Lily Katherine felt squashed like a fly beneath a steel boot. Huddled around the radio, Mama looked stunned, Papa grim. Her older sister, Faye, put her head in her hands and silently wept, shoulders shaking. Her brother Robert was out with the family motorcar for a night class at University of Louisville.
President Roosevelt continued through the static:
“…I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
The broadcast ended with the national anthem. Papa turned up the volume and stood at attention, his hand over his heart. Mama and Lily Katherine stood. Mama nudged Faye, who struggled to her feet. Her tear-stained cheeks glimmered in the lamp light.
“I wanted my family to hear our president’s words,” Papa said, “instead of stitching together rumors and calling them truth. President Roosevelt delivered this speech to Congress this morning.”
“We should pray,” Mama declared.
Papa cleared his throat and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The girls joined in followed by Mama whose disapproving look suggested that an extemporaneous and on-topic prayer would be more appropriate. Papa never went to church, and Mama had given up nagging him about it. Papa said grace at the table, rather gruffly. Mama held him to his duty as head of the household.
Papa turned off the radio and settled into to his reading chair, tortoise-rim glasses askew. He read his well-worn volume of Herodotus’ The Histories. Lily Katherine waited for him to say something about ancient wars, some comparison to today’s crisis. But he seemed lost in the words he had shared with her before she was a fluent reader. Mama sat in her creaking rocker but did not pick up the Bible, her usual evening read. Instead, she stared at the faded floral wallpaper as if waiting for a petal to drop. Faye sat at the desk and resumed grading papers. She taught mathematics at Shawnee High School. Her paycheck kept Lily Katherine in good, leather shoes and a small collection of dresses that were not frayed and faded.
Lily Katherine said, “Excuse me, please, I need to review my Latin exercises.” She went to the bedroom she shared with her sister and lay on the patchwork quilt pieced by a grandmother she barely remembered. She opened her Latin book, but the words swarmed around the page forming the word “war” in all directions.
Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine war invading their measured life, but all she could see was her life as it was today. Papa did what was expected; he supported the family by working as a bookkeeper for a distillery. Mama did what was expected; she ran the home and had recently taken a part-time job as a stenographer. After Mama went to work, they had meat every other night instead of just on Sundays. Faye had graduated from the university last year and took her teaching position seriously. She said that teaching was the highest calling. Apparently, she was not waiting around for a husband. Married women were not allowed to teach in Louisville schools.
Lily Kathrine got mostly A’s and would graduate from high school this year with honors just like her sister. She tried to behave, but Mama often chided her for being unladylike. A young lady must modulate her voice, cross her legs at the ankles, and not gossip about the girls at school. Lily tried to be tidy, but it seemed to be her nature to forget to hang up her clothes, put her shoes neatly under the coat rack, and keep school supplies in one place. Just last week, she overhead Faye remark to Mama, “When Lily Katherine enters a room it just somehow relaxes.” Faye had said it softly and kindly. Mama’s response was a harsh “Pshaw!”
Robert was the live wire. The house crackled when he was home. Exceedingly handsome and intelligent, he was garnering local recognition for his short poems and essays as well as being editor of the university newspaper. Mama often reminded him to focus on his studies as poems would not support a family. Robert would nod obediently and mention an A plus on a recent test or term paper. Lily Katherine wondered if her brother had a girlfriend. She could imagine Mama’s reaction to that. If Robert had a sweetheart, he would keep it secret until his graduation in June.
She forced herself to review the Latin exercises until an A on tomorrow’s quiz was a given. Then, she wrote in her diary. Dear Kitty, We are at war. I don’t know what that means. She wished people would call her Kitty, but only her diary knew how she longed to have a name less weighty and formal.
She was in bed before Faye walked in and shut the door behind her. Faye turned her back while she undressed and pulled on her nightgown. She whispered, “Papa went to bed, but Mama is still rocking and staring.” She turned out the light and climbed in their bed.
The creak of the rocker and light spilling through the crack beneath the door attested to the unsurprising fact that Mama had not gone to bed. She would sit in her rocker until Robert came home, no matter how late. Sometimes Lily Katherine forced herself to stay awake until her brother got home to hear their conversation. But all she ever heard were murmurs. She could hardly disturb her sister by getting out of bed and pressing her ear to the door. Disappointing Mama was a fact of life, but she wanted her sister’s respect.
“Lily,” Faye whispered and reached for her hand. It felt too soft, too small to be a teacher’s hand. “War will bring grief and hardship. We must be strong for Mama and Papa.”
Lily Katherine thought it should be the other way around. “How will I know what to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Faye answered.
Before Lily Katherine could ask more questions, she heard the rocker stop and the front door click closed.
“I was concerned,” Mama wailed.
Lily imagined her tragic look that followed every glass of spilled water as well as inconveniences both minor and major.
Faye reached over and opened the door a crack. “Thanks,” Lily Katherine whispered.
Robert said, “Mama, now please. We learned about the war in class. We heard the president speak. It is indeed a date that will go down in infamy. I joined some friends at the diner to talk about our duty to God and country.”
“Robert Maxwell Davidson, you will not enlist,” Mama hissed. “You will complete your degree. You will not risk your life in battle, muddle your mind with war.”
“Mama, I will make a decision, but not tonight. I need to think this over. Do I serve my country with a gun or do I serve my country with my mind? I don’t know what my country needs of me, and I may not know for some time.”
“I am your Mama, and you will not go to war.”
Lily Katherine heard her parents’ bedroom door open and her father’s footsteps. “Fanny,” her father barked in a voice rarely raised, “leave the boy alone. A man must do what a man must do. Robert, go to bed. Fanny, go to bed. We don’t know what any of us will be called to do, so let us slumber peacefully while we have the luxury.”
Footsteps. Doors closing. Silence.
Lily Katherine whispered, “I’m afraid.”
Faye replied. “I believe all Americans are afraid tonight, but remember what our president said, ‘We will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.’”
The next morning, Lily Katherine hugged her sister goodbye at the bus stop. Faye took bus 9. Lily Katherine waited five minutes for bus 12, stomping her feet to keep her toes from freezing. Papa had taken an earlier bus, and Mama, home for the day, was probably still furious that Robert had not come to breakfast. “Lazy,” Mama had proclaimed after Papa blessed their oatmeal, toast, and jam. Missing breakfast was the latest defiance in Robert’s recent rebellion. Papa called it “out of the starting gate,” and Mama was vexed.
Lily hopped on the bus, paying the fare, glad to be out of the cold wind. Workers and students crowded the bus. Her friend Bunny had saved a seat for her. Bunny’s knit cap sat askew, mouth gaping open, but she could not get the words out. “Lil,” she finally said. “What if the Japs invade?”
The bus lurched into a traffic lane. Bare branches scratched the gray sky, and the stores on the avenue seemed oddly unchanged. “President Roosevelt won’t let that happen,” Lily Katherine said in a tone more certain than she felt. “Our Armed Forces will protect us.”
Bunny pursed her lips. “Mother says if the Japs invade, they will…” her voice dropped to a whisper, “rape pretty girls like me and you.”
Lily Katherine’s insides jolted. “Rape” was not a word used in their home. Mama never talked to her daughters about being violated and being in the family way. She had learned about these things by eavesdropping on Mama’s Peace and Love Circle from the Baptist Church when they met at her house. She had heard the word “rape” used by some older girls when she was just 12. Looking it up in the dictionary, she had been, and still was, shocked.
“Lil,” you don’t believe that – do you?” Bunny’s voice quivered. “Oh look!”
A new billboard had been installed next to the viaduct overnight. Uncle Sam glared steely and stern proclaiming, “I Want You.”
“Faye said that we must be strong.”
Bunny nodded. Like all of Lily Katherine’s friends, Bunny looked up to Faye. They agreed she was a classic beauty with her high cheek bones and Roman nose. “You’re lucky to have an older sister. If I did, maybe she would tell me things Mother won’t.”
Lily Katherine shook her head. “Faye never talks about anything improper, and I would not ask her – but so many times I wonder about, well, you know…”
Bunny smiled, not her usual wide engaging smile, but enough to reassure Lily that she did not worry about Japs all night. “I wonder what your brother knows. College lads must know it all, and he is so swoony. Do you suppose Max will be home after school?”
“I expect you would like to come to my house this afternoon to study.”
Bunny flipped her bangs out of her eyes and put on her pert look. “May I?”
The bus stopped in front of Louisville Girls High School. The girls rushed through the wind to the door. “Let’s do homework together,” said Lily Kathrine, “but you’ve got to remember to call Max ‘Robert’ and don’t call me ‘Lil.’ Mama thinks nicknames are tacky.” She did not have the heart to tell Bunny that her mama said she could not imagine any Christian woman naming her child after a rodent. No one had the heart to tell Mama rabbits weren’t rodents. But, Mama, who looked down on nicknames, was called Fanny even though her given name was Frances. “Frances is a man’s name,” Mama had explained. “Fanny is refined and, if you will allow a bit elegant.”
“Later,” Bunny said cramming her coat in her locker. “Miz Lily Katherine, I shall please your mama with my excellent deportment.”
Lily Katherine watched her friend walk away noticing the slight sway of her hips in her too-tight skirt. Robert never appeared to notice Bunny despite her bouncy blonde curls and barely noticeable – except to Mama – lipstick. She walked upstairs to her first hour class hoping she would find a beau soon instead of finding herself in a hopeless crush like Bunny. Some boys in the Baptist Youth Group flirted with her. Flirting back often resulted in a request for her phone number. Mama always answered the phone, and no boy – so far – seemed worth risking the inevitable inquisition and the lecture Faye had told her about: an exhaustive list of what not to do when out with a boy.
Maybe that’s why Faye did not have a young man escorting her to the movies and taking her to dinner.
Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, and the family’s reaction was quiet resignation. Mama did not demand a prayer. Faye did not tell Lily Katherine they needed to be strong, and Robert refused to answer questions about his plans.
That Saturday, Lily Katherine and her classmate Betsy walked down Market Street planning to do some Christmas shopping, which was mainly Christmas dreaming. The Depression had left most family budgets too lean for extras. This year, festive decorations were twinned with patriotic symbols of war. Uncle Sam was everywhere, pointing his finger, waving the flag, demanding enlistment, sacrifice, secrecy. The girls entered Stewart’s Department Store breathing intoxicating scents from the perfume counter. Uncle Sam was in the toy department, tool department, kitchen wares, and men’s clothing diminishing the cardboard Santas and dimming festive strands of tinsel.
“I’m surprised he’s not in ladies’ lingerie,” Betsy whispered in the girdle aisle.
Lily Katherine walked past the girdles. Turning down an aisle of softer goods, she said, “I have 50 cents for Christmas gifts. She stared at dainty white gloves with little pearl buttons. “Find the price – I can’t bear it.”
Betsy turned the tag. “Thirty-five cents,” she said. “For Faye?”
Lily Katherine sighed. “What can I get for Mama for 15 cents that will not be deemed tacky?”
“What about your papa and brother?” Betsy asked.
“I made them hankies in domestic science, embroidered with their initials.” She stroked the gloves imagining Faye wearing them to church, on the bus, and greeting parents of her pupils.
“Maybe you can make an apron for your mama. Miss Trask has McCall’s patterns and may have extra fabric because next term we will be knitting socks for our soldiers. You’d have to stay after school, but I don’t think aprons are difficult to make.”
Lily Kathrine sighed. “You’ve not met my mama,” she said. “Aprons are for maids.”
“Have so,” Betsy replied. “Your mama sat in for our Sunday School teacher when Mrs. Barlow was indisposed. As I recall we had to select five sins from ten she recited, pencil them on scraps of brown paper, and pin them to our dresses.”
Lily Katherine blushed. Teaching was not one of Mama’s gifts. Sitting through that Sunday School class four years ago had been agony. “How long did you leave your “sins” pinned on your dress?” she asked.
“Good thing the girls’ room is right next to the classroom,” Betsy said. “No way was my mother going to see I ‘forticated.’ That is just so rude! Good thing, because now I know what fornicate means and how to spell it. My mother would have had a heart attack. I wasn’t the only girl in the bathroom tearing off sins in a big hurry.”
Reluctantly, Lily Katherine turned from the gloves and dreams of a bright red Stewart’s gift box beneath their Christmas tree. She followed Betsy to the candy section. After that Sunday School class, Mama had made her wear her “sins” spelled out on brown paper until supper. Back then, she had a vague understanding of fornicate as she had looked it up in the dictionary after seeing Mama’s scrawled lesson plan. She had not claimed that sin.
The girls each bought a candy cane and headed to the exit. They passed the Salvation Army kettle and Lily Katherine regretted she had spent a penny on candy instead of putting it in the kettle. Even so, the candy was deliciously sweet and would last a long time if she licked slowly.
They walked to the bus stop passing more Uncle Sams and men in uniform who were becoming more numerous each day. Betsy giggled.
“What?” Lily Katherine asked. She was cold and was getting hungry.
“Yesterday, someone ‘forticated’ in English class – not out loud. Mr. Martin opened a window and kept on reading Francis Bacon’s essay. No one dared to laugh.”
Lily Katherine got off the bus at the Peachtree Road stop, just two blocks from home. She did not know what to expect this Saturday night. Mama had been pensive all week, especially after three ladies in her Peace and Love circle had proudly announced their sons had enlisted. Faye might be home after her daring trip to the USO to apply for a hostess position. “We must keep up our fighting men’s spirits,” she had said last night. No one had dared to argue with that, although Mama asked if hostesses had to dance. Faye said she did not know. Dancing was frowned upon by the elders and matriarchs of the Walnut Street Baptist Church. Lily Katherine’s physical education teacher was not Baptist, so she taught her class the waltz and two-step. Lily loved to waltz.
It was dusk, and Papa was on the porch taking down the flag he raised each morning. Up and down the street, men were engaged in the same activity. The family across the street had installed a spotlight so they could fly the Stars and Stripes all night.
Lily Katherine wondered where Robert was as their motorcar was not in the driveway. “Papa,” she said, “will Robert be home for supper?”
Papa folded the flag carefully. “He’s shut up in his room aspiring to out rhyme Shakespeare in the sonnet department. I expect Faye will be home soon.”
“But where is the motorcar?” She hoped it had not broken down. Car repairs would put a serious strain on their budget.
Papa pointed to the garage behind the house then said. “I’d best show you.”
She followed him to the garage. He unlocked the padlock and opened the doors. She gasped. Bessie was propped up on cement blocks. Its tires hung from hooks on the back wall.
Papa put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder “Gas will be rationed soon. New tires will not be available. Rubber needs to go to the war effort.” He rubbed a small smear on the bumper with his hankie. “Robert helped me get Old Bess up on blocks. President Roosevelt tells us we are all in this war and we must each do our part.”
Lily Katherine was proud of her father for making this sacrifice but wondered how Mama felt about it. She acted so prideful arriving at church in a motorcar instead of by bus. Maybe she should buy those pretty gloves for Mama. Faye would appreciate a simple gift from her sister. Faye would understand. Maybe this was part of what her sister meant about being strong for their parents. Mama tried so hard to look like a fashion plate. When there was no money for a new dress, she tacked on a new collar. She hoped Miss Trask would suggest something she could make for Faye – not an apron!
Lily Katherine walked in the back door, hung her coat on one of the hooks, and kicked off her shoes. Mama was stirring a pot of black-eyed peas, steaming up the kitchen. Little beads of water ran down the back window and dripped on the painted, wood sill. Mama handed her a rag and motioned for her to wipe the sill and window. She took corn biscuits out of the oven. “I was fixing to ask you to make a dessert for tonight,” she said. “But Papa needs what’s left of the sugar for his coffee and I need to save the eggs for breakfast.”
Lily Katherine set the table. “Maybe we can pop corn this evening and listen to Glenn Miller on the radio.”
Mama nodded. “When I was a bride, we had a cook,” she said.
Lily Katherine did not reply. She had run out of sympathetic words for Mama’s near daily reminders of their fall in fortune because of the depression. One reason she had taken two years of domestic science was Mama’s indifferent cooking.
The front door opened.
“Faye,” Mama called. “I expected you home sooner. Lily Katherine and I had to do all the kitchen work.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Faye had stopped making excuses when she had become a teacher. She looked radiant in her red coat, cheeks flushed from the cold, and her perky red hat with a bow. Lily Katherine could not understand why Mama called her eldest daughter “plain but presentable” and her youngest daughter “my budding beauty.”
Faye arranged her shoes neatly beneath the coats and discretely gathered Lily Katherine’s from the corner where they had been tossed. “I need to freshen up, then I’ll help with supper,” she said.
After Papa blessed the black-eyed peas and biscuits, Faye announced. “I visited the USO today. I had planned to volunteer as a junior hostess, but they appointed me a senior hostess. We are supposed to be at least 30 years old, but being a teacher…”
“You did what!” Mama’s interruption was no surprise.
“Good for you,” Robert said. Papa nodded.
“It is a respectable position,” Faye continued. “Only ladies are accepted.”
“You will entertain servicemen,” Mama said. “And what does that entail, young lady?”
“Mama, it’s not a bordello,” Robert said. “I’m proud of my sister’s patriotic work.”
Papa looked as if he did not know what to think.
Lily Katherine felt left out. Mama gave up dessert. Robert and Papa gave up the motorcar, and Faye was giving her time.
Faye picked up her biscuit and looked at her sister. “I would like to invite Lily Katherine to serve as a junior hostess. Will someone please pass the jam?”
Silence. No one moved. Lily Katherine felt like her family was frozen in time and would not move until a peace treaty was signed.
“Here,” Robert said. He passed Faye the cut crystal jam bowl.
“Thank you,” Faye said. “Hostesses are held to the highest of standards. Dating servicemen they meet at the USO is strictly forbidden. Hostesses must use their very best manners. Mama, you will approve of the dress code.” She spooned a little jam on her biscuit.
“Is there dancing?” Mama’s voice was dangerously bland.
Faye passed the bowl of black-eyed peas to Lily. “Hostesses may not refuse to dance with any serviceman who is behaving like a gentleman. The USO has board games and a library. Desks with papers and pens to write letters home. Plus, a canteen so the men can have homecooked food.”
“Dancing?” Mama had not touched her dinner.
Papa cleared his throat, “King David danced before the Lord.”
Lily Katherine could have hugged him. Mama would not argue with Holy Scripture, but the way her face was working it looked as if she were trying.
Faye passed the jam to Lily. “I brought home a book all hostesses must study. Charm by Margery Wilson.
“As if I did not raise my daughters to be charming!’ Mama exclaimed. “That book is boxed in the attic and you girls know it chapter and verse because I raised you to be ladies!” She paused to salt her peas. “I hope you didn’t waste your money on that book.”
Faye picked up her fork. “The book is free for all junior and senior hostesses. The dress code is printed on a separate sheet tucked inside.”
Without anyone saying the matter was settled, it was settled. Lily Katherine would be a junior hostess and she would dance!
Bunny was not on the bus Monday morning, and Lily Katherine wondered if her cold had worsened. She had coughed all through church three rows back, coughed so hard that Mama stiffened and whispered that sick people should pray at home. Bunny tried to get Lily’s attention after church, but a swelling river of worshipers divided them, and Lily had to stay with her family to catch the bus back home. Papa had gone to church, surprising them all. He had offered his arm to Mama and said, “If you must endure the public bus to worship Our Father Which Art in Heaven, I shall escort you.” Mama had beamed and held her head high all day.
More shops along the avenue had patriotic posters in their windows. More Uncle Sams and more pleas to buy War Bonds. She thought about sharing her excitement with friends about being a USO junior hostess, beginning New Year’s Eve. But what if they did not qualify? What if they put Faye in an awkward position by begging to be a junior hostess? She would ask Faye tonight and try to keep her mouth shut today. She had plenty to think about, and she hoped Miss Trask, her domestic science teacher, would help her with Faye’s Christmas present.
Domestic Science was her last class, and Lily’s group had to hurry to clean up after their cooking lesson. Miss Trask had recipe pamphlets from England and explained how women overseas had to be creative as so many foods were rationed. She said that their food may be rationed soon because “there’s a war on, you know,” a phrase that was becoming the expected conclusion to every conversation.
The students, in groups of five, were tasked with making little cakes with no eggs and just three ounces of butter. Lily’s group decided their cake tasted dismal. Miss Trask agreed and said even so it was a small sacrifice for democracy. Lily Katherine lingered after the bell rang, her mouth parched from her portion of “liberty cake.”
“Yes, dear,” Miss Trask looked up from the stack of pamphlets she had collected from the cooking groups. Her silver-streaked brown hair was gathered in a bun. She was thin, plain, and dressed modestly. She perked up her two wool dresses with colorful scarves. Was this Faye’s future? Lily wanted more for her sister.
“Did you need something, Lily Katherine?”
“I beg your pardon, Miss Trask. My mind was wandering.”
“It happens, especially now that there is a war on.”
“I was wondering if you could help me with a Christmas gift for my sister. Betsy said the domestic science department may have extra fabric.”
Miss Trask sighed. “The board of education sent us boxes of yarn so we can knit socks and mufflers for our men at war. I am boxing up the fabric I had planned to use next term. Such lovely, pastel dimity. It was for you older girls to make spring frocks. Now it will be used for bandages, maybe parachutes.”
“Faye is a USO senior hostess,” Lily said then thought that may sound like a plea for a favor when it was really just pride.
“Ah, Faye. Such a lovely girl. I hear she is teaching. I am sure she is a good one.” Miss Trask was nodding her head. “The War Department won’t miss a few yards of fabric, and I can set aside a bit of elastic – the war effort needs that, too.” She cleared her throat. “After all, Faye is serving on the home front through the USO.”
Lily smiled. This was so good of Miss Trask.
Her teacher pointed to a metal filing cabinet. “Look through those McCall’s patterns under L for “lingerie” and find a pattern for a half slip. Leave it on my desk, and I’ll have the materials gathered for you tomorrow. You can work after school until you’ve finished your gift for your sister.”
“Oh, how can I thank you!” Lily exclaimed.
“Our president said we must all do our part. This is a part of what I can do – just don’t tell the other girls. Faye is special, and I can’t save fabric for all my students.” She stood up and got her coat. “Please turn off the lights when you leave.”
That evening, Mama seemed more restless than usual waiting for Papa and Faye to return. Robert was reading the Louisville Courier Journal evening edition. A hamburger casserole was keeping warm in the oven, and Mama had made lumpy applesauce from the last of the season’s apples. Lily Katherine had washed out the apple basket and returned it to the cellar. Now she was leafing through the new Ladies Home Journal, published before there was a war on. At school, she had selected a pattern for a half-slip that Faye would love, but it required ribbons for little bows around the hem. She wondered if there were any ribbons tucked into corners of drawers.
“Have you finished your homework, Lily Katherine?”
It was a question that Mama, so distracted, would not notice a lack of response. Lily turned to Elenore Roosevelt’s “If You Ask Me” page, obviously written before women needed wartime advice, although America had been preparing for the enemy to arrive on their doorstep ever since war broke out in Europe.
“Robert!” Mama finally exclaimed.
Here it comes, thought Lily.
“A girl telephoned.”
Robert looked up from the paper, “Did she leave her name? A message?”
Mama shook non-existent dust from a drape. “I told that young woman that no one by the name of Max lives in this household.”
Robert groaned and put down his paper. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. My mates at college call me Max.”
Mama nearly pulled the drape from its rod. “Been meaning to tell me for three years!”
Robert shrugged. “There never seemed to be a good time, besides…”
The door opened and Papa and Faye rushed in, quickly closing the door so heat would not escape.
“Whew!” thought Lily, happy that they arrived at such a providential time.
The Charm Book detailed ways to “change the subject,” so Lily spoke up after kisses and hugs were exchanged and before coats were removed.
She held up the Ladies Home Journal and said, “Mrs. Roosevelt talks right here about how to live when there’s a war on. The question to the First Lady is:
“Do you consider that the woman who stocks up now for the next two years on household and personal articles of which there is likely to be a shortage is a hoarder, or simply provident?”
She answers: Any stocking up tends to make prices rise. I would advise buying as usual and taking the chances that the average person has to take, if I wanted to sleep well at night.”
Puzzled looks all around.
Lily continued, “Are we hoarding by not giving Bessie and her tires to the war effort?”
Papa and Faye hung up their coats. Mama was silent having collapsed in her rocker. Robert said, “We didn’t want to worry you, but if the enemy comes close to Louisville, we need to evacuate to our kin in the country.”
Faye sat at the desk, “You see, Lily, the army will not have to waste resources protecting us if we leave the city.”
Papa added, “Once safe in the country, Robert and I will drive Old Bess to the nearest Army base and hitch a ride back.”
Didn’t Papa know that if they were invaded Robert would be in uniform, defending democracy with a gun? She turned to more bearable thoughts: the country and the summer weeks they spent with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Riding the work horses, milking cows, gathering eggs, picnicking in meadows surrounded by berry bushes. Aunt Kate’s delicious, generous meals. At the farmhouse, she did not miss electricity and indoor plumbing. “So we won’t be going to the country this summer – unless –”
“Not so long as there’s war on,” Papa said. “And your Mama will be pleased about that.”
Mama rocked faster.
“You know how she hates that outhouse,” he continued. “That will be Fanny’s contribution to the war effort – an heroic appreciation of the miraculous invention of indoor plumbing.” his laugh was more of a snort.
Mama announced, “I am contributing as we speak. My Peace and Love Circle is knitting socks and mufflers for our troops.
Faye’s sigh was inaudible, but Lily heard it in her voice. “Where is your knitting basket, Mama?”
Mama pointed behind Papa’s chair.
Faye said, “I’ll stitch a few rows for you tonight. It’s the least I can do for our fighting men.”
Lily knew Faye would undo all of Mama’s work and reknit it. Their mother’s losing battle with knitting needles was a legend passed on in whispers.
Robert lightened the mood. “Here in the paper it says we should not use the long distance during the holidays so urgent war communications can get through.”
The family that rarely laughed together was in stitches. The only time they used the long distance was when a kinfolk was on a death bed or already laid out.
Lily Katherine snuggled up to Faye on Christmas morning. Sleet attacked the bedroom window, and when she put her arms on top of the covers she got goosebumps. Papa was conserving coal so well that she did not like to get up until he stoked the furnace and the house warmed. She remembered other Christmas mornings and her excitement about the presents she would find under the tree. Today, all she could think about were Faye’s slip, wrapped in ironed tissue paper and Mama’s gloves in their elegant red Stewart’s box. Faye moved a little, as if she were waking up, then relaxed into sleep again, her breathing regular and easy. Lily felt protected in their snug home and defenseless at the same time. What if next Christmas they were prisoners of the Germans or the Japs? What if Robert were off to war and there was an empty chair at their Christmas dinner table?
She would do anything to protect her country and their way of life, even their life today with its constant need to scrape and save, to mend clothing until it fell apart, to ask God to bless meals that were sufficient but lacking in flavor and variety. Families in England were much worse off, at least today.
Faye stretched and yawned. “Merry Christmas, Lily Katherine. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to stay put until Papa stokes the furnace.”
“Me too. Do you believe this sleet?”
“It’s like God’s tears have turned to ice. What a mess we’ve made of his beautiful world.”
“We!” Lily exclaimed. “We did not invade most of Europe and bomb Pearl Harbor. WE are on the right side of history.”
“Of course,” Faye replied, “but, perhaps, if we were wiser, we would have cut off this war before Hitler raised that atrocious Nazi flag.”
Lily did not see how that would have been possible.
“You should talk to Papa sometime about world history,” Faye said. “With all his reading of the ancients, their wars and philosophies, he might be able to explain what I cannot put into words. It’s just a feeling I have – oh, good, Papa’s up.”
Shortly after the basement door closed, Lily heard the rattle of coal being shoveled into the furnace. Soon warm air flowed through the vent above their heads.
“This will be a good day, Lily,” Faye said. “We are all nervous and afraid, but we must work hard to make it a good day. You can help me make the Christmas cake. I found a recipe that uses inexpensive ingredients, and they were all available at the grocers.”
Lily put on her robe and slippers. “I didn’t know you shopped for a Christmas cake.”
Faye got up, and the sisters made the bed. “Mama knows, but I told her the type of cake is a Christmas surprise.”
Lily plumped her pillow and giggled. “I know Mama was not itching to cook up a dessert! What a lovely gift.” She hoped it was not Liberty Cake. Just thinking about that cake she had made in domestic science made her mouth dry up.
Their little tree lacked tinsel this year and the lights that burned out were not replaced, but Lily barely minded. Her family was happy opening gifts made possible through sacrifices. The president said that sacrifices made for the war effort were privileges, yet they still felt like sacrifices. Papa could barely wait to read his volume of Cicero, The Complete Works and Robert stroked his first pipe as if it were carved for a prince. Faye carefully unwrapped the white tissue paper Lily had ironed and her face lit up. “What a pretty petticoat!” she exclaimed.
“Miss Trask set aside a bit of fabric that was headed to war,” Lily said.
“Any soldier would be happy to see the material put to such lovely use,” said Robert.
“And where on earth did you find these little blue bows!” Faye touched one of bows around the hem.
Lily smiled. “That trunk in the basement. The ribbons are from our layette.”
Mama snatched the slip. “Lands Sake! Lily Katherine, you are becoming quite inventive.”
“I hope you aren’t vexed that I appropriated the ribbons,” Lily said.
“That layette is laid by for my first grandbaby. We can replace the ribbons someday. It is just so fine that Faye has such a pretty new petticoat.”
Lily had hidden the red Stewart’s box so Mama’s gift would be the last one. “Here, Mama,” she said, handing the box to her mother.
“Oh, my goodness!” Mama opened the box hastily. She caught her breath when she took out the gloves. She put them on and buttoned the little pearl button at each wrist. Her eyes filled with tears. “It’s so rare these days that I have something new and dainty — and so elegant. With a war on, we won’t be able to buy as much as an inch of grosgrain ribbon. And, from Stewart’s to boot. I’ll use the box for my hankies. Lily Katherine, when I wear these gloves, I will feel your love.”
Lily was ashamed that she had yearned to give the gloves to Faye. It had all worked out beautifully thanks to Miss Trask.
But there was another present! Faye handed her a slim, square satiny box. Lily opened it carefully. “Oh! Oh! Nylons! The USO dress code says hostesses should wear nice stockings, not socks, and I had no idea how to manage that.”
Robert looked up from his pipe, “They’ll need to last you through the war. All nylon has to go to the war effort. Parachutes, I think.”
Lily’s smile faded.
“I’ll loan you a pair of my high heels,” Faye said.
“You may borrow my nail polish,” Mama chimed in. “The color will match your new dress.”
Lily had not expected to find a new dress under the tree. The whole family must have contributed, and it was, they agreed, the perfect dress for a young lady. It was blue and made in a soft wool. Shoulder pads and fabric covered lapel buttons gave it a fashionable look. Lily was still in shock over that dress and knew the sacrifices her family had made to – as Mama put it – turn her out right grown up and poised.
Papa turned on the radio, and the first song was Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” It was the most popular song of the season. People hummed it on the bus, students between classes, even Mama while she was doing household chores.
Lily felt happier than she had in weeks as she went to the kitchen with Mama and Faye to prepare dinner. Mama had explained the other day that turkeys were scarce this year. She put a mutton roast in the oven after sprinkling it with rosemary they had hung on basement rafters toward the end of autumn. Lily was impressed with Faye’s cake recipe. It used just a little sugar, but the cinnamon and raisins made it smell like Christmas.
They set the table with the good china, and Faye arranged a centerpiece of holly. Mama lit the tall candles they were saving for emergencies. The enemy could knock out their electricity, but today the enemy could not breach their fortifications of love and joy. Papa’s blessing was longer than usual and heartfelt. The cake was so good, they did not leave a crumb, but the greatest blessing of their Christmas day was Robert’s announcement made right before Papa could excuse himself to get to his new book.
“I talked the draft board,” Robert said then hastily added, “and to college officials. We are in agreement that I can best serve by finishing my coursework and then becoming a foreign correspondent for the Army.”
“Mama’s face, so relaxed today grew radiant. “All that scribbling you do – it will spare you from combat!”
But Faye was not smiling. She looked somber. Lily realized that Robert had said “foreign,” and that meant he was headed to war armed only with a pencil.
As Faye and Lily washed and dried the dishes, Mama sat in her rocker putting her gloves on again and gently touching the little pearls. She was humming “White Christmas.” The sleet had turned to drizzle, and muddy puddles filled the back yard.
Faye put the last clean dish away and put her hands on Lily’s shoulders. “It will be hard, so hard,” she said. “But come what may our family has this special Christmas to remember.
Mama painted the last of Lily Kathrine’s fingernails and told her to blow on them until they were dry. It was the least onerous instruction she had given about her daughters’ attendance at the USO New Year’s Eve party tonight. It was downtown at the new USO Center in the YMCA. Going on the bus in the early evening was not a concern, but the thought of her daughters getting home after midnight had tied Mama up in knots. Of course, they should give servicemen a good party and remind them what they were fighting for. Of course, the girls should look their best. It was their patriotic duty. But ladies do not ride busses after the picture shows end at 10 pm. And that was that. Or maybe not.
After a morning of Mama’s handwringing, mind changing, tears, and household upheaval that sent Papa to the basement with a book, Robert came home for lunch. He solved the problem. He would be outside the YMCA at exactly 12:30 and escort his sisters home. “Busses will be running all night,” he assured them.
Mama threw herself into every detail of her daughters’ appearance and gave too many instructions on decorum for anyone to remember. Nails were buffed to perfection. Dresses already pressed were ironed again. Hems were inspected. Shoes shined. A half hour before the girls left, Mama made sure every hair was in place and barrettes secure, nylon seams were “straight as arrows,” and nothing unmentionable showed when the girls twirled around the living room. Mama loaned Lily Katherine her compact so she could powder her nose and told Faye to be sure to tell her sister if her nose got shiny.
Lily Katherine was excited about all the fuss. She could tell Faye was just enduring reminders of how a young lady should look and behave when “out on the town.” They were part way out the door when Mama remembered cologne. She spritzed each girl with her precious supply of Chantilly. Finally on their way, they walked into the night encircled in a spicy citrus mist.
At the bus stop, Lily Katherine reveled in the freedom of going to a grown-up party. Her new nylons felt whispery on her legs. Looking at Faye, she supposed she was used to that. She had a sinking feeling. “Faye, what if I get a run in my nylons.”
Faye pointed to her purse. “I have a tiny bottle of clear nail polish. It stops runs, so don’t fret.”
The bus pulled up, and the girls stepped up and into a well-dressed crowd. Two sailors rose from their seats. Lily blushed. She wondered if Faye were aware of how the sailors stared at them in an appreciative, but respectful manner. Uncle Sam and War Bond signs stuck to the sides of the bus. No more tobacco and fashion ads. War reminders were everywhere. The driver adhered to the new tire saving instructions by not making sudden starts and stops and by driving at the new, slower speed limit. She thought of Bessie’s tires hanging in the garage and felt a different kind of chill. Not the chill of wind blasting down the aisle at each stop. Would they be forced to evacuate to the country? How would she graduate from high school? She wearied of thinking the worst.
Fay touched her arm. “Are you okay?”
Lily shrugged. “There’s a war on, you know.”
Faye sailed up the YMCA steps as if she did it every day. Lily Katherine walked behind her and tried to look poised. So many people laughing and calling to each other! Men in all kinds of uniforms: Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard – thanks to a special session in history class, she had learned to tell them apart. The hostesses were gay and smiling and they all looked more confident than she felt.
Inside, the men put their service hats on a table covered with a white cloth, and most of the arriving hostesses headed to the ladies’ room. Faye led her into a large ballroom decorated with Christmas lights, holly, and paper snowflakes. It was a magical moment. Mulled cider from a refreshment table scented the room. On stage, band members in tuxedos settled into their seats. They tinkered with their instruments, faces hid by music sheet stands. She saw every kind of instrument from saxophones to violins. A few servicemen and hostesses were mingling as the crowd grew.
A soldier waved to Faye. Startled, she waved back. He motioned for her to come forward just as he began walking toward her. She looked flustered then said, “Lily Katherine, why don’t you serve cider. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
Mama would exclaim, “Well, I declare!” but Lily was speechless. Slipping behind the table she held onto the punch ladle like an anchor. Seeing other hostesses filling cups and handing out cookies for eager hands, she filled empty cups held up to her. She was careful to not ladle up orange slices and cinnamon sticks. The men looked so grown up in their uniforms even those barely old enough to shave. The hostesses looked as glamorous as possible within the bounds of the dress code. She overheard snippets of conversion and then realized she was being addressed. “Miss, will you be attached to that punch bowl all evening?” The aviator’s smile was so engaging, it was easy to overlook his military haircut.
“I don’t think so, but this is my first time as a hostess.” She handed him a cup.
“Promise you’ll save a dance for me,” he said. He picked up a cookie and walked on. She hoped Robert’s fox trot lessons, the waltz and the two-step would carry her through the evening. She had promised Mama not to do that awful jitterbug that could very well show her garters and panties.
She must have served about twenty-five cups of punch before she realized Faye had been gone for quite a time. Another hostess offered to take her place. Gratefully, she accepted, but then the band blasted out “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and the room erupted with joyful cries and wild leaping and flinging of limbs. Jitterbug! She escaped through the door Faye had exited with the soldier. Looking over shoulder, she did not see skirts flying high enough to reveal unmentionables. The jitterbug looked fun.
The room was quieter and furnished with sofas and chairs grouped into conversation nooks. The Oriental rug looked worn, but clean. She found Faye and the soldier in a dim corner, their heads close together. They were holding hands! “Faye?” she said.
The soldier stood up.
Faye said, “Lily Katherine, I’d like to introduce Captain Martin. He teaches – taught history at Shawnee with me.”
“Call me Ken,” the soldier said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. – I mean Ken.”
“And this is my sister, Lily Katherine,” Faye said. “Please join us.”
When Lily was settled and legs crossed at her ankles, Faye continued. “I did not know Ken enlisted, much less that he will be leaving tomorrow. He will be sorely missed at Shawnee High School.”
With a droll look, Ken said, “My pop quizzes were that popular.”
Faye shook her head then said softly, “That is not what I meant.”
“Well, Lily Katherine, do you teach?” He looked as if he were trying to be interested, but his voice was strained.
“Junior hostesses are expected to mingle,” Faye said looking pointedly at the door.
Lily understood but was still stunned that her sister appeared to be so close with a man. “I need to find an aviator I promised a dance to.” She walked away not looking back, planning to wait in the ladies’ room until the jitterbug was over. The band stopped when she reached the ballroom floor. It had grown warmer, and the air was fragrant with cologne and aftershave as well as cider.
The band began playing Strauss’ “Voices of Spring Waltz,” and the aviator was beside her holding out his hand. She hoped her smile looked more confident than she felt. Up close he seemed taller. In his arms, he was the perfect height for a dance partner. His aftershave was an unfamiliar blend of sandalwood and vanilla and made her think of walking in the park on a sunny spring day while eating an ice cream cone.
As she grew more confident in following his lead, she floated through a wonderland never imagined. The soul-stirring music, the warmth of his hands, and the changing scenes of the dance floor as they waltzed around the room vanquished her shyness. She simply was the self she hoped she would become as she grew into womanhood. The other dancing couples were a faceless blur. When the music stopped, sorrow welled up.
He did not let go of her hand. “Would it be improper to ask for every dance?” he said.
She could not imagine dancing with anyone else but there were rules.
“I suppose,” she said. “I’m required to be hospitable to more than one military man.”
He let go of her hand, but he continued to look into her eyes. “I’ll dance with another young lady; you dance with another serviceman; then, we’ll dance together again.”
“Okay,” she said. Before explaining she could not jitterbug, a soldier claimed her as the music began. It was a slow tune, and either he had difficulty leading or she had difficulty following. She was more interested in catching glimpses of the aviator than in paying attention to the music. He was dancing with a pretty red head in a too-short skirt. Would he dance with her again as he had promised?
The music stopped and the soldier thanked her for the dance and walked away. The aviator was beside her. She welcomed him with a playful grin. The band blasted off on an – oh no – jitterbug. He held out his hand. She bit her lip then had an inspiration. “Could we sit this one out? There’s a nice little lounge over there.” She pointed to where Faye had slipped away with her soldier.
He put his hand on the small of her back and followed her into the lounge. Lily Katherine did not see Faye. The aviator found a nice settee where they could sit without being too close to each other. She sat gracefully and smoothed her skirt.
“By the way,” he said. “I don’t know your name and I would very much like to.”
Praise the Lord for the Charm book! If you don’t want to answer a question, ask one. “And, I don’t know your name,” she said.
“Junie,” he replied.
“That’s a new one to me.” She liked the sound of it
“My full name is Cicero Whittinghill Trisler, Junior,” he said. “After my father, so they called me Junior, but that was stuffy for a baby, so it was Junie. It stuck.” He paused. “Your turn.”
“Oh,” she was silent for a moment. “Are you thirsty? I sure could use a drink. I was so busy serving that cider, I had no time to taste it.”
He jumped to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
She had a decision to make and quickly.
After he handed her a cup of punch and settled back into the settee, she said. “My full name is Lily Katherine, so you’re not the only one with a cumbersome name. I would like for you to call me Kitty.”
His smile lit up his face. “Perfect! You are so cute and pretty, so soft yet so sure on your feet. You ARE a kitty – Kitty.”
“I don’t jitterbug,” she said seeing no point in blaming Mama.
“And I’m afraid I’d sprain an ankle jitterbugging. I need to stay in top form or I’ll be fueling planes instead of flying them.”
They danced the next few dances, then returned to the lounge to sit out another jitterbug. Kitty remembered Faye. She had not seen her on the dance floor, and she was not in the lounge. She excused herself to powder her nose.
She looked for Faye in the ladies’ room, even peeking under stalls to see shoes. Her sister had vanished! What should she do?
Faye walked in without seeing her sister. Her eyes were red as if she had been crying. She washed her face, patted it dry with a towel then got out her compact.
Her sister turned. “Oh. Sorry I’ve neglected you.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. We’ll talk tonight. Will you be alright?”
Kitty nodded. “I met this really swoony pilot. I don’t think he wants to dance with anyone else.” She waited for a gentle reminder to entertain more than one military man.
Faye said. “Just be careful. Don’t do anything that would vex Mama.”
“Oh, I won’t jitterbug!” Kitty exclaimed.
Faye’s shoulders slumped. “Jitterbug,” she murmured. “The world is at war and people fret over the jitterbug.” She hugged Kitty. “Just be your sweet self. If you want to jitterbug, it won’t provoke an invasion by land or by sea.” She walked out the door.
Kitty powdered her nose, then left the powdery-smelling restroom to find Junie.
She danced every dance with Junie and sat out the jitterbugs with him in the lounge. Soon, they were spending more time in the lounge than on the dance floor. She enjoyed their conversation even more than waltzing with him. Like Papa, he loved ancient history. He admired her taste for English poets and said that Shelley’s exuberance was responsible for his untimely death. His family back in Lexington wrote every day, he said. He would see them once more before he shipped out in six weeks.
Six weeks felt like tomorrow and eternity. She gave Junie her phone number and did not caution him to ask for Lily Katherine. She would deal with Mama tomorrow. Tonight, she was Kitty.
With fortitude she would be Kitty tomorrow.
Carol Stigger is a storyteller, a savvy finder of unique angles for targeted audiences. She has reported from nearly 50 countries for major print and online publications. When Covid struck, she started writing novels.