Their wedding picture was so typical of the World War II years. Mom was dressed to the nines in a chic pearl grey suit with padded shoulders and a pencil-slim skirt, set off by pale pink accessories, including a little hat perched toward the front of her head that was surrounded by puffs of pink tulle. Dad was every bit the perfect groom in a black double-breasted suit with a jaunty white carnation on his lapel.
My sister Dawn and I often lingered over this picture of our parents as we flipped through their wedding album, if you could call it an album. It was more like a black leather spiral-bound notebook that held about a dozen 8 x 10 pictures in plastic sheet protectors. They didn’t need anything fancy, Mom said, so they settled on the cheapest package available. Still, Dawn and I agreed that the photographer should have at least gotten one shot of Mom walking down the aisle with her eyes open. In the only picture that survives, she approaches her new life with her eyelids firmly closed.
“There goes Mom,” we liked to say, “sleepwalking down the aisle!”
Nineteen forty-six was a big year for weddings in the U.S., as soldiers came home from World War II in droves, eager to reunite with their sweethearts, get married, start families, and get on with the business of living. My parents were no different, although they really didn’t know each other very well when they tied the knot in March of that year. They had met briefly during the war and started a correspondence that lasted two years. Then when Dad got back to the States, they spent two months getting to know each other and trying to decide if they had something that could last. When the answer turned out to be yes, Mom booked a church and headed downtown in search of an attractive yet practical suit. There was no point in spending your hard-earned dollars on some silly dress you could only wear once, she told us, when you could buy a high-quality suit for the same price (or less) and wear it over and over again. Which is exactly what she did. That pearl grey suit became one of her wardrobe staples. In fact, she was able to wear it to work until she was seven months pregnant with my sister.
So you can imagine my surprise at the age of thirteen when, out in the garage riffling through a drawer full of loose black and white photos, I came upon a picture of my mother in a white wedding gown, complete with a shoulder-length veil! It was the summer of 1966; my sister was seventeen and my parents had been married for 20 years. And, as far as I knew, there had never been any mention of a white wedding dress.
I hightailed it down the driveway and burst through the kitchen door, waving the picture. Mom was standing at the stove stirring something while Dawn was busy chopping tomatoes at the kitchen counter.
“Mom!” I shouted, thrusting the picture at her. “I thought you wore a suit to get married!”
She looked at the picture and smiled sheepishly.
“Well,” she sighed, “I guess I always knew I was going to have to tell you girls someday...”
She paused for a moment before saying, “I was married once before.”
My sister and I looked at each other with jaws dropped. There had never been the slightest mention of any romantic relationship in Mom’s past, much less a husband! Dumbfounded, we looked at our mother with eyes that demanded an explanation.
“It was during the war, before I knew your father,” she said lightly, as if it really didn’t matter much.
“Well, who was he?” I almost shouted.
“He was my college boyfriend.”
“Did you have any kids?” I asked, panicked, as visions of some strange family member materializing on our front porch swam into my brain.
“No,” she smiled, trying to calm me down. “There were no kids. And anyway,” she said dismissively, “it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t make any difference now.”
With that, she turned back to her stirring; discussion ended.
I was so shocked by her news that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So I scurried back to the garage to see if I could find any other interesting (and possibly stunning) pictures. I couldn’t.
There was a time, when I was very young, when I couldn’t imagine that my mother had had a life before I existed. Once I got a little older, I realized that she’d married my father and given birth to my sister before I was born, so I began to think of her life as starting once she met Dad. But I also knew she had been a child once, just like me; I’d seen the pictures. So I revised my idea once again and thought of her life as a two-part affair: her childhood and Dad/us.
But once I found the white wedding picture, it became glaringly apparent that at least one other part of her life had existed, the part involving another man and another marriage. It was such a bizarre idea that I simply blocked it at first. But the older I got, the more curious I became about this secret life of hers. It seemed so mysterious and romantic — two adjectives I wouldn’t normally have applied to my pragmatic, matter-of-fact mother. And the more I looked into it, the more obsessed I became.
This is the story of what my mother was like before she had me. It’s also the story of secrets, lies, a love that never died and a woman’s long journey to self-discovery and fulfillment. It would take me decades to uncover these secrets, using letters, an Army personnel file, interviews with family members, and, of course, the many stories, vignettes, and insights Mom relayed to me over the years. And in the process, not only did I learn the true story of my mother, I also discovered the story of myself.
Many years after my discovery of the wedding picture, when my sister and I were well into middle age and trying to come up with ideas for Mom’s eulogy, she got on my nerves when she kept referring to Mom as a “farm girl.” Mom had left the farm when she was two years old, for crying out loud, and had lived in big cities for the rest of her life. If anything she was a “city girl.” But I knew what Dawn meant. Mom did come from farm stock and, as such, had a farmer’s outlook and approach to life. You know — work hard and take good care of what you’ve got; you may not be able to replace it. Don’t waste anything; there’s always another use for it. Stand on your own two feet; don’t expect others to come to your rescue. Save as much money as you can; rainy days are sure to come. Even at the end of her life, when she had plenty of money, she was endlessly thrifty and practical. But just about anyone could have predicted this simply by looking at her family history.
My mother, Nina Blanch Ostrom, (Nina rhymes with Dinah), was born in southern Minnesota in 1921 to a pair of hardworking farmers who wanted nothing more than to escape to the big city. My grandfather, Lloyd Ostrom, the eldest son in a family that included seven girls, had inherited the 160-acre farm carved out of the wilderness in the 1860s by his great-grandfather. Unfortunately, even though he’d been raised to this purpose since toddlerhood, Grandpa hated just about everything about farming: the endless work, the long, sweaty days in the field, the crushing responsibility, and the fact that he never knew how much money he would earn until harvest time. If the crop turned out to be poor because of a drought, a plague of locusts, or some other unforeseen circumstance, he was sunk. At best, farming was subsistence living; the lucky ones maintained the status quo, but never really got ahead.
My grandmother Blanch, another third-generation farmer, wholeheartedly shared Grandpa’s dim views of farm life. And she also had her own reasons for wanting to ditch the farm. A former teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, Grandma’s razor-sharp mind and keen attention to detail were much better suited to a research lab than a farmhouse. And while she had no illusions about becoming a scientist or even a lab technician, if she could move to the big city she would at least be able to join some clubs or go to a concert now and again, which would help satiate her hungry mind. Even more important, the kids would have a shot at getting a better education, increasing the odds that they would one day have professional careers. Farming was definitely not what Grandma envisioned for them.
It would take my grandparents eight long years of working their tails off and searching for an escape before they finally got their chance. In 1923, Grandpa saw a newspaper ad announcing that Armour & Co., a recently opened meatpacking plant in South St. Paul, was looking for strong young men who weren’t afraid of hard work. And it seemed he was exactly the kind of guy they were seeking: strong, full of stamina, and willing to work ten-hour days, six days a week for a weekly paycheck of $18.75. He was used to a workload like that, so that was no problem. And though the pay seems ridiculously low in modern terms, it was enough to support a family of four in those days. So he applied for the job, got it, deeded the farm back to his father, grabbed Grandma and their two kids, seven-year-old Ted and two-year-old Nina, and hightailed it to South St. Paul. They would never look back.
Of course, working at a meatpacking plant was no picnic. But Grandpa would hang in there for the next 40 years, mostly “slingin’ hams,” as Dad liked to say, although Mom insisted on the more genteel term of “grading hams.” Most likely, at least in the early days, Grandpa also took a turn in other departments, perhaps slicing and packaging finished cuts of meat, cleaning the sewers, hoisting slaughtered steers and the like. He may have even spent some time on the killing floor, the worst place to work in the entire plant, where men used sledge hammers to bash in the heads of cattle and the floors ran red with rivers of blood. Working at the plant was not for the weak, the faint-hearted, or those who lacked strong stomachs. Fortunately, Grandpa was none of those.
For the next sixteen years, the family occupied a two-bedroom house on a modest street in South St. Paul. And just like everyone else, they struggled to make ends meet, especially when the Great Depression took hold at the end of the decade. Grandpa took on an extra job washing down trucks after his regular shift, which lengthened his workday to a grueling fourteen hours. And because the family didn’t own a car, he walked a mile and a half to and from work, battling all kinds of weather, including Minnesota’s famous blizzards. But he never complained. By example, he taught his kids to work hard, do whatever was necessary to meet life’s challenges, and swallow any complaints they might have had — there was no point in griping. Life wasn’t easy, he told them, but there was always a way to keep going.
Grandma worked just as hard as Grandpa, although in different ways. In addition to doing the household chores and taking excellent care of the children, she established her own small business as a seamstress. Working at home, Grandma dressed entire wedding parties, including the bride, bridesmaids, mothers, flower girls, and ring bearers. Mom remembered that as a small child she liked to run her hands over the smooth, beautiful silks and satins that were always piled on the dining room table. The money Grandma made from her sewing business, coupled with her ability to pinch a penny until it screamed, helped ensure that the family was always well-fed, nicely dressed, and free of debt. She taught her children to be responsible, well-organized, practical, and, of course, frugal. And she passed on her love of anything that engaged the mind — reading, writing, history, arithmetic, games, puzzles, and diagramming sentences.
Ted, who had inherited his mother’s sharp mind and was way ahead of the rest of his class, graduated from high school at age sixteen. Nina didn’t skip any grades, but she was also bright, with an affinity for both words and numbers. Her well-developed imagination made her popular with the neighborhood kids, who liked to loll beneath a tree on hot summer days and listen to the stories she made up. In those days, when everyone was poor and toys were scarce, storytelling skills were in high demand. Her stories had the added advantage of being ongoing. As she would say years later, “Somehow, I always seemed to be able to come up with another chapter, no matter how long the story lasted.” It was a gift.
The neighborhood kids affectionately called Nina “Skinny Bones” because she was thinner than most, even during an era when just about everyone was lean. But by the time she reached high school, “Skinny Bones” had morphed into a slim, curvy brunette with a swan-like neck and the kind of pretty face that needed little makeup. When she wasn’t studying (which was most of the time), Nina was surrounded by a gaggle of girlfriends and occasionally a few boys. Typical Saturday night fun consisted of squeezing into somebody’s old jalopy and heading off to a dance or the movies. Or they might gather around the piano for a singalong, sometimes at the Ostrom’s house, where Nina would play. There was no special guy for her during this time, or for most of her girlfriends; just platonic relationships with boys who were fun. And that was enough.
So, in spite of the Depression, life was pretty good for all of the Ostroms. Ted had even managed to put himself through college and land himself a job teaching high school math in northern Minnesota. But, just as the Depression was winding down in 1939, the remaining three Ostroms suddenly had a good reason to pull up stakes and leave South St. Paul for good. Nina was graduating from high school in June and wanted to go to college, and everyone in the family agreed that she had the brains and the discipline to make a success of it. Grandma was especially keen on the idea, seeing it as her daughter’s ticket to a career, something she herself had been denied. Just as important was the fact that a college campus was the perfect place for Nina to meet a nice, well-educated man to marry. No factory workers or farmers for her.
When Ted generously offered to pay his sister’s tuition, there was just one remaining problem: all of the universities were located in St. Paul proper, which was 90 minutes away by streetcar, plus walking — a long haul, especially during Minnesota’s grueling winters. That alone would probably preclude Nina’s participation in any campus activities. So Grandma and Grandpa decided to bite the bullet and move to St. Paul where they could live somewhere close to campus. This, of course, meant that Grandpa would have to brave the 90-minute commute to get to his job at Armour. But neither of my grandparents ever complained about their sacrifices. Setting up their daughter for a successful and happy life took precedence over everything.
Not many women went to college in those days. And even fewer opted for Nina’s choice of major: mathematics. Math was almost exclusively male territory. But Nina was blessed with a rational, exacting mind and excellent powers of concentration. She’d found that esoteric subjects like calculus and math analysis were well within her grasp, and what’s more, math was fun for her. All she needed was a set of rules or laws, plus a problem that needed solving, and she was in heaven. Math was a puzzle, one she was quite confident she could solve.
The college of choice (probably Grandma’s idea) was Hamline University, the oldest university in St. Paul. It had plenty of things going for it: Hamline was small (only 690 students in 1939); it had an excellent reputation; and it was a Methodist university, the family’s religion. This meant that Nina would be meeting young men from the “right” faith. It sounded perfect.
She applied to Hamline, was accepted, and just a week after graduating from South St. Paul High, moved with her family to a small house just a few blocks away from the Hamline campus.
Two weeks after that she met her husband-to-be.
Almost three decades later, I fidgeted in front of a full-length mirror, pinned into a half-made dress, while Mom stood behind me with a mouthful of pins, tugging on one of my shoulder seams. It was the summer of 1968, I was fifteen years old, and Mom was in the midst of creating my school wardrobe for fall. Like her own mother, she was an accomplished seamstress who could whip up just about any kind of garment, including prom dresses, tailored jackets, and vinyl raincoats. And she could make them fit perfectly, but only after several try-ons and plenty of analysis. Believe me, it could get pretty annoying if you happened to be the one wearing the dress that she was tugging endlessly this way and that.
“Now where is that thing coming from?” she mumbled through the pins, frowning and pulling on an unwanted drape that crossed my left shoulder blade. I could see the determination on her face in the mirror.
Oh boy, here we go, I thought. I’ll be standing here forever because she’s going to figure this out if it kills her. Bored and antsy, with no hope of relief in sight, I decided to amuse myself by asking a bold question to see how she’d answer it.
“So what was your first husband’s name?”
Mom was concentrating so intently it seemed like she barely heard me.
“Hmpf?” she grunted, through the pins.
“You know, your first husband. What was his name?”
She shot me a surprised and annoyed look through the mirror, lips tightly clamped around the pins.
“What brought that on?” she asked, from the side of her mouth.
“I don’t know,” I said nonchalantly. “Just curious.”
She pulled a pin from between her lips and used it to secure a tuck in the fabric, then stood back to survey the effect. Evidently it looked okay because suddenly all of the pins had migrated from her mouth to the top of my dresser, or so it seemed.
“It was Lyndon,” she said distractedly, continuing to analyze her work. “Lyndon Raff.” She frowned and tugged again, shaking her head.
“Raff?” I chortled, hoping to keep the conversation going. “Now there’s a weird name! Never heard of that one.”
She ignored me, picked up another pin and deepened the shoulder seam.
I wasn’t going to be put off that easily.
“So did you meet him at a dance, or what?”
She sighed, put in a second pin and said irritably, “You’re pretty darn nosy! Why do you want to know, anyway?”
“I don’t know, just curious. You’re the one who’s always telling me that family history is so important and I should know my roots.”
This was usually a pretty good way to get to her. We came from a long line of family historians who wrote down not only names and dates, but actual stories about themselves and their ancestors. As a result, we knew all kinds of stories about our relatives, some of whom dated as far back as the Salem witch trials.
“Well, this has nothing to do with your roots,” she said airily. “It’s part of my life, but not yours.”
I couldn’t see why she had to be so standoffish. She’d told me all kinds of stuff about people we were barely related to, including her crazy cousin Grace back on the farm who got pregnant by the hired hand. And then Grace’s sister went the same way with the same guy. Those people weren’t part of my roots.
Maybe a better route would be appealing to her vanity.
“Well, I like hearing about your life, especially back in the olden days. What’s the difference if it doesn’t involve me? It’s still you, and I think you’re interesting.”
She looked at me dubiously, and something between a chuckle and a snort erupted from the back of her throat. That’s what she did when she thought something was bunk.
She was right not to be taken in, of course; it wasn’t just family history I was after. What I really wanted was to hear everything I could on the subject of romance. In particular, I was searching for answers to questions, things like: How do people find each other and get together? What do you say to a boy to make him really like you? And what’s expected of you after that? It was all a great mystery to me.
But there was another reason I wanted to hear about Mom’s hidden romance. I was enormously curious about what she had been like when she was my age. (Well, okay, maybe just a little older.) It was so hard for me to picture my practical, non-romantic, stay-at-home Mom in the throes of some passionate love affair. Who was she back then?
I knew, of course, that she had been glamorous; I’d seen the old pictures. In one, she was as dazzling as a movie star, all done up in a fur coat with huge shoulder pads, a black cartwheel hat and plenty of ruby red lipstick. She certainly wasn’t glamorous now. Not that she was ugly or even un-pretty; she was just plain, an average-looking middle-aged woman with no makeup and short dark hair brushed back from her face.
As for her clothes, they were about as far as you could get from fur coats and fancy hats. Around the house she mostly wore a pair of black shorts and an old tattered white blouse. More than once she had told me, “You girls and Dad need clothes because you go out into the world. I don’t really need many clothes because I just stay home.” It was true. She and Dad almost never went out. Her life revolved around helping him with his home-based business and using her skills as a seamstress to make whatever the family needed — clothes, drapes, cushion covers, or whatever. She often said that sewing was her creative outlet. But how did the glamour girl in the fur coat and black cartwheel hat get to this point? That girl certainly hadn’t spent her life at the sewing machine.
After implanting one final pin into that troublesome shoulder seam, Mom grunted, “Okay, take this thing off and let me get to work on it.”
I pulled the dress over my head and handed it over.
“So anyway, are you gonna tell me how you met him?” I asked insistently, pulling on my shorts and top, then flopping expectantly on my fluffy yellow bed.
“Oh, Dene,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “You slay me.”
It was one of the corny things she liked to say when she thought I was silly and yet lovable. I think that’s what it meant, anyway.
Mom settled into a chair, pinned a few skirt sections together and tossed the pinned-up garment over to me.
“Here. Make yourself useful and baste these seams together.”
Then she turned her attention to basting the sleeves into the armholes — a much more intricate task than the one she had just assigned to me.
“Okay,” she said resignedly. “What do you want to know?”
Ha — I won.
“Well, how did you meet him?”
“At camp. Church camp.”
“Camp? How old was he, anyway?”
Twenty-one! In my book, camp was for kids or young teenagers, not people who were old enough to drink.
“Bizarre. How old were you?”
“Almost eighteen. It wasn’t like the camp you’ve gone to. It was a camp for college kids and young adults. My mother signed me up because we’d just moved to St. Paul and she thought it would be a good way to meet people.”
She continued with her stitching.
“Okay, so then what happened? No wait, let me guess.”
I mustered my most romantic voice and cooed, “There you were, sitting around the campfire, when suddenly your eyes met and you realized that this was the one you’d been waiting for …”
I looked over to see how that was sitting with her and got her “c’mon now, get serious” look for all my efforts.
“So was that what it was like?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” she said flatly. “Actually, I was smacking some balls around on the tennis court with another girl when these two guys came by and started cheering us on. And pretty soon we got so self-conscious that we gave up and started talking to them. One of them was really handsome. And that was Lyndon.”
She indicated the sewing that was lying unattended in my lap.
“So how’s that basting coming along?”
I made a big show of knotting my thread and taking a tentative stitch or two. I hated basting.
“So what did you say to him?” I asked. I was desperate to find out what I could say that would make some cute guy like me.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said irritably. “Who can remember? We’re talking 30 years ago.”
I waited to see if she would go on. She did.
“I’m sure it came up that I was new in town and about to start Hamline in the fall. And he probably said he lived right across the street from there, which he did. And I probably told him I lived in the same general area. And then I left.”
“But I thought you liked him!”
“I did like him, but I didn’t want him to think I was too eager. So I just smiled, picked up my tennis racket, said, ‘See you around,’ and went back to my cabin.”
I didn’t get it. Why would she walk away from a cute guy who wanted to talk to her?
“You’ve got to give these guys enough rope to hang themselves,” she explained in a confidential tone. “They don’t like it if you’re too interested.”
“Anyway,” she said, “enough of that. Finish that basting and then you can clean up this room while I get dinner together.”
I never did find out the details of how the two of them connected, other than the tennis game. But I’d gone to camp myself, so I had some idea of how it might have happened. I could picture them taking a nature hike and getting so wrapped up in talking to each other that they didn’t see a thing. I could see them splashing each other during canoe races and laughing their heads off, holding on to each other’s waists and falling down during three-legged races, sitting a little too close while they toasted marshmallows-on-a-stick, and doing all the other corny, ridiculously fun things that campers do. Then somehow, somewhere, while they were gliding across a lake, or singing in front of a campfire, or just sitting on a tree stump talking about what they wanted to do in the fall, a spark was struck. And that spark became a flame.
I remember the summer of 1968 as being an incredibly long and tedious one. At fifteen, I didn’t have a driver’s license yet and neither did any of my friends, so tooling around the town was out. I was too young to work and had recently given up my ballet lessons, and that left just one activity to occupy my time: six weeks of summer school, during which I took World History and Design Craft — whoopee. I spent the rest of my time reading my boring history book, helping Mom sew my fall wardrobe, and pumping her for romantic stories about Lyndon.
I tried to get her going again just a few days after she told me about meeting Lyndon on the tennis court. We were on our hands and knees on the living room floor so she could show me how to cut out my next dress.
“First of all,” she instructed solemnly, “Don’t ever buy the amount of yardage listed on the pattern; it’s a waste of money. You can always get it out in less. Look at this! Even though the pattern calls for two yards, I bought a yard and a half, and I’ll still get it out.”
Then Mom started laying out the pattern pieces, full of confidence and determination. But she didn’t just fold the fabric down the middle, lay out the pieces and cut. Not my mother! Instead, she folded the fabric one way, and laid out a couple of pattern pieces, then folded it another way for the next few, and finally, squeezed the remaining pieces from the scraps that would be left over — if she had actually done any cutting. But she was in her teaching mode, so instead of just cutting the thing out, she gathered up the pattern pieces, refolded the fabric into a nice little square, and handed the stack to me.
“Mom!” I moaned. “You already had it all laid out! Why didn’t you just cut it?”
“Because you need the experience. So get going.”
“Experience,” I mimicked, making a face as I spread out the fabric and tried to remember what she’d just shown me.
“But you have to ease my pain by telling me another story,” I insisted. Why not try to get something for myself out of the situation?
“What pain?” she snorted, with a very tiny, indulgent smile. She was used to my dramatics.
“The pain of having to figure this out all over again. So how about … how about telling me about what Lyndon was like as a kid.”
“What? You’re back on that again?”
“Yes! C’mon, I need some diversion.”
“Hmpf,” she sniffed. “Well, I didn’t know him as a kid.”
“Yes, but you must have known certain things about him. Tell me those.”
She sighed, settled herself in a chair where she could watch what I was doing, and thought for a moment.
“All right, let’s see. He was born on a farm in 1918 to a big family — I think there were four boys and two girls and he was number four.”
She pointed to one of my pattern pieces. “That’s got to be on the straight grain. You’ve got it crooked.”
I made a face and straightened it.
“Anyway, his father got a job working for a newspaper in St. Paul — I’m pretty sure he was a linotype setter — so they left the farm. Whatever he did, I know he worked nights and slept during the day, so the family didn’t see him much. And that meant the mom ended up raising the kids pretty much on her own.”
I was still struggling with her crazy layout pattern.
“So do I fold it this way now?”
“Yes, fold it the wide way.”
“Okay, so what was his mom like?”
“Well, I didn’t really know her all that well. She always struck me as kind of cold and fussy.” To illustrate her point, she added, “She was a card-carrying member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.”
If that had any significance, it was lost on me.
“A bunch of old ladies who are dead set against alcohol.”
“But she wasn’t cold to Lyndon; she was crazy about him. Out of all of her kids, he was her favorite.”
“Really? He told you that?”
“Yes. And I’m sure it was true.”
Her face softened a little as she remembered.
“He was very sweet, a real congenial sort of guy, very considerate and, you know, diplomatic. I think he was a sympathetic ear for his mother. She probably got lonely raising all those kids by herself and I think he sort of became her friend.”
I held up the scraps I had left over.
“So I can still get two pieces out of this?” I asked, incredulously.
She got down on her hands and knees, folded the material this way and that, and showed me how each would fit.
When I finished cutting out that last pattern piece, I was triumphant.
“Ta da!” I shouted, throwing it into the pile.
“Good job, kiddo,” Mom enthused. “See, you can do it!”
Then, as she helped me gather up the scraps and wayward pins, she said lightly, almost too lightly, “By the way, don’t mention any of this stuff to Dad, okay?”
“You know, about Lyndon.”
“Let’s just say he doesn’t want to hear about it, so don’t mention anything. It’ll be our little secret.”
“Okay,” I said, shrugging.
As if I ever mentioned anything to him anyway.
That evening Dad happened to be away for a business meeting, and since Dawn was working as a camp counselor in the mountains, Mom and I were alone for dinner, which was a rarity. To celebrate, we were having sweet omelets topped with maple syrup, something Dad never would have tolerated.
“Okay, so anyway, back to my favorite subject,” I began. “How did you and Lyndon start dating? You met him at camp, came home, and then what?”
This time, instead of giving me a doubtful, sort of suspicious look, she actually smiled a little. Either she knew that trying to put me off was useless or she was actually starting to enjoy these little trips into the past.
“Well,” she said slowly, sipping her coffee and thinking back. “Hmmm. I guess the first thing we did was tour the Hamline campus. He lived right across the street and had gone there for four years. So he knew the place inside out. And it didn’t cost him anything, which was very important during the Depression.”
“What year was it?”
“Whew, ancient history! Okay, so you saw the school. And then you just started dating all the time?” I was still trying to figure out how romances worked.
“Yes, we were together a lot that summer. He really showed me around St. Paul, which was great since I’d just moved there and didn’t know much about the city.”
“What kinds of things did you do?”
“Well, we went to Como Park, which is this great big beautiful park right in the middle of the city with a really nice lake where we went canoeing in the evenings.” Her gaze softened. “It stays light until about ten o’clock in the summer in Minnesota and the light is really soft and kind of golden — a really peaceful and beautiful time of day. I remember never wanting to go home on those nights.”
Then she came back to earth and was suddenly all business.
“You’re not going to waste that omelet are you?” she asked a little sharply, looking at my plate.
I hurriedly stuffed a bite into my mouth and tried to keep the story going. “And what else did you do that summer?”
Mom leaned back in her chair slightly, trying to remember.
“We liked to dance,” she said brightly. “There was a place called the Coliseum Pavilion that had a great big dance floor that was smooth as glass, and we’d go swing dancing. You know, like, ‘jeepers creepers, where’d you get those peepers?’” She bounced a little in her chair as if she was dancing, held up an index finger and wagged it back and forth.
“Mom!” I guffawed through a bite of omelet. “That’s so corny!”
“What’s wrong with it? Here’s another one,” she said gaily, jumping to her feet and pulling me up with her. She held my hands in hers and we bebopped around the kitchen as she sang, “In the mood, oh joy, for all his kissin,’ in the mood, oh joy, what I was missin’! Don’t keep me waiting when I’m in the mood now!”
I scream-laughed the entire time, and finally yelled, “Ugh! Enough of the Swingin’ Years!”
Then she stopped, which made me a little sorry. We didn’t have many opportunities to dance around the kitchen like that.
As we cleared the table and caught our breath, I tried to keep the mood going.
“Any other fun times that you can remember?”
“Oh, what did we do anyway? He and I spent a lot of time at Hamline Sweet Shop eating ice cream sundaes. And of course we went to the movies; Hamline Theatre had double features. But if we wanted to see something in Technicolor, woo hoo, the big thing back then, we went the Centre Theater. That’s where we saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind.’”
“That’s when those movies came out?”
“Yep, 1939. It was a big year.”
It was obviously a big year for her, anyway.
My World History class in summer school was excruciatingly dull — that is, until we got to World War II. Although I didn’t know a thing about the war, except that it involved Nazis, I suddenly had a connection to it — it was the war that took Lyndon away from Mom. And believe it or not, that was enough to get me to read all of the assigned sections and stay pretty interested. My paper, however, was on the most boring topic in the universe: the events of 1941 that prompted the U.S. to enter World War II. Ugh. Normally, I would have half-copied a bunch of stuff from the encyclopedia and dashed the whole thing off as fast as possible. But this time I discovered a way to get interested and stay interested. I just kept asking myself, “What were Mom and Lyndon doing while the country moved toward war?”
I found that I could actually keep myself from falling into a stupor while working on my paper by imagining things like this:
In January, Mom and Lyndon were holding hands, ice skating happily on beautiful Como Park Lake, while Germany blasted England from the air, on their way to killing 40,000 British civilians and damaging or destroying more than a million homes.
In February, Mom was breezing through her mid-year calculus exams at Hamline with no sweat at all, while German U-boats sank hundreds of Allied merchant ships headed for England that were loaded with food and other supplies. The Germans’ aim: to starve the Brits into submission.
In March, Mom and Lyndon were gobbling hot fudge sundaes at Hamline Sweet Shop, while FDR signed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the U.S. to support the Allied forces without actually committing to the war.
In April, the two of them were boogying to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” at the Coliseum Pavilion, while the Nazis used a combination of speed, surprise, and brutal force called the “blitzkrieg” strategy to take over Norway and Denmark.
In May, Mom and Lyndon were munching buttered popcorn and watching “The Wizard of Oz” at the Centre Theatre, while Hitler’s forces took over the Netherlands and Belgium.
And in June, as the pair celebrated two years of “going steady,” France fell to the Germans, and the Nazis occupied Paris.
Naturally, Mom didn’t tell it to me like that, but I figured it was pretty close to the truth. Whatever! At least it got me to focus long enough to get an A on my silly paper.
What Mom did tell me about that time was that she hadn’t really paid much attention to what was going on in Europe. The news was bad, but like most people in the U.S., she thought it was Europe’s problem and we shouldn’t get involved. Nobody really wanted to go to war. But by the time summer rolled around, the ominous news arriving daily from Europe was making the situation harder and harder to ignore.
Things got even more intense in the fall. At the beginning of November, Roosevelt put the Coast Guard under the control of the Navy, which was a clear preparation for war. By Thanksgiving, Mom told me, the mood throughout the country had become unbearably tense.
And yet, it wasn’t the craziness in Europe that finally got us into the war — it was Japan. In 1941, after trying to conquer China for four years, the Japanese were about to invade Thailand, Burma, and certain other Southeast Asian countries and wanted the U.S. to stay out of the way. So they decided to do something huge — something so destructive that our navy would be completely crippled and we’d be scared off for good.
That “something huge” occurred on December 7, when the Japanese bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing thousands of our sailors, soldiers, and airmen and almost wiping out our entire U.S. Pacific fleet. Mom told me the Japanese thought we were weak and so resistant to war that they thought we’d just give up and go away. Little did they know, we would come after them with a vengeance.
“Sure, I remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed! Who wouldn’t?” Mom exclaimed when I asked her about it.
She was simultaneously folding laundry and standing over me while I ironed Dad’s shirts, a tedious chore that I hated, although it brought me 25 cents a pop. She knew I was inclined to slop through it and was making sure I didn’t.
“Now don’t put a crease in the outside of those sleeves. You need to refold,” she reminded me.
“I know, I know,” I said impatiently, refolding the sleeve and clamping the iron onto it. “So what do you remember?”
“I remember that my mother and I had gone to church that morning,” she said matter-of-factly, “so we didn’t hear anything about it until we got home. But once we walked into the house, I got a load of my father’s face and knew something was really wrong. He looked like somebody had just punched him.”
Sitting close to his old Kellogg radio, head cocked toward the speaker, Grandpa had turned to them in alarm and shouted, “They’ve bombed our Navy in Hawaii!”
“The first thing I thought,” Mom said in a bewildered tone, “was ‘Hawaii’? What’s our Navy doing in Hawaii?’ I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.”
Drawing closer to the radio, they learned that the Japanese Navy had pulled off a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, home to almost the entire U.S. fleet in the Pacific. It was so unexpected and so horribly destructive that everybody was outraged, Mom told me.
“And it wasn’t just Americans,” she added, “but people all over the world.”
Not only had the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they had also assaulted Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island. Some 2,400 sailors, soldiers, and civilians had been killed and the U.S. Pacific fleet was now severely crippled.
“What did you do next?”
She laid a folded towel in the laundry basket and sighed.
“I remember that when Lyndon came to my house that afternoon, we just looked at each other in disbelief.” She shook her head sadly. “It was like the world had turned upside down. We didn’t know what to think.”
She picked up a dish towel, folding her arms across it and holding it against her torso as she remembered.
“He said, ‘Let’s just walk,’ and tucked my hand into the crook of his arm. We ended up at Hamline Sweet Shop, where we huddled in a booth with friends and listened to those horrible radio announcements about the death toll and the devastation caused by the bombing. The bad news just droned on and on, and finally Lyndon just couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up, grabbed me by the hand, and said, ‘C’mon, let’s get out of here. I don’t like the music they’re playing.’ And then we walked home without saying a word.”
She gave me a rueful little smile, folded the dish towel and dropped it on the stack.
The following morning, Monday, December 8, the Hamline University administration called the students together for a special assembly.
“There were several hundred students there,” Mom remembered, “all of us sitting quietly in the auditorium and listening to a radio broadcast of President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress. You’ve heard it — it was the one when he called December 7 ‘a date which will live in infamy.’ And then he said something like, ‘As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I’ve ordered that all measures be taken for our defense.’”
In other words, we were at war with Japan.
“I remember having a sinking, numbing feeling,” she said, shuddering as she remembered that terrible day. “There we were, a whole assembly of people, and not a sound. Just a sickening, depressing silence.”
Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. World War II was underway.