White Christmas: A Teaser
The following passage is from my novel The Queen City: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Two. It takes place at Christmas 1944, during World War II. At Christmas, let’s not forget our veterans and those we’ve lost:
Margaret woke up early to start the coffee. Christmas Day was just about the longest day of the year for her because of all the work she had to do. But it was also the only day she had the entire family gathered under one roof—well, almost all the family. Roy would not be home—he was somewhere in France she believed. And Bill—she had no idea where he was, only that he was sailing on the U.S.S.—-; she imagined the ship was somewhere in the Pacific. She hoped it would not be too melancholy a holiday for her boys; this was the third Christmas they would be away from home. Even the joy of her grandchildren could not remove the worry from her heart. She hoped next year this damn war would finally be over. For a moment, she chided herself for thinking the word “damn”, but then she told the kitchen stove, “It is a damn war,” and for the thousandth time, she wondered why God allowed it.
The kitchen clock said it was seven-thirty. Henry’s family would be over for breakfast in an hour. She wished she had stayed in bed another half hour—she could use the extra sleep, especially after being at church late last night, and then staying up to finish wrapping all the packages. But she was up now. She turned the radio on to keep her awake, then started the coffee. She hoped some Christmas music would get her in the spirit, and then she would go get dressed. She would have preferred to get dressed first, but that would have woken Will, and then he would have been cranky if the coffee were not made when he came downstairs.
Her heart lightened a bit as “White Christmas” came over the radio; she had first heard the song last year. It always reminded her of when her parents had been alive and living in California and writing home that they missed the snow in Marquette. That was two more people—her mother and father—who would not be here for Christmas dinner. Six years now they had been gone, yet she still missed them everyday.
Twelve cups should be enough for breakfast. She could always make another pot later. Before getting dressed, she had better put the children’s presents under the tree in case they arrived early—she hoped she had not forgotten anything. She had presents hidden all over the house, but trying to remember where, and how many she had bought, and who was to get what was becoming a problem. She would have to plan better next year, especially if she kept having more grandchildren.
She put the coffee pot on the stove, wiped her hands on the dishtowel and headed toward the stairs.
Then the radio stopped her.
“This just in. The U.S.S.—- has been sunk in the Pacific by a German submarine. Further details will be forthcoming.”
Margaret froze. She must have heard wrong. It couldn’t be. Didn’t they notify families before broadcasting this kind of news? Maybe she had heard the ship’s name wrong. Why didn’t they repeat it? No, instead they were playing “Silent Night” and at this hour of the morning! Oh Bill. And she had just been wondering how he would spend today, all the while not knowing the truth. It had probably happened hours ago, and now the news was just broadcasting it. Imagine, to have slept soundly all night, not knowing. How could a mother not have felt it?
She caught sight of the Christmas tree. She should turn on its lights before Henry’s family arrived. She would turn on the lights in a minute, but she felt too dizzy right now. She told herself not to faint. No, better stay seated and take it in. If it were true, she would have felt it. She knew she would have. She would have woken up in the middle of the night feeling upset or odd at least. It must be a mistake. Not her Bill. And why today, Christmas—what timing. She must have heard wrong. Why didn’t they quit playing that damn “Silent Night” and broadcast more news? If she hadn’t heard wrong—she’d have to tell Will. How could she? But she would have to. And then Henry and Beth would have to be told, and then Eleanor and Ada and—oh, the poor grandchildren—they were all too young to understand—they scarcely remembered Uncle Bill from before he left for the war, and now their Christmas was ruined.
She just couldn’t tell everyone. Not today. She would keep it to herself—so everyone could still have a Merry Christmas—if Bill were gone, what difference would it make to tell them tomorrow?
The radio paused. She waited for another announcement. She could hear the water on the stove boiling. The coffee must be almost done. Another Christmas song started to play. Coffee would help her nerves, distract her attention and give her another minute to compose herself before going upstairs. She trembled as she walked back into the kitchen. She found a cup and filled it, putting in a teaspoon of sugar and a drop of milk, then another spoonful of sugar, too distracted to remember the first one; then she sat back down at the dining room table. She tried to listen to the radio, but instead, she heard Will coming downstairs. What would she say? How could she possibly tell him?
“Maggie, I thought you’d wake me up. It’s eight o’clock already.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how late it was. I was just enjoying the Christmas music. I better go put the rest of the presents under the tree. Grab your cup of coffee and then you better get dressed before Henry’s family arrives.”
“Yeah, all right,” muttered Will, not much of a talker before his morning coffee.
The radio kept playing Christmas music. Margaret went upstairs to find the children’s presents. What if the radio repeated the announcement while she was gone? Then Will would hear it. What a way for him to find out, but at least then she would not have to tell him. She did not know if she could. Bill was his namesake—the baby of the family.
“I can’t obsess about it now,” she said, opening the bedroom closet and digging into its hidden recesses to discover where she had stuffed away her grandchildren’s gifts. As she found them, she piled them on the bed. Then she took off her nightgown and quickly put on her slip and dress. As she buttoned the dress, a weakness overcame her and she sat down. Then the tears came. She grabbed a pillow and covered her face so Will would not hear her sobbing. After a couple minutes, she still ached, but the sobs had helped her regain her self-control.
She was still not sure whether what she had heard was true, or whether she had heard it right. If it were true, wouldn’t she have received a telegram? Didn’t the government always notify the family before making a public announcement? But maybe the telegram was lost, or maybe the government accidentally forgot to send one. She might have been overlooked—after all, there must have been hundreds of men on that ship, and the ship might have sunk days ago, and its loss was only now being announced after the families were contacted. But that she had not received a telegram might also be a sign that she had heard the news wrong.
She heard Will’s step coming upstairs; quickly she jumped up, set down the pillow and started to make the bed. His step sounded slow—had he heard the news? Her heart nearly stopped as he entered the room. But his face looked composed—he must not have heard anything.
“You better get dressed,” she told him. “Henry’s family will be here any minute.”
Will said nothing to her as she left the room—that seemed strange—could he have heard, and not knowing she already knew, he did not know how to tell her? But after forty years of marriage, they often did not speak to each other—what was there left to say when they understood each other so well? Will had never been talkative, the direct opposite of her, but even she did not talk that much around him anymore. Funny, none of the children seemed very talkative. They must all take after their father that way. Roy was so moody and quiet, and Henry always seemed just silently content. And Bill was—
Poor Bill—how could she even for a few seconds be thinking of something so stupid as how much people talked when her son might be dead? But for those seconds, there had been no fear in her heart. She would have to think of other things if she were to get through this day—she could not tell Will yet, not moments before the family came over. She did not want the family depressed on Christmas morning.
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