Greta Loetz must learn to conquer her fears so she can live in peace once again...
Vince Spinelli's wartime experiences reinforce his belief in a life spent in pursuit of justice...
These are just a few of the characters you will meet in Don't Let Down, a story of how the people in one Milwaukee parish banded together to defeat the power of war to destroy.
Don't Let Down is based on the true story of a group of young women from St. Matthew's Parish on Milwaukee's south side, who published a newsletter in World War II that they sent to all the servicemen (and women) from their parish and sold to the parishioners each month.
In fluent and graceful prose, the author has imagined the inner life of these young women and their families in rich historical detail, and has created a touching and inspiring story of the power of faith and love to transform lives.
If you've ever wondered what life was like for your parents or grandparents during World War II, Don't Let Down will give you a glimpse into an era when every guy was a hero, and ordinary people lived through extraordinary times.
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Read an Excerpt
Don't Let Down
By Elizabeth Mullins
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Elizabeth Mullins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJune 2003
It was so like her not to recognize the pain in his voice. Even with his few words, she should have known, but her hopeful way of looking at the world had stayed with her through eighty years of life.
"Mary, it's Ralph."
"Oh, Ralph, how nice of you to remember my birthday. Now that George is gone, I can't count on—"
"No, Mary," Ralph interrupted. She thought she heard a quiet sniffle on the other end of the line, and held her breath.
"It's Lorraine. My Lorraine is gone."
"Oh no, oh no, Ralph, I'm so sorry."
A little pond lay in view of her sunny apartment with its floor to ceiling windows. The willows that ringed the pond blurred before her as hot tears began to sting her eyes.
"Even though you knew it was coming, Ralph, it's too soon, it's always too soon."
"The wake will be at the funeral home right next to your apartment building, on Wednesday afternoon, but I'm having the funeral at St. Andrew's. I know she wanted that."
"Same place you were married." Married and buried, they used to joke.
"Mary, you're the only one left now. You've got to be there. Please say you can manage."
"How can you even wonder, Ralph, of course I'll be there. I can get my grandson Keith to bring me."
"Good, good," Ralph said, sounding relieved. He hesitated for a moment. "You are the first person I called, after the family."
A painful warmth filled her chest. "I'm honored. I feel almost like family. We were all like sisters."
"That's true. In a way, you shared even more than sisters."
Another silence on the line, then Ralph said, "I have to keep this short, I'm afraid, I have more calls to make."
"I'll see you Wednesday, then."
Mary hung up the phone slowly, the way she did everything now. She looked out into the diffuse pink light of the morning, toward the pond and its willows, then lowered her head into her hands and began to weep. She was alone now, the last one standing.
After she had cried herself out, she rose painfully and walked to the closet in her bedroom.
"Damned arthritis. I'll have Keith bring the wheelchair."
When she had moved into the apartment several years earlier, she had shed nearly a houseful of furniture, linens, china, books, even some of the photo albums, spreading them out amongst the children, but these she kept. Her gnarled fingers searched the shelf until she felt the hardened leather of the portfolio. "It's as brittle as I am," she thought. She inched it forward until it began sliding quickly toward her. Grabbing it with both hands as firmly as she could, she eased it into her arms.
Seated at the dining table, she opened the portfolio to reveal the tattered, yellowing papers.
The Apostle Volume I, No. I. April 25, 1943 "We Honor Those Who Serve"
Our first headline. Remembering the excitement that preceded that first issue, she reached out for the phone to call Anna Mae, but brought her trembling hand back to cover her mouth. No Anna Mae. No Frieda. No Lorraine. No anybody anymore. Only she was left to do the remembering. It was the loneliest moment of her long life.
* * *
"Aren't you proud of me that I remembered where to turn?"
Keith Sweeney relaxed easily in the driver's seat and steered his father's sedan onto Grace Street. It was one of those lovely days where everything is soft: the breeze, the light, the heat.
"Yes, I'm proud and amazed," Mary told him. "You haven't been here since the ninetieth anniversary of the parish, and that was a few years ago. Did you have a secret career as a pizza delivery boy in this neighborhood that I don't know about?"
"That's my grandma," Keith said as he pulled over to a parking spot on Wood Street, "joking to lighten the mood."
"It's the way of the Irish," she said lightly, but had to swallow hard to tamp down a rising anxiety. "Keith, I don't know if I can hold it together. Too many memories can be a burden."
"You're going to be fine. You always do better than you think you will."
Mary settled into the wheelchair for the short trip to the side door of the church, her portfolio of three years of The Apostle newsletters on her lap. In a mixture of pride and ambition, they had called them their 'newspapers.' She wondered if anyone inside would care, if anyone wanted to remember with her.
When she stepped into the church, the sight of it took her breath away, not because of its size or splendor, but because of the flood of memory that hit her. Thank God, it was still largely the same. The white and gold altar, the Celtic crosses painted on the panels above, the statues of St. Andrew and the Blessed Virgin in their niches on either side. The communion rail was gone, but those were gone everywhere now.
"Brace yourself, Grandma, here come your old friends," Keith said as the elderly men approached her.
Ralph Dries greeted her as he had done at the wake the preceding night, with tearful, grateful eyes. Close to hairless now, the jagged scars on his temples were more prominent. He reintroduced Mary to his children and grandchildren, as did Johnnie Schroeder, the "baby" of their old gang.
"I think I remember your family from those picnics we used to have," one of them told her.
"Yes, I remember," Mary echoed. I remember.
After the service, the crowd gathered in the church hall for a luncheon. A young woman sitting across from her at the long cafeteria tables asked her about the portfolio.
"And who are you?" Mary asked.
"I'm Nell, one of Lorraine's granddaughters."
"Did your grandmother ever tell you about the paper we put out during the war, that we sent to the men like your grandfather?"
"The Apostle? Oh my God, yes! Are those copies?"
Mary smiled. "Actually, they're originals, but yes, I have a full set."
"May I see?" Nell asked.
Nell began to leaf through the copies, shaking her head in amazement.
"What a wonderful history these are!" she said.
She called her brother Dylan over, and before long there was a large group of young people, Keith among them, reading the papers, flipping through the pages, passing them not just up and down the table, but from table to table.
"Here's a letter from my grandpa from Australia in 1943," one of them exclaimed. "It says he bought himself a horse down there. How come I never knew that?"
"Look, I just found Dad's birth announcement! Grandpa never set eyes on him until he was almost two years old!" said another.
"Here's a story of Grandma and Grandpa's wedding, and how the best man didn't make it to the ceremony, and someone had to take his place," Nell showed Dylan.
Clearing his throat, Keith announced, "And if you'll notice, every issue lists my grandma, Mary Malloy, as the editor-in-chief."
Nell looked at Mary. "You were in charge of this whole thing?"
"Not really," Mary said. "We all worked on it together. For instance, Lorraine was one of our reporters. And you," she said, pointing to one of them, "you're one of Frieda's? She was the business manager."
"Book reviews, sports standings, sermons, cartoons, poems—these things had everything!" Dylan said.
"I think the best thing of all about them is the 'Service News,' sort of like a gossip column about the servicemen. You know, like 'this guy is stationed in Hawaii and just got a promotion,' or 'that guy got wounded in Italy and is in the hospital.' There must be thousands of people who would want copies of these."
"I know we would," Nell said.
By the end of the afternoon, Keith had gathered over twenty-five addresses or e-mail addresses from the grandchildren of The Apostle staff and the men they had served, with his promise that he would provide copies to all of them. It took a long time for Mary to break away from the crowd, but eventually Keith was wheeling her to the car in the warm, late afternoon sun. Ralph walked alongside, his hand lightly touching her shoulder.
"Well, you were the star of the show today, just like at all those Sodality concerts."
Mary gave him a sly smile. "I'm not too crazy about upstaging the deceased, bad form, you know, but I'll tell you Ralph, it really helped me to see that I'm not alone with my memories."
"No, you've passed them on to another generation now."
"You've started the ball rolling, Grandma," Keith said. "Who knows where it will stop."
"You know we love you," Ralph started to say, then corrected himself, "I mean, I love you ... gosh, that's gonna be hard to get used to saying ... so don't be a stranger. I'll come to see you sometime, or maybe Keith here can bring you up to San Camillus and we can visit."
"Sure thing, Mr. Dries," Keith told him.
Driving back to the apartment, Keith explained to Mary that the newsletters could be scanned and sent electronically. That way, they could be enlarged or combined, and they wouldn't tatter and fade.
"Photocopying is so old hat, Grandma."
"I like my old hat, thank you very much. It fits me very nicely."
"I know," Keith said, "not for you, but for all those people at the funeral. That's what they're used to now."
Around midnight, Mary fixed a cup of tea and brought it to her bedside. She had cried a little more that night, about Lorraine and the rest of the girls, but she was comforted to know that the commitment she and her friends had made so many years ago would not completely die with her. At the time, they hadn't been thinking of a legacy for themselves, but she saw now that even though it would dilute with every generation, there would always be someone to remember.
"For a few minutes while we read it, we're at home again with those we love."
For Mary Malloy, one more day had slipped away. Kneeling at the window of the room she shared with her sister, she watched Mr. and Mrs. Heinke approach the alley from their house, a dark, looming hulk behind them but for the shaft of yellow light spilling from the open back door. Mrs. Heinke stroked her husband's arm, carrying his lunch pail in her free hand. Mr. Heinke said something to his wife, and their soft, intimate laughter drifted across the alley. He took his wife in his arms and hers flew around his neck, lunch pail and all. They swayed back and forth as they kissed goodbye. Mr. Heinke climbed into his car and took off down the alley toward Grace Street. After waving him a final farewell, Mrs. Heinke watched his car disappear with a smile on her face, her hands crossed over her heart.
Mary slumped down on the bare floor and leaned against the battered dresser that stood between the two bedroom windows. She found the Heinkes' touching scene all the more touching considering that they were both in their fifties. It gave her hope that love would come to her young, and stay with her old. That would be a good life.
"But when will that be my life?" she asked into the quiet shadows of the room.
Ever since the war began and Jim left with all the other young men of the parish, she felt that at the end of every day she had been cheated, by distraction, by duty, by distance, from moving closer to the future she envisioned. This thought led to feelings of guilt for being so selfish. She had to remind herself of the lesson she had learned young, that being busy was a good thing. A life of loving service to others was the right and moral thing to do, and would lead to happiness. It just didn't leave much time for reflection on the life being led.
She forgave herself tonight as she always did, by repeating her mantra: Keep smiling, keep working, keep believing. For one more day, she would take the streetcar down The Boulevard to the windy viaduct stairs and descend into the Menomonee Valley to her secretarial job at Falk. For one more day, she would come back the same way and spend the evening working on the paper for the guys, but every day, she would remember that right now the world was full of lonely, frightened people, and who loved who and who was getting married and who was having a baby would have to get sorted out some other time.
She raised herself up and leaned across the bed, stretching her arms from her shoulder blades down to the tips of her fingers, feeling the fatigue and releasing a long groan. There were two good things about the end of a day, even a wasted day: now she could sleep, and tomorrow she could try again.
She lifted her head in the darkness at the sound of Beth stirring in the next bed, Beth's breathing a soft purr. The purr sputtered and stopped, and one of Beth's eyes blinked languidly open.
"What time is it?"
"About half past ten. Mr. Heinke just left for the night shift. Hey, I see you've hung up your scout uniform nicely, as usual."
Beth sidled a quarter turn to bring the bottom of her bed into view. The little green dress was spread smoothly over the round metal frame of the footboard.
"Flag ceremony tomorrow ... at church ... besides, the closet's too crowded."
Mary rolled her eyes in the darkness. "Sorry, that excuse doesn't fly any more. See that empty bed next to you? Barbara's been in Louisiana for over two years, and I don't have that many clothes. You better hope Mother doesn't see that dress before you put it on in the morning."
Beth said nothing, only smiled like a contented cat that had just been fed. She twisted deeper into the thin sheet that covered her.
"Have it your way," Mary told her, knowing Beth's coherence was not likely to improve before morning. "Go back to sleep."
"Did you get the paper out?" Beth mumbled through closed eyes, her smile still lingering.
"Yes. Now sleep, Beth. We can talk tomorrow."
A silky, liquid feeling enveloped Mary as she slid between the cool sheets a few minutes later. It was just summer and the nights were still pleasant, devoid of the humidity that would plague the city later. The streetlight in the alley behind the Malloy cottage illuminated the cracked and pitted gray pavement, the black wiring of the telephone poles crossing the leafy branches of the trees in a jumble, the scallop-edged roof of the gazebo Charlie Malloy had built in the backyard. Mary stared absently, her fingers laced behind her head.
Two years. Two years since Daddy had died, a victim of his past coming back to haunt him. He had been a wild Irishman in his youth, loved his whiskey too well. He had tried to put all of that away when he met their Mother, "my Annie," as he had called her, but the drinking and the late night arguments with Mother proved that he had not entirely succeeded. With a daughter's devotion, Mary believed he had died not of pneumonia, but of fear. He had been from Ireland, where people were born and died in their own beds, not in cold, barren, odorously antiseptic hospital wards.
She glanced over to the oil painting of a Louisiana bayou, Barbara's gift to the family last Christmas, glad that the night hid its darkness. It made her a little uncomfortable, with its gnarly brown tree trunks disappearing into still, black water. Clumps of moss hung so thickly from the tree limbs that the backlight of the setting sun struggled to break through and illuminate the scene. She didn't like thinking of Barbara living in such an overripe, vaguely dangerous place.
She rubbed her hands firmly across her eyes and forehead to relax the tension in her face. Don't dwell on it. Everyone has people gone. Think about who is still here. Smile, work and believe.
"I do," she said aloud. "I do believe. Jim will be all right, he'll come back and we'll keep right on going."
She was going to continue her pep talk, but decided to do it silently. She wouldn't do anyone any good if she got locked up as a lunatic for talking to herself.
* * *
When morning came, Mary threw off the sheet and sat up heavily, letting her short legs dangle and graze the wood floor, then stood to face the battered dresser topped by a framed swivel mirror. Its place between the two western windows kept it in shadow even as the rest of the room bathed in light. She liked the dark honey color of the wood, and the curve of the drawer pulls carved into the shape of walnuts and leaves. "That's how you can tell what kind of wood it is," Mother had told her when she was little. Like most of the furniture in the house, it had seen its day, with large cracks running down almost the full length of both side panels, and its top covered with stains, nicks and gouges, each one a memory to someone long gone.
She began brushing her shiny brown hair in the subdued light when Beth rolled onto her back and woke, kicking her sheet halfway down the bed.
"Did you see the letters when you came in last night?" Beth said casually, "Buzz, Barbara and Jim. Mother said it was a 'Red Letter Day,' whatever that is."
Mary whirled around.
"You absolute dope! Why didn't you tell me that last night?" She rushed now to slip into a navy skirt and a crisp white blouse.
Excerpted from Don't Let Down by Elizabeth Mullins Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Mullins. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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