When Mom opened the mailbox on the porch and found a letter, postmarked January 20, 1945, U. S. Army—Italy, she was so thankful that it was a letter, not the dreaded telegram reporting Dad’s death. He’d survived months of fierce fighting at Monte Cassino, the mountaintop monastery in Italy held by the Germans. She shouted the good news to her parents inside. “Bob’s coming home!”
“The army’s sending Bob back to the states,” she announced to her Mom and Dad in the foyer. Her face paled as she read on, “but he’s going to a hospital in Memphis … for rest and rehabilitation … from combat fatigue. It’s signed by an army doctor.”
“Thank the good Lord that he’s coming back, and he’s not wounded.” said her mom. Her dad nodded solemnly, and put his arm around her shoulder.
Then she addressed me, “Your Daddy’s coming home.” I was seventeen months old, sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on a pot with a wooden spoon. I stopped, looked at her blankly, and resumed drumming.
* * * * *
I heard Mom tell this story and others from my early childhood so many times that I sometimes imagine they’re my memories. Fortunately Mom liked to tell stories, and I was often her only audience in my years as a toddler. Sitting on her lap, playing on the floor, holding her hand on walks, I enjoyed listening to her repeat stories and join her in laughing at the funny parts.
When I was older, news stories on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day often prompted her memory about Dad’s return from World War II. She told me about the crowded night train to Memphis, unable to sleep, worrying about Dad’s mental condition, trying not to think of the horrors he must have experienced in North Africa, Italy, and France, wondering if he would he ever be the same. In the darkness, she saw only her somber face reflected in the train window. Clicking wheels and snoring people lulled her into brief periods of sleep.
At the VA hospital, an outsized plantation house with white pillars on the porch and extensive grounds, Mom said she hugged Dad for a long time in the lobby. They both cried softly. In an empty dining room with mid-morning light streaming through the high windows, they looked at snapshots of me, and she told Dad I looked just like him. Before lunch, they took the first of their long walks on the leaf-strewn paths beneath bare trees. In the coming days, they walked until cold or rain drove them back into the hospital.
As she shook her head slowly, Mom told me “Your Dad was not the same man I kissed goodbye when he boarded the train for Norfolk to a troop transport to North Africa. In Memphis, he was quiet. His eyes were blank. He didn’t look me in the eye for more than a few seconds.”
On their walks, she talked continuously to fill the silence. He hardly said a word. She could not make him laugh, even with stories he once enjoyed from their high school days. He would nod, but barely smile. Mom forced smiles and laughs for the following two weeks.
When Mom returned to Columbus for work, their long farewell embrace was much like the one when she arrived. Once the bus pulled away, she couldn’t stop crying. She’d not packed nearly enough hankies.
On the train to Columbus, Mom wrote Dad a long letter, the first of those she wrote every day while he was in Memphis. She was sure these letters affirming her love would hasten his rehabilitation.
She lay in the single bed in her old room, cried softly, and worried that Dad might never be himself again. She forced herself to remember their good times at high school dances and graduation parties. He was such a swell guy. Good looking, too. And she reminded herself how thrilled she was that he liked her.
When sleep didn’t come, she remembered pictures from their wedding. Dad looked sharp in his double-pocketed uniform jacket, wide leather belt, creased pants, spit-shined shoes, and service cap. An inch over five feet and slim in the ivory sheath her mother had stitched, Mom was a radiant bride. Father Holtzappel led them through their vows at St. Augustine Church where she was baptized, took first communion, and completed the eighth grade at the parish school next door barely six years before.
Dad’s mother and younger brother, known in our home as Uncle Bill Calvert to distinguish him from Mom’s brother Uncle Bill Stephen, visited almost every weekend, bringing rattles, toys, and outfits for me, the first grandson. Uncle Bill Calvert, ineligible for military service due to a boyhood bout with scarlet fever, lived with his mother and attended Ohio State. Grandmother Calvert shared information on Dad’s condition she gathered from the physicians she knew from her days as a physician’s wife. She also had lots of advice for Mom about diaper rash and breast feeding. Mom said she smiled and nodded appreciatively.
Weeks passed slowly until the dogwoods’ white, cruciform flowers announced the coming of Easter, the feast of the resurrection.
* * * * *
Mom remembered well the day she plucked the VA letter from the mailbox notifying her that Dad could come home to Columbus. Bing Crosby’s latest hit was “I’ll be Seeing You,” and she sang it over and over, aloud and in her head. The next day, she was on the train to Memphis.
She had doubts, but surely he was better if the VA was discharging him. Would he be the guy she met on a blind date in high school? Would he laugh like he used to when they were going to parties? Would he still make bad puns?
When Mom stepped into the hospital visitors’ area, Dad sprang out of a chair and took her into his arms. They held each other tight for a long time, teetering in the middle of the room. Stepping back, hands still clasped, they gazed at each other. Handsome as ever in his freshly pressed uniform, he smiled broadly and his eyes shone.
Dad wanted to know if I was starting to talk. Mom told him she taught me a new word: “Daddy.” His face glowed. He was full of questions. His eyes were focused and steady as she updated him on his mother, brothers, and friends, one person and then another. Some made him chuckle. They walked the grounds and talked for hours, missed lunch, and didn’t realize they were hungry until there were long shadows. After dinner, they caught the midnight train to Columbus. They snuggled on their seat. Mom was sure Dad was back.
Dad lightly rubbed her back as Mom succumbed to a deep sleep. The fields turned from gray to green as the eastern sky brightened. Dad was watching the peaceful landscape of the American Midwest, so different from the battered buildings and ravished lands he had seen in Africa and Italy.
Yet he scanned the scene intently for movement like the forward artillery observer he had been, camping with a couple of buddies well beyond the front lines, watching shells explode near German positions, crouching in the brush, clutching phones to redirect the fire of far away artillery gunners to their targets. An enemy patrol might surround them at any moment. A german fighter might spot them and strafe their camp. For weeks, death or capture haunted them, an oppressive tension weighed on them, and fitful sleep provided little relief at night. Months and years of such battle were far worse than fatigue. It unnerved brave men and permanently damaged the minds of young men, but the army called it mere “battle fatigue.”
The train rolled over the tracks toward the rising sun. Mom, jostled awake, saw Dad twisted into a ball on the floor with his arms over his head. The drone of low-flying planes was fading away. She reached down, rubbed his back, told him he was in the states, slowly stroked his forehead, and softly repeated her assurances.
Dad lay there for a few minutes, nodded and climbed back into his seat. He buried his face in her shoulder, said he was sorry, promised not to do it again, and wept softly. Mom continued to reassure him. He became quiet and then fell asleep on her shoulder.
In the morning, after coffee and doughnuts, Dad asked if his mother would meet them at the station and who else would be there. Mom was encouraged, but still shaken by his dive for cover early that morning.
By the time the train arrived in Columbus, Dad sounded much like he did the day before, but Mom noticed some hesitation and awkwardness in his conversation. He looked her in the eye when he spoke to her, but his eyes sometimes drifted to a stare. Her husband was not all the way back. She thought he just needed some time to adjust and vowed to give him all the time he needed. He’ll be fine she told herself, but doubts lurked in the back of her mind and sometimes forced their way forward.
As the train reached the platform, Mom said Grandmother’s royal blue suit with a red carnation caught her eye. Then she saw me standing in front of Grandmother, Uncle Bill Calvert, and her folks. I had insisted on wearing a fringed cowboy shirt Mom had made for me from a pattern.
Dad grabbed his duffel bag and Mom’s suitcase, followed her off the train, and dropped the bags, walked slowly to me, squatted, and said softly, “Your Daddy’s home.”
Mom said I stepped back, stared intently at this man I had only seen in photographs, and said, “Daddy?”