Ragged Roses for a Wartime Bride
IN that far-off time when I was young, there were still hopes, and I was only learning - a penniless Army bride following her soldier husband with a handkerchief of dreams. When the threat of submarines gave New York a blackout, we sat on a window seat in Greenwich Village, feeling the whisper of that stillness stealing round the buildings as a clear moon shone - a pale, luminous beauty glazing the roof shadows. Nothing moved - the streets stretched in watching emptiness and over the loveliness of the star-glitter hung fear - a waiting fear from the headlines of the busy, crowded day ... London burning ... Rotterdam ruined ... Paris shackled, her pride tormented and broken. And down in Greenwich Village, love had the bitter poignancy of nothing certain, and time passing - and only a breath away, grief's sudden strike.
Meetings were brief, with minutes snatching the happiness meant for a life, and we ate cream puffs and laughed, and our hands clung together knowing the train was almost surely to leave and there might be no letters. Sometimes there had been walks among the clutter and mystery of great ships that we could imagine taking us in another time across the seas to the cathedrals and the ancient glory I had only read of.
Once in a tiny cubbyhole restaurant I remarked wryly on the absurd impossibilities of marriage. ``It's not the initial expense, it's the dreadful upkeep....'' And the five tables of stalwart Italians collapsed into their spaghetti and the waiter had to disappear, his shoulders shaking, though later he brought us seconds on the house.
And then the train had finally gone and I had worn roses and wept, thinking of the loneliness in the crowded, staring streets, and the dreary sadness of no money and no expectations, living on carrots and Fanny Farmer candy bars for lunch ... buying a pretty nightgown once for $2 that emptied the purse ... taking from my childhood a little gold cross with blue stones to a jeweler and watching bleakly as he pounded it to powder with a pestle, his eyes darting all around me, before he dropped three grubby bills in my hand. I wanted the cross back and I fled, having glimpsed the impossibility of a moment gone - it can never come back, and we are born knowing that, but it is only in cruel flashes we feel it.
Often in the kaleidoscope blur of those war days I was traveling on dusty, broken-down trains to garrisons and staging areas for maneuvers ... from the red mud of South Carolina on to a genteel ghetto apartment in Louisville ... the sandy, tight poverty of Tennessee backwoods ... the bleak emptiness of the Mojave Desert where I worked as a cashier in a lonely roadhouse 50 miles from nowhere ... the gritty waste of the Texas Panhandle ... finally embarkation from Boston and I was left in New York.
Always the news came as though I were perpetually reading it down on the cold windy corner of Washington Square's stand with the headlines jutting out of the shaking, momentous horror ... Pearl Harbor ... D-Day ... the Bulge, with Christmas gifts spilling in the mud of retreat and yet the soldiers somehow getting them ... and all the while pigeons were still whirling round the stand and the tiny urchin sparrow singing out the joy of one glitter of sun.
Once a boy brought me a telegram and offered to help me get a cup of coffee first - the black finality of the line round the border stared at me while my heart went cold, and then I saw the name was not mine; and I sat in the kitchen with my coffee and thought dry-eyed of that other woman, stranger never to be met, and yet I could feel in my hands the grief I had sent her.
I remember the silent drawn despair in the faces of people the day Roosevelt died and left his weary, crushing burden without his gallant hope. And then abruptly the war in Europe was over and there was little joy - only the grim, bitter disappointment that nothing was over and soldiers were coming back only to go on. The ``30-day leave'' in a golden New York apartment hidden in trees spun by - people were shadows hurrying on, and love was a shimmering candle a night would blow out.
I wore a tiny brown hat with satin buds and it had a fragile prettiness that lingers through those memories. A violinist played at our table one night and perhaps it was because he thought I looked happy, and yet I went home squeezing my eyes against the burning tears, for now everything was over. The train had left irrevocably at 3 in the morning and I was walking in the city park alone when the dawn came glimmering.
Someone said a bomb had fallen, and I shuddered, not wanting to listen, feeling only the continuing misery. No one expected to return from the imminent next invasion, and I had to close the special apartment I had rented for only one month. Outside my tree-lined window, the strange beauty of city sky crisscrossed in leaves could be effaced with the click of the Venetian blinds, and the last turning of the key in its lock.
My bags were packed and I didn't know where to buy a ticket to - but I was leaving New York and somehow I felt that part of my life was over. A letter came from Leesville, Louisiana, with a gardenia pressed between the hasty scrawl. ... ``This was blooming in front of the house I just got us ... it has a bedroom and a kitchen and a queer, overgrown yard with stray pigs running through the corners, and a passing bull nibbled on this flower before I got it. Hurry, I'm studying Japan's coastline and it's going fast....''
Suddenly, unbelievably the radio crackled and it was not Mayor LaGuardia reading the funnies with eyeballs popping - a small chore helping us to keep going during the newspaper strike. Newsboys were shouting in the dusk and it was one word over and over ... Peace ... Peace ... Peace at last!
Thousands of us, limp and ecstatic, poured outdoors and with a common breath surged on Times Square. The night hovered as though the next moment were too far away to reach, and we pressed closer and closer, feeling together the relief as the horror was lifted away. Some danced and a sailor handed me a victory horn which I suddenly felt too tired to blow, and so I just held it and watched the faces, while thoughts and longings of another life laid away now came trembling back.
Through the dark sky round and round the Times Building raced twinkling dots making the gigantic letters ... PEACE ... PEACE ... PEACE. All that night the city stood still, hearing the bells ringing round the world and seeing the lights coming bright across the blackness of the sea and shadowed silent earth.
I had placed over our bed for years the victory horn I had not blown and the crushed gardenia, and a browned, tattered Victory Proclamation of the Mayor of Leesville, studded with grand legalities. But time crumbled the paper and the gardenia shattered in dust, and the children, unscarred by a past not theirs, blew their eyes out, puffing on the horn, scaring out of their night path any unearthly goblins of Halloween.
And O my darlings, I'm praying you'll never be touched by that stillness I can't forget....