Read an Excerpt
A Promise in Pieces
Quilts of Love Series
By Emily T. Wierenga
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Emily T. Wierenga
All rights reserved.
Noah looked like his father, and she hadn't noticed it before. But here in the backseat of a Dodge Caravan, strewn with skateboarding magazines and CDs, there was time enough to see it in the young man whose long legs stretched from the seat beside her. To see the freckles dusting her grandson's cheeks, the way his hair poked up like a hayfield, and how his eyes grabbed at everything.
Up front, Oliver asked Shane to adjust the radio, the static reminding Clara of the white noise she used to make with a vacuum or a fan to calm her newborns. The first one being Shane, her eldest, the one in the passenger seat turning now to laugh at his father, who wrinkled his long nose as Shane tried to find a classical station.
Then, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and Clara could see Oliver smiling, pleased, and she remembered the way he'd looked over at her in church so long ago with the same expression: as though he'd finally found what he'd been looking for.
Noah was playing a game on one of those Nintendo machines. He noticed her watching him and said, "Do you want to give it a try, Grandma?" He looked so eager.
Gone were the days of Hardy Boys and marbles. "Sure!" Clara said, mustering enthusiasm as she took the tiny gadget. Then she saw what he was playing. Some kind of shooting game with uniformed men and guns and she nearly dropped it.
"I'm sorry, it's too complicated for an old woman like me," she said, handing it back and turning to stare out the window, at Maryland passing by, wondering what a kid in high school could know about war.
They were taking the George Washington Memorial Parkway, one of Clara's favorite drives, which would carry them from her home state to Mount Vernon, Virginia. They were passing through Glen Echo, north of Washington, DC. And Clara remembered the story her daddy had told her, on one of their summer holidays, about her namesake, Clara Barton, who'd spent the last fifteen years of her life here. The founder of the American Red Cross, Ms. Barton had tirelessly provided aid to wounded troops during the Civil War. She had dedicated her life to serving those in need, Daddy said.
On that holiday, Clara—only eight years old at the time—had decided she would do the same. After all, she had been named after Ms. Barton.
"Something wrong, Grandma?" Noah said.
Shane turned in the front seat. His green eyes met hers, and it seemed only yesterday she had brought him home wrapped in the quilt-the one cleaned, pressed, and folded, lying in the back of their van.
Shane's eyebrows rose and Clara shrugged, feeling cold in her white cardigan even though it was late June. It had been more than fifty years.
"Fifty years," she said, more to herself than anything, and the van was quiet. She'd had these moments before, many of them. Moments landing her in the past, amongst broken and dead bodies, for there hadn't been enough beds in Normandy.
Oliver peered at her now in the rearview, through his glasses, and she should give his hair a trim, she thought. It sprouted silver around his ears, and when had her soldier-husband aged? At what point between them marrying and adopting Shane and giving birth to two others had his hair turned gray?
Noah was tucking the game away now, saying, "I don't need to play this right now. What are you thinking about, Grandma?"
And she wiped at her eyes, moist, and cleared her throat and told herself to smarten up.
It was sixteen and a half hours to New Orleans, where they were heading for a family vacation, and she should make the most of the time she had with this boy who knew nothing of the miracle of the quilt in the back. Who knew nothing of loss, and this was good. But there is a need for history to plant itself in the hearts of its children.
"Do you know about Clara Barton?" she said. Noah shook his head.
"She was a woman of great character. The founder of the American Red Cross. This whole area is a National Historic Site in her name, and she didn't want it. All she wanted was to help people. In 1891, two men, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, offered Clara land for a house in an effort to draw people to this area. They offered her land, as well as free labor for building the house, believing people would come in flocks to see the home of the woman who founded the Red Cross.
"Clara was clever. As all women of the same name are," and here, she winked at Noah who laughed. "She had been looking for a new place to serve as headquarters for the Red Cross, so she took them up on it. She used the home originally as a warehouse for disaster-relief supplies, then reworked it and moved in six years later.
"A newly built electric trolley that ran into Washington brought in crowds of people to a nearby amusement park. When a new manager took over the park in 1906, he offered to buy Clara's home and turn it into a hotel. She refused, so he then tried to drive her out. Apparently, he built a slow-moving scenic railway right by her house, with a station by her front door. When it failed to work, he erected a Ferris wheel in front of her house. Can you imagine? It is said Clara loved the lights from the wheel. She served as president of the Red Cross until 1904 and kept living in the house until her death, eight years later, at age ninety. She said the moon used to always shine at Glen Echo."
Noah's eyes were fixed on her. "What a woman," he said.
Clara nodded. "I know. She's the reason I became a nurse. And went off to war when Daddy told me not to."
It was quiet in the car and then Shane said, "You can't stop there, Mom! Tell him the story!"
Oliver's eyes shining in the mirror, Vivaldi on the radio, and Maryland's fields of corn and hay waving graceful good-byes.
"You sure?" she said to Noah.
He folded his hands in his lap. "I'm all yours, Grandma."
And so, she began.CHAPTER 2
It was the first day of summer. I was twenty-one years old, single, and just graduated nursing school-Eva, too. She was my best friend, ever since grade school. Oh, how her long hair flew like yellow birds as we skipped down Main Street in our little town of Smithers. She was always the pretty one, and I was the smart one, but at the time we were just two girls celebrating.
And then we saw the United Service Organization Club, or the USO.
War was happening on the radio and in our pantries. We all had ration stamps by then and Mama kept saving tin because "we all have to do our part," she told us, in the faded pink apron she always wore.
Daddy kept preaching the same sermon to a congregation of about ten or fifteen women, babies on their knees, and the elderly all huddled together, muttering prayers. He talked to them of peace and turning the other cheek, but no one was listening anymore. Peace just seemed like a cruel kind of joke, and everyone just wanted their men home.
It made me kind of mad the way Daddy would stand there in his preacher's collar at the pulpit in Smithers First Christian Church, singing "Peace Like a River," when all of those babies had no daddies. But I was pretty young so I just slipped out the back as soon as the sermon was done, and Eva and I, we'd go swimming in the river and forget the whole thing. Until we went home and all we had for supper was horse meat or fried Spam because we'd run out of rations since Mama was always giving ours away. Like we weren't suffering, too.
Anyway, Eva was like my sister because I was an only child and she lived a couple of blocks from us, in a fancy house with white siding and pillars. Her daddy was the mayor.
We lived above the Main Street Diner, which closed down when people stopped having money to do anything. Pretty much all of Main Street had shut down in Smithers, and all we had was the USO, which opened up after Pearl Harbor happened.
I'll always remember taking the bus home from my first semester at Johns Hopkins two-year nursing program, December 7, 1941, the world all white and celestial outside, and seeing Mama staring out the window with an empty mug in her hand and Daddy behind her, his hand on her shoulder, and hearing President Roosevelt on the kitchen radio saying the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. "This is no joke," he said over the airwaves. "This is war."
The United States and Britain attacked Japan, and four days later, Hitler declared war on the United States, and Mama rocked a lot in her wooden chair while Daddy preached about peace, and I studied hard at nursing school to become like Clara Barton.
The USO was the first in Maryland they said, and for a while it was one of those places you just kind of look at like it's a candy store and you're a hungry kid. It was all bright and sparkly, full of men in uniform with pretty girls on their arms. Eva and I would climb a tree across from the club and pretend we were those ladies with their curled hair and their laughs.
But then the soldiers shipped out and the place became like an empty bottle of wine, attracting flies and smelling slightly sour. From time to time a woman would emerge, looking tired as all women did those days, and sometimes there were newly drafted boys with shine still on their shoes. But the building mostly sat waiting. As we all did.
Eva and I had never actually seen inside, so the day we were skipping up and down Main Street, celebrating our freedom, we decided to try it. We decided to put on lipstick and nice dresses and wait for servicemen to treat us to a night on the town. So we pulled out our fanciest, least-faded prints and ironed them because it had been years since we'd had any material to sew from, and we took cranberries and crushed them and tried to make our lips red but then we just sneaked into Eva's mom's bedroom and used her lipstick, because she was a fine lady. She always wore pearls and smelled like lilacs. Mama smelled like flour and lotion.
We fluffed our hair and smoothed our dresses and walked with our heads held high all the way down Main Street to the USO.
The woman inside who greeted us hardly looked at us, just kind of nodded wearily to the back of the room where there was a bar and a Ping-Pong table and some old men staring at their drinks. The air was kind of fuzzy, and the jukebox played Bing Crosby like it was trying too hard.
We hadn't known it would be so easy, and our heads weren't near so high as we stepped in our mamas' high heels to the back of the room and sat on stools and ordered Shirley Temples.
"Let's get out of here," Eva said in a whisper, her blonde hair hiding her face from the bartender who seemed just shy of death. I was about to respond when the old man at the other end of the bar asked us if we'd seen his son.
"He looks like his mother, God rest her soul," the guy said, and I still remember him like it was yesterday. He had the longest white beard, his eyes were gray puddles, and his fingers trembled around a glass of what must have been Scotch, although I wouldn't have known it then. All I knew was Daddy's communion wine, which was actually Concord grape juice.
"They drafted him two years ago, and he used to send these letters," he said in a voice so muffled we had to sit very still. "He'd tell me all about the war like it was all exciting and mysterious, but then the letters stopped coming."
His fingers trembled, his wet eyes hid behind his lids, and he swallowed, his beard moving up and down. We looked down at our Shirley Temples.
Here we were, all dressed up and playing games when real people were dying.
So we moved closer to this man who said his name was Roger, and we asked him more about his son, and his eyes just kind of popped open. And he told us stories. He told how his son, Sam, used to pick flowers for everyone he met, and he said, "I would always make fun of him, like he wasn't supposed to do that because he was a boy," said Roger, "but now I'd let him pick as many flowers as he wanted to. I'd say go and pick as many flowers as you want to, but I can't," and we patted his shaky hands and nodded because it was all we could do.
But later, when we left, the sky turning all purple and red the way it does before the sun goes down—like the skin of heaven is bruising or something—we didn't even say good night to each other. We just went each to our own homes, and I scrubbed off my lipstick and took off my dress and wore my oldest, scratchiest pajamas to bed and prayed for forgiveness all night and into dawn.
I barely slept that night. Come morning, a pebble struck my window, and I opened it. Eva stood there. "Come on, we need to go," she said.
"Where?" I asked, and she said down to the Red Cross recruiting center to sign up with the Army Nurse Corps.
So I shimmied out of my window and down the old oak tree the way I'd always done, and we went off to the military recruiting office to enlist.
* * *
It was a bit humiliating, stripping down so they could make sure we were fit for the army and I stared at a nail in the wall and Eva looked the other way and later we admitted we were both thinking about the tree branch in Eva's backyard where we sat every sunny afternoon when we were young, reading comics and braiding each other's hair and laughing about boys. Because the tree was our safe place.
Then the doctor did my physical exam and found a heart murmur and said normally they wouldn't let someone in this condition go, but they were desperate. So he took the sheet of paper stating I had a heart murmur and tore it in two, right in front of me, and signed another one saying I was fine.
My good conservative upbringing told me it was wrong, but I was ready for wrong. I'd been good and right my whole life, and all it had amounted to was a Bible by my bed and a picture of Jesus as a shepherd on my wall, while other girls my age had posters of Jimmy Stewart. And Jimmy had put his career on hold to enlist, so I decided I would, too, as I signed the forms saying I now belonged to the Army Nurse Corps. "Free a man to fight," the posters said. The roles were all scattered and reversed, and women were raising families and fixing machinery and delivering mail and driving trucks and forecasting weather, and no one was sleeping. The whole country was just kind of stumbling around in a mad state of insomnia. Roosevelt was on the radio, saying, "I regret to tell you that many American lives have been lost," and it was enough to keep us awake and fighting in our own humble ways. Even if it meant just fighting at home so the men could go abroad, but Eva and I would join the ranks of women who'd already signed up to care for the wounded, the ranks led so many years ago by Clara Barton.
A nurse had to be between twenty-one and forty years old. We entered the corps as officers, usually as second lieutenants, but our rank was not equal to that of men. We weren't that advanced. It wouldn't be until after the war that we'd earn the same privileges as the men. Nevertheless, there were more than twelve thousand nurses in the corps, and we weren't told where we were going. We were just shipped off blindly, like we were cattle; some were sent to Alaska, others to Australia, still others to North Africa and Europe, and some to places we'd never even heard of.
Our parents didn't know. We would be leaving on the train for military training in Virginia in one week, and it was such a long week. Mama kept looking at me strangely, and Daddy was even quieter than usual. Then one night over canned beans and dry toast, because we had no butter, I couldn't stand the silence anymore.
"Eva and I are thinking of signing up with the army," I kind of blurted out, and Daddy pushed back his plate and his chair and crossed his arms and breathed deeply, like he was in labor. Mama just sat holding a spoon midway to her mouth while the clock ticked brashly.
I wanted to break the clock.
Daddy pulled out a red-and-white handkerchief and wiped his forehead and Mama set her spoon down and I braced myself. I was small for my age, but I had a big temper, and they knew this. The floor was thick with eggshells.
"Clara Anne," Daddy said, and I shuddered at the sound of my full name. "Why would you go and do that? You know where this family stands on the issue of war," and Mama hung her head because she still collected tin cans and saved cooking grease and took lunch down to the women who worked long hours in the factories.
Excerpted from A Promise in Pieces by Emily T. Wierenga. Copyright © 2014 Emily T. Wierenga. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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