Sample text for The photograph / Virginia Ellis.
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I’ve decided I’m not a good Catholic because I’ll never forgive the Japanese for ruining my seventeenth birthday.
It was December 7, 1941—the day they bombed Pearl Harbor. The day that President Roosevelt proclaimed would forever live in “infamy” for every red-blooded American. That kind of sentiment didn’t leave much anticipation or appetite for birthday cake, or for forgiveness. It was enough to make a girl good’n mad.
We were at war.
I suppose I should have counted my blessings that seventeen years earlier, Mother didn’t have the imagination to christen me Pearl. She chose biblical names instead; David for my older brother, and Madelyn for me. I’ve always gone by Maddy.
As for my birthday cake, I did have one—on Monday instead of Sunday. But Mother cried the whole time she mixed the batter and poured it in the pans. The layers rose lopsided, and I swear I could taste a slight saltiness. Maybe it was just the metallic taste of fear. My brother Davey had joined the Marine reserves back in June, and now that we were officially at war, we all knew what that meant. He’d be one of the first to go.
The bad news didn’t end there. At my halfhearted, one-day-late birthday dinner, my boyfriend, Lyle, announced that he had joined the Navy. To say this was a shock to me would be like saying the world had stopped spinning at 8:05 p.m. and would continue once more when this whole war thing was settled.
Lyle and I were “almost” engaged. He’d even kissed me in the back row of the movie theater during the newsreel before It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. I’ll never forget it because that very night we’d secretly promised to marry as soon as he had a good job and could earn my mother’s permission. And now he’d gone and joined the war without even telling me first. Then, to announce it in front of the whole family—my mother, Davey, and his wife, Ruth—on a night that should have been my celebration, like he’d just grown a foot taller and we should be proud, added salt to the wound.
I’d had little experience with wounds in 1941. By the following year when my eighteenth birthday rolled around, however, I was a good bit more uncomfortably acquainted. What I didn’t understand then and do now is, wounds are like ghosts—the initial pain might cut you to the ground, but if you can get up, sometimes with the help of others, you can survive and go on. Even as the phantoms follow in your wake.
My brother Davey got his orders a week before Christmas 1941. He was to pack enough clothes for three days, then report immediately to a place called Parris Island, South Carolina, for training. After that, he’d ship out to parts unknown. My mother was inconsolable. I hadn’t seen her cry so much since we’d lost my father to a heart ailment (what he’d called his “bum ticker”) when I was ten. Life in general, and my mother in particular, had never been the same after that. She’d seemed to decide that she had to take control of every detail in our world in order to make things safe. It was enough to make a girl, a headstrong girl like me, anyway, want to scream.
Unable to bear the thought of Davey traveling halfway around the planet to go to war, I suppose, Mother concentrated on South Carolina and how far her son would be from Pennsylvania and home. Ruth, Davey’s wife, who had as much, or more, reason as Mother to weep, held herself together admirably. I’d never considered that being a wife and having babies could be a risky undertaking, but maybe Mother was right. Perhaps the world was a dangerous place. Ruth was barely out of the hospital after her second miscarriage, which had almost killed her. That and the large dose of sulfur they gave her for the infection.
If you ask me, I think it did kill her. I was there, I know—she’d nearly scared me into the next world, too. Since both of Ruth’s parents were dead, our family and a few neighbors had taken turns sitting by her hospital bed when she’d been so ill. I’d been with her early one morning two weeks into her confinement when Davey had collapsed from worry and fatigue on the couch in the waiting room. The ward was quiet—the nurses and doctors off in another wing. I was minding my own business, thumbing through an old Saturday Evening Post I’d practically memorized when I heard what sounded like a sigh.
I looked up, but Ruth seemed asleep, as she’d been for two days or more. Niggling worry made me look closer. Moments before, her chest had been moving up and down. Now, it seemed still.
My heart took several labored beats. As I rose from the chair to move closer, I noticed a telltale brightness near the window. At first I thought dawn’s sunlight had found the curtains. But then I saw her. It was Ruth, or the bright reflection of Ruth standing at the window.
Looking at me.
Seconds ticked by before she turned and floated through the glass.
I dropped the magazine and ran down the hallway wailing that Ruth was dead. Luckily, the nurses didn’t believe me. They rushed back to the room with a doctor and did what I hadn’t thought to try. They brought Ruth back, somehow. And Davey had been so happy he’d forgotten to strangle me for scaring everyone.
Ruth never mentioned being dead, but she did get better after that. She got to come home, walking with the help of a cane, right on time to help us send her husband off to war.
The morning Davey was due to catch the train south, my so-called boyfriend Lyle showed up, joining the men in war talk about how they’d make the Japs pay for their treachery. Mother made us take turns standing with Davey on the snowy grass in front of the holly tree so Mr. Jenkins next door, surrounded by an audience of other neighbors, could take snapshot after snapshot with his Kodak. Mother believed pictures were required on every occasion, happy or sad. I can’t count how many times she’d said, “It’s all I have left of your father.”
I depended more on my memory, although, every year on the anniversary of my father’s death when we got out the old photo album, there was a certain comfort in the fading images. When I was younger, I’d thought if I looked at them long enough, they’d move, or my father would speak to me. I swear once, I saw him smile. But after growing up, I realized they were only pictures.
As we posed for the camera, everyone acted happy, shak- ing Davey’s hand or clapping him on the shoulder. Everyone except Mother and Ruth. Mother’s smile seemed frozen on her face, and Ruth looked dreadfully pale as if she’d cried the whole night and had nothing more to say.
To me it seemed terribly romantic. Davey was going off to see the world, and Ruth would stay behind with us. Not for the first time I felt a twinge of envy. Boys got to do all the exciting things while the girls had to stay put. Lyle could quit school and announce he’d joined the Navy without so much as a “by your leave.” I could just imagine my mother’s reaction if I came home with the same news. She’d erupted like Mt. Vesuvius when I’d talked old Mister Freed into letting me work at the drugstore after school. Not because we didn’t need the money, but because it made me look too independent—a nice word for being headstrong. And it made it a little harder to keep track of her baby girl. In this gossipy town she’d usually known where I was going before I even got there. The possibility of me taking off to parts unknown to join the war effort seemed as remote and hilarious as running away to Hollywood to be a movie star. I had to turn my head and pretend to cough so Mother wouldn’t recognize my improper laughter. She and I had been at odds so many times in the past year I thought I might die waiting for Lyle to fulfill our secret promise and rescue me with a mother-approved marriage proposal. The fact that my rescue had suddenly been postponed indefinitely, by Lyle’s patriotic duty, soured my humor.
I couldn’t wait for my life to begin!
“Can’t you take me with you?” I said to Davey later, in a rare moment alone. I’d followed him a short distance down the train platform where he was checking the timetable while Mother and Ruth stayed warm inside the crowded station.
He turned to me, as serious as I’d ever seen him. “I’ve got the feeling I’m not going to like it very much where I’m goin’.” Then he smiled and chucked me under the chin like the nine-year-old pest I used to be. “Besides, girls can’t go to war.”
I shrugged away from his hand. “It’s not fair!”
“Yes it is, Squirt. This war is gonna be some bad business. And, anyway”—he went serious again—“I need you to help look after Ruth. You know Mother—”
“Yes, I know all about Mother.” I rolled my eyes for effect. Mother could be a downright tyrant, especially when Davey wasn’t around. “She drives me crazy.”
“Promise you’ll stick to Ruth and help her get through this.”
I made my favorite gargoyle face at him.
“I’m serious, Squirt. Or, should I call you Madelyn since you’re seventeen now?”
He was reminding me to act like a grown-up. I didn’t mind that so much as what his comment meant. Another fight I couldn’t win. “Maddy will do just fine, thank you. All right, I promise. I’ll stick to Ruth like the sister I wish I’d had instead of a brother.”
“That’s my girl,” he said. “Cheer up, this whole thing’ll probably be over by your next birthday.” Then he did something surprising. He kissed me on the cheek. “I’m gonna miss you.”
I was so shocked by his sentimental show of affection I didn’t have time to return the favor or to remind him that he’d gone off and left me at home when he’d gotten married. “No you won’t,” I taunted. “You’ll miss Ruth.”
He glanced over my head toward the train station. When I turned, I could see Ruth sitting in a seat near the window watching us. “You bet I will,” he said, almost under his breath. Then the station announcer called the arrival of the next train and we walked back to the depot.
That was the 18th of December. Come to think of it, the Japs had managed to ruin Christmas as well.
Sitting at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table, pen in hand, I tried my best to think of something cheerful to write to my husband. He’d been gone a month, one whole month, yet it seemed like a year to me. I couldn’t tell him the truth. I couldn’t write, Oh Davey, I feel like such a failure. I know the doctors said it wasn’t my fault. That the baby’s blood and mine were fighting and he couldn’t have been born alive. But I still feel responsible, and afraid. Because now you’re on your way to this terrible war. You might not have been called up so soon if you’d had children to raise, a reason to stay behind besides a wife who could barely walk.
No, I couldn’t write that. It would only make Davey unhappy, and my one wish in life was to do the opposite. To make him the happiest man on Earth. Because that’s how he made me feel. Blessed.
Except when I lost our baby. Once again I felt that deep, thrumming pain that always accompanied my memory of the loss. People think losing a baby before it’s born is easier than losing a known child. Or maybe they think it should be easier. With words like, “Oh, you can try again soon.” Or, “Next time will be the charm.” All I can say is, the loss wasn’t easy for me . . . in the least. And after two tries and two losses, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be a mother.
At least I knew our babies were safe in heaven. I knew that because on the day I died, I saw them there. The memory has stayed fresh in my mind and comforting to my heart. I’d been so ill. I remember feeling lighter and lighter, then I floated out of my hospital bed. I could see myself, motionless and quiet on the sheets with Maddy sitting next to me, reading. I didn’t have time to feel afraid, I was so happy the pain had left me. I’d wanted to float there forever.
Then, through the window, I saw beautiful green hills in the distance and sunshine so bright it stung my eyes. Something called me closer and I realized I could see people I knew. One man, Mr. Bledsoe, who’d worked with my father at the mine, kept waving and smiling. I remembered as a child meeting the men as they came home from their shift. Mr. Bledsoe always had chewing gum in his overall pocket to give to us. When he’d been alive he’d had one arm—lost his left one in a rock crusher. But when I saw him in heaven, he had both . . . and even though I was grown-up, he recognized me and seemed so happy to see me again.
The healing beauty of those verdant hills pulled me closer and closer, and the nearer I got the easier it was to breathe. I felt I could float into forever as more and more people walked toward me, waving, calling “hello.” But I kept looking beyond them. I didn’t realize who I was searching for until I saw him.
There he stood some distance up the highest hill, smil- ing. He had a baby in each of his arms. My babies. Mine and Davey’s.
I started running. Me, who hadn’t been able to take a few steps or get out of bed for longer than I cared to remember. Barely halfway there, a voice stopped me.
“Not yet,” the voice said in a very loving tone. “You must go back.”
I shook my head, no. I didn’t want to stop or think, and I certainly didn’t want to feel the pain and grief I’d left behind. I wanted to stay there, in that brilliant light and breathtaking place with my father and my babies.
Then, Davey’s face suddenly and clearly appeared in my mind. The next thing I knew, I’d opened my eyes and found myself back in the hospital with nurses and doctors crowded around my bedside, and my husband holding my hand. I knew I was alive because everything hurt again, and because Davey had tears in his eyes.
Losing our baby had killed me. But his love had summoned me back.
And now this war.
When Davey was called up for active duty I’d wanted to try to become pregnant again, but the doctor said no. The infection that had started in my womb and then settled into my right leg had done too much damage. He said he didn’t think I could survive another miscarriage so soon after the other. He’d ordered me to wait until after the war and assured me I would be able to have children some day.
Davey took the doctor’s orders to heart—no babies for now. He said it didn’t matter to him if we ever had children as long as we had each other. But I have to say, it scares me silent to send my love to war without some part of him to stay behind. What if something happens . . .
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: World War, 1939-1945 Florida Miami Fiction, Air pilots, Military Fiction, British Florida Fiction, Miami (Fla, ) Fiction