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It was my grandpa’s funeral-- or at least, everyone was wearing black. But this funeral had none of the tears and whispered comments about how “He’ll be missed.” In fact, nobody even seemed to be grieving. Everyone was laughing and telling jokes and carrying golden, bubbly flutes of champagne. Momma called it “A celebration of life.” I said it seemed stupid to celebrate someone’s life after they were dead, but she told me to just enjoy it before I understood it to death.
There was a huge picture of him in the middle of the room, and on every surface in my grandma’s house there were three smaller ones. Most of them were of the old him. They grey, balding, reading him. I passed a picture of him and me in the garden last summer. My short-cropped bob and big, red-framed glasses smiled up at the camera while he smiled at me, our reflections looking back at us in the goldfish pond.
My grandma was sitting in a big red armchair surrounded by people and pictures of Grandpa. Momma and her two sisters were bending over her fussing over blankets, though I
couldn’t imagine why. It was summer in Georgia, and the back of my cotton dress was already sticking to my skin, even though we had only been here about half an hour. I wrapped my pigtail around my finger and wandered over to the group around my grandma. She had already shooed her daughters away and untucked the blankets, folding them neatly and setting them on the back of the chair next to her. She was the only one not dressed in black. Her doctors had insisted on it, saying the dark color would make her overheat. I don’t think she would have worn black anyway. I have never seen her in a color darker than green; she said it was just plain depressing.
She had a picture in her hand and was pointing out things to Momma. I went around the side of the chair and leaned over the arm, listening to what she was saying.
“Those hats drove all of us crazy, Dear, I assure you.” She was pointing to the funny-looking triangle cocked to one side of twenty-year-old Grandpa’s head. Momma rolled her eyes and took the picture from Grandma and set it back on the table behind another one in a silver frame. I picked it up off the shiny surface, being careful not to put smudge marks on the glass covering the black-and-white picture. It was of a couple, both about nineteen years old. I could tell it was summer, because the woman whom I assumed was my grandma Joyce was dressed in a flowery short-sleeved dress. Her perfectly curled head of hair was on the man’s chest, and he was reading to her what looked like a very thick book. They were lying on a blanket, and a the contents of a picnic blanket were scattered around behind them. There was thin forest surrounding them, and a pretty light filtered through the trees. Her eyes were closed, and she had
her legs curled up behind her, so she looked as if she could almost be asleep. I handed the picture to my grandma, “Who’s this?” I asked as she took it.
She smiled, “That, my dear, is your grandfather and I the summer we met. He was dead set on reading me Gone With the Wind before he shipped out to Europe. He almost finished it too. The last four chapters he hand wrote to me in his letters like he was reading them... I loved that book.” Her hand started to shake, so momma took the picture from her and set in her lap.
“Tell me the story of how you met,” I said, leaning over the chair arm so far my little legs kicked out and I balanced on the frame, “Please.”
She smiled, “Oh,” she said, “It was such a long time ago, but I do remember bits. And that night was almost unforgettable,” She straightened her dress and took another look at the picture, then set it back next to the one of grandpa in his army uniform. Her special smile flashed at me, “Are you sure you want to hear the story?”
“YES!” I yelled, then was immediately shushed by momma, who was shooed down by Grandma, “Alright then,” she said. “I’ll start at the beginning; that’s where you have to start with stories like these. We-- Mae, Evelyn and I-- were getting ready to go out dancing. I was nineteen, and they were twenty three and twenty one.”
Neither of Grandma Joyce’s sisters were still alive, so I didn’t expect there to be anyone to correct grandma when she got the facts wrong. It didn’t matter to little ten year old me; Grandma Joyce’s stories were fantastic.
“I was already itching to go, but Mae and Evelyn were lagging as long as they normally did, taking as much time as they pleased when I would rather be dancing. Mae was smoking of
course, turning away from her reflection in the mirror only long enough to light another cigarette and answer me when I asked her how I looked. I struck a pose against the doorframe and waited for her to evaluate me.
“She blew smoke into my eyes, thoughtfully eyeing my red lips and tight dress. ‘Like a doll,’ she said, taking another drag on her cigarette then stubbing it out, turning around to see her own reflection in the mirror. She picked up one of the tubes of lipstick scattered randomly around the tabletop with her long fingers and uncapped it as Evelyn came out of the room I had gotten changed in, walking through the door past me with a hot curling iron in her hand. She leaned down next to Mae and wrapped her bangs around the hot iron for the hundredth time and puffed them out, then set the iron down and took the lipstick from Mae and smeared it on her own lips.
“Now, you must understand that at that point, the population of the town surrounding Camp Toccoa was made up mostly of girls under twenty five, and the best hits of 1941 played out of every window at that time of night. But however many girls there were, there were more than enough boys to go around. The army training camp was right down the road, and there was no mistaking their desperation for dance partners at the bars and dance clubs in town. That’s where we were headed, as soon as Mae and Evelyn pulled themselves together.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see doors along our street opening, and girls walking down the street toward town, each a copy of us: red lipstick, permanent wave, flutter sleeve dress. Most were carrying purses on their arms, though some had soldiers instead.
“I thought you lived in Richmond then.” Mamma sure did know how to ruin a story.
“Dear, that was after the war.
Now, we lived for these soldiers. These boys, barely out of high school, kaki-clad with their army hats set at jaunty angles. These boys, who were so full of laughter and rosy cheeks and kisses, it was hard to believe most of them probably wouldn’t come back. Mae had a small black-and-white picture taped to the mirror. She was engaged to him before that April, when he got killed. Evelyn never got seriously involved with any which one of them, but it wasn’t like she didn’t have any beaus. She was one of those girls who had one in every port, if you know what I mean, Dearie.” She patted my hand and smiled. I didn’t really have any idea what she meant by that, but I just took it as a thing a ten-year-old wasn’t supposed to know. I could have just looked at the shocked look on Mamma’s face, but I preferred to figure things out for myself.
“They finally finished their preening when we heard a knock on the door. Evelyn squealed and jumped out of the room, going to meet her date for the evening. Mae rolled her eyes and walked slowly out of the room as she always did, picking up our purses on the way and handing me mine. I don’t know why she always rolled her eyes, but she made a habit of it. It always seemed to make her look rather bored.
The four of us headed to the dance club we were going to, Evelyn arm and arm with her boy, and Mae and I walking together next to them. When we got to the bar, In the Mood was playing, and it was playing loud. I mean, really loud. Mae walked across the floor to get us drinks, and Evelyn went off dancing with her Richard or Tommy or some other. I was just standing there, looking like a fool I’m sure, when I saw this soldier, he couldn’t have been more
than nineteen or twenty, standing against the wall with nobody beside him, not even a drink in his hand. I just stared at him for the longest time, watching him doing nothing. Mae came back eventually and, placing the cherry coke in my hand, asked me what I was looking at. I of course told her, and she surveyed him herself, deemed him presentable, and shoved me toward him, almost making me spill my drink on that new dress. It’s the same one I’m wearing in the picture, actually,” she said, squinting at the photo I had originally picked up.
“Well, he must have been watching me as well, because as soon as Mae pushed me toward him, he saved my pride by coming up to me himself.
‘Cherry Coke?’ he asked, making me laugh. I don’t remember if I actually thought it was funny or if that was just my nerves, but I remember that I did laugh. He laughed too, straightening his soldier’s hat and smoothing down his buttons, ‘I’ve heard that never comes out of dresses.’ he said. I was blushing at that point, and set the dreaded glass down somewhere where it couldn’t hurt anything. I looked over in Mae’s direction and saw her being led to the floor by another of the boys.
‘It looks like both my sisters are dancing,’ I said, but the soldier just laughed nervously again. We were both so bad at this, that it in itself was almost funny. ‘Let’s go dancing,’ he suddenly said, and I agreed immediately. He led he out for the next dance, and we started to swing. It was some song about the war, of course. Something about supporting the boys off on the front. but I wasn’t listening to it, because the moment we stepped onto the dance floor, this soldier turned into a completely different man. Now, I was a good swinger back in my day, but he practically cleared the floor within two minutes of being on it. The two of us, we were a
perfect match. It was about four minutes into that dance that I knew I was going to marry this boy, and I didn’t even know his name.”
I didn’t think anybody in the room was talking now; they were all listening to Grandma’s story. The glasses of that champagne and plates of those little tea sandwiches I don’t really like had stopped circulating, and a crowd had gathered around her, sitting on the floor or leaning against the walls.
“Well, after that, they could barely keep us off the floor. With every dance, I fell more and more in love with him. It wasn’t until we were both about to fall over from dizziness that we sat at, or rather, fell into a table and ordered more drinks. Cherry cokes, of course. Neither of us were over twenty-one, I learned as we sat at the table, clinking our glass bottles together as we downed them, one after another. We asked each other about everything, but while he was talking, all I could do was look at him. I truly thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He was a real Georgia boy: blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes. I still remember the impression those eyes had on me, almost ninety years later. I could get lost in those eyes.
“He was twenty, training at Camp Toccoa of course, and had dreams of going to Stanford University to major in literature. I had never heard of such a thing, so I asked him what his favorite book was. When he told me it was Gone With the Wind and I had to tell him I had no idea what that was-- there is no way I can describe the look on his face. He was absolutely dumbfounded. He promised to not leave me alone until I could recite the whole thing in my sleep. He then proceeded to recite to me the first five paragraphs, which I enjoyed immensely. I’m not sure how many cokes I had had by then, but I was feeling jumpy again. Then the band started to play You and the Night and the Music.”
She leaved forward, “ This was my favorite song. It still is, but it was so unusual for a young woman like me to like any song that wasn’t up-and-coming I hardly mentioned it to anybody. This song was old, maybe...ten years old at that time. But I loved it anyway, and I knew any man I married had to like this song because I had been fantasizing playing it at my wedding since I was six. I may have been rushing ahead of myself, but young people don’t think of these things.
‘Can you slow dance as well as you can swing?’ I asked him, ‘I know this song is from the thirties and everything, but it’s one of my favorites.’
‘I might give it a go,’ he said, jumping up and taking my hand again. We started to dance, and I can remember every moment of it. I could feel his hand on my back, and at one point we ended up so close I put my head on his shoulder and just rested there as we swayed around in a circle.
‘Joyce?” he asked tentatively, making me pick up my head out of curiosity.
‘Yes William?’ I said, laughing, thinking he was going to make another joke; but when I saw he was serious I sobered up. ‘Yes?’
‘Can I call on you again?’
Fireworks were going off in my head. I wanted to scream like I had just gotten engaged. However, being somewhat civilized at that age, I just smiled. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you have to read that book to me somehow, don’t you?’
“That, of course, made him smile from ear to ear. Then he kissed my hand and was gone. the soldiers were near approaching their curfew and they had to walk back to the camp. I just stood there on a cloud until Mae and Evelyn came and snapped me out of it. The whole walk home they were chattering at this and that, I’m sure they were tipsy, but I walked slightly behind them, just thinking about my William who was going off to war in a couple months. When we got home it was almost midnight, so I rubbed my lipstick off and went to bed; but I dreamed of him that night, and thought of nothing else until he showed up again, two days later at two o’clock in the afternoon with a book in his hand and a smile on his face.
“That’s how it was for that summer, and the months after until he shipped out on a train bound for New York, then a troop ship to England. His book, a picnic blanket, me, and him. We usually went for strawberry milkshakes at the diner on the days he could be away for more than a few hours. By that time, we all had steady beaus, even Evelyn, so we generally took no notice of the others coming or going. But the boys were training, so there were days when all three of us just sat in the kitchen, reading outdated copies of Life, praying for a knock on the door. We never even bothered to take our lipstick off at night anymore. We were all buying our time until our boys shipped out, and they did. One by one all the familiar faces trickle out, and eventually it was our boys’ turn. It was Mae’s first, then Evelyn’s, and I knew I was next when William showed up at the door with a bouquet of daisies.
“I cried that a lot day, and he held me, as all good men do, and stroked my hair until I could face the dark, scary future of life with a soldier beau. I had seen my sisters slip into it, as well as a few of my friends. The girls who stiffened when the doorbell rang. The ones who did nothing but write and slept with stacks of letters under their pillows. I was about to become one of them, and I wasn’t ready.
“I told him he hadn’t finished reading me Gone With the Wind. He smiled and gave me the book. ‘I’ll finish it,’ he said, ‘I promise.’ Then he kissed me and was gone. Gone with all the rest of the boys we all loved so much.”
I kicked my legs out again while I was leaning on the chair, “And none of them came back?”
“No, not one. Except your grandfather. He promised me.”