SEPTEMBER 2009 – NO. 35
The lidless shoebox that was my mother's past seemed to wait for me — child archeologist — to rediscover it, once a year or so, on a rainy Sunday or on a sick day. I'd poke through a downstairs closet, sometimes finding the box marked "Blk Patent, 6M" behind a stack of games from Chinese checkers to Parcheesi, or under a chipped vase, or on top of a rusted muffin tin.
Palm-sized photos, gray-toned, with narrow, white scalloped edges, filled most of the box. Some of the photos were posed, but most were candids. A few had playfully penned inscriptions on the back or in a front corner. All had creases, or tears, or smudged inky fingerprints. I'd spread the pictures out on the kitchen table or the parlor floor and beg my mother to stop whatever she was doing to go through them, one by one, telling me their stories and bringing the people back.
My mother stands in a field, slender in a flared skirt and a ruffled blouse, her hair tousled by the breeze. In the distance, men in overalls pitch hay onto a wooden cart hitched to a team of sharp-horned oxen.
She was only 16 and took a train by herself from a mill city near Boston to Nova Scotia, to a farm where uncles, aunts and cousins spoke only French. For a few weeks of the summer of 1942, she felt safe. She had left behind air raid drills and rumors of submarines coming up the river, a house with black-shaded windows, coffee that was chicory, and butter that was white lard mixed with a packet of yellow powder.
My mother and four young women lean against the curved fender of a black car. They wear strands of pearls over sweaters that show their own slight curves. Their hair falls in waves that accentuate their cheekbone. Their dark lips feign pouts.
I would tell my mother they looked like movie stars.
My mother would say they were only The Girls, classmates just graduated from high school. My mother, the only one of The Girls who never had a mother, said the five of them were true friends, and truly inseparable.
My mother and The Girls are outside a brick-faced factory where they make telephones. The Girls are laughing, arms linked, and kicking their legs high.
On Saturday nights they went by bus to a nearby Army base to dance with soldiers waiting to ship out. They were good girls, my mother said. Chaperones, she was certain to add, were always there.
A buck-toothed young man with acne-pocked skin stands stiff against a canvas backdrop of painted waves. His white, middy shirt is starched crisp.
My mother corresponded with boys, dozens of them she met at the dances. She sent them nice letters, talking about The Girls, describing new songs on the radio, and telling each boy she was proud of him. That's what a patriotic girl did, she said.
She never kept the letters that came back, only the pictures of the boy sailors, the boy soldiers, and the boy flyers.
"Fondly, Alex" in blue ink covers the folded hands of a soldier. He has a dimpled chin, sparkling eyes and thick lashes.
I would ask for Alex's last name, but my mother would only shrug her shoulders. Oh, she would say, they had written to each other for about a year. But there was nothing between them, nothing special.
Joe is tanned and sweaty, on an airstrip on a Pacific island, holding a long-handled frying pan like a baseball bat. Another soldier is ready to pitch him a small coconut.
Eddie has a face that is the shape of my mother's, small and oval. He is equally thin, and the collar of his Air Force uniform is too big for his neck.
Leo is wide-shouldered in his Army uniform. His eyes are my mother's eyes. Dark. Deep.
Three of my mother's brothers enlisted. Two weeks before her nineteenth birthday, a telegram came. She knew it meant that one brother was dead. She held the envelope to her heart as she ran for blocks in her stocking feet, weeping, looking for her father who would open it. Leo, six years older than she, had been killed in action on a beach in Italy.
My mother wouldn't look at Leo's engaging smile or the obituary that was a yellowed piece of newspaper, branded with the rusted outline of a paperclip. It would be nice, though, my mother would say, to go to Anzio and find his grave.
At the bottom of the box were a few canceled one-cent and two-cent postage stamps. As I fingered the last of her collection — a fountain pen, long dried out — my mother would say she had something else she needed to do. While she brought the sheets in from the clothesline, I put all the photos back in the shoebox, in the order I chose. I'd leave the box on the kitchen table for her to put away again.
A year ago, I told my mother how the shoebox helped me through the measles and whooping cough and days when I just needed to stay away from spelling quizzes and book reports. I asked to see them again.
She said she had finally thrown them away, except for the ones of her brothers, because it was all such a long time ago. Who else would know who they were? Many were probably dead within weeks of writing to her, she said, and the pictures had been important to nobody else but her.
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