April 1917 - Boston, Massachusetts
It was quiet, too quiet for a Friday afternoon and warmer than usual for the time of year. I had the windows open in our little flat and as I looked out over the streets I noticed that there was very little traffic. There was hardly any noise coming from the nearby docks, either. Typically the hum along Atlantic Avenue was constant and there were always cars passing or people coming and going from the shipyards. In the warmer months we could also hear the workers and their shouts as they loaded and unloaded cargo at any of the nearby piers which added to the din but it was unsettlingly quiet that day.
“Eerie,” I whispered to myself.
I knew why such a hush had fallen on the city and had been waiting all morning for Robert to hurry home with the news as soon as it was announced. I wasn’t sure how I felt about America joining the war in Europe but Robert was resolute that it was the right thing to do. I trusted his sense and judgment, especially in concerns like these. The world I lived in was a small one consisting only of caring for Christopher and Robert and myself.
“Momma?” Christopher tugged on my skirt as I stood at the window looking over the city.
“What is it sweetie?”
“Play with me,” he looked up; his eyes full of hope.
“Of course, baby,” I ruffled his hair. “Would you like to go to the park?” Robert had asked us to stay home, but there was so little to do and we were both restless from being cooped up on such a nice day.
His eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically.
“Ok, let’s leave a note for Daddy and we’ll run along.”
I turned to the writing desk and folded a sheet into eighths and carefully tore one of the sections from the page. I hastily wrote our message and tucked it under the centerpiece on the kitchen table. I checked my hair and put my apron aside before motioning Chris towards the door.
“It’s a long walk; you’re not tired are you?”
I smiled and we stepped out. We wound our way down the stairs and out the front door of our building. I was careful to keep an easy pace as we walked since Christopher was only 3 years old and full of curiosity. There were very few people along the way so I didn’t have any hesitation about letting him run ahead of me as we walked certain that he wouldn’t cause any trouble. He stopped a number of times to inspect a little something or other that caught his eye and I patiently waited or oohed or ahhed whenever he found something he wanted to show me.
Somewhat to my disappointment the park was empty when we finally got there. I had hoped there might be some other kids for Chris to play with and perhaps someone for me to talk to while the children kept themselves busy. Though I was distracted I did my best to entertain him and we played a number of games together. At one point I noticed that one of his shoes was untied and as I bent to fix the lace I heard a strange noise.
When I looked up and around to see what it was I realized what must be happening. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people were flooding the streets; some coming out of their homes to hear the news others rushing to their loved ones to share it. The declaration was on everyone’s lips and I knew that what Rob had hoped for was coming to pass and that America was going to war.
The noise and the throngs of people were making Christopher nervous and he began to tremble where he stood so I scooped him up and hugged him close. I wasn’t sure what to do, whether I should stay and hope for the crowds to pass or make the attempt to get us safely home. Thankfully I didn’t have to choose since Robert was among the first wave of passersby and he spotted us as he was carried along by the momentum of the crowd.
He muscled his way into the park and hurried towards us, “Valerie,” he wrapped his arms around us protectively, “what are you doing here? You should be at home; I told you you should stay home today.”
“I know, Robert, but it was such a beautiful day and Christopher needed something to do.”
He looked so disappointed in me and my heart sank knowing that he had every right to feel that way, “Come,” he took Chris from my arms and swung him up onto his shoulders, “hold my shirt and stay right behind me.”
We were jostled nearly the entire way home and each of us let out a sigh of relief once we were safely inside the flat. Robert kissed Chris then shooed him off to play before turning to me.
“Are you alright?” he ran his hands up and down the length of my arms.
“Of course,” I smiled.
“Please Robert, don’t lecture me. I know I promised I would stay in.”
“That’s not what I was going to say. Val, we need to talk.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, that depends on how you look at it.” He paused briefly, “I’m going to enlist.”
I blinked in disbelief, “You’re what?”
He led me to the couch and helped me to sitting as his words sank in. He took the chair across from me, “I’m going to join the army, Val, it’s the right thing to do.”
“I…I…you can’t Robert. You…you can’t!”
“I can and I will,” he assured me.
“But Christopher and I, we need you. How are we going to live without you here? We need you more than the army does. We’re you’re family; you need to take care of us!”
“You can go home and stay with your mother and father and I’ll send you what I can while I’m away.”
I was shaking my head, “No,” I whispered. Then, “How can you even suggest that? You know I would never go home! What is wrong with you Robert? Have you given this any thought at all?”
“I have and I’ve made up my mind. You can stay here if you like and try to get a job, but I’d rather you not,” he said softly. “It would be better for you, and for Christopher, to go to your parents. He’s never even met half of his cousins and hardly knows his grandparents.”
“My parents,” I thought to myself, “never!”
I was the oldest of 6 children; 3 boys and 3 girls. I had spent nearly all of my youth cooking and cleaning and helping care for them all. Our home was utter chaos from dawn till dusk and all I ever wanted was to escape it. I had never dreamed I would be free of it and certainly not in the way I finally was.
Robert and I had known each other since childhood; he was my best friend and we did everything together. As we grew older his feelings shifted from friendship to love, but mine never did. I did my best to discourage him, but he was such a gentleman and so naïve that he must not have realized that his feelings weren’t reciprocated. To him and to everyone else we seemed so obvious, one for the other, but to me…I never understood what was wrong with me. I cannot say that I just wasn’t able to love him; there was more to it than that.
Even when I was very young and began to understand love I felt like my heart…my heart already belonged to someone else and I was just waiting for him to come and claim it. I knew who he was, or believed that I did or that I would know him when I saw him. I could picture him and hear his voice and feel his touch. Though I had never met him, he was real to me and I could never care for anyone else the way I cared for him whoever he was.
I intended to wait, wait forever if I had to, but I would never love anyone else.
Obviously these were thoughts I never dared share. My friends, my family, everyone was oblivious to these carefully guarded feelings of mine so when Robert bypassed me and asked my father for my hand my father accepted on my behalf. I objected in every way imaginable and did everything I could to break the engagement. I even resorted to telling my mother that I was in love with someone else but when I tried to explain who and justify my refusal of Robert I sounded like madwoman.
“You will marry Robert or you will be on your own!” my father threatened and in the end I relented and did as I was told.
The thought of going back there, even though only one or two of my sisters remained was horrifying to me. My family’s home did not hold the happiest of memories for me and I couldn’t imagine being there with them day after day for however long it would be that Robert was away.
“And what if he never came back,” my mind turned dark. “Oh, God Robert! How could you do this to me?” I asked my eyes brimming with unshed tears.
He looked down at me and took a deep breath, “We have a responsibility; it is our duty as freemen to protect our freedom and the freedom of others.”
I hated when he said things like that. He made me feel so ashamed, so selfish. Every time we had a disagreement he found the perfect thing to say to melt my resolve and I would inevitably give in or admit my fault. I stood up and began pacing back and forth trying to come up with some equitable argument but nothing came to mind. When the silence grew too much for him Robert stood up. He took my hand and stopped me.
He brushed a kiss across my knuckles, “I’m sorry Val. It’s just something I have to do. You and Christopher are the world to me, but what kind of world would it be if we don’t do this.”
I tried looking into his eyes; I wanted to beg and plead with him not to go but all I could manage was a weak smile and, “Of course Robert.”
He tucked me under his chin and gripped me tight, “There is a meeting tonight and I won’t be home for dinner,” he turned suddenly and got ready to leave.
“You’re going back out?”
“They want me to speak; to try and encourage some of the men to join us. We are all gathering at the town hall tonight and I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
There seemed nothing more I could say or do and so I just nodded acquiescence. Robert tracked Christopher down and hugged and kissed him goodbye. I followed him to the door and again Rob apologized as he let himself out. I bolted the door behind him and listened to his steps as he walked away.
The room was spinning and I had to sit down. I had no idea how to live without Robert. I had never been on my own before. I was 20 years old and living at home when Robert asked my father if he could marry me. I went straight from my family’s home to Robert’s. Other than my domestic responsibilities there and then here I had never had, “A job,” I wondered to myself, “what could I possibly do? How could I earn enough money to support Christopher and myself so that I wouldn’t have to go home?”
Christopher crawled up onto my lap as the whirlwind of thoughts battered my brain, “I’m hungry momma.”
I was thankful for the distraction, “I’ll make us some dinner, what would you like?”
“Hmm,” he smiled, “pancakes?”
I cocked my head at him, “Sure why not? It’s been a topsy-turvy day, why not have breakfast for dinner?” I kissed his cheek and set him down, “Would you like to help me?”
“Yessss,” he clapped his hands.
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