If my dad had not sent the above Christmas telegram to my mom in Pittsburg, Kansas, and had my mother not responded positively, I would not be here and you would not be reading “my” blog.
My parents had been high school sweethearts in Pittsburg. My dad was editor of the school paper and my mom was its financial manager. Circumstances separated them three times. During the Depression my dad sought temporary work at a meat packing facility in Iowa to help support his parents on their 80-acre Missouri farm, and during World War II he served in the army as part of the U.S. occupying forces in Japan, while my mother “held down the fort” (as my father would say) in their Los Angeles home with a child and a baby, my sister and brother.
In between, my mom’s parents intervened to prompt Mom to break up with Dad because, they explained, she had never dated anyone else. So he went off to northern California and took a job driving a delivery truck for a baking company in the Sierra Nevada mountain range while she remained in Pittsburg attending college, working at Penney’s, and, as the oldest child, tending to her invalid mother and her father and siblings.
I have hundreds of letters they exchanged during their times of separation. Reading them, more than once I regretted my father never became the writer or the doctor he had hoped to be and that my mother missed out on traveling adventures she had hoped to have. I’ve published and travelled, their vicarious writer and adventurer, but I never had what they enjoyed: a lifelong relationship of love and romance.
People often look for scapegoats to blame for the “breakdown” of “the” family (as if there were only one kind of family), but in truth, it’s the economy and war that are a family’s most serious threats. My parents’ words are testimony to each.
My father deeply grieved having to leave his girlfriend behind in 1934, the year following their high school graduation, as he travelled to Sioux City in hopes of finding work in the meat packing industry which employed his brother-in-law. Going to Cudahy’s very early one morning shortly after his arrival, my 18-year-old future Dad found 175 men already there hoping for a day’s work. He reflected on the experience in a letter dated August 14, 1934:
I wondered at the time if there were just as many seeking work at each of the other two plants, Swift’s and Armour’s. Now I was actually seeing the great masses of the unemployed of a big city, not just reading the stories in the newspaper. I believe if people who are knocking the work-creating acts of the government could actually see and walk among a crowd of men looking for work, [they] would realize that it is [for] our gov’t’s safety to give employment to all possible. What a menace that crowd could be if organized and armed to the teeth. But, I admire those fellows. Their countenances, though not hilarious with joy, were not clouded with undue desperation. So as yet they haven’t given up hope and neither have I.
My parents missed having Christmas together that year because of the daily uncertain possibility of work at one plant or another and the geographical distance between them, even if either had money for the train.
Then came the war. My father was saved from being among the invading troops in Japan by the atomic bomb, and he disembarked from his troop ship in Nagasaki on my sister’s birthday the day after Thanksgiving, 1945. He saw firsthand the devastation of “Fat Boy,” a plutonium implosion device dropped on the city months earlier.
In her Christmas letter to Dad a month later, Mom wrote a story of how the family was doing in his absence and included it in a letter:
It’s Christmas Eve. In a little house on the corner of 62nd and Third Avenue in the city of Los Angeles lives a service man’s family. See, there’s the star in the window. Outside it is raining. Inside tho there is a fire burning brightly in the fireplace, & a small tree gaily decorated with tinsel & baubles & memories of years past is perched on the chest.In the bedroom the woman has just tucked the little girl into bed. “Mommy, I don’t feel like Christmas,” the little girl is saying. “I want my daddy.”“Honey, we all want Daddy home. Even little Stevie. Maybe Daddy will be home with us next year. Now say your prayers and go to sleep.”“_____ and please Jesus take care of Daddy” concludes the little girl.
My mom continues the story with her many chores after my sister and brother are in bed: washing dishes, boiling the baby’s bottles, putting the gifts out, assembling my brother’s rocking horse with some difficulty, completing a mattress and pillow for my sister’s doll bed. Christmas music on the radio makes her feel closer to Dad, but then she worries about his Christmas day, whether he’s safe, whether he’s received his Christmas box. It’s nearly 3 a.m. when she sits down to write “her summary of Christmas Eve,” “her nightly chat with that dear husband,” concluding with,
A far away look comes into her eyes as she hears “Winter Wonderland.” A snowy nite—cold; a little blue or black Chevy (I think it was a Chevy) but it doesn’t matter, for right there beside her is the most wonderful guy in the world. The shameless excuses she made to be alone with him. To know she had all of his attention for a little while—it was so nice to sit close to him and hold his hand while he drove along snowy streets. They could talk for hours and never tire of each other. She often suspected he listened to her not for any intelligent remarks she made, but because maybe he was in love with her.
So how was Dad’s Christmas in Japan? Stay tuned next week.
Other posts about my folks:
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