting from her face to the doily collar. “This sweater suits you.”
I sewed it! I wanted to shout. Don’t you recognize your mother’s handiwork? Instead, I forced a smile and said, “Isn’t she, though?”
“Smart, too,” Toby added, keeping his eyes on Roylene. He wrapped his hands around her narrow face. “Did you bring it?”
Her skinny hand dove into the front of her dress, and she pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from her nonexistent bosom. “It’s not that good?” she whispered.
“Good enough to earn my girl her high school diploma,” he murmured, then briefly turned his bright eyes to me. “She wrote an essay about how to make potato soup for the high school equivalency.”
I should have complimented her, but my brain froze after the words my girl. I was supposed to hand my boy over to her? Oh, Glory, I’ve always been protective of Toby, overly so, to be honest, but I don’t think you’d have blamed me if I pushed her back on that train and sent her off to Timbuktu. Before I knew it, he’d thrown his arm over her shoulders and they were walking down the platform, away from where I stood. “Come on, Ma,” Toby called, and I scurried to catch up.
Today we spent most of our time wandering the city, playing tourist and ignoring the inevitable. I didn’t feel like a third wheel so much as a souvenir, a postcard from a past life.
And here I sit, alone. I was mistaken about Toby’s leave—he doesn’t have a full forty-eight hours. His train leaves in an hour or two. He said goodbye to me last night, told me not to bother getting up to see him off, that it was too early and I should get my beauty rest.
I’m not going to sleep through his departure. I’m going to get dressed and walk over to the train station. Then I’m going to kiss him on the crown of his head and imagine his fine, golden hair tickling my nose.
I’m going to say goodbye to my son.
June 5, 1943
How my heart ached for you when I received your letters. I can only imagine my Robbie all grown up and walking down the street in front of me, hand in hand with another girl. Right now I’m his best girl...and I don’t want that to change anytime soon. I suppose it’s good that Toby has a girl. And perhaps it wasn’t as scandalous as you think...their night together. Couldn’t it be that they were taking a walk under the stars? I wonder if having another person waiting for him won’t give him even more reason to make it home unharmed? I know I’m waxing enthusiastic, but I’m turning into quite the optimist lately!
I must admit, after I read your letter I pushed back the coffee table in the living room and put on the radio. I held my Robbie close and danced with him. How I cried. I whispered into his ear, “Stay just the way you are.”
And I do want him to stay how he is. I’d like a little snapshot of this time to keep in my heart forever. The only thing missing is Robert. Like a throbbing hollowness that won’t go away. A splinter I can’t find. A toothache. His absence is always right behind me.
Anyway...my life has become one big whirl of busy. It seems like I go from the garden to the tub and then pull on some stockings (Do you have any left? I’m completely out of silk but have some nylons stocked up if you want me to send you some. Shh! Don’t tell!) and run out the door and down the road to Mrs. M.’s so we can go to one of her meetings. I run so fast the hairpins come out and I have to wear my hair wild. Claire Whitehall would KILL me. Marie has been kind enough to stay home from the meetings and stay with the kids. She said, “I’ve had my turn, now you go have yours.” I swear I’m falling more in love with Mrs. M. and Marie every day.
I feel like a sparrow flitting around landing here or there. It feels good. Weightless.
The kids are doing well, though I’ve noticed that Robbie isn’t asking for Robert anymore. He’s taken to calling Levi “Papa.” I’m worried about that and know I should put the kibosh on it. Maybe I should encourage Robbie to call him Uncle Levi? He’s so like a brother to Robert, anyway....
Those meetings, though, with Mrs. M....leave me breathless. I never knew how much power we have as a people, a government. There have been some ingenious women in our history, Rita. Wouldn’t it be nice to join the ranks of Abigail Adams, Lucretia Mott or even Elizabeth Cady Stanton?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men AND WOMEN are created equal.” Imagine! See what they don’t teach us in school? I swear Corrine will grow up knowing what she’s made of.
As for my garden, well...see for yourself. I’ve enclosed a photograph. The black-and-white won’t do it justice, but just look, Rita! Look at how lush it is, with the sea peeking out from behind the tall sunflowers at the back. I’ve named those sunflowers. I call them Rita 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and I say good-morning each day.
Sending you love and prayers for peace,
P.S. I just got another letter from Robert. His division will be moving from Sparta to New York. I should be happy, right? Because I’ll surely see him, then. But I know that being stationed back near the coast will mean that he’ll go overseas soon. I wish he could be with Toby or Sal. Maybe we can write to them and tell them to try to take care of one another? I know Toby and Sal are not fighting on the same fronts, but what if you petition them to be nearer? Can we do that?
There’s so much I don’t understand about this war. So much I wish I knew.
Oh, well. I suppose I just have to keep learning. And writing letters.
June 17, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
Thank you for accepting my letters with such grace. I’ve been in such a state these past few weeks, and your words act as a balm to my frayed nerves. Sometimes I wish the censors would attack domestic letters with the same ferocity they do those going overseas. I’m certain my ravings would merit a few slashes of black ink!
So, to address your most important question: my stockings look like they’ve been in a gunfight at the OK Corral. I will gladly accept any charitable donations to my lingerie wardrobe. I can repay you in heirloom seeds and advice.
I’ll give you an advance on the advice—make sure your children know who their daddy is. We don’t know how long this godforsaken war is going to last, but we do know that our guys are in it for the long haul. I don’t mean to depress you, but that baby of yours could be walking about singing “The White Cliffs of Dover” by the time Robert returns. Levi should be Levi. Papas are Papas.
But then, I don’t know if someone like me should be handing out advice like a regular Queen Bee. I’ve behaved shamefully, Glory. Remember my friend Irene? Well, Irene is a real plain Jane, if I’m being honest, and she’s not one for mixing. In warmer weather, the university hosts a social outdoors near the Old Capitol Building. I convinced Irene to go, and promised I’d join her for moral support. Turns out I’m the one who needs help in the morality department.
As you could guess, the women outnumbered the men ten to one. We hens stood in clusters, some tittering about nothing in particular, others wondering why the men who did attend weren’t in uniform. I caught Irene staring at one of them—a tall, cowboyish sort, with thick, straw-colored hair and an easy smile. I gave her a nudge, but like I said, she isn’t the mixing type. Irene shook her head and started sucking down her ginger ale, like it suddenly required all of her effort and attention.
With a quick apology to Sal—I swear!—I sauntered over to that man, completely brazen, and asked him to join us. He did. We introduced ourselves. (He’s probably only in his mid-thirties, but called himself “Mr. Clark,” so we went by Miss Vincenzo and Miss Wachowski, like a couple of coeds.). Then darn if he didn’t reach into the pocket of his suede sport coat and pull out a flask. Irene just about keeled over.
“Ladies first,” he said, and poured a couple of thumbs into what was left of Irene’s ginger ale.
He turned to me and I didn’t have a glass. With one raised eyebrow he watched as I took hold of that flask and knocked back a shot! I haven’t done that since before Mr. Roosevelt was in office. Irene’s eyes grew big and her mouth pursed tight as a fisherman’s knot.
Well, I talked for both of us, and the next thing I knew I’d invited him over for dinner next Wednesday (with Irene, of course). I’m not sure what I’ve gotten her into, but I’m calling it a date. Irene doesn’t show it much, but she’s excited. I swear, she’s asked me six different times if she should roll her hair up or not.
I love my husband, Glory, but I can’t tell you how nice it is that a man will be admiring my cooking and the way I keep my house. Your suffragette women would probably give me a good pounding if you told them I said that, but it’s true. I suppose what I’m saying is I understand why you have Levi around, it’s just you must understand there are lines we can’t cross.
P.S. I haven’t seen Roylene since our trip to Ohio. I didn’t embarrass her or Toby that morning, but I think she suspected I knew what went on. She stared out the window the entire return trip, and scurried off as soon as we arrived in Iowa City.
P.P.S. I haven’t gotten any V-mail at all. Not one letter from Toby or Sal. I think the postman is afraid of me. Every afternoon I nearly tackle him as he approaches our mailbox!
July 4, 1943
I know it’s been a while since I wrote back to you. So many things are happening right now and I don’t quite know what to do with myself. The earth moves and I’m trying to find a foothold.
First things first. This letter is inside a box of all sorts of stockings. I hope you like them. I also included a jar of strawberry jam I put up. (If you knew me really well you’d know what a surprising thing that is!) But I wouldn’t have any strawberries, or any garden for that matter, if it wasn’t for you.
Thank you for that.
I’m purposely writing this letter today as it is the birthday of this great nation. The one we sacrifice for every day. One town over, in Gloucester, we have a parade and then bonfires on the beaches. And I took baby Corrine and Robbie. Corrine is getting so big now. She’s a smiley baby with fat cheeks. She soothes me so. I put her in this fancy new pram Claire gave me (she’s a good one for presents, that Claire...), and Robbie helped me push. We were a bit early so I strolled them over to the beaches that Levi, Robert and I made our magical paradise as kids. There were bonfires already starting even with the sun not quite set. And that’s when I saw him. Levi, staring out over the ocean. I’d invited him to come with us...but he told me that the three of us (the children and I) should be spending more time as a family. That happened right after I asked him to stop encouraging Robbie to call him Papa. I’ve known him long enough to know I’d hurt his feelings.
“Papa!” Robbie shouted as he ran down the beach. Levi caught him and threw him up in the air. Two dark shadows against the setting sun, laughing as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
As they walked toward me, I heard Levi talking to Robbie.
“I’m not Papa, I’m Uncle Levi. You have a daddy who is fighting for our nation. He’s a hero, and we want to remember that every day, okay, pal?”
Robbie looked up and nodded.
“Want to come watch the parade with us, Levi?” I asked.
“You bet,” he said, and put Robbie on his shoulders as he found a place for us in the crowds.
The parade itself was beautiful. As well as the celebrations afterward. And to be quite honest, I’m not usually a fan of parades.
It was the strangest thing. The celebration felt many layered. Like a quilt of sorts. See, some of the families are beginning to get notices more and more that their boys are gone. I don’t know how you do it, with both your men out there. Everywhere I looked there were people waving their small paper flags and crying. And I know they were tears of joy and pride...but tears just the same. Tears don’t belong at parades and bonfires.
No word from Robert about when he might be going overseas. It’s the not knowing that kills me.
And because of that, I started to cry, too. Levi took Robbie down from his shoulders and pulled me into a hug. It shouldn’t have been awkward...we’ve hugged lots of times. But his embrace felt different. Painful as well as safe. I can’t really explain, except it scared me a little. When he released me, he tucked an errant wisp of hair behind my ear. Oh, Rita. In that moment I felt what you must have felt at that dance. Like a woman. A young, attractive woman. And it felt wonderful.
Anyway, I’ve missed your stories. So write back and tell me what is going on in your life. And maybe a new recipe? I’m getting darn tired of my own.
By the way, guess what I did? I went down to city hall and changed my affiliation. I am now a proud member of the Democratic party.
Father and Mother are turning in their graves!
With much affection,
July 8, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Pfc. Salvatore Vincenzo
I got your letter yesterday. You didn’t ask for my opinion, but I’m going to give it anyway (surprise, surprise).
What happened on that battlefield might be your fault, and it might not. It’s definitely Hitler’s fault. He started it.
I’m not making light, but I don’t think you should beat yourself up for decisions made on only a second’s worth of thought. Mistakes will happen. Yes, I do realize we’re talking about a boy’s life, and I know what a slipup can mean, but if you hold yourself to the standard of God, you will forget what it’s like to be a regular old human.
And what has prepared us for this? The Depression? We had our hard times, and we pulled through. Did we find out we were made of tougher stuff than we thought, or did circumstance breed heroism? I’m not sure. This war is certainly forcing out the best in everyone, so it follows that a little bit of the worst will squeeze out, too. Even from you and me.
I love you, and more important, I believe in you,
July 13, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I was so glad to get your letter, kiddo. For a minute I’d worried I’d lost you to the uncertainties of this damn war. And I need a friend more than ever. Iowa City clears out in the summer, our population dipping to half of what it is when the college students are here. The sun shines so mercilessly on these empty streets, I can’t go barefoot on the cement for more than a second.
So, thank you for the stockings. I hope you don’t mind, but I gave a pair to Irene. She was desperate, about to surrender to the last resort of swabbing her legs with tea bags and tracing the seam with a kohl pencil. I believe Irene is knitting a chic beret for the baby as a thank-you gesture. I’ll send it along when she’s done, which should be sometime in 1963.
I sincerely hope you’ve gotten more information about Robert’s shipping out. Being kept in the dark is tough. Before this war I felt like if I needed to know something I could find a way to know it. But so much is unknowable now, completely beyond my grasp. Sal’s letters make me question if I’ve ever truly understood anything about human nature.
Including what’s been happening these past few weeks. I don’t wish to distress you, hon, but this letter might do exactly that, so I apologize in advance. It’s just that I’ve been keeping everything inside me, and not having anyone to talk to is starting to do some internal damage. Does it help to know I feel better confessing my sins to you instead of Father Denneny down at St. Mary’s? At least I know you aren’t going to make me say any rosaries.
Remember the big dinner with Irene and the cowboy?
Irene came over early. The poor girl’s hands shook so hard she couldn’t hold a bobby pin to save her life. I rolled her hair and helped with her makeup. She looked very presentable. Maybe not pretty, but polished, put-together. A guy could do a lot worse.
The cowboy was on time, I’ll give him that. Turns out his first name is Charlie, which surprised me. I thought it would be Tex or Hank or some other rodeo name. He brought a bottle of wine with him and that same easy smile. Irene kept her lips glued together so I yapped and yapped until I had to take care of the meat loaf. I poured them each a glass and disappeared into the kitchen.
I must have been gone a while because when I came back half the bottle was gone and Irene’s face looked like the beets I’ve been pulling from my garden. Charlie sat in Sal’s chair, his long legs splayed out so far the tips of his boots nearly touched Irene’s ankles. Their laughter filled my house, every nook and cranny, leaving no room for the sadness I’d been cultivating.
I hated them, Glory. That’s a strong word, hate, but it overtook me. Those two had nothing to worry about. The Germans weren’t going to march into their living rooms, crushing their hearts to bits. The Japanese weren’t dropping bombs in their backyards. How dare they? I wanted to kick at his stupid feet and shake Irene until her teeth rattled.
Instead, I walked back into the kitchen. I got what was left of Sal’s bourbon and had a nip, then two. I drew a few breaths, brought the food to the dining room and called them in to dinner.
When they saw my cooking their faces just about melted with gratitude. I used all my rations to buy beef, veal and pork, so I could make the meat loaf right. I boiled some carrots with the early potatoes, and you would have thought I was serving caviar.
The guilt crept up on me, but when I tried to make up for my terrible thoughts, I overdid it. I ate too much, laughed too hard, polished off Sal’s bottle. Charlie was open and polite with Irene, but he kept an eye on me, wary almost, like I was the bomb about to go off and shatter the evening.
I don’t think Irene noticed, so taken was she by this cowboy. When I saw the stars in her eyes I grew even more ashamed. This was my friend, and she deserved a little fun. I collected the plates and excused myself, retreating for the safety of the kitchen.
I took my time washing and drying. When I heard Irene’s tinkly laugh I took the pan out back to add the grease to the Mason jar on the patio. (Mrs. K., who is only talking to me out of a sense of patriotic duty, is in charge of lard collection for our block.)
In Iowa, the summer nights are still as can be. I heard him walk through the kitchen. I heard the match strike and his first deep drag on the cigarette. When the screen door slammed it sounded like a gunshot.
“Everything hunky-dory?” he drawled.
“Where’s Irene?” I said in place of a real answer.
“Powder room. She was feeling a little queasy.” Everything he said was outlined in humor. I didn’t know if it meant he was basically kind or inherently mean-spirited. It was impossible to tell.
He sat next to me on our patio and balanced his cigarette on the edge of the cement. Then he leaned back, reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a pressed handkerchief.
“Give me that,” he said, and caught my wrist with one large, rough hand. He wiped the grease from my fingers, one by one, slow and methodical.
Oh, Glory, I didn’t stop him. After he’d cleaned my hand, he stuffed the kerchief back into his pocket like it was nobody’s business, picked up his cigarette and went back in the house.
I sat on that patio until Irene came out to tell me Charlie was going to take her home. She slurred her words, and I should have talked her into staying the night. But I didn’t.
After they left I sat on my bed, picking at the chenille with my fingernails. I yanked at the threads, over and over, talking to Sal in my head and blaming him for everything. He’s forty-one years old, like me. At that age he could have waited out the lottery until the end of the war. There is no reason for him to be in a strange land, the grim reaper holding him close, saying, “Yes, today is the day,” or “No, not yet.”
We were having a fight right there in the bedroom, a fight we should have had a year ago, and he wasn’t even around to defend himself.
I went to bed with my clothes on, on top of our ruined bedspread. Before I fell asleep I tried to think of what North Africa was like, to imagine it, Glory, but all I could think about was those rough hands pulling the grime from my fingers.
I woke up early the next morning feeling pretty low. Before putting the kettle on, I got pen and paper and wrote to my husband, telling him about my sunflowers and the broken shed lock and funny stories of Mrs. K., strengthening his tie to me and our life together. That is my job, right? To comfort him. To keep the portrait of what he left behind intact. Isn’t that a woman’s duty during wartime?
I’ve confessed all my guilty thoughts to you, but I’m going to devise my own penance, if that’s all right. Toby’s asked me to check up on Roylene, but I’ve been avoiding the tavern. I walk past the dingy windows with my head down, staying clear of that sad, skinny little girl. I need to make an effort. My Toby is fighting for the world’s freedom and he asked me to do one simple thing. I might as well try to do it.
P.S. I used the last bit of corn syrup to make a War Cake. Do you know it? I’ve included the recipe. I figured it’s the least I could do after unloading all my neuroses on you. Instead of butter I smeared your wonderful strawberry jam on it. Heavenly!
1 cup molasses
1 cup corn syrup (light or dark can be used)
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 cups raisins
2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
In large pot, combine molasses, corn syrup, water, raisins, shortening, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Sift together flour, baking soda and baking powder. Combine with molasses mixture and beat well.
Divide batter between two well-greased 9x5-inch loaf pans. Bake 45 minutes or until done. Cakes will be dense and will not rise much.
Recipe makes two loaf cakes.
August 1, 1943
Reading your letter I could only think of one thing. Something Mrs. Moldenhauer (she’s asked me to call her Anna) said to me not a week before I received it. (And what is the matter with the post these days? I feel like it takes YEARS to get a letter, or to send one. And I live for your letters, Rita. Almost as much as I live for Robert’s. Maybe that’s because his don’t come on a regular basis and yours eventually do!)
Anyway, she said, “Make sure you remember that you are always afraid, and that fear does strange things to people.”
Now, it’s obvious what she meant about the “strange things” over here in my part of the world. She was talking about how I allow Levi into my life more and more these days.
But we don’t have to talk about that right now, let’s talk about what’s going on in Iowa City. (Sometimes I feel like all I do is ramble on and on about myself without asking about you.)
I guess you are afraid. More afraid than me, dear Rita. Because you have been married to Sal for so much longer than I’ve shared my life and bed with Robert. And your son? Please! Right now both of my children have little summer fevers (that’s why I’m able to sit and craft this LONG letter...they are both sleeping the afternoon away, my angels) and I’m worried sick over nothing. But to have one of them in harm’s way on a daily basis? I can’t even imagine the fear.
So if fear makes us do strange things, then your whole experience that night was...well...warranted. In my opinion. I think you deserve the attention. And if it makes the time go by, if it makes the waiting easier? Well, then, my friend? Do what you need to do.
Once everyone here is well, I might take myself up on my own advice.
Before you judge me, let me explain.
I am so angry at this war for taking Robert away. I know it sounds unpatriotic, but sometimes I just can’t help it. I am so damn angry that I’m here caring for our sick children, tending this garden all by myself. Levi and Marie can’t take his place. It’s a lonely, sick hole in my heart.
I stare at his picture and try to remember the way the back of his neck smelled. How much I loved his hands enclosing mine. The sweet and tender way he kissed.
And then there’s the other thing. In the twilight of the garden a few evenings ago, I engaged in something far more devious than your flirtations.
We were just cleaning up after working in the garden.
“Long day,” said Levi.
“Yes, it was,” I replied. “Long but lovely.”
“You are lovely,” he said.
“I’m glad you think so.... Just look at me—I probably have dirt all over my face!”
Levi looked at me and I knew in a heartbeat I was in trouble. He had that look on his face that he used to get when we were kids right before he’d do something silly.
“Well, you could be dirtier...” he said as he reached down, picked up a clump of soil and threw it at me.
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” I asked, laughing as I grabbed one to throw at him, but he was running so I had to chase him out into the yard. We ran and finally I got close enough for a direct hit. He fell dramatically to the ground as if he’d been shot. I fell in a heap next to him and we were laughing and out of breath. The sky grew quiet as our laughter and breath steadied. And then he took his finger and placed it on the side of my forehead, and let it trace my whole face as if he were blind and trying to recognize me. And I should have stopped him, but I swear my skin had a life of its own and arched right out to meet his.
When he brought his hand down we looked at each other for a second too long. We didn’t speak again. We put our tools away side by side in the garden shed and shut the door. That’s when Levi stole his kiss. He pressed me up against the shed. He didn’t even need to ask, or woo. He pressed my shoulders back and kissed me so hard that I had to pull rough splinters of wood out of my hair for hours.
So different from Robert. So urgent.
Oh, I knew I shouldn’t have, but it was exactly what I wanted right in that moment. Comfort. To be young and carefree again. To be taken out of this world for even a few seconds.
Or simply taken back in time. Levi was the first boy to ever kiss me. We were eleven years old and Robert was called back from the beaches early because he had to attend a party with his mother. My parents were going to that party, too, but they wanted me to stay home. My mother and father always loved a night out to dance under the summer stars. And I wasn’t needed underfoot. Claire, on the other hand, wanted Robert with her all the time. Anyway, the sun was setting and Levi and I were skipping stones.
“You sure are good at this,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“Are you mad you aren’t at the party?” he asked.
“Not even one little bit,” I said.
“You could be dancing with Robert.”
“Ew,” I said.
“Hey, he ever kiss you?”
“Can I kiss you?” he asked, like he was asking if I wanted a soda water. I think I simply looked at him and pursed my lips together. And I know I wasn’t expecting to feel anything...I mean, I was only eleven, and both he and Robert were my best friends in the whole world. But when he kissed me, stars lit up behind my eyes...and for the rest of that summer I thought I was in love. Robert said it was the most boring summer—watching me and Levi make googly eyes at each other. My mother put a quick end to that childhood romance as soon as his letters started arriving at Astor House from Rockport in the fall. “He’s not one of us, and you are nothing but a child. If you write back to him I won’t let you see him at ALL next summer, believe me.” And I did believe her, so I never wrote him back. I believed my parents with my whole heart. And I believed that if I listened well enough, behaved enough, that they’d notice me a little more.
I’ve been looking at photographs of them (my parents) all afternoon. I’m tucking a picture of them in with this letter. That’s me when I was a baby. I look just like Corrine. Or she resembles me. How does that work, anyway? They looked so serious for well-off people, didn’t they? Sometimes I wish I’d known them better. Really known them. What they thought on the inside, behind all the gloss. I’m also including a recent picture of the kids and one of my wedding day. Isn’t Robert handsome? Please send me your picture, Rita. Maybe one of you and Sal and Toby all together? I’d love to put faces to all these names. Especially yours.
I wonder what my mother would think about me now. Stockingless. Cleaning my own house and making my own food. (That recipe was divine, by the way. Send more!)
I wonder if they’d be angry with me. Or disappointed. So much to wonder about.
Oh, dear. There’s the baby. See what happens when I think I’ll get five minutes peace? Marie tries to soothe her, but this baby of mine wants me and only me. “Born into an insecure world,” says Anna. Maybe my mother’s ghost just pinched Corrine on her chubby thigh as a sign.
Also, I’ve copied a recipe for you out of our local newspaper. Anna started a column to help women use their rations better. She’s an inspiration. Honestly. Enjoy!
With much love,
(I don’t like the way the word scrapple sounds, do you, Rita? Doesn’t change the fact that it’s a satisfying dish, though.)
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1/3 cup diced onions
1/2 cup diced carrots
2 tablespoons diced green pepper (My fingers hurt from all the dicing!)
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups boiling water
1 cup wheat meal (Or corn meal. Even flour works as a thickening agent.)
Add vegetables and salt to boiling water and cook until vegetables are tender (not too long or they’ll get mushy!) Drain; measure liquid and add water to make 3 cups. Combine liquid and vegetables and bring back to a boil. Add wheat meal gradually and boil 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour into greased 9x4x3-inch pan. When cold, slice and sauté in small amount of fat until lightly browned.
If you want to, substitute 1 1/4 cups chopped leftover cooked vegetables for raw vegetables in above recipe. Or, if you prefer a little meat, you can turn to a recipe which extends the meat. (Serves 4 to 6, but keep it in the fridge and have lunch for a week!) I like it with gravy!
August 2, 1943
V-mail from Gloria Whitehall to Sgt. Robert Whitehall
How are you? I hope you are keeping yourself safe and warm. Everything is good here, so I don’t want you to worry about one little thing. The kids and I are fighting a little summer cold. Sweet Corrine looks so cute with her red nose! The garden is beautiful. I’m so happy I struck up this friendship with Rita. You remember, the woman from Iowa? She’s giving me such good advice about all sorts of things. Mostly it’s nice to have another woman who’s waiting and worrying to talk to. I know there are plenty of women in town, but there’s something about Rita. I trust her. I’m enclosing a current picture of Corrine and Robbie. See how fat she is! She’s such a delightful baby. We look at your picture every night. I’m trying to teach her to say, “Da Da.”
Love and kisses,
August 8, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
My sunflowers have grown taller than me. They guard the house, like good soldiers, blocking me from the assault of Mrs. K.’s disapproving glances, but also from the sun, the sound of street traffic, the children playing hopscotch down the block. I’m cowering behind them, Glory, but you are not. Obviously your sunflowers have not reached the same heights. Or maybe you took hedge clippers to them? Or made Levi do it?
I was surprised by the contents of your last letter, but not shocked. I tried to muster a fair amount of outrage, but it seems I already know you too well for that. Did it feel like jumping off a cliff when he kissed you? I imagine it did.
I’m not one for cliff-jumping. You were right about the fear. It’s getting into everything—my thoughts as I make the bed, the fibers of my dress, the dust settling on our dining room table, the lettuce on my sandwich. It whispers in my ear as I tend the garden, calling “Sal” or “Toby” or, sometimes, my own name. I’m afraid, Glory. Afraid of what I read in the papers. Of not knowing if Western Union will deliver a telegram from someone I’ve never met, telling me my husband or son died on soil my feet have never touched.
I’m also afraid of what I might do, that without my family I am unmoored and untethered, about to float into the horizon, never to be seen again.
Is this weakness? I don’t know. The first time I read your letter I blamed Levi for catching you in a moment of weakness, the skips in the phonograph record where we forget who we are, no longer mothers or wives or citizens, but simply beings without a thought to the past or future, just the present. It sounds crazy, but I wanted to yell at him, to force him to give the moment back to you, so you could decide what to do with it. But then, you took it, didn’t you? You didn’t push him away.
Which makes me want to yell at you. Why aren’t you hiding? Why aren’t you sitting in your front parlor, the windows darkened by the flowers planted with your own hands? Why are you kissing men on sunny days, your hair wild, your conscience untroubled?
I’m sorry, Glory. My mind and heart are skipping beats. I’m looking at the photograph of your mother right now, holding her baby, and I can’t help but wonder that if she knew—if any of us really understood the nature of things at the start—she’d have scooped you up and run like hell.
August 9, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Pfc. Salvatore Vincenzo
Big news on the Iowa front: Irene has a beau. His name is Charlie Clark. He’s younger than our gal, but not by much, and probably 4-F, though he looks healthy as a horse. Flat feet, maybe?
Irene and I still meet for lunch every day, but our movie nights at the Englert have been replaced with romantic rendezvous about which she is curiously tight-lipped. I don’t bug her for details. Instead, I’ve been spending my expanding free time at the American Legion helping Mrs. K. and her minions prepare for the massive canning campaign this fall. I hope some of it gets to you, hon. Should I slip a fiver in with the sweet corn? Maybe then you could get your hands on some cigs.
Well, take care. Please write soon if you can.
P.S. Now that you and Toby are ganging up on me, I’ll go back to the tavern to see how she’s doing. I did try once, but it was closed for inventory. Ha! I bet that Roy fellow can’t even count.
August 28, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
After I sent that last letter to you I almost ran down to the post office to steal it back. But when I thought about digging through all those V-mails, burying myself under a mountain of hopes and fears and flop-sweat, well, I just couldn’t. I let my words go.
And now I’ve offended you, haven’t I?
I treasure Sal’s and Toby’s letters. When they come I breathe a little easier, and let myself think of the future.
But when I receive a letter from you I make a pot of tea, and sit down with it like an old, dear friend. My life would be darker without them, Glory.
Please write back.
Sept. 1, 1943
Telegram from Mrs. Anna Moldenhauer to Mrs. Marguerite Vincenzo
MESSAGE FROM GLORY. ALL FELL ILL WITH FLU. IN HOSPITAL. CORRINE AND GLORY RECOVERING WELL. ROBBIE CRITICAL. PRAYERS.
Sept. 2, 1943
Telegram from Mrs. Marguerite Vincenzo to Mrs. Anna Moldenhauer
HEARTBROKEN. SENDING PRAYERS. HOW CAN I HELP?
September 5, 1943
I have no adequate way to begin this letter. I must have started six times. Thank God we’re timber-rich here in America and our paper isn’t rationed. Not yet, anyway.
I suppose I must begin the way my heart wants me to begin. With an apology. I’m so sorry, Rita. I’m so sorry I asked Anna to send you that telegram. It was a selfish thing to do. In my defense, I was so sick. And Anna was kind enough to bring me my mail. When I read your letter I realized I was still too weak to pen a whole one back. But I was frantic to let you know that I was not, in any way, offended by the stern words in your previous correspondence. As a matter of fact, they were just the words I needed to hear. So my only thought was to send word as fast as I could and explain my tardy response.
It was only when I sent Anna off with my message that I realized what a telegram delivery would do to you. How your heart must have stopped. I can be a selfish, silly twit. I hope you will forgive me. I’m sending this letter off with extra postage for priority mail. I hope it gets to you quicker than the others.
How kind you were with your telegram back to me. And I didn’t have to shoulder the same moment of horror you must have felt, because my Robert was right next to me when it was delivered. We’d only just returned home from the hospital with Corinne and we met the delivery boy on the road. Robert’s gotten an emergency leave. He can stay with us up to thirty days. Can you imagine?
And I’m so sorry about my last letter and all that it held. I can’t even recognize the woman who wrote it. I am almost convinced that my wantonness lured that horrible fever straight to us. I sound like Robert’s mother...but with Robbie still so ill, I can’t help but think it was all my fault, somehow. We were all diagnosed with scarlet fever, Rita. Evidently there was an outbreak in Boston that came here on some unlucky wind. Corrine was the least sick. Anna tells me it is one of the best reasons to nurse our children. They stay healthier that way. I believe her, and knowing I could do something for one of my children helps me stay sane. Robbie’s fever was worse. And then he contracted rheumatic fever. The fact that he’s alive is a blessing...but he’s so pale. I can’t really speak of it any more right now. He’s had to stay at the hospital. I can’t stand the thought of him there without me.
Corrine is almost completely recovered and we’ve been assured by the doctors that with her, at least, there will be no lasting damage. I’m still weak, but each day I grow stronger. It’s better now that we’ve been at home. This house is connected to my soul, I swear it. It’s breathed new life into me.
Right now I’m sitting on my side porch, Rita. Robert has tucked me (using too many blankets) into a wide wicker love seat and I’m watching him in the garden with the baby. She’s bundled up, too, but he’s carrying her like he’s done it all along. He has an easy way with her already. I’m watching them through a curtain of grape leaves trimmed into a circle. A natural window onto the world. Their leaves are so broad and strong. I can see their veins pulsing with the autumn already. Having him home makes me whole, Rita. And it makes my skin itch to think of that day by the shed. I can’t even look at it. I’d like to paint it red.
Levi came over, but was sullen. When he left, Robert turned to me. “What’s the matter with him?” he asked
I wanted to tell him. To confess. And I opened my mouth fully prepared to tell the truth, but instead I used your words.
“Rita tells me that the boys left behind are broken, somehow. I suppose he feels like he’s not doing his patriotic duty.”
Robert scratched his head, and Corrine gave him kisses on his cheek. One kiss, laughter, another kiss, more laughter. How she loves her daddy.
“He IS doing an honorable thing, though. Don’t you think, Glory?”
“He’s helping me fight with the peace of knowing you and the kids are in good hands.”
Oh, Rita. What have I done? And why, when Levi left without a word to me, did I want to cry?
Soon Robert will ship out overseas. Soon the garden will be covered in frost. And soon I’ll be strong enough to leave Corrine with Marie and spend my days at the hospital with Robbie. He’s frightened of the dark and those nurses are always switching off the lights. It makes me want to clobber them. Knock their crisp white hats off their tidy pinned hair.
I’ve missed your stories. Write soon.
Love, and many thanks for sharing some sorely needed sense,
P.S. You know the best thing about Robert being home? The little things... Coffee in the morning, hearing him sing in the shower, the way his skin always smells like soap. I know this sounds treasonous, but I wish we could all run away to Switzerland.
September 12, 1943
IOWA CITY, IOWA
Please stop thinking your actions had anything to do with Robbie’s illness.
There is nothing more unavoidable or more damaging as a mother’s guilt. This I know perhaps better than most, though I was never meant to be a mother.
Back in grammar school, I fell from a tire swing and landed hard, fracturing some necessary bones in my small pelvis. I can barely remember the pain, but I can clearly recall the doctor telling my father, in hushed tones over my sickbed, that I was ruined.
I’d never heard my father cry before, but he did, either for me or the grandsons he surely thought would someday come. My mother soothed him, saying, “Wait and see. Wait and see,” over and over until even I was able to sleep, to dream, to heal.
For months I walked with crutches and drank half a cup of wine before bed to thin my blood. I rested when I could and ate so much cheese I got a little plump. Eventually the bones fused back together and I tossed my crutches into the fire.
We never talked about it. When I first saw spots of blood on my underthings Mother hugged me tight and said it was God’s sign I could have a baby. Even at thirteen I knew she was simply wishing for it to be true. Still, I decided I would take her word.
I never told Sal. It shames me to write this. We married, moved into his parents’ building on Chicago’s west side and tried for a baby. Nothing happened. After a year Sal cupped my chin and said, “Maybe it’ll be just you and me, kiddo. And that’s fine in my book.” I cried through the night with Sal holding my face, kissing away each tear.
When I skipped my time, I figured I was coming down with something. A few weeks later Mama Vincenzo caught my eye at Sunday dinner, smiling her cryptic Mona Lisa smile. She pulled me aside after dessert and asked when the bambino was coming.
The realization sent a tremor through my body, head to toe. Mama V held my hand and told me not to worry, assuming my distress came from fear. But it was joy, Glory. Pure delight.
I couldn’t wait for the baby to come. Toward the end I showed up at the hospital where Sal worked every time I got a twinge. The nurses started teasing Sal about it, calling him “Mr. False Alarm,” which is why I waited so long when I finally did go into labor.
Mrs. Vincenzo delivered Toby on our kitchen table. “It will be quick,” she said. “Ten minutes.” And it was. By most standards I had an easy birth. But my pelvic bones—the ones my mother lovingly guided to health so many years before—cracked along those old fault lines.
The pain...it was like a couple of wild dogs tearing at each hip. Mrs. Vincenzo put the baby to my bosom, but I could only stare at a crack in the wall, a fixed point to hypnotize myself into oblivion. Sal whispered loving words in my ear, telling me how beautiful I was and how perfect the baby looked, but I could barely breathe, let alone talk.
Mrs. Vincenzo said I just needed rest, and Sal agreed with her until three days passed and I still could not get out of bed.
He sent word to a doctor friend at Cook County, who showed up after his shift. I blacked out during the exam. When I came to, Sal knelt at my bed, saying over and over, “What’s wrong with us that we didn’t notice?” He never once said, “What’s wrong with you that you didn’t say anything?”
I withdrew from everyone, even Toby. Mrs. Vincenzo said all women had “the darkness” after childbirth, to varying degrees, and since I’d broken my bones I needed extra time. But my darkness came from guilt—I felt like all the things I’d kept from Sal had weakened my insides, each lie causing a small fracture. All my goodness came out with the baby, and my body, with nothing to stabilize it, shattered.
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