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Old Lesson from Marge, Redux

Life hasn’t always been like this. But for my mom, and millions like her, there was a different version of the corona virus story.

It was 1942 when my parents, ages 17 and 18, got married. They had both graduated from high school, and Dad was stationed in Georgia for basic training in the Army Air Force, training to fly planes. He had enlisted because of World War II. After just one semester at Penn State, Mom took the train south to join him. She couldn’t bear to be without him. The high school sweethearts were so young that Mom had to get permission from her parents, long distance, to get married. They consented.

My dad very much wanted to be a pilot, but during maneuvers, each time the plane turned over, his stomach did, too. He was disappointed, but in retrospect, his inability to control his bodily response may have made it possible for me and my three siblings to enter the planet Earth. A lot of soldiers did not make it home alive. (Dad ended up playing his clarinet in one of the Army bands, giving us bratty kids, years later, multiple openings to tease that he and his clarinet saved the world from the Nazis.)

Once married, Mom found tiny apartments or single rooms, one after another, depending on where Dad was stationed. Housing was unreliable and inconsistent. She was alone, except for the rare times Dad could get off the base for a day or so. These were trying times, and she was not always in a safe situation. She was young and vulnerable, navigating a life that was far from the cushy one she had left behind. But she and Dad persevered. A year and a half later, she gave birth to my brother Bob at the base hospital, beginning a happy, if unstable series of stories of raising a baby in wartime.

Let’s talk about rations. For those of you who may not know, during WWII, the government limited the purchase of supplies of some of the basics which were in scarce supply because of the need to divert some to the soldiers overseas. Gasoline. Rubber products like tires. Butter. Eggs. Meat. Bacon. Canned goods. Coffee. Milk. Tea. Sugar. And more. People would get monthly ration books to use to purchase designated items. Once the stamps were used up, that was it, for those certain rationed products, until the next month.

As my brother Bob’s first birthday approached in this time of war and sacrifice, Mom made plans to make him a simple birthday cake. For weeks, she’d scrimped and saved up enough of her rations to buy the ingredients. Mom was a super-mom from the start. Her baby boy gave her tremendous joy in the uncertain time of war. She’d had natural childbirth, and breastfed Bob before it was popular to do either. So in anticipation of his little birthday celebration with Dad and a couple of others they had come to know in Georgia, Mom baked that special cake. I can picture how lovingly she made it. When it was time to take it out of the oven, something went very wrong, and the glass baking dish slid out of the oven and crashed onto the floor.

Mom was devastated. The cake was ruined. She told her close friend Shirley, who came over to the apartment to see if there was any way to salvage it. There wasn’t. But Shirley opened her pocketbook and gave Mom replacement rations so she could buy ingredients to make another cake. And this friend, according to Mom, carefully pulled out areas of the cake which did not contain splinters of glass, to eat for herself.

During the present pandemic, when I hear that our stores are out of toilet paper, bread, or other basics, I think of Mom and how she managed her complicated life during the War. When I make a product last longer by extreme conserving, I think of my dad, the King of Conservation, who lived his long life with the lessons learned during the war. When I get groceries from a small nearby grocery store, whose employees willingly shop for me and others, overworked and inundated as they must be, and deliver it curbside for those who need that level of service – or of friends who do pick-ups and drop-offs for older folks like me with health issues – or when we share what we have with others, I think of Mom’s friend Shirley, who gave up her own rations for another, someone who demonstrated, in a small way, an important truth…that we are always greater for love and sacrifice.


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