An unbearable day becomes unforgettable

Something was wrong. The baby whimpered softly through his dreams. Joe and I shifted sleepily on our creaky metal daybed, and a dozen cockroaches in our four-by-four kitchen scampered for shelter. Across the room a window stood open a few inches. I was dimly aware of the before-dawn sounds of the great city: delivery trucks grinding along the streets, taxis honking, buses getting under way, and milk bottles clinking against doorsteps.

Another soft sound, more intimate, urgent. I opened my eyes and looked at Joe's watch on the shelf by the bed. Six o'clock. Across the room, a few errant snowflakes blew in on the bitter January wind, lit on the radiator with a hiss, and melted into little teardrops of water. I shivered. We were to leave New York for Chicago late this afternoon. My husband had a new posting. Another move! I dreaded it. I had just found out the day before that I was expecting another baby. At that moment I felt very far from home, and I wanted my mother.

The year was 1943, and we were one of the countless service families moving about from place to place. This cold, dirty city was a shocking change from our clean, sunny California, but we were trying desperately to stay together until those last dreaded orders for overseas duty came through.

What had awakened me? It was a soft knock at the door. It was repeated more firmly, "Open up, Joey boy." Joe moaned and turned over. The voice got louder. "It's Sally, Joseph. Your Aunt Sally."

We were wide awake now, and sitting up in bed. We looked at each other in astonishment and dismay. Aunt Sally! Here, and without warning!

Clutching the blankets about me to ward off the chill of the early morning, I was acutely aware of the unattractive condition of our shabby, one-room home of the last two months. In seconds I saw the big open trunk, half packed; the stack of battered cardboard cartons, teetering in one corner of the room; in another, the baby's potty-chair, and all the unavoidable clutter of a young Navy couple on the move with an infant.

"She'll think I'm a total mess," I murmured, as my husband sprang from bed to welcome our visitor.

Sally - "Dear Sally." My letters to her began this way, and I always thought of her as Dear Sally, although I had never met her. I felt I knew her long before we opened that door, for she was the favorite member of Joe's large family on his mother's side, and my favorite correspondent.

There had been 12 children in all, eight girls and four boys, in that close-knit Crombie family in Scotland. Now they were scattered around the globe: in England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Sally, living then (reluctantly) in Albany, N.Y., was the staunch hub of that great wheel. For years she had been a clearinghouse for all family news. Here she was at last, after years of exchanging letters. As Joe opened the door she swirled inside, in a halo of cold air, saying "Sorry to be so early, loves. If you'd had a phone I'd have warned you I was coming."

Joe shrugged into his robe and was in her arms, hugging her, kissing her cheek. "Sally, Aunt Sally! I think I was just 4 the last time I saw you."

She laughed. "Yes, you were just a wee laddie that time I visited California."

Then her arms were about me, her light kiss was on my cheek, and she was holding me at arm's length, saying, "So this is Betsy! You're just like your photos, love. I'd have known you anywhere."

I recovered from my shock and welcomed her. She said, "I couldn't bear the thought of your being so close and not getting to see you. And when I heard that you were leaving for Chicago right away-! Well, I just said to myself, 'No matter what the transportation is these days, I've just got to go down to see Rachel Jane's children and new grandson.' So I took the all-night bus from Albany - and how I wish Eddie's new job had never moved us up there," she took a deep breath. "But never mind, here I am!"

Here she was, indeed; a short, sturdy figure neatly clothed in a brown suit with a matching coronet of dark-brown, silver-streaked hair. She was carrying a huge tapestry bag, from which she withdrew various items: some dehydrated chicken- noodle soup, a box of crackers, a tin of sardines, and a small fruitcake.

"Just a few things for our lunch, loves," she said. "I thought the larder might be pretty bare on your last day in New York."

I begged her to sit down and rest. Just then, on the other side of the room, our 10-month-old Tommy bounced up in his crib. Sally was beside herself with joy. She picked him up and crooned, "Oh, the sweet, sweet laddie! I do believe his hair has a touch of Rachel's red in it." She insisted on dressing and feeding the baby, while I dodged into the bathroom in the hall to wash and dress.

When I returned, Tommy was lying contentedly in his crib, drinking his bottle of warm milk. Sally was standing at the kitchen stove frying bacon and eggs. The soul-satisfying smell of perking coffee and hot toast mingled in the room. Joe had dressed, and was putting the finishing touches on the neatly laid table. Someone had made the bed. Sally had brought a little island of harmony into the troubled sea of our life.

We spent a magical day, talking and packing and eating. We pored over family snapshots Sally pulled out of her capacious handbag. She had many tales of the Auld Country to tell, as well as stories of The City that she loved with such a passion. Soon it was time to call the express company to take our luggage. With Sally's help, work had vanished, dirt had disappeared, and order was born out of chaos.

She went with us to the train station late that afternoon to see us off to Chicago. As we hugged and kissed goodbye I said, "Dear Sally, You've been a fairy godmother! You've changed an unbearable day into an unforgettable one. We love you. Please keep on writing."

And she did.

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