If Tom Brokaw didn’t invent the phrase, “America’s Greatest Generation”, he surely embedded it into our nation’s psyche. I didn’t read his book but from his interviews, he seemed to highlight the fighting men of World War II who defeated Hitler’s Nazi Army. When I reflect on that era, my thoughts turn instead to the women, whose glory, for the most part, followed a different story line. With the exception of some who bravely volunteered for military service, most remained stateside to “hold down the fort” and fill voids in the workforce.
Beginning in 1941, with that first call to arms, hordes of men, lit by patriotic fervor or dreams of heroism, enlisted or were drafted into the military. They boarded ships for overseas as young sweethearts waved good-bye, also swept up by “the Cause”. My mother’s family sent two sons, my father’s sent four. Five daughters stayed behind.
At 18, my mother was hired as a postal clerk, a job newly opened to females to keep the home-front functioning. Aunt Sally, the adventurous one, headed for California, responding to a newspaper ad calling on women to help build aircraft for the “war effort”. Aunt Pat stayed home to care for younger siblings and help Gramma in the family’s “Victory Garden” while Grampa worked the assembly line at Ford’s, retooled to build fleets of military trucks. The 1940’s marched on until the world was finally liberated from the threat of fascism. Boys came home and life resumed with a lust for normalcy. Imagine America’s young men and women reuniting, hell-bent on forgetting the fear, mayhem and loneliness of war and separation. First came love. Then came marriage. Then came a bunch of us in baby carriages.
The post-war period arrived prior to modern medicine’s miracle, one now taken for granted, called “family planning”. Back then, young families were largely at the mercy of their reproductive instincts. (After all, humans, not unlike other earthly creatures, are charged with the “continuation of the species”.) Babies came in droves — two, then four, then six, or more! My family prematurely stopped at three, only because Dad became seriously ill.
Our childhood was characterized by stress and strain. My mother, at 33, was unprepared to be the sole breadwinner and full-time disciplinarian. During the war she was happy to work but once it was over, she just wanted to be someone’s wife, to make a home of her own and have a family. She liked the idea of keeping things orderly, cooking, gardening, and waiting for dad to come home. But that was not what her life delivered. Despite living to 94, my mom never seemed able to adapt to change gracefully. Instead, she was a fighter. I’ve wondered if this was in her DNA or if those early experiences with trauma and loss were the culprit. Whatever the cause, my aunties became my refuge.
Most of my extended family lived nearby so it was routine for the cousins to plan weekend or holiday overnights. Aunties became our my “moms away from home”, keeping track of us, expecting respect, and disciplining as needed. I was a shy girl. Being the youngest, I learned to take orders at an early age. I watched a lot from the sidelines, picking up cues on how to avoid getting into trouble. My two older siblings liked giving orders, threatening to tell Mom when she got home. The rule of thumb was to “be seen and not heard”, and generally, that strategy worked well.
I remember once staying at Aunt June’s for Christmas vacation. She liked to bake. One morning, my cousins and I woke to find her kitchen table scattered with bowls of freshly made cookie dough, piles of nuts, chopped fruits and colored candy sprinkles. My beautiful aunt, in her hand-embroidered apron, was busy pulling trays of gingerbread men from a hot oven. The smell was enticing. But before a toe could cross the threshold, Aunt June vigilantly defended her territory with the terse command, “Stay out of the kitchen!”
Later on, while putting supplies back into the cupboard, she called to me, “Kathy, would you like a cookie?” Shyly, I replied in little more than a whisper, “I don’t care.” Without a second’s time granted for me to reconsider, Aunt June shot back brusquely, “Well, if you don’t care, I don’t care either.” With that, I watched her put the cookie canister away — a lesson learned that has lasted a lifetime. Thank-you, Aunt June.
If Aunt June is remembered for her tough love, I remember Aunt Shirley as soft on crime. One day she went out, leaving us kids alone for awhile. My cousin, Art (remember Art) was always the one we counted on to push the limits, or sometimes even break the rules.
On this day, Art decided we should raid the pantry. He rifled through the contents before finding his mother’s hiding place for cookies! I stood by warily, as he set the table. Six glasses, six plates, six napkins. A gallon of milk. And a never-before-opened package of Oreos. He hollered out the front door, “Last call for cookies!!” Within minutes, the entire McHugh clan clambered around me, taking their seats.
We’d gorged ourselves on the entire bag before I realized what we’d done. Art and his sister cleaned up just in time for Aunt Shirley’s return. As if from a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale, she ordered, “Art, get out the Oreos. A snack, your reward for being good while I was gone.” Art’s face turned white as a sheet. “Oh no!” I thought, “Big trouble now!” And as if clairvoyant, Aunt Shirley looked Art right in the eye and asked the next question. “Art, did you leave any for me?”
Two dear Aunties, two very different styles! Both full of love, and wisdom. Most of these great women are gone now, but be assured, they will never be forgotten!