Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
Would that happen to her mother? Six months from now would Dot cry into her pillow as Tom Wilson’s face stubbornly refused to appear before her eyes? It seemed to Catherine that all across the country it was happening to women who waited. Somewhere in Kansas a farmer’s wife sat on her front porch and listened for her husband’s voice in the summer wind, then shivered as she heard nothing but the beating of her solitary heart.
The men were disappearing, all of them. The Robertson twins, Arnie from around the block, and the man who ran the hardware store on Continental Avenue had all left for boot camp in the past week. Douglas’s big brother, Mac, had gone to Europe as a correspondent, but it looked like he’d be enlisting any day, too.
And now tomorrow her own father was off to war, leaving her mother alone with Wilson Manufacturing and the house and two daughters to care for. Not that either Catherine or Nancy needed full-time mothering any longer, but there was something scary about being a family of women without a man’s strength to lean upon.
Their lives were changing and there wasn’t anything Catherine or Dot or Nancy could do to stop it, and that fact scared Catherine more than anything else. She could write a thousand letters, knit sweaters and gloves for the soldiers, collect tin cans and rubber tires, buy war stamps and save up for bonds. She could become a Rosie the Riveter and take a man’s job for the duration, but there was nothing she could do that would erase the past fifteen months of loneliness.
Men went to war.
That was the way things were and, as far as Catherine could tell, it was the way things would always be.
* * *
Teddy bears marched across the faded quilt tossed haphazardly across the bed in Nancy Wilson’s room, their plump brown legs resting atop an array of bright cotton sundresses. Saddle oxfords sat on the rag rug next to her best dress shoes, with the one-inch heels that made her sturdy legs look almost elegant. Her schoolbooks, carefully covered with brown paper so they could be resold as soon as the school year was over, were buried beneath a stack of
that were her prized possessions.
At seventeen Nancy was both little girl and woman, and it seemed she spent half her life wanting to grow up and the other half wishing she could stay a child. She liked having an older sister like Catherine to look up to, and parents who made her feel safe and secure, but in her dreams she longed to fly away from the house on Hansen Street and try her wings.
She glanced at her reflection in the dressing table mirror, then looked across the room at the big color picture of Lana Turner that smiled at her from its place of honor next to Clark Gable on her bulletin board. Yesterday she had tried to muster the courage to ask for a bottle of peroxide from Mr. Kravitz at the pharmacy, but the memory of how everyone had laughed at poor Marie Finestra when she’d bleached her black hair blond still lingered in Nancy’s ears. “Nice girls” accepted the hair color God gave them and did nothing more than keep their tresses clean and curled.
Nancy sighed and looked back at her own round and fresh-scrubbed face. That was definitely the face of a nice girl. Her cheeks were full and rosy. Her nose was just the slightest bit pug and dusted with a sprinkling of cinnamon-colored freckles that not even Lady Esther face powder could hide. Unfortunately God had chosen to give her hair the color of a rusty drainpipe, and it was curly and unruly and thick as a pony’s tail in the bargain!
Life just wasn’t fair.
And that was exactly what she told Catherine as she marched boldly into her older sister’s bedroom across the hall and flopped onto the pristine white bedspread with the embroidered sweetheart roses.
“What did I do to deserve a fate like this?” she moaned, burying her face against a pink satin toss pillow as the scent of lavender sachet tickled her nostrils. “I look like one of those terrible monkeys in
The Wizard of Oz
. All I need is a knitted cap.”
Catherine, who was combing her hair near the window, laughed out loud. “If you’re looking for sympathy, Nance, you’re not going to find any here. You’re cute as a bug and you know it.”
“I don’t want to be cute,” Nancy said, peering up at her beautiful sister. “I want to look like you.”
“I thought you wanted to look like Lana Turner.”
“I’d settle for looking like you.”
“Gee, thanks.” Her sister’s honey-colored hair drifted down in a graceful curve that brushed her shoulders and stopped just short of her collarbone. “Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?” Catherine looked at the Hamilton watch their parents had given her when she’d graduated from high school. Nancy was due to get her own watch in a few short weeks. “Daddy wants us ready at six on the dot.”
Nancy’s spirits plummeted even lower as Catherine touched her already thick eyelashes with a dab of Maybelline from a tiny red matchbox container, then rouged her mouth with a tube of Tangee. Who would ever even notice she was alive with Catherine around?
Catherine was better than pretty; she was beautiful. Not flashy like Rita Hayworth or cheap like Betty Hutton, but possessing something more like Carole Lombard’s smart good looks mixed with Linda Darnell’s cameo perfection.
Nancy raised herself on her elbows and watched as her sister slipped into a plain blue short-sleeved dress with white collar and buttons and a narrow fabric belt at the waist. “You’re not wearing
, are you?” she asked, unable to mask her horror.
“This is a perfectly fine dress,” said Catherine, buttoning up the front, then adjusting the belt. “This isn’t a high-school dance we’re going to, Nance.”
“Of course it’s not! This is the Stage Door Canteen, Cathy! Every famous star in New York City will be there. Don’t you want to look your best?”
“I look just fine,” said her cool and calm sister. “Believe it or not, not everyone wants to look like a movie star.”
“I liked you better before you and Doug got engaged.” Nancy swung her legs off the bed and stood up. “You’re an old stick-in-the-mud now. I remember when you thought Errol Flynn was dreamy.”
A patch of color appeared on Catherine’s high cheekbones, and her blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “I still think he’s dreamy, and if you tell anybody I said that I’ll write to Gerry Sturdevant and send him your yearbook photo.”
“Oh, yes, I would.” She waggled her left hand in Nancy’s direction so that the tiny diamond sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. “I’m spoken for. Douglas would be so jealous if he knew I’d seen
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Nancy completely ignored that juicy piece of information. All she could think of was Gerry Sturdevant’s face if he ever saw that absolutely horrid photograph taken last year when she was just a dumb kid of sixteen. “You wouldn’t send Gerry my yearbook photo, would you?” Nancy hated it when her voice went all small and childlike, but there was nothing she could do about it. This was too important.
Catherine ruffled her curls with a slender, graceful hand. “And ruin our servicemen’s morale? Not on your life. Your secret’s safe with me.” Catherine disappeared into the hallway and Nancy heard the bathroom door swing shut.
Nancy was tempted to read the stack of blue letters from Douglas that rested atop the window seat, but decided against it. A few years ago, when she was young and didn’t know any better, she would have dived right into the stack, giggling over the mushy parts and laughing at their silly romantic daydreams. Not anymore. To her surprise, she had her own romantic daydreams these days, and the thought of someone violating her privacy was enough to make her bury her head in the sand and never come out.
She went back into her room across the hall and sat down on the edge of her bed, bare feet dangling. She’d rather work in Macy’s Basement than ever let Gerry see that embarrassing photo.
Nancy’s high-school graduating class had been writing to servicemen for the past year. Doug’s brother, Mac, a foreign correspondent, had set up the morale-boosting program after his first trip to the Pacific theater the previous year when he realized the effect loneliness had on the boys. Mac was one of Nancy’s absolutely favorite people. A few years older than Catherine, he’d been the idol of all the kids on Hansen Street. Strong, opinionated and funny, everyone knew Mac was destined for bigger and better things. Mrs. Weaver had said he was in Europe now and getting itchy to join the fighting. Nancy wouldn’t be surprised if one day he gave Ernie Pyle a run for his money.
But the most important thing Mac had ever done, in Nancy’s considered opinion, was bring Seaman Gerald Francis Sturdevant into her life. Her freckles and pug nose didn’t matter a bit to Gerry. All that mattered was that her letters kept him in touch with home and all the reasons why winning the war was so very important to Americans. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he thought she was funny and friendly and much more sophisticated than she really was. Why was it that the easy humor and lighthearted conversation that came so easily for her on paper never seemed to materialize when she was face-to-face with a boy? Oh sure, she had plenty of boys as
, but that special boy-girl kind of magic always seemed just out of reach.
Except with Gerry. With him she’d shared some of her biggest secrets, secrets she’d never even told her mother or Catherine.
Maybe she was just a silly kid, as foolish now at seventeen as she’d been at seven. Living in a dreamworld filled with movie stars and crooners and thick onionskin letters from a sailor she’d never meet.
She started at the touch of Catherine’s hand on her shoulder. “You’d better get dressed, kiddo. Daddy expects us downstairs in twenty minutes.”
Nancy jumped off the bed with a shriek. How on earth could she have forgotten to get dressed? “I’ll never be ready in time!”
“Sure you will.” Catherine scooped up the white peasant blouse with the embroidered trim that rested on the dressing table chair, then pulled a wide black cinch belt from the top drawer. “This would look adorable on you.”
Nancy, clad only in her white cotton panties and bra, giggled. “I’d look pretty funny, Cathy. I don’t have a skirt to go with it. My green pique would look silly.”
“I’ve already thought of that,” said her older sister. “My black taffeta.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “The full one with the crinolines?” Since the war had started, skirts had become shorter and tighter; a luxurious full skirt complete with crinolines was almost as exciting as meeting Tyrone Power.
Catherine eyed Nancy critically. “I think it’ll fit you. You’re a few years away from needing a panty girdle.”
“Of course I do. You’ll be the belle of the Stage Door Canteen tonight.”
Fifteen minutes later Nancy did a pirouette in front of the mirror, then faced her sister. “What do you think?”
“I was right,” said Catherine with a big smile. “You’ll break their hearts tonight.”
, she thought as Catherine performed some last-minute magic on her unruly red curls,
I wish you could see me now
* * *
In the big bedroom at the end of the hall, Dot Wilson sat at her dressing table and watched her husband get ready for their night on the town.
“Did you get my shirts from the Chinese laundry?” he asked as he stepped into a pair of boxer shorts.
Dot nodded and tried to swallow around the painful lump in her throat. “Of course,” she said, forcing her voice to sound airy and cheerful. “Twenty-two years and I’ve never once forgotten.” Twenty-two years of cooking and cleaning and caring for him. Twenty-two years of raising both his children and his spirits, of lying down beside him each night and awakening each morning in his arms. The only life she’d ever known.
The only man she’d ever wanted.
“Oh, Tom.” Her voice broke on his name. “What am I going to do without you?”
He was next to her in an instant. His chest was bare and the unfamiliar dog tags were cold and hard against her breast as he pulled her to him. “You’re going to wait for me, Doro. You’re going to keep the bed warm for me.”
She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, that she’d do nothing to make him any more unhappy than he already was, but her tears spilled hot and fast onto his naked shoulder. “I’m scared, Tommy,” she whispered. “I don’t know if I can do it alone.”
“You’re not alone, baby. You’ve got the girls with you.”
She smiled despite her terror. Catherine and Nancy were her crowning achievements. Raising them was the most important thing in her life—second only to her devotion to Tom.
“I know,” she said, “but I never imagined a time when you wouldn’t be here with me.” Even though it seemed as if every man in the country wanted to go head-to-head with the Nazis and the Japanese, it had never occurred to her that her very own husband would feel the same way.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” He gave her a playful swat on the bottom. “I’m coming home, Doro, as fast as I possibly can. Before you know it, you’ll be so busy taking care of me again that you’ll wonder why you wanted me back.”
“Never.” She covered his neck and chin with swift sweet kisses born of love and fear. She closed her eyes and tried to memorize the feel and smell of his skin as if to fortify herself for the long months when he would no longer be there with her.
Tom hadn’t been drafted. As a forty-year-old married man and the father of two daughters, he was an unlikely candidate for military service. But Tom Wilson was not just a married man with children; he was also a patriotic American who could no more stay there in New York City while his countrymen fought for freedom than he could turn away from the scene of an accident.
She’d shamed herself the day he’d come home with the news of his enlistment.
“How could you!” she’d cried, thinking only of her own fears and the safety of their family. “We need you here, Tom Wilson. The company needs you.” In over two decades of marriage, Dot Wilson had never opposed her husband in anything, but that day she had asked him to choose between his country and his family.