The winter sky was brooding the night FDR’s voice came over the radio in 1941 declaring war on Japan. The Levy household gathered around the voice box. Everybody was anxious for news of the impending war. Ira, my father, had enlisted in the Army and was awaiting orders as to when and where he would ship out.
Josephine, my mother, worked for Charles of The Ritz Cosmetic Company and Ira worked for Tourneau, another cosmetic company. The couple had courted for eight months, and was anxious to marry. So a bargain was struck between Ira and my maternal grandfather: if Josephine and Ira married before my dad left for World War II, there would be no children until he returned. Josephine was only twenty years old at the time and Grandpa, an immigrant from Palestine, did not want to take the chance that his oldest daughter would be left a pregnant widow, having to raise a child without a husband.
The two men, who shared mutual love and respect, quickly agreed. No one knew at the time how long Ira would be away serving his country. Once the rules were established, Josephine flew to Louisiana, where Ira was stationed. A justice of the peace married them days before she waved goodbye to her soldier.
The war separated them for almost five years. While Dad served in England and France, they corresponded by V mail. My Dad wrote every day, sometimes more than once, but the letters weren’t sent out every day. They were bundled and sent twelve at a time. So sometimes there was a gap of a few days or even weeks between bundles. Still somehow, Josephine had a letter waiting for her every night when she returned home from work.
The Levy family all lived under one roof. In addition to Josephine and her parents there was my aunt Marilyn, who was about ten years old at the time, and a middle brother, Marvin, who was attending an engineering college. Every day at work, Josephine anxiously awaited news from her husband. She was never disappointed because each night before dinner, my grandmother Rachel, the family matriarch, lovingly laid a letter beside Josephine’s supper plate. Josephine even bragged to all her friends at work about how lucky she was that her husband wrote so often.
The years ticked by, and one evening Josephine was on the phone, tapping her nails on the buffet chest in the dining room, when she discovered half a dozen letters hidden under the heavy lace runner. Horrified, she confronted Rachel. “Mama! Why did you hold my letters? You had no right! This was the meanest thing you could have done. Mama, why did you do this to me?”
“Josephine, my darling, I thought I was doing the right thing. You were so happy every night with your letter. I would never purposely hurt you. You know that.”
“I’ll never forgive you. You know the mail is my only link to Ira!”
My Aunt Marilyn remembered it was a bad night in the Levy household. Josephine, though always respectful of her mother, could not understand why Rachel would think it acceptable to hold back her letters, no matter what the reason. A river of tears continued to flow throughout the evening. Rachel tried to explain that this was her way of trying to protect her daughter from the misery of not hearing from her husband during the long periods without a bundle of letters.
That evening the men were away, so there were only the three females sharing a meal around the oval mahogany dining table, though not much was eaten of Rachel’s dinner. After the tears subsided, the silence only magnified Josephine’s feelings of betrayal.
Marilyn never knew if her older sister was happy about having found the hidden letters because after that, Josephine would come home from work and sometimes not have a letter. As Josephine slowly came to realize that those daily letters were no longer a comfort she could count on, she also began to understand that, indeed, Mama did know best.
In her adulthood, my mother became a stoic woman. Sorting through her hatboxes of memoirs after her passing, I discovered that Mom had saved everything I ever wrote her, from my initial move to Colorado, and every port in my life thereafter. The letters, cards, and envelopes were in pristine condition. Although I never thought I had written anything of importance, I found one envelope with a cancelled LOVE stamp on it, and reading the letter was surprised by my display of emotion to a mother who always seemed blocked by some outside force that never allowed me to love her enough.
After losing my dad when he was forty-seven, Mom’s twenty years of married life to my father seemed to fade with time. Or so I thought, especially after her second marriage to a man who seemed to want her all to himself. But after her passing, I was surprised to find, tucked deep within her handbags, all those many letters Dad wrote her during the war.
I too was left with a most precious letter from my father.
Dad’s note to me was short and sweet, just like his life. I kept it in my wallet for twenty years, holding it close, and would still have it if my purse hadn’t been stolen soon after I moved to San Francisco.
The note read: “Daughter, it’s my birthday, you walk the dog. Love, Daddy.”
He died the next day.
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