Read an Excerpt
January 19, 1943
Dear "Garden Witch,"
I've stained my fingers blue trying to do this right.
Tonight, though, I'm feeling rather lonesome and overwhelmed, so I'm throwing caution to the wind and finally writing to you, a woman I do not know, with the honest understanding that you might not have the time (or desire) to write back in return.
I guess the best place to begin is at the beginning, right?
There's a ladies' 4-H group that meets at the church hall on Wednesday afternoons. I don't really fit in, but I'm trying to pass the time. Anyway, they didn't give out real names, only these addresses, you know? And said if we felt lonesome (which I do) or desperate (which I didn't
but I feel it creeping in on me day by day) or anything, we could sit down and write a letter to another girl who might be in the same situation. The situation. I just loved the way Old Lady Moldyflower (Mrs. Moldenhauer) said it. What does she know about our "situation"?
They passed a hat around that held pieces of paper with fake names and real addresses. I suppose the purpose is anonymity, but I figured if we are going to write, why not know each other? The paper slips hadn't been folded, and the girls were sifting through, picking whichever struck their fancy. The whole exercise felt silly and impractical, to tell you the truth. I wasn't going to take a name at all, but Mrs. Moldenhauer nudged me so hard I believe she left a bruise on my upper arm. To spite her, I picked last. I guess the other girls skipped over you because you have "witch" in your fake name. I feel lucky I got you. I could use a little magic these days. I'm seven months along now, and Robbie, Jr. is only just two. He's a holy terror.
here's hoping you get this and you feel like writing back. It'll be good to run to the mailbox looking for a letter without an army seal on it.
My name is Gloria Whitehall. I'm twenty-three years old. My husband is First Sergeant Robert Whitehall in the Second Infantry. Nice to make your acquaintance.
With fondest regards,
February 1, 1943
Iowa City, Iowa
I hope this letter finds you well.
I apologize for its lateness, but to be honest I spent a week debating whether or not to pass your letter along to Mrs. Kleinschmidt, my next-door neighbor. She dragged me to the Christmas party for the 4-H, which is when we war wives scrawled our phony names on those slips of pink paper. I was in an awful mood, hence my choice of pseudonym. I do, however, have a lovely garden from late spring through early fall. I can't say it's magical, but it definitely has personality. I planted sunflowers last year and they grew to enormous heights, nearly reaching our gutters. Mrs. Kleinschmidt pronounced them "vulgar" and claimed that staring at their round, pockmarked faces gave her headaches. Of course, this is only incentive to plant more this year.
Now, lest you think I truly am a witch, I should tell you about my "situation," as your Rockport version of Mrs. K. so quaintly puts it.
My husband, Sal, is too old to fight in a war but signed up, anyway, right after Pearl Harbor. Until then he'd been teaching biology at the university here. He spent some years working in a hospital when we lived in Chicago, so they placed him as a medic with the 34th Infantry. Last I read, his division was in Tunisia. I had to look it up on a map.
My boy, Toby, turned eighteen on Halloween. By Christmas he was in Maryland starting his basic training for the navy. On the day he left I was still making his bed and pressing out his clothes, so I'm worried sick about how he's going to manage. I can't imagine the drill sergeants are patient.
Toby also looks young for his age. His cheeks are still rosy, and his hair is the color of the corn that grows on every square foot of this state. My parents were from Munich, so I've filled him with schnitzel and potato dumplings since he was as old as your Robbie. I'm hoping if he's spotted by the Germans they'll take one look and mistake him for one of their own. The Fiihrer's dream!
Your boy sounds like a rascal. Toby was always quiet, but I do remember those toddler yearschasing him around the backyard, up the stairs, down the street. I didn't treasure them. I couldn't wait until he grew old enough to talk to me while we ate lunch. When he did, all he wanted to do was stick his nose in a book.
I also understand about loneliness and not fitting in. I've lived in this town for ten years and only have one woman I can call a true friend. Her name is Irene and she works at the university library. We met at a weekday matinee showing of The Thin Man back in '35 at the Englert Theater here in Iowa City. I was dead sick of sitting by myself at the pictures, so I walked up to Irene and said her pretty dark hair made her look just like Myrna Loy. (It doesn't, not even if you squint.) She laughed at the empty compliment and we've been friends ever since.
Irene is a few years younger than me, shy and unmarried, but I've come to realize those types of differences become mere trivialities with the passing of time. She and I meet for lunch almost every afternoon, freezing our behinds off on a metal picnic bench because the navy shut the cafeterias down for aviator training. I would think that kind of instruction would mostly take place in the air, but what do I know? We moan and groan, but I honestly don't mind the chill. In fact, the lunch hour is the highlight of my day.
So that's me. Marguerite Vincenzo. Almost forty-one years old. Garden Witch.
It's nice to meet you over these many miles, Glory. You said you need some magic? Well, I need something glorious. This town doesn't provide much in the way of that.
P.S. The people here call me Margie. I hate it. Sal calls me Rita sometimes, so I'd like to go by that. I hope you don't mind.
February 14, 1943
Rita? Like Rita Hayworth? Oh, gosh, I love that name. Do you have red hair? Oh, Rita, I'm so glad you wrote back. I was scared I might have chased you away.
And then I read your letter every night. Thinking about your boy and your husband, Sal. He's Italian? I wish I was. I think it would be very romantic to be Italian. I spent some time in Italy when I was growing up. Sometimes now, when I think about this war, I wonder about the beautiful places I've been, the people I met, and worry. What will the world look like after all this violence?
Your words gave me a much needed respite from worry. Thank you for that. I laughed and laughed about the sunflowers. I want to learn to do something with this rocky patch of land I have here behind the house. It's falling down due to a lack of upkeep, but lovely just the same. Robert wants me to move in with his mother who lives in Beverly, but I can't leave this place. It was my family's summerhouse (though since I married Robert, we've called it our permanent home). It's so soothing, with the sea on one side and the woods on the other. I'm only ten minutes from town and the bus stops right at the end of our road. I wish he wouldn't worry so much. I've been independent all my life.
So, your Sal is in Tunisia? How exciting! My Robert is in Sparta, Wisconsin, training. I guess it's going to be cold over in Europe. Funny, I always remember it being warm there. I find myself thinking more and more about the past the bigger my belly gets with this baby. Isn't that strange? But I suppose this war makes thinking about the future too difficult.
Tell me more about you, Rita. Tell me what else you grow in your garden and how you grow it. Should I be doing anything now in my yard? Tell me what it's like to have a grown-up boy. Robbie might just kill me. He already hates the baby. I'm trying to tell him everything will be all right, but how can I say it with a straight face? My son's no idiot. He knows when I'm lying.
The medicine wont taste bad.
The bath is not hot.
Daddy will be safe.
I'm so big now I can't do much. And the snow
it falls and there isn't any relief. I go to the market once a week and then come home.
So thank you, Rita. Thank you for writing back. Because life is so closed up
and now it feels more open, like a wide, wide field in Iowa.
I'm enclosing a sketch of my square bit of earth here on the cliffs that I call a backyard. It's sunny. Tell me what I should plant in my victory garden, Garden Witch.
And tell me a better lie to tell my son so he grows up as good and open and pure as yours seems to be.
With great newfound affection,
February 19, 1943
Iowa City, Iowa
I wish I had red hair! Once my hair was as vibrant as Toby's, but now it's faded and pale. I wear bright coral lipstick all the time so people have something else to look at. Thank heavens for Mr. Max Factor.
Anyway, your letter came just before lunch yesterday. I read it while picking at a hamburger plate in a dark leather booth at the Capitol Cafe. Irene is in Omaha visiting family, so I'd planned on staying inside with some egg salad and a cup of tea. Then the postman arrived and I got ants in my pants so I grabbed what he brought and hoofed it into town.
The emptiness is hard to get used to. It's the middle of the academic term, yet I could roll a bowling ball down Washington Street and not hit a soul. I'm sure the weather has something to do with it (a whopping eight degrees at noontime), but more likely it's this war. With so many boys gone overseas the university might as well rename itself Sister Josephine's School for Educating Ladies. And those gals have no time for meanderingthey are busy bees indeed.
It sounds like you have your hands full as well. Robbie will come around, but he is at a tough age. Now that I think about it, all the ages are difficult, even after they leave the house. Take my Toby, for instance. Turns out you were slightly mistaken in your assessment of himhe isn't quite on the shortlist for sainthood.
I had just returned from the cafe yesterday when someone knocked on the front door. My heart nearly stopped beatingthe unannounced visitor is about as welcome as the devil these daysand I ran to the window to see if a government vehicle sat in our driveway. I wanted to start dancing when I saw it was a girl standing on the porch. She was a colorless, skinny thing, mewling like a cat, and when I ushered her inside she started crying, tears so big and fat I worried she'd drown.
Her name is Roylene.
"My daddy owns Roy's Tavern? On Clinton Street? By the co-op grocery?"
Everything is a question with this girl, like she doesn't trust herself enough for the declarative. I took her coat and snuck a sly glance at her tummy (flat as a pancake, thank God), and poured a cup for her. She slurped at it like a Chinaman.
Apparently when my Toby turned eighteen he headed straight for the enlistment office, and then took a detour through Roy's Tavern on his way home. Instead of going to class last November he sat on a bar stool writing in his notebooks and spouting poetry to Roylene. "My daddy says I'm no good behind the bar? So I work in the kitchen? Toby sits between the sacks of flour and potatoes and keeps me company?"
At that last question she started crying again. I swear, Glory, I did not know what to do. I patted her hand, which was all bone. That girl might work in a kitchen but she sure isn't doing any eating.
"Have you tried writing to him, hon?" She cried harder at this, her small frame racking over my kitchen table.
"I'm no good at it? I thought I'd just wait until he came back? But I can't wait anymore?"
"Do you want me to include a message from you when I write to him?"
Her face lit up, and for a few short seconds I could see what kept Toby interested.
So she's coming back next Monday, her day off. I have no idea what Toby really thinks of her. I'm tempted to write him a letter first, to ask, but now that just seems mean.
I have been giving some thought to your garden. I'm spoiled Iowa's soil is rich and loamy. I was stumped, so I asked Irene. She said to think about the rocky places we're reading about in the newspapersthe shores of Italy, the mountains of Greece. What do they grow there? Oregano? Lemon balm?
Or, you could simply throw down a few inches of compost and fake it. That's what we do, isn't it? Do the best with what we have? It's not lying, dear. Don't look at it that way. It's hopeful pretending. Consider it your patriotic duty.
February 20, 1943
V-mail from Marguerite Vincenzo to Pfc. Salvatore Vincenzo
Sal, I can fit exactly fifteen lines on these damn things. Sixteen if I don't sign my name. You'll know who it's from, wontcha? Maybe I'll seal it with a kiss and the censor can get lipstick all over his fingers.
I miss you. The nights are quiet, but the mornings are worsethis town seems cleared out, like everyone snuck off without saying goodbye. I know what you're thinking and I am trying to keep myself busy. Promise. I have a war wife pen pal (surprise, surprise) and Mrs. Kleinschmidt has me down at the American Legion rolling bandages. I hate the look of them. Bandages have only one use, you know?
I guess you do know. But I'm not supposed to write about things like that so I won't. The thought of you getting a letter with the words blacked out is just too depressing.
Anyway, Toby wrote last week. He said the air in Maryland smells like fish soup and his bunkmate's name is Howard. He neglected to mention anything about the girl who came looking for him a few days ago, some scrawny thing named Roylene. Ring a bell for you? Didn't for me. I suppose she's harmless enough.
Now I've done it. Only one line to say I love you. And I do. Be safe.