My strawberry-blond, freckled-faced, non-stop mother, Jeannine, was the youngest of four and as such was hopelessly spoiled. Nicknamed “Peaches,” she was a very welcome addition to my grandparents after the loss of two babies beforehand. She was also quite a bit younger than her oldest brother, Dick, who graduated high school the year Mom received her First Communion.
My grandfather was a foreman on the B&O Railroad. The family moved quite a bit around Ohio and Indiana until settling for the longest period of time in the small railroad town of Willard, Ohio. Dick and Bill, the brother who came 14 months after, had been football and basketball stars at the local high school. Mary, who was a teenager by the time Mom was 8, was already working at the local movie theatre. Everyone in town knew who my mom was, as she rode her bike from one end to the other with reckless abandon.
The Film and the World Stop
It was on a Sunday in December, and after 10am Mass, Mom was given her customary dime allowance in order to go see a movie in the afternoon. Even though it was cold, she rode her bike to the Temple Theatre in downtown Willard, where Mary welcomed her with a box of popcorn. Bill was home with Grandma.
Dick had left home for the Navy after graduation in June. He had wanted to join the Army, but Grandpa did not want his son sleeping in a foxhole. At least with the Navy, Grandpa said, you’d have a clean bed out of the dirt. After training at Naval Station Great Lakes near Waukegan, Illinois, Dick was sent to San Francisco, and then Hawaii. The family received frequent postcards of palm trees and hula dancers, and Jeannine (my mom) could not wait to see what he would send for Christmas. She wanted a hula skirt.
Settling in for the 1pm show, Jeannine started to eat her popcorn. Several minutes into the movie, the film stopped and the screen went black. Suddenly the lights went up. “We are sorry, but the film cannot be shown and the theatre is closed for the remainder of the day. Please come to the desk for your refund.” Jeannine went to complain to Mary, but she was already gone.
Hopping on her bike, Jeannine noticed people running up and down the street, and speaking in rushed, hushed tones. Some looked at her with knowing eyes and nodded. “Hurry home,” more than one said.
As she walked up the steps, she could see her mother sitting by the radio attentively, crying. Mary and Bill were sitting next to her, crying and comforting their mother.
As Jeannine stood speechless, her mother collected herself and said, “They’ve bombed Pearl Harbor. That’s where Dick is.” Jeannine could not quite understand what it meant, but she knew that it was terrible and frightening. She hugged her mother and began to cry as well.
Shortly thereafter, her father came home. She had never seen him cry before, but he did and kept saying, “Dick was always such a good boy. Dick was always such a good boy.” It was then that her mother said, “As long as we don’t know, we always have hope.”
The next few weeks were a whirlwind. Their lives and the lives of everyone in that small town changed dramatically. The town’s sons went off to enlist. A scrap drive was announced, and Jeannine and her friends began to collect scrap metal and rubber in their wagons. Rationing was to be implemented, and Jeannine’s mom knew that food that was readily available, such as sugar and meat, would be prized.
This would be the last Christmas for a long while that they would have more than one dozen Christmas cookies; big Sunday dinners would be a thing of the past. Jeannine did not see her dad for three weeks: as the foreman, he needed to direct the trains taking soldiers to the coast and assist in other cities as well.
The biggest change to their household was the ritual of waiting. Jeannine and her siblings went to school and her mother went to daily Mass. They came home to do homework at the dining room table, as their mother prepared dinner. Sometimes mother would play the piano as she always did, but not as often as in Christmases past. They talked and worked, but all the while the radio stayed on, just in case there might be any announcements. And whenever the telegram boy rode his bicycle by the house, with the brick streets jingling the bell on his handlebars, the entire household would stop.
All other tasks were done mindlessly, because their focus, their only purpose, was to wait to hear something, anything about Dick. As the telegram boy’s bicycle was heard, her mother would say a prayer, “for someone, if not us, who is getting a telegram today — may it be good news.” More than once, their mother would remind them that “as long as there is waiting, there is hope for good news. Thank God, for the waiting.” Every night, she would stay up until the wee hours just to listen to the news on the radio.
An Advent Miracle
It would be December 23, 1941, when they would finally hear the fate of their son and brother. It was not a telegram, but a “V-gram,” a small, one-piece envelope that was opened and read. It came through the slot in the door with the rest of the Christmas cards and letters. Jeannine remembers that her mother saw it, said a prayer, and kneeled down right in the hallway to read it.
She sobbed over the tiny envelope as the kids circled around to read it for themselves. Bill took a soup pot and spoon from the kitchen and played a percussion celebration on the front porch. Neighbors came out up and down the street and cheered. They knew, just as Jeannine’s family knew about their hopes and fears.
My mom died this year in March — the day before St. Patrick’s Day because, God forbid, anything should ever mar the celebration of that day. This story, one of many, lives on in our family and is still cherished to this day.
How appropriate that in that awful time 76 winters ago, the best gift was being able to wait and hope for good news.
We are all blessed to still be able to celebrate that gift, even more so, now with Him.