My father went to war in 1942. One of the last things he said to me was “You are the man of the house now, Charlie.” This despite the fact that I was only ten and I had a brother; but I guess my dad thought that a five-year-old couldn’t be the man of the house.
I didn’t get to be man of the house for very long. Less than a month after my father shipped out to the West Coast, what was left of our family, my mother, brother Thomas and I took a train west from our home in Norfolk. We were headed to my father’s hometown, Eden. My father was a major in the Army Air Corp and I gleaned from the conversations for over a year the possibility that we would go to war. After Pearl Harbor, it was a certainty and the only question was when. So they made plants to lease our house to group of young ladies newly hired by the government and before summer came, the three of us would live with his parents.
So I said goodbye to my friends. At that time, we said goodbye a lot-my friends’ fathers and brothers, our neighbors, store clerks, every man it seemed was enlisting and leaving for points north, south, east and west to fight the Japs and the Krauts.
Ella was my mother’s name. We lived in a house given to her by the Aunt Peggy who had raised her. My mother’s immediate family all died during the Great Influenza Outbreak. They were poor and could not afford the medicine or a doctor. The surprise was that Ella did not contract the disease that killed her mother, father and two sisters. The only relative in America was her Aunt Peggy who had married a wealthy man in Norfolk, but had no children. My mother always believed that if Aunt Peggy had known how sick the family was, she would have sent her sister the money for the family to get better. It was pride that had ultimately killed her family, acting along with the flu. Mom was a firm believer in not being too proud when it came to family.
Sometimes my parents would forget Thomas and I were around and that was how I heard Pop toss the words back at her. She didn’t want to leave Norfolk and go to Eden. She had her friends, her church, we had school. But my grandparents weren’t young, Pop said, and they were too proud to ask for help. “And I could concentrate easier on getting back home if I knew my family, all of you, were looking out for each other.”
Mom lifted her eyebrow the way she did when she knew she was beaten, but didn’t want to admit it.
So here we were on the train to Eden. In the 1940’s with gas being rationed, trains were the best way to travel long distances. This appealed to both Thomas and me; while we were sad to leave our home and friends, we were excited about our adventure. When you’re a kid watching the landscape change from city streets to plowed fields and eating a box lunch are very exciting. We met soldiers leaving for weekend furloughs and young men in their civilian clothes on their way to training camps. We knew we were approaching Richmond when the fields were replaced with factories belching smoke into the air. Our train stopped, took on more passengers and we waited for the scenery change yet again for our last leg.
“So where are you going, young man,” the soldier across from me asked as our train started to pick up speed. He had gotten on board in Richmond and wore a dark blue Marine Corps uniform with one strip. A corporal, I knew, from my father’s training.
My mother smiled and nodded indicating that it was okay for me to talk to the friendly stranger. “We’re going to Eden to stay with my grandparents until my Pop comes home,” I answered.
“He in the army?” he asked.
“He flies airplanes!” Thomas piped in.
The Marine’s eyes widened a little. “That must be exciting,” he said. My mother still smiled, but I could see the tightness in it that meant she was forcing it.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s in the Pacific right now. Where are you going?”
“Back to my base in Florida. Then I get to go on a ship for a while and I’ll see where that goes!”
“Charlie’s the man of the house,” Thomas interrupted again. “Only he still has to listen to Mom.”
“Thomas!” I snapped, but my mother’s smile relaxed so I didn’t hit him.
The Marine laughed. “Well,” he said to Thomas, “It’s a big responsibility being the man of the house. I’ll bet Charlie likes having some help.”
“You’re correct, sir,” my mother said. “And Charlie is a big help. I’m Ella Haile,” she said, reaching out to shake the young Marine’s hand. His name was Christopher and he was from Philadelphia. He came from a large Polish Catholic family. He and my mother talked all the way to Eden about family, the war, and the South and how different it was from the North. I was a teenager before it occurred to me how lonely my mother must have been to open up to a total stranger, albeit a friendly one.
It was suppertime when the train finally arrived in Eden. By that time, the shine had worn off the trip. I was hungry and Thomas had fallen asleep. I helped Christopher carry our luggage to the platform before he jumped back on the train to finish his journey. Months later, when the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, I wondered if Christopher was with them.
I hadn’t seen my grandparents except in pictures, since I was younger than Thomas. It is odd now to think that they only lived half a state away. But traveling was more difficult back then. We had lived in Maryland before until Pop was stationed in Norfolk. They had never made the trip to see us at either place. But I recognized them from their picture and knew that the woman who threw her arms around me was my grandmother. She kissed my cheek and I fought the urge to wipe her stick lipstick off.
My grandfather was a tall man with a smile in his eyes. He no longer worked at the bank, I knew, but he still wore his suit. He reached for Thomas, took him out of my mother’s arms and kissed her cheek. “Ella, it’s good to see you. How was the trip?” His voice was deep, friendly and slow like my father’s. Thomas woke up in the transfer and stared at him for a moment before snuggling into his shoulder.
“It was lovely,” Mom answered, “Though a little crowded. But I suppose that’s what’s to be expected these days.” She adjusted her hat and reached for a bag.
“No dear,” my grandmother said. “Cody can take that.” Behind her came a little dark boy about my age who grabbed two of our suitcases. Not to be outdone, I grabbed the other two and followed him to the car. We loaded them into the trunk while my mother and grandparents walked toward us. It was too noisy to hear them, but I suppose they were talking about the trip and supper, I hoped.
“I’ll be getting now,” Cody said, slamming closed the trunk.
“I’m Charlie,” I said, extending my hand. Cody looked like he didn’t know what to do, then shook my hand.
“I’m Cody,” he said and looked very anxious to leave.
“Do you live nearby,” I asked, but before he could answer everyone else had arrived at the car. My grandmother handed him a coin.
“Get on home,” she said, without thanking him.
My grandfather, however, did thank him and asked if he wanted a ride home.
“No sir. I’m fine walkin’,” Cody answered.
“That’s a good idea,” my grandfather said. “Lily, you don’t mind driving, do you? Charlie and Thomas, won’t you join us?” And just like that, he handed his keys to my grandmother who looked too surprised to respond. He put my brother down, now fully awake and held his hand. “Ella, we’ll see you both at home. The boys and I have some catching up to do.”
My mother’s look was peculiar. Then she smiled as though let in on the joke and said, “Of course.”
My grandmother looked at him, then Cody, then my mother and said “Ella and I will see you at home.” And they got in the car and drove off.
I found that my grandparents lived six blocks from the train station on Randolph Street. On the way to their home, we passed neighbors on their porches. They stopped us to talk or simply said hello and waved and the four of us. Each time we were to someone new, he would say “I’d like you to meet my grandsons, Charlie and Thomas. And of course, you know Cody Litten.” And he would tip his hat while we said hello. It took us a half hour to walk those six blocks, but I soon understood that this was how one took an evening walk in Eden. You greeted everyone and took your time.
Dinner was on the table when we arrived and my mother and grandmother were already seated. Cody came in with us, but soon disappeared into another room. Thomas and I sat where we were told. I later found out Cody had eaten in the kitchen with his mother, Clara. It didn’t make sense to me since there was plenty of room at the dining room table. But I was too overwhelmed with everything new and too hungry to ask questions.
Later that night, when Thomas was asleep, I crept into my mother’s room to watch her brush her hair. It was long, dark brown like my own. She wore it like Rita Hayworth in waves. It was still warm in the house and even though the windows were open, it was very quiet.
“Come sit next to me,” she said, sliding over so I could sit with her on the bed. She put her arm around me and fiddled with my hair. “Your grandfather wants to show you and Thomas the farm he grew up on tomorrow.”
“Will you come with us?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I need to get us unpacked. And I’m sure your grandmother will have a task for me.”
We were quiet for a bit. “Why didn’t Cody and his mother eat with us? How come they had to eat in the kitchen?”
Mom sighed. “Well, I suppose since they aren’t part of the family.”
“Oh.” More silence. “Not cause they’re negroes?”
I felt her smile. “I’m sure that has something to do with it.”
I snuggled closer. “I like Cody. And Granddad treated him like he was anybody else.”
“That’s just how your Granddad is. You need to get some sleep,” she said. She kissed me and sent me off to the room I shared with Thomas. The night was cooling a bit and all I could hear was crickets, no cars, no planes. It took me a while to fall asleep.