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Above: Arlene, the littlest, with her family on her birthday in 1939. Arlene (the author’s mother) wishes to thank all the people who responded with such sincere appreciation of this article…from all around the country – and internationally as well.
NOTE: I am honored to have this article being used in the regular cirruculum at the London Metropolitan Museum class: Writing Your Family History.
While it now seems to us to be Christmas (2015), somewhere behind us it is still Christmas 1941.
Imagine you are paddling a canoe downstream. From God’s view above, he sees the bend in the stream you’ve already passed. He sees you now, paddling slowly next to the pines on the bank. He sees beyond the bend ahead, where a deer is lapping the tumbling water.
You can no longer see what you’ve passed, nor do you know of the deer just ahead. The stream is time, and while we can only see where we are now, time stretches out in a continuum; one long stream of what has been, what is, and what will be in simultaneous existence…
It’s December 6th, 1941. A little girl named Arlene is awaiting the arrival of guests for her 8th birthday party. She is growing up American, on the edge of the city’s popular swimming hole known as “the pond.” War wages in Europe and America is struggling through a Depression, but there is still innocence and hope in American hearts. Life is going on as usual, and neighbors are helping neighbors.
About a dozen boys and girls arrived at the party bearing simple gifts. While most households did not decorate that early for the holidays, on this occasion the house was turned into a magical Christmas house that mesmerized the children.
Arlene was the youngest of six children spanning 11 years, and there were always family and friends dropping in for supper (no one ever called it dinner then.) Her mother, Martha, was used to feeding many people. While they weren’t wealthy, they were better off than many folks: they could take care of themselves and share what they had with others.
Across the pond, at the top of a hill, the railroad tracks busily carried cargo and passengers. The steam engines chugged along, and their haunting whistle was a constant intrigue to the children who lived within earshot. Looking up the hill at night, you could see the lights in the passenger cars, and Arlene wondered where they were going and what their stories were.
Occasionally, throughout those dark Depression years, they would see a hobo coming down from the tracks across the field. He would inevitably wind up at the house on the edge of the pond. Martha always saw them coming first, and if any children were outside, they would be summoned indoors for safety. While smartly taking precautions against wandering strangers, she always asked the hobo to come sit at the kitchen table where he would get a hearty meal. With large families, the old cook stove was always baking and bubbling away. If not, there was always something in the warming oven on top. On the rare occasion nothing was there, she would whip up some pancakes and eggs. She talked with the hobo’s cheerily, giving them the same dignity and respect that she gave to anyone else. They say that hobos used to leave a secret chalk mark on any house where they received a good meal, as a way to let the next hobo know they’d be treated well. If any house was marked, it would have been Martha’s.
In addition to feeding family, friends, and hobos, Martha would see ragtag groups of poor, tiny children wander down to the pond and spend the entire day there. “Those children haven’t eaten all day!” she would say. Off she would go across the field and each child would get a shoebox stuffed with egg salad or cheese sandwiches. She knew it might be the only protein they would get that day.
Considering Martha’s self-appointed duty of making sure everyone had nourishment in hard times, it was no surprise that at Arlene’s birthday party, a roast chicken dinner was served to all the children before two large cakes were brought out to their wide-eyed amazement. Of course one was chocolate, and back then, everything was necessarily made from scratch. After that, games were played. Despite hard times, life was good.
Within 24 hours, America was about to change. A startling broadcast came on the radio the next day with reports about a faraway place called Pearl Harbor. The next day, they gathered around the floor model radio to hear the president tell the country they were at war. The adults looked grim and talked in hushed tones. Probably every child in America was asking their parents the same question Arlene was, “Will the war come here, Mama?”
Still, the tree went up in the front parlor as usual, which in most houses was a separate room from the ‘living room.’ On Christmas morning the large parlor doors were kept open with a white sheet covering only the presents that were too big or awkward to wrap. No peeking until everyone had their breakfast. Presents abounded, and Arlene got her doll, which always came in “those long gray cardboard boxes,” as any little girl back then could tell you.
Within what seemed like a short time, Arlene was tearfully waving goodbye to her eldest sister as her parents drove her to the nearby train station to serve in the WAVES in Washington D.C., where she remained for much of the war. There would be blackouts, air raid drills, rationing and defense stamps, war bonds, and victory gardens. Children meticulously wrapped their tin foil into balls and collected bags of milkweed pods in response to the military’s request to “help the boys overseas.” Service stars would go up in windows across town; when they would tragically turn gold, the town mourned together.
Martha would take a job at the factory and began working shift work. Like many first time working mothers, somehow she still made sure the warmer on top of the stove was always filled with food.
There would be fearful adventures for the children; like when they heard a distant ham radio in a cave across the pond, and spent the summer cautiously stalking the woods for the Nazis they were sure had jumped off the newsreels and into their town.
For Arlene and her playmates, however, that birthday party in December 1941 would be fondly remembered as a time of innocence — to be discussed long after their hair had turned white, and their voices trembled with age.
Somewhere back along that stream of time, twelve children still joyfully frolic at my mother Arlene’s birthday party. Time has not diminished that joy, it is just a bend in the stream behind us that we can no longer see. But if you listen close enough, you might still be able to hear the whistle from that steam engine rolling beyond the pond and chugging along the hill… just like my mother still can.