January 30, 1944
…..Shame on you!
…..They barely have time to patch you up, and you go blundering right back into shellfire again. Have you no consideration at all for the poor folks, safe at home, worrying about you? How could you be so thoughtless?
…..I finally received your last two letters. Of course, when we heard about the battle for Ortona, I just knew you’d try to find a way to shoulder your way into it…even if that shoulder had a recent hole in it. I could only hope you’d be too late. And you very nearly were! Did they wait for you, for god’s sake? Why would they do that? Tell them to call me…I want an explanation!
…..Your Christmas sounds really…well, I’m going to say crappy, although that hardly seems to cover it. And more than a little dangerous! I’m sure figs in the desert would have been much more festive, after you’d brushed the sand off a bit.
…..No snow surprised us Christmas morning, but Dad woke us up at the crack of dawn as always, eager as a kid to start the day. We opened our gifts first, of course, and I scored a couple of huge successes. I’m earning a bit more now, so I indulged a whim by buying Dad the most elegant white silk opera scarf. He looked way too debonair for his own good…and he knew it! (You know, you’re going to look just like him, when you grow up.) And for Mom: a stunning pair of 8-button black kid gloves with beautiful silk stitching. (No, they do not actually have 8 pesky buttons. It just means they come up to the elbow as if they had 8 buttons—it’s a snooty high fashion thing—and they’ll keep her arms warm under her coat.) They strutted around like royalty until it was time for breakfast, feeling very good about themselves.
…..Of course, they had managed to track down a few of the things I most wanted as well, but then, you know they always do. And, of course, there was a toy. There still always has to be a toy. This year it was a Monopoly game. It’s for both of us, so I won’t use it all up before you get back.
…..I’m sure Dad would have worn that silk scarf all day long if he wasn’t afraid he might splatter it with grease.
…..“Everybody relax,” he announced. “I’m making breakfast.”
…..Of course. He always makes breakfast on Christmas morning.
…..“Ooohhh,” we cooed, “That’s lovely! What are we having?”
…..“Bacon and eggs. Don’t you want bacon and eggs?” He was wondering whether to feel a little hurt. He always makes bacon and eggs. It’s the only dish he’s mastered.
…..“Perfect!” I assured him, just in the nick of time. “Exactly what I wanted!”
Mom, of course, would gladly choke down gruel as long as she didn’t have to cook it herself. You know, I really only enjoy bacon and eggs at Christmas; it’s because he gets such a kick out of cooking it for us. And every year, it just gets better!
…..I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of Mom’s casual approach to Christmas dinner. We always manage a bird of some sort, and it is usually cooked, more or less…but when? Ah…that can vary wildly. And the vegetables might appear on the table at any time before, during or after the meat. Well, I’d been innocently lured by tempting illustrations in the wicked Christmas issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine to take over responsibility for the meal this year. And I was determined to serve it more or less at dinnertime. With vegetables: mashed potatoes (without lumps this time), peas and turnip. (The turnip was a huge concession. It smells up the house, but Dad loves turnip so turnip we must have.) Mom, of course, was quite content to be relegated to the position of inept kitchen help.
…..We had ordered the turkey from the butcher well ahead, and Dad was to pick it up on his way home the day before Christmas. He finally arrived home, late…but with turkey intact.
…..“Greetings, family! We’re home.”
…..“We?” I asked.
…..He held up the turkey. “We’ve been celebrating the season with a few friends…I picked him up early, and we were just passing by the Horseshoe Tavern…”
…..“Okay, Dad,” I interjected, before Mom could point out that the Horseshoe Tavern was not on the way home from the butcher shop. “I’ll take him now.”
…..“Goodbye, mate,” he said, to the turkey. “I hope you enjoyed the outing.”
…..I think it did.
…..“And I have a surprise,” he added. “I met a young lieutenant there and invited him for dinner tomorrow. He seems like a nice lad, and he can’t get home to his family for Christmas. I didn’t think you’d mind…we have enough to share…”
…..“Of course, Dad.” I knew he was thinking about you. “It’ll be fun to have company.” Mom must have been thinking about you too because she forgot to bring the discussion back to the Horseshoe Tavern…and I knew she hadn’t been done with that topic.
…..So I wanted to get the turkey into the oven early. I needed time to dress for dinner before our guest arrived, and it takes a while to cook a turkey anyway. Better Homes recommended roasting the turkey in a greased paper bag. It’s foolproof, it said. I needed something foolproof.
…..Have you ever tried to wrestle a dead turkey into a greased paper bag? I thought not. It’s awkward. And greasy. And you get no co-operation at all from the turkey. I struggled with it till I was all grease up to my elbows. Finally Dad rolled up his sleeves and managed the manoeuvre. I know he was counting on this to buy his way clear of the remaining dinner preparations. He’d be free to entertain our guest. It was only fair.
…..A couple of hours later, Mom and I were decked out in our holiday duds and I had a half hour to spare before launching into the critical phase of dinner production. I wore my long plaid taffeta skirt—maybe you remember it; I think I got it the year before you left, and I seem to remember some unnecessarily critical comment on the colours that sounds like you. (The shops can’t sell long skirts any more, and the government does its best to make us feel that making them for ourselves is an unpatriotic act. Too much fabric, you know. But I can wear one smelling of mothballs without apology, I suppose)
…..Anyway, I had a few minutes to spare when our guest arrived and I’m glad, because he brought gifts—flowers for Mom, a bottle of Scotch for Dad, and even a box of marzipan for me, in cunning little poinsettia and bell shapes. (God only knows how he managed to track all that down before the stores closed for the holiday.) He’s clearly been brought up to be a polite boy, and I’m glad I didn’t have to greet him in the kitchen or, worse still, in my scanties, modestly camouflaged by a big flannel bathrobe!
…..His name is Mark and he’d been a Lieutenant in the 1st Hussars Armoured at Camp Borden for a few months but had just reverted to the rank of Trooper so he could go overseas. His family lives in Thunder Bay, but he was to ship out very soon and couldn’t risk being snowed in by heading home for Christmas. He’s twenty years old, just like you, and it reminded me just how young twenty looks on somebody who’s eagerly rushing off to dodge bullets and kill people.
…..Dad was at the top of his form all afternoon, sipping Scotch with Mark and trotting out all the most entertaining of his war stories…making it all sound very much like a gay lark in the park. No sense telling the bad bits, I suppose. He’d find out soon enough.
…..Of course, Mom couldn’t resist treating him to the saga of Tommy the Great (that would be you)…at great length, and several times. The way she tells it, you are valiantly attempting to eradicate the Hun, single-handedly and at great personal risk. She made it clear that she welcomes Mark’s intention to go overseas and give you whatever small aid he can offer.
…..He was bound to notice, in hearing the details, that you have an unfortunate habit of putting yourself in the line of fire. I think he may have been left with the impression that you are just a teeny bit reckless. Perhaps you shouldn’t count on him going out of his way to fight by your side.
…..“It’s about time to start the vegetables,” I hinted. I switched the radio on. They were bound to be playing Christmas music. Maybe it would make chopping and dicing more festive.
…..“Do you need any help?” asked Mom. “I always seem to spoil the vegetables, somehow.”
…..I took the hint. “No,” I sulked, as gracefully as possible. “I guess I can manage.”
…..“I can mash the potatoes when they’re ready,” she offered.
…..Lumps. “No. Thanks.”
…..I realized right away that I was going to need help fetching the potatoes and turnip. They were still in the cellar, and I wasn’t about to struggle with the trap door and climb down there in a floor-length taffeta skirt. But Mom and Dad were already dancing around the living room to big band renditions of Christmas carols, and Mark was sitting on the couch staring at them, enthralled. The new gloves had reappeared on Mom’s hands and the silk scarf was flung around Dad’s neck with noble abandon.
…..“Fred and Ginger…” I suggested.
…..“Well,” ventured Mark. “Ginger, I can see. But don’t you think your father looks more like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.?”
…..“You know…he does. Look at that!”
…..Mom and Dad preened noticeably and danced on. I didn’t have the heart to spoil the moment, so I beckoned Mark into the kitchen.
…..“Your parents are dancing!” he said, quite unnecessarily.
…..“But they’re alone. In the living room.”
…..“Of course. There’s music. They’re dancing.”
…..“It’s just….well…I’ve never seen anybody dancing at home like that.”
…..“Don’t your parents dance?”
…..“I don’t know…maybe. I’ve never seen them dance.”
…..“You’re kidding!” How sad.
…..Tommy, what would life be like if you never danced in your own living room?! I think Mark’s father is a minister or something. Maybe that explains it.
…..“How do you feel about climbing into a hole in the ground and fetching out some potatoes?” I asked. ”And a turnip.”
…..“I’d be delighted!” he replied. And he actually looked delighted.
…..When he re-emerged from the cellar with the vegetables, he took another peek into the living room.
…..“It’s kind of cute.”
…..“Well, yes. I guess it is. I never really thought.”
…..Dinner went off without a single noteworthy disaster, if I leave out the part where the heat from the coal stove in the kitchen made me sweat all over the pretty red wool sweater I’d knit especially to wear with the plaid skirt. (I just want to mention here that it’s lucky we have a gas stove to use in the summertime, or we’d have to do the cooking stripped to the waist…and I’m sure there must be some sort of law against that kind of behaviour!) Of course, Mom was having such a good time dancing that she quite forgot to help in the kitchen, which was probably a good thing because the potatoes had no lumps this year.
…..My baking efforts before Christmas had yielded enough successes to make a fairly impressive showing for dessert to anyone who hadn’t had to suffer the failures. And, of course, no degree of rationing could prevent Grandma Marshall from sending over our yearly slab of dry, crumbly Christmas cake. I know you’re imagining it as you read this, and congratulating yourself on yet one more year’s escape. Don’t be too smug; someday you’ll have to return, and the Christmas cake will be waiting. I’ve set your share aside.
…..When we’d eaten all we could manage, Mom and Dad offered to clean up in the kitchen so I could break out the new Monopoly game. A quick phone call brought Jennie and Helene Majewski over from next door, and the timing was perfect, because Helene’s boyfriend had just dropped by to bring her a gift and was happy to come along. Mrs. Majewski sent over a tray of the most delicate, flakey Polish pastries twisted into graceful bow-tie shapes and sprinkled with icing sugar. These little beauties were perfect to top off a Christmas dinner. They were light as air and merciful to our full stomachs. And it was so amusing to watch the men inadvertently crush them in their clumsy fingers and sprinkle the crumbs down their chests and into their laps. Impromptu entertainment—always appreciated.
…..The turkey carcass still dominated the kitchen table, so I spread the game board out on living room floor and we all sat around it on the carpet. The Quebec heater in the front hall kept the room cozy enough, and you just can’t beat coloured Christmas tree lights for atmosphere. I left the radio on, playing carols in the background, but soon we were too immersed in cut-throat real estate finance and general horsing around to hum along.
…..Just as the game started to get a bit rowdy, there was a quiet knock on the door. Mr. Majewski stood on the doorstep, in his shirtsleeves but as unbending as ever.
…..“Oh, Mr. Majewski,” I blurted, “I’m so sorry! Are we being too loud?”
…..“No…no…” he assured me. He held out two wine bottles. “I bring wine. Good dandelion wine. I make. Enjoy. Have Merry Christmas.” He turned to march back home.
…..“Thank you so much! But please…won’t you come in? Perhaps your wife would come too. We’d love to have you…”
…..He turned and I think he smiled, just a little. “No. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Enjoy!” And away he went.
…..“Merry Christmas!” I called. They must have been listening to the racket through the wall and enjoying the party together. I think that’s kind of sweet.
…..“It was your dad,” I told the girls. “He brought us a couple of bottles of dandelion wine! I’ve never tasted dandelion wine. How’s it made?” I brought glasses and poured for everyone.
…..“He uses the blossoms,” Helene said. “It takes bags and bags of them.”
…..“Oh! Is that what he was doing? I saw him in Bellwoods Park last summer. He does so much gardening…” I said, “I thought maybe he was just weeding or something.”
…..“Yes,” Jennie admitted. “We begged him not to, but there aren’t nearly enough weeds in our lawn. It’s so embarrassing!”
…..“Are you kidding? This wine is delicious! He’s a genius!” It was unanimous.
…..When she saw that I was sincere, she relaxed. “He will try just about anything, you know. He came home one night last spring and announced that the price of soap had gone up, so we were going to make our own! We asked whether he knew how to do it, and he said that fat and lye and a couple of other bits would do the trick. So my mother pitched in under his supervision, and brewed it all up in a big kettle on the kitchen stove. It took ages.”
…..We were suitably impressed. “So…did it work?”
…..She laughed. “No…of course not! It wouldn’t lather and it stunk something terrible! He had to bury it in the back yard.”
…..I can’t guarantee what kind of soldier Mark will be, but in peacetime, he could make his fortune as a real estate speculator. He had been gathering in our cash all night long, and by the time he finally had to leave, he was a very wealthy man. I wish you’d been here, Tommy. You’d have given him a run for his money!
…..When he went in to say goodbye to Mom & Dad, they were sitting in the kitchen, sipping their wine and laughing and talking together. The lights were turned off, and there were three candles on the table lighting the room. I was about to tell them they should have joined us in the living room…but it didn’t look like they’d missed our company much.
…..“Folks, thanks so much for letting me share your Christmas,” Mark said. “When I couldn’t get home, I thought…well…I was feeling pretty low.
…..“But I’ve had a great time…a really wonderful time. I hope you won’t take this wrong, but folks back home tell each other that people in Toronto are cold and unfriendly. I don’t know…maybe they feel uncomfortable here because it’s so big…
…..“They’re wrong. Nobody could have been warmer… Well, I’ll just tell them, when I get back, that’s all! Thanks for including me in the fun. I’ll remember…”
…..Maybe we’ll see him again some day, although Thunder Bay is an awful distance from here. You’d like him. Well, I hope he’ll be okay.
…..Tommy, if only you’d been here, it would have been a perfect Christmas! Sorry I couldn’t save you some of the wine (I’ll leave you to imagine just how hard I must have tried). But you might try making friends with Mr. Majewski when you get home.
…..I’d been looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve with a group of friends, but nothing is easy. For a month, everyone had been agonizing over where we’d go.
…..“Let’s go to Columbus Hall. Jack Evans’ orchestra will probably be there. That’s a good band….”
…..“Well, you’re bound to say so…you’re Catholic.”
…..“You don’t have to be Catholic to go to Columbus Hall! We’ve all been there before.”
…..“Exactly! So why don’t we go to the Orange Hall on College Street, then? The band there is just as good.”
…..“You know my mother won’t let me go to the Orange Hall!”
…..“That’s just stupid!”
…..“Oh, before somebody gets mean about it, why don’t we just go to the dance at Mutual Arena? Glen Miller played there once…somebody must have thought it had class.”
…..By that time I was so fed up with the nonsense that I suggested something entirely different, hoping to side-step the issue.
…..“Anyway, we get too sentimental on New Year’s Eve,” I pointed out. “Maybe dancing cheek-to-cheek with handsome military men who are ‘just passing through’ would just be playing with fire.”
…..“Handsome military men?” It was a chorus. “Isn’t it our patriotic duty…?”
…..But common sense prevailed.
…..I know…that seems to suck the fun right out of the occasion. Kindly withhold judgement until you read about our evening.
…..By nine p.m. New Year’s Eve, we were all bundled in our woollies and skating around the rink over at Bellwoods Park – the one in the gully, not the big one at the top. There were eight of us: there was Julie and Alice (you know Alice) and May Cameron, and May brought her cousin Cliff, who’d just joined the Hasty P’s and was spending a few days in Toronto before reporting for training. Jennie and Helene came and, of course, Helene’s boyfriend. (He’s kind of quiet—Helene does all the talking. But he’s a good listener, and he laughs nicely on cue.)
…..It had finally snowed during the week after Christmas and several of the gang were tempted to slide down the hill for a lark, but we had no sleds, and I still carry a vivid memory of the reception I got at home the time I indulged such an impromptu whim and slid down that same hill on the seat of my coat. I must have been about thirteen…remember that? I’m sure you do. Unless I’m mistaken, it was you who egged me on!
…..It was magical, skating out there in the moonlight. There was no wind, and a few big snowflakes fluttered down like frosty feathers. A blanket of snow on the ground always smooths out all the gritty little imperfections and makes it easy to believe in fairyland.
…..Of course, nothing is allowed to be quite that good. I noticed May’s cousin hovering in my vicinity, and began to suspect that he was way too interested. I didn’t mind chatting with him, but he’s barely eighteen…he should have been hanging around Jennie—she’s a pretty girl, and more his age. Perhaps he’s attracted to the urbane, sophisticated type. Then why did he choose me, you ask? Don’t be a smart aleck!
…..After several clumsy attempts to lure me off for a stroll through the park (which, of course, I refused—I was having much too much fun skating) he settled for getting under my feet whenever I tried any fancy flourishes on the ice. Oh, I have some fancy flourishes…you don’t know everything!
…..They keep the rinks open late on New Year’s Eve, so we stayed until we started to get really chilled, then we hopped on the streetcar to Diana Sweets on Yonge Street (also open late for the occasion) to warm up with hot chocolate and desserts. And finally, on to the Imperial Theatre in time for the special New Year’s midnight show. You see? It wasn’t a bad sort of plan after all, was it? But somehow, in the confusion of seating, Cliff ended up beside me. Imagine my surprise.
…..We’d all stuffed our pockets with streamers, so we were ready for the count down to midnight. There it was…seven …six …five …four …three …two …one …HAPPY NEW YEAR! Streamers and confetti and noisemakers and a theatre full of people hoping that this year would bring an end to the terrible war! And one young recruit on his way to join that war who took advantage of his opportunity to get a New Year’s kiss.
…..Well, at the very least, I should get credit for doing my bit to entertain the troops!
…..I’ve saved you the finest of my wishes for the new year, Tommy. I kept them aside, especially, and you can use them in whatever way you think might keep you safest.
P.S.—Didn’t you get the cigarettes? I send cigarettes all the time, but you never mention them. I usually mail them directly through the tobacco store, but this time I put them in with the watch and the candies.