Peter buttoned his shirt thoughtfully. His eyes memorized the room, the trellises of blue flowers running up and down the wallpaper, the metal bed and worn mattress, the mismatched dresser and bureau, the lace panels that lifted ever so slightly, touching the side of the crib with the breeze.
Looking back to the final button, he tucked his shirt into his pants, then walked to the dresser and picked up the comb lying there. Running it through his hair, he studied his reflection, felt that sick churn in his gut, and wondered if, once he left this room, his life would truly cease. He felt it must, that he must become a stranger, someone he did not know. It must be so. For his heart was in this room, in this house, on this land. How could he endure what was to come? Would he?
Before he turned away, he lifted the graduation picture Beth had given him over four years ago, studied every detail, memorized her smile, the look in her eyes, and soft shape of her chin; then, placing it back beside his own, lifted the photograph of his son and did the same. Turning, he breathed in the soft fragrance unique to that room. It filled him, permeated his mind; the smell of her lying next to him, the baby smell of the crib.
Walking to the crib, he lifted the small stuffed dog sitting in the corner, turned it over in his hands once then again, and smiled a deep satisfying smile. He thought of his son playing with it in the early morning hours while the two of them slept lightly. Sometimes, he would awaken to Tommy talking to the dog; hear him bang it against the bars of the crib, and he would pull Beth close. Together they would wait for the dawn.
Still holding the animal, he looked once more at the bed by the window. The lace curtains moved ever so gently in the breeze then floated out, touched the chenille spread draped over it.
How long would it be, he wondered, before he knew again the comfort of his bed, his wife . . . would he . . . ever again . . . be so blessed?
Casting the thought aside, he put the dog back in its corner, grabbed his duffle bag from the end of the bed, and hurried from the room.
Entering the kitchen, he placed the bag on the table and headed to the high chair. Squeaking the rubber lamb that he himself had placed on the tray a few minutes earlier, he smiled at the blue eyes grinning back at his.
“Hey, sport. That cake good?”
Tommy’s four-toothed grin broadened. He offered Peter a bite. “Da?”
“Da, yourself. You’re a lucky guy to get such good cake. But then, Mom’s a pretty good cook, isn’t she?” He cast Beth a quick glance. She stopped wiping the table, smiled at them then returned to the sink.
“Da?” Tommy lifted the cake as if an offering.
“You eat it, Buddy. ‘Da’ doesn’t want any more. What I want is for you to be a good boy, to take good care of Mommy for me while I’m away. Can you do that?” He rubbed the fine white hair on his son’s head.
Tommy’s head bobbed up and down with exaggerated seriousness as he shoved another piece of cake into his mouth. “Da.”
“Yes, Da, and don’t you forget it young man.” Cradling the miniature chin, he returned the duplicate smile, emanating from innocent eyes.
Standing, he crossed the room to where Elizabeth finished dishes. Wrapping both arms around her, he waited while she rinsed the plate; then he kissed her neck. She melted back into him.
“Are you about ready?”
She nodded, said nothing. The impossibility of the next few hours lay as leaden in her heart as in his.
Gazing out the window towards the barn and pasture beyond, Peter, too, felt the burden. It was June 1942. When he’d received his draft notice, he’d seriously considered filing for a deferment. In the final analysis, however, he had decided he must go. Leroy, Paul, almost all his contemporaries had been called up first. He’d watched each leave with emotions alternating between relief and guilt. Torn between the desire to protect and provide for his family and duty to his country, he had finally come to the conclusion that the sacrifice being asked of him was one he, as well as countless others, must accept. That did not make it easy, nor had it been easy for Beth. She had acquiesced, as he knew she would, but it had not been easy.
So he stood now with his arms around her, dreading the actual moment of separation which both realized could, conceivably, be forever. At least, he knew it would feel that way, no matter what the road ahead held.
“I wish you’d give in. I’d feel a lot better if I knew you and Tommy were with my folks.”
“This is our home. If I have to be alone, at least I want to be here—in my own home.”
“I know, and I’m not asking you to change your mind, but remember your promise. Come October, you’ll close up the house and go to Mom and Dad’s or to your mother’s, if you’d rather. You won’t fight me on this any more, will you? I’m going to have enough on my mind without worrying about you and Tommy here alone.”
“We’d be just fine, Peter.”
“I know we agreed, but I want to wait that long. If you don’t go overseas, we won’t have to move twice.”
“OK, let’s drop it we know.”
He studied her profile.
She turned, met his look.
He gazed deep into violet eyes. “When is Ben coming?”
“I’ll feel better knowing he’s here for the summer. He’s good help. Matt and Dad will take care of anything you can’t, OK?”
A slight smile played at her lips. The friendship that had developed between her husband and her brother amused her. Bill, well, that was another story. Peter had little patience with him. But Ben, the two of them, reminded her a great deal of how it used to be with her father in what seemed another lifetime.
“Do you know how many times you’ve said that the past few days?”
Heartbreak diverted his eyes; her smile faded.
“Peter . . .”
“I hear a car. My folks must be here. I’ll get Tommy.” He meant to brush a kiss on her cheek, but she grabbed him, clung to him. For a moment, he gave in, held her close then he stiffened and pulled away.
“We’ll be OK. We’re not the only ones going through this, remember. We’ll be just fine. Hold on to our faith, our love for one another. It’s all we really have anyway.”
His voice faded. He studied her lips. With both hands, he cupped her face and kissed her passionately. When the car stopped outside, he drank deep from her eyes then went to release his son from his high chair.
Elizabeth bit her lip, untied her apron, and memorized the moment.
Peter kissed his grandmother goodbye at the car. She did not care to walk the distance to the bus to watch another son go off to war. Holding his hand and his gaze a long time, she let him go with, “God keep you, Peter,” and a pat to his hand. Her wrinkled lips quivered despite her best efforts. Tears filled the corners of her eyes.
“He will. I love you, Grandma.” Peter smiled and kissed her hand.
The wait for the bus passed awkwardly. They became, suddenly, strangers. The bridge connecting them became a road hazard, its planks of weathered wood menacing with potential threat. When it was time to go, Peter said goodbye quickly, pretended not to see their fear, their sadness. Taking his son from Elizabeth, he hugged him too hard. Tommy started to cry, reached for his mother.
“Not this time, Sport.” Peter handed Tommy to Laura; then, taking his wife in his arms, he looked deep into her eyes one last time and whispered, “Always remember how much I love you,” then kissed her and, too quickly, was gone.
Clasping her hand over her mouth to smother a sob, Elizabeth watched him disappear inside the rumbling bus. Her father-in-law’s strong arm found her. She grasped his hand in her own and smiled as Peter waved goodbye.
When the bus disappeared from view, Elizabeth retrieved Tommy and walked stoically back to the car. She would have many nights to weep before she would see her husband again—if ever. For now, and for Peter, she would be strong. Bitter experience had helped her learn to accept the things in this world she could not change, had taught her to trust God for those things beyond human limitations of strength and spirit. She was not alone, not really. Even though, at that moment, it felt very much like it. Much of this she and Peter had learned together.
Crawling into the back seat of the car beside Grandma Kraus, she cradled Tommy in her arms, handed him his blanket, and avoided Anna Kraus’ eyes, her damp cheeks. Finally, taking the gnarled hand in her own, she said bravely, “He’ll be alright. He has to be. We need him too much for anything to happen to him. All of us do.”
“You and Tommy are young, Elizabeth. He’ll come home to you. Me, I’m not so sure . . . I had so hoped your news would . . .” Anna’s sharp eyes detected Elizabeth’s unspoken truth.
“You didn’t tell him? Elizabeth, he’s a right to know.”
“He will—soon, as soon as I get his address. He felt so duty bound to go, I just . . . I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want him feeling guilty and tied down . . . no matter how badly . . .” Her voice trailed off. Suddenly, all defenses gave way.
As the car’s motor roared to life, she began to sob. As Anna Kraus put her arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders, Matt took his nephew. The car backed up and pulled away, headed in the opposite direction of the departed bus.