It’s 1942 and the United States is deep into World War II. At home, amid adjustments to the hardships and heartaches of war, Kay Ann Franklin is losing a lonely battle caring for her terminally ill mother and her five-year-old twins, one stricken with polio and the other with chicken pox. Worried and exhausted, she has little left to give her baby daughter and her war-absorbed husband. When a colored girl appears at her back door offering to help, Kay Ann welcomes her but holds slight hope that the tiny, crippled Say can make a difference in their situation.
To her surprise, the teenager brings reinforcements for the battle and lightness to their burdens. The family also discovers Say’s exceptional musical talent and begins to envision more than the girl can grasp. Kay Ann’s dream of a college education for Say is sidetracked by a brutal attack and malicious opposition from neighbors, friends, and Say’s preacher.
In this historical tale, Kay Ann and an unlikely group of lady warriors embark on an unforgettable journey during the chaos of a world war endeavoring to help an underprivileged teenager achieve more than she ever imagined, and, most importantly, to believe in herself.
“Wright does an excellent job of re-creating the feel of the homefront during WWII… It’s an important, engaging story that’s been neglected by other authors.” – Kirkus
“Tommye Hamilton Wright offers a wise insider’s look into small-town life during World War II… This well-structured story offers interesting plot threads and well-drawn characters that maintain tension from the first chapter to the last. You Are Cordially Invited to War will interest those who enjoy good fiction set during a pivotal time in American history.” – Clarion
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You Are Cordially Invited to War
A Historical Novel
By Tommye Hamilton Wright
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Tommye Hamilton Wright
All rights reserved.
She was so welcome, not because of anything promising about her, but because I was so desperate. When she came at seven o'clock that muggy Monday morning, I'd never been so glad to see anyone before, nor have I since.
The young girl standing at my back door shifted her weight from one leg to the other, but she looked me boldly in the eye.
"Miz Franklin, my aunt sez you might be needin' some help with yo' baby. I never been a nursemaid, but I be good with little ones. I'm called Say."
On that scorching southern summer day in 1942, my mother lay upstairs terminally ill with stomach cancer. A few months before, on my twenty-sixth birthday, as a matter of fact, my five-year-old son Dan had been diagnosed with the dreaded poliomyelitis—some doctors were calling it infantile paralysis—and that morning, his twin brother, Billy, was sporting a full-blown case of chicken pox. Six-month-old Judith had no maternal figure except my harried self, who, aside from giving her a quick bottle and changing a way-past-due messy diaper, kept her at arm's length. I lived in a state of panic that Judith or Billy would catch Dan's polio, and now I was fearful that Dan or Judith would catch Billy's chicken pox.
And our country was at war. A world war.
I considered the childlike colored girl through the screen door. I'd seen her around our small town of Lynton, walking with an awkward limp and her head full of wiry pigtails standing on end. She often straggled behind her aunts and cousins, several of whom worked in the homes of my neighbors. Her aunt Emma ran the house for the Wetherford family, next door to the home where I grew up, and where, along with my mother, I now lived with my husband and children.
The skin-and-bone girl turned as though to leave when I stood in stunned silence at her offer.
"Oh, Say." I recovered my voice. "We'd be grateful for some help." I fought back tears and the urge to embrace this frail missionary. "But are you sure you want to come in our house? Do you know we've been under polio quarantine? Does your mama know you're here?" Polio was a possible death sentence; the very word sent parents to their knees.
A quiet "Yes'm" answered all my questions.
"All right then, Say. But ..." I waited until I was sure I had her attention. "I must forbid you to go near Dan or his room. Polio is very, very serious. The mayor announced this week that picture shows and swimming pools and all places where people gather are closed for the rest of the summer. Many parents have even stopped taking their children to church! It's my responsibility to wash and sterilize Dan's dishes and his clothes and anything else he touches. Although Dr. Nowlin has relaxed our quarantine a bit, you are never to have contact with Dan. Do you understand?"
With a slight smile and seeming assurance, Say nodded. Having what I hoped was a clear agreement between us, I opened the screen door to let Say into the kitchen, where I'd been struggling to prepare something my patients could and would eat.
"It's already hot as blazes in here," I said. "I've had the oven on."
I wiped the sweat and tangled hair away from my eyes, wondering how in the world I appeared to this colored girl whose hodgepodge of clothes were spotless, starched, and ironed. The privileged only child of one of Lynton's leading families, I had a button missing from my blouse; my face was unwashed; and without looking down, I couldn't honestly say if I'd put on shoes when I crawled out of bed a few hours earlier. For that matter, when I passed a mirror, I scarcely recognized myself anymore, and I wondered what Grant saw when he kissed me and said a hurried "I love you, Kay Ann" on his way out the door to work. I sincerely hoped, and was reasonably sure, how I looked was the last thing on his mind, a mind that now had practically every cell's energy harnessed to serving his country.
The head of our pathetic household, my husband worked at his family's sheet-metal mill a couple of miles on the other side of town. After the drowning deaths of his parents, Grant was left with the entire responsibility of the business. Having been deemed unfit for military service due to flat feet, he and his plant had adapted to the frenzy of wartime demands for extensive production.
Grant and I, once called the town's "golden couple," had been suddenly cast into a plethora of never-before-experienced difficulties and emotional devastation. The golden couple was fighting two wars, one at home and one on foreign soil—where it would hopefully remain. Unlike Grant, who at least had an engineering degree, I was more unprepared for life than I had ever imagined, but great was the demand to respond when duty called.
Thankfully, friends and family had brought meals, but the quarantine for polio victims was a boundary no one dared or was expected to cross. Yet Say had appeared at my back door with a most surprising and unsolicited offer to come in and share my burden.
"Where you want me to wash my hands, Miz Franklin?" she asked.
"There at the kitchen sink is fine."
"Where the clean pots stay?" Say was apparently expanding her offer beyond helping with the baby.
When I showed her where to gather what she needed, Say filled a large pot with steaming hot water and vigorously rubbed the bar of soap on the dishcloth, preparing to address a stack of dirty plates.
As I returned from my umpteenth trip up the steps that morning, I observed Say tackling bowls crusted with cold Cream of Wheat, sour- smelling baby bottles, and a roasting pan, its grease hardened from last night's supper. Those arms had muscles in them somewhere.
"Say, I'm embarrassed about the mess. I stay so far behind I probably won't live long enough to accomplish all there is to do around here."
"It's all the same to me. Work is work. We catch it up."
At that moment, we was the most beautiful word I'd ever heard. I too had an ally in my battle.
Although I was hardly aware when her humming began, Say's soft, melodious notes soothed me and began lifting me out of a deep pit. At first I thought her presumptuous, coming into a white family's home and making music. But the shift of my mood and the easing of my tension were undeniable, and before I knew it, all the dishes and pans had been shined with strong cleaner, elbow grease, and humming.
I moved back and forth into sick rooms, changing Mother's bed, getting Dan up to the bathroom, and trying to cool Billy's fever. Whenever I returned to the kitchen, I found the things I needed next were already prepared.
"Here's a glass of ice water so yo' mama can take her medicine." Mother's breakfast was neatly laid on a bed tray and ready to be served.
When the baby awoke and cried, a bottle of formula was sterilized and cooled to the right temperature. But Say was even more ready. Everything else she'd done in her first hours was just killing time until she could hold that baby girl.
"This is Judith," I said to Say. "She wakes up wild and woolly and thinks she's starving to death. Poor little skinny thing." I pushed blonde ringlets out of the little one's sleep-crusted blue eyes. "Judith, this is Say. She's come to help your mommy. Can you say Say?"
Say and I laughed at the repetition, and as I freely handed over my newest treasure to this skinny teenager I'd just met, I realized I had, in fact, laughed. Not an ordinary occurrence.
"Come here, you ole sweet fatty pie." Despite her painfully awkward limp when she walked, Say held the baby with a ballerina-like grace. After a moment, she became aware of my staring at her.
She only smiled and said, "No way to help myself. I gonna always luv a baby."
Just then a barely awake, chicken-pox-covered Billy staggered down the stairs, his curly blond hair matted from a restless, itchy night and his puffy blue eyes hardly discernible among the lesions on his face. Say gave him a sympathetic smile and time for him to give her a good looking over.
"I wonder what your brother wants for his breakfast," she said to Judith, still tucked in her arms. Judith laughed and wiggled to get down and greet Billy, but Say put her in her high chair, careful to keep her away from the infected brother.
"That boy look lak he might enjoy some of my special toast with cinnamon butter and a glass of orange juice."
"Milk," was Billy's only communication, but he didn't look as grumpy as when he'd first come into the kitchen. Little by little, Say charmed both children into eating a good breakfast, and before long, she was the recipient of their attention and chatter.
Once the children were fed and I'd gotten Mother cleaned and settled for the day, I invited Say upstairs so Mother could meet her. As was typical with cancer, Mother had her good days and bad ones. This was not a good one. It was difficult to remember that only a year ago she had been so vibrant, the instigator of all things fun and engaging. Today, her head of limp curls was sunk deep into the pillow, and her pale skin blended into the white pillowcase. Being the gracious lady she was, Mother still made an effort to speak a kind word of welcome to Say. It seemed perfectly natural for Say to straighten the covers at the foot of Mother's bed, and she quickly won Mother's approval when she was drawn to Mother's pet canary.
"What a beautiful wicker house you live in, pretty bird." Say stood on her tiptoes to look into the cage that hung on a stand close to the bed. It was an uncommon compliment that Buttercup didn't fuss at her.
On our way back down the hall to the stairs, I pointed out Dan's room. Say stopped and looked at me as though she expected to meet my other bedridden patient. Without lowering my commitment to protect her, I opened the door just enough for Dan and Say to see each other.
"Dan, this is Say. She's come to help us."
Say drew as near as she could and waved through the small opening. The sick little boy with the sad countenance slowly waved back, only moving his fingers and saying nothing. I closed the door, and a somber Say stood for a long moment just staring at it.
Say and I quickly became efficient coworkers, but we were visually, even comically, bold contrasts: I was tall and fair—fair of skin, pale green eyes, and long, straight blonde hair; Say was small of stature with dark skin and eyes, and a multitude of tightly braided black pigtails tied with colorful strips of rags.
At some point during the day, I told Say how much I appreciated her coming and that she was a great help. No response. She just worked through the day doing whatever was needed, and her exceptionally beautiful humming went on. No space for small talk but very companionable.
For the first time in many days, I combed and pinned up my hair and found a tube of lipstick.
* * *
"Oh my!" I exclaimed. "I never once looked at the clock this whole day. It's six o'clock. Say, can you come back tomorrow?"
"You don' want me to stay and serve supper?"
"No. It's all cooked and on the stove, and there's no telling what time my husband will get home from the plant."
I handed her a generous day's wage, more than ordinary household help would make. We had received a valuable gift, and I didn't want any other white family luring this unlikely servant away from us. That happened often when word got around that a good colored worker was helping in the neighborhood.
"I can come most days you be wantin' me," Say said, "but I don' need this much cash money."
When I pressed her for a reason, she confidently said, "Say don' want extra money hanging around. You be there for me someday when I got a need. And Miz Franklin ..." Waiting until I turned and looked at her, she focused directly on my eyes without blinking. "I don' take totin' privileges."
We both knew what she meant. Toting privileges was a term used for colored people taking things, without permission, from the homes of white people where they worked. Toting was a way of supplementing income out of whatever was needed and the employer had. If the colored help needed some white thread, a spool from the lady's sewing basket went home in a pocket. A stick of butter, a roll of toilet paper, a pork chop or two, a can of beans—easy things to tote out in a pocketbook. Toting privileges, not ethical but not stealing, were expected.
Still, white employers were suspicious of big bags that came to work with the help. When the husband's overcoat or the great-grandmother's cut-glass water pitcher disappeared, that was stealing. Once the lady of the house realized several valuable things had gone missing, she always assumed it was the colored help who'd taken them. At the end of the next workday she told her help, "I won't be needing you anymore."
The matter of toting settled, Say said good night and slipped out the back door. I watched as she walked toward the service alley that ran through the center of our block, behind the houses on both sides.
* * *
Say never asked what time I wanted her to arrive or what time I wanted her to leave. The hours she set for herself were not questioned: in the back door at seven o'clock sharp in the mornings and out whenever she was satisfied the work was all done. Many times that was long after I urged her to go on home, but occasionally, it was as soon as the lunch dishes were put away and our supper was ready to be served.
That first week, she also told me, "I'm glad to come early and stay late 'most every day, but I can't come to work on Sundays. Miz Franklin, you got to partner with Mr. Franklin on his day off, and I got to mind my business on Sundays."
"Oh, really?" I crossed my arms over my chest. No Sundays, clearly repeated. Indeed! Who was running this show? And what kind of business could she have?
"No'm. Can't come on a Sunday."
Say never volunteered anything about her personal affairs, but her uncle Pete, who worked at Grant's mill, mentioned that his niece often sang solos at their Sunday morning church service.
Grant chuckled when he repeated to me what Pete had said, trying to imitate his vernacular. "That youngun was born with a growed-up voice. Say might be a little squirt, but she make a mighty big sound."
Grant had another good laugh when he teased our newly hired girl about her name. "I never heard the name Say. Your parents must not have known what to say when you were born. Is that why they just called you Say?"
Say spoke respectfully but directly to my husband. "I have a fine name," she said. "If Say be a trouble for you, Mr. Franklin, you can call me by my real one. Say is short for Sa'ruh."
Grant was clearly taken aback at being put in his place by this skinny, lame colored girl.
I slipped into the pantry on the pretense of getting something out for our supper, but actually to hide my amusement at the stunned look on Grant's usually confident face. No getting around it, Say was an artist with language. Her few words were of perfect clarity and balance, with no suggestion of sassy disrespect or false solicitation.
As was her humming. Self-assured but never imposing or offensive. Indeed, it was quite beautiful. Say only sang at one task: when she ironed. Then I heard "You Are My Sunshine" over and over and over. I often wondered what the country song meant to her, since she didn't hum it but sang the words softly, almost to herself.
Excerpted from You Are Cordially Invited to War by Tommye Hamilton Wright. Copyright © 2015 Tommye Hamilton Wright. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Volunteer, 3,
Chapter 2 Never Give Up, 11,
Chapter 3 Invasion, 17,
Chapter 4 Secret Weapon, 24,
Chapter 5 Training, 27,
Chapter 6 Rations, 34,
Chapter 7 Wounded, 39,
Chapter 8 Combat, 44,
Chapter 9 Communications, 48,
Chapter 10 Parachutes, 52,
Chapter 11 Blackout Curtains, 57,
Chapter 12 Storm Troopers, 62,
Chapter 13 KP, 72,
Chapter 14 Promotions and Discharges, 78,
Chapter 15 Weather Observers, 82,
Chapter 16 Bivouac, 87,
Chapter 17 Missing, 91,
Chapter 18 Surveillance, 95,
Chapter 19 Morale, 101,
Chapter 20 Informant, 103,
Chapter 21 Friendly Fire, 106,
Chapter 22 Sniper, 112,
Chapter 23 Ambushed, 116,
Chapter 24 Packages from Home, 120,
Chapter 25 Outnumbered, 125,
Chapter 26 A Victory, 130,
Chapter 27 Special Forces, 138,
Chapter 28 Undercover Operations, 141,
Chapter 29 Christmas Ceasefire, 146,
Chapter 30 Surprise Attack, 151,
Chapter 31 Advance, 155,
Chapter 32 Troop Train, 158,
Chapter 33 Hospital, 165,
Chapter 34 USO, 172,
Chapter 35 Return to Active Duty, 180,
Chapter 36 Fallen Warrior, 184,
Chapter 37 Memorial, 189,
Chapter 38 Spoils, 192,
Chapter 39 The Home Front, 197,
Chapter 40 Bombshell, 207,
Chapter 41 Bushwhacked, 212,
Chapter 42 Subterfuge, 215,
Chapter 43 Reenlistment and Reinforcement, 222,
Chapter 44 News Report, 230,
Chapter 45 Mess Food, 233,
Chapter 46 Bombarded, 239,
Chapter 47 Enemy and Ally, 244,
Chapter 48 Stakeout, 249,
Chapter 49 Propaganda, 254,
Chapter 50 Tacticians, 256,
Chapter 51 Recruited, 259,
Chapter 52 Inducted, 261,
Chapter 53 In the Trenches, 264,
Chapter 54 Establishing a Beachhead, 269,
Chapter 55 Hero, 274,
Chapter 56 Recognition, 279,
Chapter 57 Sabotage, 286,
Chapter 58 Retreat, 291,
Chapter 59 Strategy, 296,
Chapter 60 Shipping Out, 301,
Epilogue R & R, 308,
Author's Notes, 315,
More Notes, 317,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderfully sweet story depicting the challenges of a southern woman and her family during WWII.