I commanded Alexa to “play Christmas music” last night and immediately realized I needed to be more specific or I would be listening to “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silver Bells.” Before I could shut her off though, the first song started. Bing Crosby. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
I closed my eyes and sat there under my afghan near the fire, lost in memories that aren’t mine. “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”
After several weeks away from compiling the letters my parents and my father’s siblings wrote during WWII, when there was just no time, I returned to them last weekend. My dream is a book for my family. It’s a complex undertaking, with photos of the siblings in childhood and during the war years, historical information about war events as well as what was happening on the home front. And the 1500 longing, lonely letters that passed each other on ships and cross-Atlantic flights.
As it turns out, the letters over the weekend are from November and December 1943, beginning with George and Stellajoe’s decision on a war time marriage.
Well, I guess I’ve told you enough about Hensley Field for you to realize that we aren’t far from a peacetime organization. And I guess it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I might hit just such a place overseas, even. If such a thing should come about, I wouldn’t be haunted by the fear that I’d come back to a young wife crippled or disabled. And, Stellajoe, all the movies, stories, human interest articles, sermons, etc. have not convinced me that isn’t something that should be reckoned with. I know your belief that if you love me you’ll never love anyone else. Frankly I don’t believe it. Time is a great healer and over a period of years I know you could forget me.
I don’t have her letters, but his hint at her perceived reluctance. But really they are both so afraid of making the decision for the other that they don’t reveal their own feelings. She finally breaks the stalemate.
You say in your letter, “And I wanted to tell you that I’d changed my mind, too – that I was never more sure of anything.” Honey, that’s just what I wanted to have you say! You can’t know how much that means to me. And when I didn’t hear you say it, or see it in your letters, I guessed incorrectly that you didn’t believe that way. Of course, I was a prize dope not to have realized it anyway.
Over a period of a few days, they make a decision—through a few letters that cross each other in the mail, causing confusion; three telegrams; and one crackly phone call—to take the leap.
My mother gives notice at her secretarial job at Geiger Field in Spokane, Washington and six days later she, her wedding dress, and a single footlocker of her belongings are on a train to Dallas, where my father is stationed. After two nights sitting up in coach, they are married 36 hours after her arrival.
Six weeks later, just after their first Christmas ever away from their respective homes and their first Christmas together, he is deployed.
My uncle Walter (called Joe then), a doctor, has just deployed, very suddenly leaving his post in Texas. He’s in Louisiana awaiting shipping orders overseas, leaving my father’s sister Ruth—who is pregnant—to attend the wedding without him. He writes to his in-laws:
We hope to all get together somehow between now and Christmas, but I tried to get a few days leave this week-end and couldn’t because all the Medical Corps officers are on leave.
They don’t get to Michigan, but a few days after the wedding, in early December, Ruth unexpectedly has an opportunity to go to Louisiana where she stays in a hotel for four days. She writes home:
Dear Mom and Pop,
I’m leaving for Alexandria in a couple of hours and as you know I am excited about seeing my Joe again — just when I had given up.
Ruth returns to Dallas and their brother Donald and his wife Lena take the train to Texas from Michigan just before Christmas to drive Ruth back to the farm to wait out the war. Donald writes in a family history essay:
In December of 1943 Lena and I got time off to ride the train to Dallas to drive Ruth and her car home, as Walter left for England. That train trip was an experience – standing room only for a long time out of Chicago. G.I.’s made up most of the passenger load and the crew had apparently taken all their old cars out of storage and filled them with people. What a bunch of rattle traps. There were many, many tearful good-byes at every stop as soldiers left their families behind and headed off to war.
Ruth miscarries on the way to Michigan. It is two full months before they know that Joe has finally gotten word of the loss of their baby.
Helen, a nurse, has recently been moved from Oran, North Africa to Italy and the mail has not caught up. It’s been nearly a month since she heard from home.
Probably I’m way off the beam but my mind has been full of thoughts of home the past few days and of the hope that we will soon all be reunited. Maybe it is just because Christmas is approaching that I feel lonely. Probably I want to go home so badly that I have myself thinking that the time is near when peace with Germany will be declared.
Lloyd, the eldest sibling, is at home near the farm with his wife Mary and their son David and baby Judy. He writes no letters, but comforts those far away by taking, developing, and sending photos of life on the home front. On the back of a photo to Helen, he writes:
Maybe these pictures will do more than a thousand words to show you that despite food shortages, rationing, etc. life at home goes on much as usual and that we are all well and kicking. We hope you can come home soon.
Melvyn, 18 years old, is in Maine at a college the Army has taken over, training to be an Air Corps meteorologist like his big brother George. (Really the Army doesn’t know what to do with all the boys who were accepted to the program.) He’s trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas on a three-day leave. There’s a threatened rail strike and he’s thinking of flying, hoping his parents will agree to pay for it. (Besides he is loathe to spend two and half days on the train and have only one day at home.) But there’s a possible influenza epidemic spreading from the Great Lakes region toward New England and the Army has restricted travel for the Bowdoin College boys.
I guess you are wondering why I called at all when it sounded like I already had my mind made up. I want to come but I just can’t see that train ride for 24 hours at home and I’m afraid I’ll get the flu if I get all pooked out. I know you want me to come I certainly want to but please don’t be disappointed for I have a guilty conscience already.
For the duration of the war, all the writers are hopeful that they will be home by the next Christmas. But Christmases come and go and still they are apart. In 1945, Donald is in England for Christmas too, as a post-war B-24 engine repair instructor. On Christmas Day, he writes to Lena:
Honey, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you today and how I long to see you. Just take my word for it. Christmas can’t mean a thing without you, so we’ll just erase this one off the calendar and it will not be missed. Our Christmas celebration will come when I see you again.
George is the last to return to the States, in April 1946. They spent many Christmases away from loved ones and they were missed around the farm table.
It’s Christmas 2020 and a very different one for most families. We aren’t (hopefully) traveling and our connections will be via FaceTime and Zoom. Dinner tables will have fewer settings. Many of us will be involuntarily separated from family, maybe for the first time, but it’s not new. We will endure, remembering how it used to be, and will be again, when this year is a distant memory.
I sit under my afghan with an aching heart; not for the loss this year, but for my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, long before I knew them. And now gone forever.
“Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.”
11 thoughts on “The Way We Were”
What a moving, amazing post! You have a treasure trove of material here and recreate the time and the place so well. I do hope to read much much more from the many letters you have. Thank you, this made my history teacher’s heart sing!
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I do have a treasure trove! I’m so happy to make your heart sing. You can follow my writer page on FB, if you’d like. There is an archive of excerpts there and I occasionally post more. https://www.facebook.com/Gretchen-Staebler-770113509714503 (Gretchen Staebler, writer). Thank you for reading, and for commenting!
It’s taken me a while to comment because of the tears in my eyes. Thank you for this during this most strange of Christmas seasons.
I always wondered if those on the home front felt something during the four years of war like what we have felt for the past four years–a nagging dread. And looking for whatever light may come their way.
That longing to “come home” especially at a moment of family and ceremony that the whole culture seems to be celebrating together (yes religious differences here in the late December days, but still that desire to gather before the new year) is timeless and universal. You evoke it so beautifully, then, and now. Stay well, hearth-holder. By writing and collating this treasure from the past, you create a treasure out of the present.
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I will be sad when this project is completed. I will have to say goodbye all over again.
I’m beginning to understand why this was called the “Greatest Generation”. The letters themselves tell such rich stories (and the writing is fabulous) but you have truly brought them to life. Who knew history could be so riveting ? What a wonderful gift from the heart.
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Thank you, Bonnie. It certainly rivets me. I’m interested to hear that there is interest to those who didn’t know them.
Such a poignant message to all of us from the past. Thank you for putting this together with such love and eloquence.
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It’s an enormous pleasure and honor.
Oh, Gretchen. I don’t have the words- but YOU do.
Thank you so much for this message that truly reverberates through time.
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💜 I miss them so much. And sometimes I’m so sorry they scattered across the country when the war ended, and as a consequence the next generations live far apart. I miss you too.
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