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A Love Story by

Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo



Chapter 40 – Christmas – 1964



Usually Christmas brought feelings of anxiety, of expectations unfulfilled, of family chaos that had only worsened by the addition of Billy’s dysfunctional family to my own. However, this year, I was more the child than my own son was since I was receiving the best gift of all - the one and only gift I really wanted. My precious Billy would be home for the first time in three weeks, and it was all I could do to contain my joy as his arrival date drew ever nearer. He had not even been able to call me, and letters arrived sporadically as he was far more exhausted than he had been during any previous training, plus, unknown to me, he was hurt. I wrote nightly, long missives about how empty my life was without him, and how anxious I was to resume our ritual showers. Of course, my continually enlarging uterus might prove a bit of a hindrance, but Billy had worked around Michael with no problems, so I felt sure he would find a way with very little difficulty.

The day after my 22nd birthday, and two days before he was due home, I took Michael downtown with me to shop at Sears Department Store. I wanted to surprise Billy with a new wedding band since chemicals in college had weakened his original band, and eventually the stress of almost daily wear broke it in half. He would not wear it when he was in the field or during training since we had a friend who lost his finger when his wedding band caught on a protrusion of a jeep’s bumper, and when the jeep took off, his finger went with it. I understood this and as long as he wore his ring when he was not in the field, my feelings were not hurt, but he had not had one to wear for several months, and I was determined to remedy this situation. His finger still carried the indentation from the old band, which had also become too small, but I wanted to fill that in with an engraved band, wider than the old one, and more noticeable to any female who just might be as intrigued by his handsome good looks as I was.

As we entered the store, I held onto Michael’s hand tightly, and as usual, the escalator, or ‘excalatur’ in Michael’s language, fascinated my audacious son. I promised him that later we would take a ride downstairs since I knew the engraving kiosk was at the bottom of the slowly moving stairway, although I could not remember exactly where to find it. As we approached the jewelry counter, Michael begged to go see Santa, but I had told him all week we would visit Santa Claus when his Daddy came home since Billy had adamantly insisted we wait for him, not wanting to miss any part of his son’s excitement.

I looked intently at the wedding bands and finally selected the one I liked the best, and the widest we could afford. The clerk left to see if it was available in Billy’s size while I held my breath since he had an enormous hand, at least to me it was enormous, and he wore a size 13 ring, which was not a common size. Michael chattered away at a mile-a-minute about what he would say to Santa Claus, but not wanting to break his little heart, I told a little white lie and said Santa Claus was not at this store. Mostly the ‘tale’ was to avoid the inevitable tantrum and tears that would ensue if he thought he missed seeing him. For all I knew, there was not a Santa here, but in all probability, I was wrong. Nevertheless I was not about to cause a commotion with a shrieking 2 ½ year old throwing himself on the ground, screaming at the top of his well developed lungs while kicking his feet and swinging his arms in imitation of the blades of a helicopter.

Soon the clerk came back holding a black velvet box and told me this was my lucky day since Billy’s size was the only one in that style left in stock except for the one in the display case, which I had known, was far too small. For just one moment, I let go of Michael’s hand, told him not to move or he would get lost, while I picked up the velvet box to make certain this was the same ring.

While I held the ring in my hand, I envisioned it on my handsome husband’s finger, and I asked if their engraver could add the initials I wanted right away. With the assurance it would only take about thirty minutes for the engraving, I opened my purse and gave her my credit card, signed the receipt and picked up my purchase, which meant a ride on the escalator. I then looked around for my son. He had vanished! At first, I panicked, but then I realized exactly where he had gone.

Always intrigued by the slowly moving stairway, he could endlessly watch as the steps disappeared into the floor, so I was sure that was where I would find him, and I hoped he had not decided to take a ride. I could just imagine him with his pants leg caught in those disappearing stairs, or his finger or worse.

Just as I found the escalator, but no Michael, an announcement came over the store’s P.A. system: “Will the lady who has lost a little boy wearing a red jacket, please come to the sewing center in the basement. He does not know his name.”

That was definitely my son, but he did know his name, and we had worked on this information repeatedly. He not only knew his name, he knew his address and telephone number, and I was confident he could relay this information to anyone who asked since he had done so several times to friends and family. Now why did they say the child did not know his name? Was this really my son or some other little boy with a mind as quick and feet as nimble as Michael’s were? Only one way to find out and that path led me down the disappearing steps to the basement, and I did not see any other frantic mother rushing towards me. The sewing center was just to the right at the bottom and there on a sewing bench sat my ‘terrible two year-old’ son, sucking on a cherry lollipop as red as his jacket. He was swinging his little legs and chattering away to the salesman who had obviously rescued him as he came down alone, and was not quite sure what to do when he got to the bottom. 

Out of breath, I rushed up to my son, relieved and angry at the same time, and said, “Michael I told you not to let go of Mommy’s hand, and you know your name. Tell the nice man your name.”

Michael looked up at me innocently with those blue eyes so like his father’s, and with a smile on his cherry stained lips he said, “Mommy’s boy!”

The salesman burst out laughing, of course, I did too, and introducing my son by his given name and myself, I thanked him profusely for rescuing my precocious firstborn.

The salesman noticed my condition then said, “I hope this time you have a little girl, they are so much less likely to disobey, and not as quick as greased lightning like most little boys. I should know I have four sons!”

We chatted for a moment about the unlikelihood of my having a girl, and he talked about how his wife had tried four times for that baby girl but had finally given up when their fourth and last son was born. Then Michael, not content with our ignoring him, or left out of a conversation, interrupted, and asked if Santa Claus was here. Before the salesman could open his mouth to answer, quickly I explained that my husband was in Ranger School and we would be visiting Santa this weekend when he got home for his holiday break, so the salesman closed his mouth. That was close! Then Michael stated he had to go to the potty, so I thanked our Good Samaritan once again, and I asked where the engraving department was and how I could get there and avoid the toy department. Obviously, Santa was in residence according to a sign with a big red arrow, and I did not want Michael to get even a glimpse of the first toy or a hint of Santa. He assured me if, after leaving the restrooms, I kept to the left side of the building near the escalator; I would run right into the engraver by the ‘up’ stairs and would avoid the toy department too.

As we left, I heard him call after me, “Good luck with that baby girl!”

Fortunately, the rest of our shopping trip proceeded without incident, but not once did I let go of my little wanderer’s hand. My excursion had been a success since I had bought Billy, not only the ring engraved with our initials, date of our marriage, and the initials MTLI for ‘more than life itself’, but two pairs of new trousers and two shirts to match for the long trip out west.

Tired and famished, Michael and I stopped for a quick sandwich at the Rexall Drug Store’s lunch counter we passed while walking from the car to Sears. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich for my son, a club sandwich for myself, and chocolate milk for both of us and with a deep sigh, I settled Michael into a booster seat on the inside of the vinyl-covered booth so he could not get away from me. When I finally sat down, grateful to be off my swollen feet, I had not realized how exhausted I was. With the packages and my enormous girth between Michael and ‘freedom’, he too settled down and said he was hungry. Again, I thought that never did I remember feeling this tired when I was pregnant with him, but then again, I did not have a rambunctious two-year-old to chase around either. Naively, I thought that surely, I would not gain the weight I had with Michael, and at first, I lost weight, but now I had surpassed that enviable goal by the time of my last O.B. appointment. I knew I could only look forward to gaining even more as the baby prepared for delivery and life in the world outside of my womb. Even the doctor had mentioned that mine would be a big, healthy baby, which was not of any comfort, whatsoever. Barely able to squeeze into the booth, nevertheless I had been looking forward to this respite after our morning shopping and Michael’s unplanned adventure. 

We still needed to drive out to the fort and pick up Billy’s class ‘A’ uniform I had left to have cleaned and pressed for his father’s wedding. Although I asked him if his dress blues would not be more appropriate, he insisted since this was not a ‘formal’ wedding, his greens would suffice, but at least they would be fresh. Not able to find a maternity dress I liked that we could afford, I used Helen’s sewing machine to make a jumper out of the popular boucle wool. It was a deep fuchsia pink, and I found a pale pink silk blouse at the P.X., and while the outfit did not make me look any smaller, it did not make me look any larger either, and for that, I was grateful. The jumper had a deep pleat in the front to accommodate my bulging tummy and the color was flattering, bringing out the blush in my cheeks, which was about the only color to my pale face in the winter, besides the green of my eyes. I just hoped Billy would not be too embarrassed about my size in the presence of the few friends and family who would be attending the wedding.

I had heard from Gram that Ruth’s daughter-in-law was also expecting, though not as soon as I was, but at least I would not be the only pregnant woman there. I knew her daughter who had no children was not planning any in the near future, but I had a feeling that Billy and I just might like Dan and Joan, his wife, although they were a bit older than we were. From Ruth and her daughter I was expecting nothing, which was a good thing since having little or no expectations, when that is what happens, one cannot feel disappointed. I rarely had high expectations from family anymore having been hurt and demeaned so often by my own parents, and then Helen, but now I had Billy, our son, and soon a new baby, this was ‘my family’, and it overflowed with love and laughter. I could not ask for more.

I do not think Michael took one bite of his sandwich without asking a question, and I tried to answer them all as well as I could, but I was looking forward to a day alone with Billy, while we shopped for Michael’s Santa. Trish said she would keep him one day so we could do our Christmas and commissary shopping, since Billy made me promise I would wait until he got home. He enjoyed choosing the gifts for his son even more than I did, and this would be a rare treat for us to get away alone. Major Mac had offered to keep him on Friday night while Billy took me out to the Officer’s club for the weekly ‘all you can eat’ Seafood Buffet – a late celebration for my 22nd birthday – so I could look forward to having Billy all to myself for one day and one night. 

My aunt and uncle had been delighted we had asked them if we could leave Michael at their house during the wedding, since I dared not call Bubba after hearing she was still angry with us. I felt terrible she did not understand we were just following Gene’s instructions, and she still was not ready to listen, but I did want to take her Helen’s mink stole before we left for Hawaii. Surely when she heard we were going to move so far away, and Billy most certainly would be leaving Hawaii for Vietnam, she would want to see us and we could make peace, and surely, she would want to see Michael and meet her new great grandchild.

Billy and I had both witnessed so much turmoil in our families while we were living at home, neither of us could stand any kind of conflict for more than a brief period. When we had a disagreement, and with both of us being strong-willed, we did have them, although they had become less and less as the years went by, one or the other of us would make peace and not let our anger linger. We were both adamant our children would always have a safe, peaceful, and secure home where they could feel comfortable about inviting their friends to spend the night or to come over to play, something neither Billy nor I could do with any modicum of assurance that World War III would not begin any moment. Never would I cause my children one moment of embarrassment when they had guests, and Billy felt the same. We did not even want our own children to hear us when we disagreed, so we usually bit our tongues until Michael was safely in bed and sound asleep. Perhaps we were creating a false impression that life, and marriage always went smoothly, but I would rather the false impression than the humiliation Billy and I often suffered. There would be time enough for them to learn life was not always perfect, but not until they were old enough for that lesson, and if I had my way, it would be a long time in coming.

As we passed the M.P. Security building into Ft. Benning, Michael dutifully returned the salute from the M.P. on duty who saluted the car seeing the blue officer’s registration tag on the bumper, and as always this made Michael smile. He definitely was his father’s son! I barely took notice since my mind was on Billy, and I was one day closer to being in my beloved’s arms. The busier I stayed both today and the next, the more quickly the time would pass when I could pick him up at Sand Hill and bring him home for the holidays.

After I retrieved the uniform, Michael and I went into the P.X. to see if I could find a Christmas outfit for him and, as usual, seasonal clothing filled the racks in the toddler and infant’s department. Naturally, I could not resist looking at the tiny little dresses covered with ruffles, lace and smocking, and on a clearance rack I found a little pink dress with an organdy pinafore, newborn size, reduced from $20.00 to just $4.00. I decided to tempt fate and buy it, just in case a miracle occurred and I gave birth to a baby girl. I justified my extravagant purchase since I knew I could always use it as a gift for a friend, and I was thinking of Trish, although of course, she and Rusty hoped for a boy, but it was a nice dress for a very inexpensive price. I picked up the tiny dress and found Michael some long navy blue pants with a red vest and a red and green plaid bowtie. With his navy sweater, he would have a nice Christmas outfit and I hoped he could still wear the pants by the time we boarded the ship for Hawaii. After I chose a special Christmas card for Billy, my shopping was finished for the day, and so was I!

Barely able to waddle to the car with my packages, and again one hand firmly gripping my son’s hand, I had only to drive through the commissary’s ‘basic’s only’ window, and my day would be finished. I still had not taken my son back to the commissary without Billy since I did not have eyes in the back of my head, and it was almost impossible to watch Michael and shop at the same time. He had long ago given up riding in the basket, and now I could not even lift him that high.

The next day was cold and damp, a good day to bake, so I stayed busy. I made Billy’s favorite lemon pie and chocolate chip cookies, changed the sheets, and generally cleaned house so there would be nothing left to do but enjoy every moment with my husband the short time he would be home. I had not quite finished stripping the wax from the floors, but I had finished the hallway and the bedrooms. Now they were clean and shiny, but slick since I had used bowling alley wax, which lasted longer than any other brand. Michael had a good time sliding up and down the hall outside of the bedrooms in his stocking feet, but I would have to remember to remind Billy how slick they were.

Sleep did not come easily that night, my last alone until after the New Year, so I finally gave up and went into the living room to read a book, hoping that would make me sleepy, but as dawn arrived, late as usual in December, I was still reading. Today was my Christmas! I would pick up my darling Billy around 4:00 p.m. and my heart raced a mile a minute at the thought of his strong arms holding me close, and his soft lips touching mine.

The morning went as slowly as the previous night, even though Michael was almost as excited as I was, and he kept me busy by getting into mischief. I finally sat down with him after lunch and read to him, hoping perhaps he would settle down and I could rest until time to leave for Sand Hill. Maybe I could even manage a brief nap since if I could sleep, the time would go by more quickly. 

I had just finished reading ‘The Pokey Little Puppy’ for at least the 105th time, when a cold breeze made me look up, and standing just inside the door, his duffle bag at his feet, was my darling, my Billy! My heart quivered at the sight of him while a million butterflies took flight in my chest! Michael jumped off my lap and rushed into his daddy’s arms, while I watched distraught when Billy winced as he picked him up in his left arm without the arching swing to the ceiling that was his usual greeting for his small son. Then I noticed swelling, redness, and the beginning of a bruise under his right eye as I struggled to my feet. Before I could rise, Billy crossed the room in three strides, he put Michael down as he did, and with his left arm, pulled me to my feet and held me so close I could not breathe.

Then with a huge smile on his face, he looked down into my moist eyes and said, “Oh God little girl, I had not realized how much I missed you until I saw you. I don’t know how I am going to survive six weeks without you! By the way, you look pregnant! Do I know the father?” 

I dared not let go of him for fear he would disappear while happy tears ran down my cheeks and salted our kisses, and his teasing question went unanswered as we kissed over, and over, and over again, not once letting the other go. Although concerned about his arm, and lesser so the bruise under his eye since I had become used to seeing him with various and sundry bruises, before I could even ask what happened, he kissed me again, and again, and again, fondling my tender, swollen breasts.

Finally, Michael, pushing with all his might, tried to separate us, as he said, “me too”!

Billy lifted our son, again with his left arm, put his right arm gingerly around my shoulders, and we all held onto each other. Our little family circle was complete once again and so was my happiness. The ‘heart’ of our family was home!

We stood in our circle overflowing with love when at last Billy whispered, “Don’t you think Michael needs to take a nap?” 

Since I knew exactly what he had in mind, and I could not wait until nighttime either, I told him I would try to get Michael down, but he had long ago given up being consistent about his afternoon nap. Never one to be denied when in need, Billy took matters into his own hands and promised our son if he would take a short nap, we would take him to see Santa Claus after supper. Without a whimper, Michael obediently climbed into his crib, holding onto some books, a truck, and his blanket, lay down, closed his eyes, and pretended to go to sleep. 

We knew our son was safe and could not escape the house since we had the front and back doors locked, and Billy held me in his arms once again and led me into our bedroom where he locked that door too. More than once, a curious toddler had interrupted us who wanted to know why Daddy was lying on top of Mommy, so we now always made sure it could not happen again. It would not have been at all unusual for Michael to tell anyone who would listen how he had found his Daddy squashing his Mommy!

With Billy towering over me, gently I unsnapped and unzipped the fatigue jacket he had not even taken off yet, and carefully, I slid it off his left arm first. Once again, he winced as I slipped it off his right arm even though he held it across his chest as if it were in a sling. Finally, with tears forming in my eyes once again, I managed to ask him if he was hurt.

He sat down on the side of the bed and softly pulled me down beside him, and only then did he explain how he injured his shoulder. I shuddered as he described how it had slipped out of joint several times, but since he had always been able to manipulate it himself, he had not gone to the doctor, although each time it happened, it became more painful and more difficult. He would have been devastated if the doctor would not let him continue the training, and because of his orders, he could not be recycled to a later class, which he knew could happen if he had an injury. This was his last opportunity to finish the grueling course, and he was determined not just to finish, but at the top of his class!

Barely able to keep the tears out of my voice, I then asked him about the bruise under his eye, and he told me that a certain Spec. 5 had it in for officers and had played a bit too ‘rough’ in the ‘pit’, which was where they had their hand-to-hand combat training. The Spec. 5 had gotten in close to Billy when they were working out with the long padded sticks, and jumped the whistle that was the signal to begin the joust. He had deliberately struck Billy under the eye with the center wood shaft, which was against all the rules. The N.C.O. in charge had to get in between them and he told the Spec. 5 he was out of line, on the verge of being booted out of the school, or worse being court martialed for striking an officer, although Rangers-to-be had no rank. He was told to leave his personal grudges out of the ‘pit’, and to concentrate on ‘beating’ anyone by becoming the ‘honor graduate’.

Billy’s eye did not look too bad, and I had seen it look a lot worse, but still my heart ached just as it did when he cut himself shaving. Pleading, I made him promise he would see his old doctor in Griffin about his shoulder, and he promised he would, more to get me off the subject and move on to what he had in mind. We did not take the time for any shower since we knew our son would not stay in his bed for very long. I closed the blinds, which was a ‘signal’ to friends and neighbors not to knock on the door, and after I unlaced and removed his boots, ignoring any pain, he hastily took off his shirt and pants and then just as quickly undressed me. We made love on top of the bed, not even bothering to turn down the spread.

“I really did not expect this little girl,” my handsome husband murmured as he gently entered me. “I thought you would not want to have sex with the baby due so soon.”

“Oh, my darling, my darling Billy,” I said, “I have not thought about anything else for three weeks.” Then teasing him, I added, “I just hope your shoulder doesn’t hurt so much you find it difficult to make love to me, day and night, and any other time we can be alone.”

With his assurance, this would be one wild, wicked holiday, I felt my heart strain under the contained passion, and I shuddered as we soared to the moon together within minutes.

Lying next to him after we both were fully satisfied, I turned to him with tears in my eyes, “Oh Billy, my darling Billy, I didn’t think I could stand it another moment not being with you, and I don’t know how I will bear it when you go back for twice as long.”

Pregnancy not withstanding, I cried long and hard in his arms as he smoothed my hair, kissed my forehead, held me close to him where I felt safe and loved. Finally he kissed my tears away and reminded me he was home now for almost three whole weeks, with no work, nothing but eighteen whole days to be together, and he promised to take full advantage of this ‘vacation’, our first ever when we could be together day and night for any length of time, with little interruption. He had usually been in school or working, or both, and then again were the obligatory visits with family, we had never had even an entire week when he did not have to leave me. I felt guilty as I realized I almost resented that Michael had to be cared for, since all I wanted was to take care of Billy and to make love to him whenever or wherever we could. Nevertheless, I loved our son, and he was my reward for loving and being loved by his father.

Definitely, I was not happy about going to Griffin and having to share him with the rest of the family, but I promised myself I would not let him out of my sight, not for one second, during his time at home. Most of all, I knew this would be our best Christmas ever, and I already had the best gift he had ever given me, and that was himself. It never once entered my mind this would be our last Christmas together.

Billy had fallen asleep when I heard Michael knock on our locked door, so I covered my handsome husband with a blanket, kissed his forehead, and went out to read some more to our son, hoping to keep him quiet so Billy could rest. He looked so tired, and I had always been able to tell when he was in pain since he had a certain way of looking at me, like an injured puppy. I did not know much about medical matters back then, but I knew enough that a dislocated shoulder meant a stretched muscle or ligament, and perhaps with two weeks of rest it would heal enough so that he could finish Ranger School. The next phase was the ‘mountain training’ where they would learn to repel down cliffs and to climb back up using ropes with grappling hooks. There was little doubt this would be hard on his shoulder muscles, but he would be using them in a different way than during the ‘hand-to-hand’ combat phase, so all I could do was pray he made it through without permanently injuring his shoulder, or the cadre finding out!

Billy slept for a couple of hours, and it was dusk before he awoke. Yawning, he sleepily walked into the living room where I was reading my book while Michael watched cartoons. I asked him if the television woke him and he said, “No, just missing you beside me.”

He sat down on the couch next to me and we kissed some more while I held on to him for dear life. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I could ever love anyone as totally and entirely as I loved my husband, my precious Billy, and once again, I completely lost myself in his arms.

I had decided to make hamburgers that night for a quick meal so we could go to K-Mart before the after-supper crowd came to see Santa, and Michael had been excited all afternoon since his brief nap. When I finally went into the kitchen to fix supper, Billy followed me, stood behind me, put his arms around me, and I closed my eyes and rested my head under his chin. I knew then that he felt like I did – he did not want me out of his sight this holiday either and we both knew it would pass all too quickly. He was hungry though, and while I fried the hamburgers, he finally went into the living room and talked to Michael about what he was going to ask Santa Claus to bring him for Christmas. I heard them talking and thought how blessed I was to have my darling Billy home for the holiday, and all to myself, at least for a few days.

Michael’s visit to Santa went much better than it had the year before when he had refused to sit on his lap, just stared at the fat bearded old man with the funny red suit and hat. Although this time, at just over 2 ½ years old, he had a much better idea of what Santa was all about, and for good little boys and girls, Santa meant new toys. He knew exactly what he wanted Santa to bring him and as he recited his list, the photographer snapped his picture, which, of course, we bought on the spot. We looked around the store to get an idea of the cost of the toys Michael requested, but with Trish watching Michael, we would do our shopping at the P.X. toy store where the prices were less, and we did not have to pay sales tax. We could also buy what few groceries we would need for the few days before we left for Griffin.

That night, back at home, again with our son tucked safely in his crib, we did not even bother to turn on the television. Rather, Billy took out our old Johnny Mathis albums, and we repeated our afternoon of lovemaking, but this time without worry the phone would ring, or Michael might try to open our door – at least not this early. As Billy held me in his arms, it seemed as if my heart filled my entire chest, and that left very little room for anything else, much less a large baby. He managed to work around the pain in his shoulder and the baby in my tummy, and as always, he made sure I enjoyed our lovemaking as much as he did. Finally tired, for the moment, I lay in his arms and traced his face over, and over with my finger as if to memorize every single wrinkle and scar. Then I traced his lips, those lips that had brought such pleasure to me from our very first date, he pulled me close and once again, we kissed as if we would never kiss again. I knew I would never forget the way his lips felt when they touched mine, or how often I had seen them tighten in pain. However, it was his eyes, those beautiful pure blue eyes that made me feel so very special when he looked at me, or winked from across the parade field. Whenever he first met someone, the first thing they noticed was his eyes, the way they twinkled as he told a joke, or when he laughed. But most of all, I would never forget how they looked at me, as if all the love in the world was in them, and all of this love was mine, just like he was mine, and would be forevermore. That night, I slept soundly in Billy’s arms, lulled to sleep by the soft, familiar snore, and I did not even realize until morning that Michael had remained in his own bed all night, as if he too felt his mommy was safe now that Daddy was home.

That morning after breakfast, we left Michael happily playing with Elizabeth and drove to the P.X. temporary toyshop where we bought all of the items on Michael’s list, then continued to shop for the rest of the family. We knew we would not have enough money in the bank for gifts for everyone so we planned to shop for my family at Sears in Atlanta the day after Christmas, unless Billy could manage to get some gifts at the store. We had almost finished purchasing what we could afford when Billy sent me to look at baby clothes so he could do a bit of personal shopping on his own. I knew that meant he wanted to shop for me, so obediently I walked over to the clearance rack and once again looked at the tiny dresses and playsuits for little girls. I had not told Billy about buying the tiny pink dress since it was such a frivolous purchase, even though it was so inexpensive, but I also did not want to get his hopes up either. I knew, without a doubt, I would give birth to our second son sometime between the middle of February and March 1, and I had been reciting the chosen name of Mark William McConnell repeatedly to get used to saying it.

Before long, Billy joined me holding a small bag, and we both made three trips carrying Michael’s toys and our other gifts to the car since I would not allow Billy to carry anything heavy with his injured right arm. The bruise under his eye was now very noticeable, and the lower lid very swollen since the injury had just happened the morning he came home. He asked if I was embarrassed about his “shiner,” as if it was the first time, and I told him no more than he should be for escorting a beached whale!

He laughed, put his arms around me where I used to have a waist, and pulled me to him. “Darling, you know something, I think we are going to make it after all.”

I knew we were going to make it since I would not let anyone or anything take him away from me, not ever. Not even Vietnam. I would pray every night he was gone and I would get on my knees. I would love him so much he could not die; at least that is what I thought.

We left Michael’s ‘Santa’ in the trunk of the car, stopped by Trish’s apartment to pick up our son and to leave a small gift we had bought for Michael to give Elizabeth, and of course Rusty, who was home by now, asked us inside. I did not want to share Billy even with our friends and neighbors, and I knew he felt the same, but we reluctantly agreed to visit, just for a short while. Rusty and Billy, of course, talked ‘Ranger School’, although Rusty said he had no desire to climb up mountains in the snow or wade in the cold water of the swamps. Trish and I visited and talked about – what else – our children, because we never discussed our husbands in front of them, particularly Trish since Rusty had such a short fuse. I noticed Billy watching little Elizabeth with her bouncy blonde curls, and I wondered how he would be as a father to a little girl. He would smother her with love and try to protect her from the world and from the kind of boy, he had been, but I knew unless baring a miracle, he would never have that opportunity since McConnell men did not have girls.

After supper Billy bathed Michael while I cleaned up the kitchen and I could hear Michael asking questions a mile a minute. He had missed his daddy too and was making up for lost time. He told him about the ‘excalatur’ and the lollipop from his adventure in Sears although I had told Billy about it on the way to Ft. Benning that afternoon. Billy pretended he had not heard the tale at all, and he asked Michael to repeat his name until he had it right, “My name is Michael McConnell (a terrific change from when he called himself ‘Muk Muk’).”

Then he had him repeat his address and phone number, over, and over, until he was satisfied the second most important person in his life was safe from being ‘lost’ in a store again. Later that night when Major McKenzie asked us over for a ‘drink’, which meant a soda for both of us, she showed us a small personal tape recorder she had received for Christmas, and she recorded Billy talking to our small son about Santa Claus, and Billy asked him to repeat his name, address, and phone number. As I played the tape years later when my wounds were not quite so raw, I cherished the soft Southern accents so obvious on both of my precious boys. How I wish I could hear them just once again.

It was after 10:00 p.m. when we got back to our apartment, but now we had visited the two neighbors who had so often come to my assistance, and we had exchanged tiny gifts. Major Mac gave Michael the G.I. Joe doll he asked for, while we took her a box of Russell Stover’s chocolates with the card reading “Merry Christmas from Michael.”

Billy tucked our son, who was already half asleep in his Daddy’s strong arms, into his bed, and made up a wonderful bedtime story about a little boy and his Daddy going fishing, but Michael was sound asleep before any conclusion was reached. Billy then joined me on the couch and with one arm around me; he pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Happy Birthday, a little bit late, my darling, I hope you like this.” 

I knew it had to be jewelry from the size and shape of the deep blue velvet box, about the size of one that would contain a pen set, but I could not imagine what it could be since he spent so little time shopping. When I opened the box, I gasped with delight! Inside, lying on a soft satin cushion was the smallest of gold charm bracelets and each charm was a letter of the alphabet. I turned it repeatedly since I knew it must say something.

“Start with the clasp,” Billy said, impatient that I figure it out, and as I read around the bracelet, huge tears began to create rivulets down my face since the letters spelled out:  “More Than Life Itself” with a tiny heart separating each word.

“How did you find this so quickly?” I asked, and he then told me he had ordered it before he left for Ranger School so it would be ready for my birthday. Originally, he was going to ask Sgt. Tuttle to pick it up and make sure I had it on the 16th, but then he decided he wanted to see my face when I opened the box, so he waited until today. His big fingers could not undo the tiny clasp, so I did, then I draped it over my wrist, and held the clasp open so he could place the tiny ring over it, then I closed it, vowing never to take it off. I actually thought about having the clasp sealed shut so I could never remove it. I should have known my romantic husband would never choose an ordinary gift. He held me close and I melted into his arms as I had so many times before, and once again felt I could not ever be any happier than I was right this moment, but I felt that way every time he held me.

This night we took our ritual shower and I was almost embarrassed for him to see in bright light the size of my stomach with the multiple lines of stretch marks! I could not even see my own feet! Billy took delight in my enormous girth and was quite proud of what he had done! However, my swelling breasts, which he called “my boobs,” just as he had when I was carrying Michael, delighted him no end. 

He had finally reluctantly agreed to allow me to nurse this new baby since we would be on the road for so long, and it would be so much more convenient than lugging formula and distilled water around with us. We had heard the change in water from state to state might give an infant diarrhea, which we certainly did not need while on the road, so the water would be necessary, unless I was able to nurse. He was not all together happy about the idea of sharing “my boobs” with the infant, and had told me I could not nurse in traffic, just in case a truck driver might look down into the car, but at least he was not adamantly against it as he had been with Michael. Dr. Rivers thought with Billy’s support, there was no reason why I could not be successful in this venture, and he promised me it was absolutely not only the best, but also the right thing to do for the baby.

But that night, they were ‘his boobs’ and he caressed them until my nipples were stiff with anticipation, and impatiently, with plenty of hot water left, we cut off the shower, closed the bedroom door behind us, and climbed into the bed. Every time I looked at him, I became more and more anxious to make love, but he slowly and gently took me to the moon and back, not once, not twice, but several times, then once again, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms. How was it possible that I could love him more with each passing day? Was there a limit on how much love one could fit into one’s heart? Surely, mine was so full it could burst right now, but each day when I woke, I knew I loved him just that much more.

The next morning, to my shock and Billy’s dismay, his eye was almost swollen shut, and while he could just barely open a tiny slit near the inside of the eye with effort, relaxed, he could not see out of it at all. The color was now vivid, a deep purple, almost black where under his eye he had a huge pouch that was swollen and purple all the way down to his right cheekbone. While he attempted to keep me in his sight with just one eye, he asked if I still wanted him to take me to the Officer’s Club looking like he had been in the ring with Cassius Clay, and of course, I did. Knowing it bothered him far more than it did me, I told him I would not care if both of his eyes were swollen and bruised that I would go anywhere with him, even if I had to take his hand and lead him. Pleased, but I doubt surprised, by my answer, he kissed me long and passionately while I ached with longing, as he said, “I do believe you mean that, little girl.”

Even with his injured shoulder and his poor swollen eye, we had a wonderful beginning to our holiday, but I knew it would only go downhill after we got to Griffin. I just had a dreadful feeling someone was going to have a very disappointing Christmas, but I knew it would not be me since I had all that I longed for – my precious Billy.

Even though I had told him I would go anywhere with him in spite of his black eye, he wondered how his new ‘step-mother-to-be’ would feel about her wedding pictures with him looking like he had been in a brawl. I reminded him that black eyes always look worse before they get better, and by the day after Christmas, I felt sure most of the swelling would be gone, the eye would no longer be a livid purple, perhaps a bit discolored, but I could put some of my makeup on it and it would barely show. He seemed satisfied with that answer and asked if I wanted to put some on it that night before we left for the club, but of course, I did not, unless he insisted. We both decided he would look ridiculous since the eye was far too swollen and purple for the makeup to help much. No, I did not mind at all, and had been with him on other occasions when he had been injured, and twice when he had black eyes, and I was not about to let a bruise spoil our celebration. In fact, we conceived our son because he had a black eye!

Billy dressed in his freshly cleaned uniform that night to go to the club, and in spite of his swollen eye, he looked so handsome he took my breath away, and when he put on his hat, as usual the bill was so shiny I could see myself in it. He always looked so wonderful in a uniform, any of them, from fatigues to dress blues, and I was so proud to be his wife. By the time we arrived at the club, the parking lot was crowded since the Friday night Seafood Buffet was very popular, and why not with ‘all you can eat’ of almost every crustacean and fish in season. I had never seen the lot so filled and it looked like most of Ft. Benning, at least those who had not gone to visit relatives over Christmas or had not left yet, were at the club. Billy wanted to let me off at the door since he knew he would have to park at the back of the lot, but I would not hear of it. I wanted to walk with him and there was nothing wrong with my legs! Besides walking was great exercise for an expectant mother, and I wanted to be with him, not wait for him. I had dressed in the pink jumper I made for the wedding and Billy said he liked it, although I think he would have said that about anything not to hurt my feelings, which were raw and lying right under the surface of my skin. He knew it would not take much to send me running back to the car in tears since I was feeling so sensitive about my size. After all, he had to put up with my multitude of mood swings when I was pregnant with Michael, and again with the baby I lost, when, in fact, I had foolishly almost ended our marriage. Thank God, I thought, I had not given in to my feelings from the edge, and now once again I was carrying his child and our marriage was better than it had ever been, and I could not imagine it not getting better as each day went by. Before he left for Ranger School I decided I would treat him like each day was his last before deployment, and I would make him so happy he would never let anything happen to himself, so anxious he would be to get home to me. I would be quite content to spend the entire day in his arms and the night making love.

Both of us would have been perfectly content if we had not seen anyone we knew or who knew us, but that simply never happens when you graduate from a military college, and especially when you want to keep a low profile. I certainly could have worn a dress a bit less ‘glowing’ if I had a choice, but we had a wonderful meal and saw several couples we knew from The Infantry School and one couple from N.G.C. Of course, the first words out of anyone’s mouth were to ask Billy what happened to his eye, and I will have to say it seemed to be even more swollen than it was that morning, and even the left eye now had a streak of purple under it. He really had taken quite a blow, and had it been anyone except my Billy I would have thought it grotesque. He was becoming more and more self-conscious about it and I knew the swelling was worse since he could no longer see anything, even with effort out of the right eye. I tried to assure him his eye certainly was an afterthought, and anyone who saw me must have decided I was going to deliver at any moment or else was having a multiple birth! After all, what was a black eye compared to an elephant in bright pink circus tent! I made him laugh, and then he tried to make me feel less outrageous, but we must have been quite an unforgettable pair that night! Regardless, we were also probably the most in love.

Billy had made reservations for a corner booth, so we were in relatively low light and could snuggle and kiss a bit between filling our plates at the buffet, and he even threatened to blow out the small candle illuminating our table. I have never known anyone who could eat as many fried shrimp as Billy McConnell, and he certainly got his money’s worth with plate after plate of the huge gulf crustaceans. I had to remind him to eat his salad so he would have a more balanced meal, but as usual, he only picked at it. I preferred the boiled shrimp, the crab legs, crab cakes, and the lobster – anything that was not deep-fried, since once again, food prepared that way made me nauseous. I had thought this would pass after the first trimester, but it had only become worse, and now I could not even eat bacon or fried eggs. All during supper, I would glance at my handsome young soldier with the silver wings glistening on his chest, silver bars on his shoulders, and I thought to myself that there could not be any moment more perfect than this. Then I remembered how many times I had felt that way since meeting Billy McConnell, probably in the thousands.

My new bracelet gleamed on my right arm and I traced the letters with my fingers, “More Than Life Itself.” Did he really mean that? He had first said that in a note left on the desk in the library stacks when we were dating and he was trying to get me to sleep with him, and he had continued to use the same phrase continuously over the past four years. Yes, in January it would be four years since we first met, and that would be our last night together before he had to report to Ranger School. I knew I loved him “More Than Life Itself” and I always would.

The next few days I spent feeding my husband his favorite foods while he went through some of the boxes I had put aside containing some of his things I did not know if he wanted to keep or not. We cuddled on the couch and I read while he watched ball games or dozed, and often Michael would be sitting between us while we took turns reading to him, each of us using a different voice for a certain character. We visited some with Major Mac who told me to make cold compresses for Billy’s eye so the swelling would go down by the day of the wedding. We both sat incredulous while Billy told us stories about the first three weeks of Ranger training, and why he thought it was probably the most difficult. I also told Major Mac about Billy’s shoulder, and she thought it was not a good idea for him to repel off mountains with a weak shoulder while I stood and shook my head in agreement. However, both of us knew he would not listen, and I knew even the advice of his own doctor in Griffin would not change his mind, but at least he still promised me he would go to see him.

Then, there was the next accident, and that sealed his agreement to go. Billy had spent the afternoon two days before we were to leave for Griffin, putting down one more coat of bowling alley wax on the floors, even after he told me not to do it. That day he had just finished the hallway, buffing it to a brilliant shine. We decided to go to the drive-in theatre that night since it was warmer than usual and we would not freeze to death with a window rolled down just enough to hang a speaker, and with quilts to keep us warm. This movie Billy wanted to see – one of the first James Bond movies, and although it did not appeal to me, I wanted to do something to please him since he had done nothing but please me since he had walked in the door. Anyway, he was rushing to get some clean socks out of his chest of drawers in our bedroom, and not wanting to step on the fresh shine in the hallway, he tried to step from the living room into the bedroom without stepping on the tiles in the hall. I was in the kitchen baking more cookies and I heard a shriek of pain and cursing, as I had not heard from his mouth in a long, long time! I rushed into the living room expecting anything, but knowing whatever had happened was not good and found Billy sitting on the floor right inside the bedroom door holding his left foot and clenching his teeth in pain.

“Darling, what happened?” I asked with fear in my voice, and he could barely get out the words while he told me he had tried to step over the hall tiles and forgotten that the bedroom floor also was slick, and his foot slid forward and he caught his little toe on the edge of the chest!

“I know it’s broken, I just know it is!” he wailed, and I began to cry too. I knew I could never get him off the floor by myself with the burden I was already carrying, so I went into the dining room and brought one of the chairs for him to pull himself up on so I could look at his toe. He finally managed to hobble into the living room where he sat on the couch, and I gently placed his foot on the coffee table. Sure enough, that little toe was swollen, red, and bent to the outside, and I knew it was broken. Immediately I called Major Mac, and she told me there was nothing to do for a broken little toe except to tape it to the others, but she would come over and make sure it was not dislocated, which would mean a trip to the emergency room. Within minutes, we heard her soft knock on the door, and I instantly let her in, and of course, Michael wanted her immediate attention and asked if she had candy, and she pulled a piece of Christmas candy out of her pocket, so he happily went back to his cartoons. With her efficient nurse’s hands, she checked Billy’s toe and as I had known, she assured us there was little doubt it was broken, but felt she could reduce the fracture. She warned Billy it would hurt when she moved it back to the proper position, and I offered him my hand to hold. She was right as he grasped my hand tightly, and I watched the tears roll down his cheeks but he refused to cry aloud. Like father, like son, I thought, as the expression on his face was the same on Michael’s face when he got a shot! She offered to show me how to tape it if I had tape, and I always kept a well-stocked emergency kit living with my accident-prone husband. I found a large roll of wide waterproof adhesive tape, which was exactly what she needed. Poor Billy was still almost white with pain, but she assured him once securely taped it would not hurt anymore. I watched while she wound the wide tape about three times around his foot, making sure it was not so tight it cut off his circulation. She emphasized that I had to keep watch his toes did not turn blue, feel cold to the touch, or if he felt they were going to sleep since those were signs the tape was too tight. Billy seemed to feel some relief once she finished, and although we asked her if she would like to sit down and visit for a while, she was pulling duty over the holidays for some other nurses who had families, and was working a night shift. She had just been getting ready to get some sleep when I called, so now she would try again. I thanked her profusely for helping us out, and she said she was just glad she had been at home since she knew what a zoo the emergency room could be on payday and during holidays.

Her last comment as she softly closed our front door was, “Diane, I do believe he will be safer if you keep him on a very short leash.” However, she did not have to remind me, and I had been thinking more along the lines of a cage large enough for two!

My poor baby! First, he hurt his shoulder, then his eye, and now his toe! I just hoped he would be able to walk without pain since he would not be able to handle crutches except with his left arm, at least, not until we knew what was wrong with his right shoulder. Thank goodness, we were almost finished packing, and had completed our shopping and wrapping, so Billy would have two days to rest his foot and keep it elevated before we left for Griffin. I was sure wearing a shoe would not be comfortable either, and since I had nothing planned except an O.B. appointment the day before we left, he did not have to try to put one on. Michael, so used to seeing his Daddy with ‘boo-boos’, just continued to watch his cartoons while I sat on the couch with Billy’s arms around me and again I cried while he brushed back my hair and tried to convince me he was all right while he begged me not to cry.

“Please, baby, don’t cry,” he murmured, as my tears seemed endless, “I’ll be fine,” he continued and I just cried harder. “Three is the limit to my bad luck,” he said as he tried to soothe me, but I was inconsolable at this point.

I looked into his one open blue eye, and softly touched the swollen right eye, while saying over, and over, “Oh how I love you my darling, my darling Billy!” He was hurt, and I cried. That was how it had always been, and the way it always would be! It was as if his pain was twice as strong deep in my heart.

We only had two days of bliss before once again we had to pack the car for the trip to Griffin, and neither of us was looking forward to seeing his father, or to attending the wedding the day after, but we also would never disappoint the little boys. We had taken Michael to Griffin for every Christmas since he had been born, and this was the last we would be close enough to do so for who knew how long, and it may be years before our son would see his young uncles again after we left for the West Coast. Billy’s eye looked a lot better since he was more or less ‘grounded’ on the couch while he kept his foot elevated. I had placed cold compresses on his eye and his foot several times a day, and now he was able to see out of it although the colors of the bruise remained vivid, but surely in two days, and with a bit of makeup, it would look almost normal. By now, though, Billy did not care a bit what anyone thought, and he had already made up a wonderful tale to relate to his brothers about how he hurt his eye, his toe, and his arm, and beg as I may, he would not tell me the story but wanted me to hear it along with the boys. He managed to wear his shoes since they were old and the leather soft, and although he walked with a slight limp, he said his toe was no longer painful, and at least he did not have to use that foot to drive. I changed the tape nightly right after our shower just like Major Mac had shown me, and we were hoping it would heal by the time he saw his doctor on December 27.

Once again, our car filled with song, this time Christmas carols, as we headed back to Griffin, and it seemed as if the car almost knew what turns to take. It was rather a straight shot from here to there, although once I had managed to become thoroughly lost when I tried to find the house while Billy was sleeping. Today he was in fine spirits and fine voice while Michael and he sang ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Rudolph’, and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ over and over – no railroad songs this day – this was Christmas Eve! Michael was far too excited about Santa coming to see him that very night, and about playing with his uncles he did not even take a nap on the way, which was all the better since we needed for him to go to bed early that night. Billy thought about stopping by the store first to make sure his father showed him where he hid the boys Santa gifts, but with my urgency to find a clean bathroom he drove straight to the house. It seemed like that was all I did – pee – and any car trip necessitated a stop or two to find a clean restroom. Thank goodness, the baby would be in my arms and not in my uterus creating pressure on my bladder on our trip out West, otherwise it would take a long, long time with urgent stops every hundred or so miles.

It seemed as if we always reached Griffin at lunchtime and it was exactly 11:30 a.m., when we pulled into the driveway, and as if the floodgates opened, three little boys and Poppa came out to greet us. Poppa immediately picked up Michael while the boys came to my side of the car. All were fascinated with the huge size of my tummy and the fact their new nephew was inside just waiting to be born, although I did not remember them being this curious while I was pregnant with Michael.

“Do you think it will be born while you are here?” Charles asked, while David wanted to know if it would come out of my belly button as he had been told, while Dickie told him he was “stupid” and it would come out of my “wee-wee”!

These boys definitely had not had any lessons in anatomy yet, but Dickie was close. Then as one, they all noticed their older brother’s black eye, and Poppa asked if I had let him have it with the frying pan! Billy assured the boys he would tell them the entire story if they would help him unload the back seat, thus leaving Santa in the trunk, which they did, and within minutes, we were walking into a home, a real home, that smelled of Christmas tree and gingerbread!

“How wonderful,” I thought since the delicious aromas of Christmas filled the house instead of stale cigarette smoke and bourbon. I just hoped Gene’s new ‘bride’ would take up where Gram left off and make coming home a joy for the boys, and holidays anticipated rather than dreaded. Gram brushed the flour off her hands with her apron and took our small son from Poppa while giving me a look of astonishment and a hug. “Well sure does look like that baby is not going to wait until February,” she said, and I reminded her that Michael had been two weeks late. “Well, I declare, I do think you will pop if you have to go that long!”

We all laughed, and she once again predicted we would have a daughter, and asked if we had chosen any girl’s names. We told her the names we had selected for both boy and girl, and she liked both of them and said if I got any larger we just might have to use both names or think of more! 

This was just as good a time as any to tell Billy the doctor at the O.B. clinic had suggested I have an x-ray since I was so very large, just to see if there were twins. Although they knew the dangers of radiation to a woman and an unborn child, they also knew certain circumstances made these necessary. I had dutifully had the x-ray, where they found only one big baby, and the doctor said the baby was already large enough to survive if born early. He then asked, as they all did, if I could have possibly mixed up my dates, but I assured him I knew exactly when I had stopped the pill just before I got pregnant, so I was almost positive when it happened.

“Well this baby already weighs about 7lbs.,” he continued, “and don’t be surprised if you have to have a C-section. Although you had quite a large baby the first time, this one, if you go full term, will be considerably larger.”

I had not told Billy since I had to wait for just the right moment, and Gram’s remarks had made it possible to prepare him, and he looked at me like he was almost angry, and definitely worried, but he moved closer and put his arms around me as if to let me know everything would be all right. I knew he was worried that something might happen and he would be far away, so I quickly added, “I was two weeks late with Michael and then had to be helped along, so this baby might just be a record breaker if he is late too!”

Quickly I changed the subject, although Billy continued to look at me in a way I had never seen before, and I knew it was concern. More concern than he had shown even after the abortion and the long nights I suffered with pain afterwards, but I was not about to let this baby ruin our Christmas.

The boys took Michael to see the Christmas tree in the den and showed him all the packages with his name on them, which, of course, he wanted to open right away! When Billy told him he would have to wait until morning, like everyone else, his little eyes filled with tears and his bottom lip stuck out so far that Poppa said an ‘elf’ could sit on it! That made the boys laugh, and since Michael thought they were laughing at him, he threw himself to the floor, and with McConnell splendor launched himself into a full-fledged temper tantrum. This time the boys did not laugh, and Poppa backed away, but Billy reached down and picked his screaming son off the floor and held him in his arms so tightly he could not move.

“O.K., little guy, calm down now. Daddy knows you are tired and excited, and if its all right with Gram, Mommy will make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then Mommy and I will lie down with you for a short nap.”

Obviously, Billy realized now that our son could not go an entire day without at least some quiet time.

I had already begun preparing sandwiches for the entire crew while Gram heated two cans of soup. Using an entire loaf of bread, I stacked the sandwiches on the table and poured glasses of milk for all four boys, and then called them. Billy pulled Michael’s highchair out from behind the washer where it stayed when we were not visiting, and they all sat down eager to eat and to hear Billy’s story about how he hurt his eye. This I had to hear and I made a half a sandwich for myself and poured coke for Billy and for me while he began his story. Michael’s tantrum long forgotten, he ate his sandwich in great big bites and I fed him the noodles out of the soup. He held his own ‘sipper’ cup, which had a lid and a round weighted bottom so it could not turn over.

As soon as everyone was seated, with me as close to my handsome husband as I could get, so  I could hold his hand when he was finished eating, and because I just liked the way it felt to feel his shoulder brush mine – no differently than I had felt when we both were students, he began his story. I do wish I could remember the entire story, word for word, but time has dulled, although not cancelled, that memory, but I do remember the gist of it.

Once again Billy had been a ‘hero’ and saved his commanding officer from sure death as he took the full blow from a baseball bat aimed at the commander’s head, wrestled the bat out of the offender’s arm, thus hurting his shoulder, and then to add insult to injury, the offender stomped on his foot and broke his toe! The boys were once again mesmerized and wide-eyed at their brother’s explanation while Poppa gave me a big wink, and Gram pretended to be horrified. When the story ended, and for a moment of dead silence until Billy broke out laughing, the boys knew that once again their older brother had them believing his tale of heroic proportions! Then, when they told him he was lying, he asked them if they wanted to see his toe, and of course they did, and of course it was bandaged, so now they were not too sure again. 

Dickie broke the silence and said, “Ruth sure isn’t going to like your black eye!” and we all wondered where he had come up with that! I asked him if he had ever met her, and he said “No, but she is going to be our mother soon, and there will be no more playing rough in her house!”

“Who told you that?” Billy broke in, and the boys told him about the new ‘list of rules’ that were to be always obeyed after Ruth moved in. He looked questionably at Gram and she walked over to the kitchen cabinet, the same one where Helen had stored her pills and liquor, and took down a list that was taped to the inside of the door. The list was long, neatly typed in large letters using simple language that even Charles could read, and some of the ‘rules’ were downright hateful, where others were more practical and would help her to keep an orderly home. Billy glowered as he read each one, and when he finished, he shredded the piece of paper and said that little boys did not need a list of rules to know how to behave, and she could take her list and put it where the “sun didn’t shine.” All the boys looked horrified by their brother’s actions, but when Charles asked where that was, Dickie and David laughed while Billy told him to use his imagination. Thus began the war between Billy and Ruth, a war that no one would ever win!

Usually Gene closed the store at lunchtime on Christmas Eve day, but it was now after 1:00 p.m., and he had not come home. Maybe he had some more gifts to buy, although where, Billy did not know since most merchants did the same as he did and closed early. Perhaps, I thought, he was making sure all was in order at the store since he would be taking a short honeymoon following the wedding. Gram and Poppa knew they would finally be back in their own comfortable home before New Year’s, and they both looked like they greatly needed the break. I asked Gram if Bubba knew about the wedding, but she did not know since Bubba no longer called the house in Griffin, her anger still so intense she had shut the other three boys out of her life too. Perhaps they would just remind her of her dead daughter, and she was not ready to handle those emotions? I felt assured the ‘word’ would have gotten around to her about the pending wedding, but Billy and I also knew we would be the last to learn if it had.

After lunch, instead of us taking Michael downstairs, Poppa held him in his arms and his little eyes closed while sitting in Poppa’s lap and watching the television. We had wanted him good and tired earlier than usual this evening, but had we known what a long night it would turn out to be, our fears would have come to naught. The den was warm where the winter sun poured over the top of the shutters, and when Gram and I glanced in about an hour after lunch every single one of the boys and both men were sleeping. I noticed Billy had slipped his shoes off and put his foot on the coffee table, so I did not have to disturb him, for which I was grateful.

“What really happened to Billy?” Gram asked, and I told her the entire story about first his shoulder and then his eye, and finally how he had broken his little toe when he slid on the freshly waxed floor. “That poor boy, it does not seem like he will ever outgrow his carelessness,” Gram commented, but I assured her it had been a long time since he had hurt himself and none of the candidates would be going home without some scratches or bruises. I then confided in her my fear for the 2nd phase. She told me worry would not help Billy or me, and might affect the baby so that I should just put my fears into God’s hands and take care of my child and myself. Easier said than done, I thought as I watched my precious boys, father, and son, sound asleep in the late afternoon sun.

It was almost dark when Billy woke up although Michael and the boys had long ago gone outside to play in the warm late December sunshine and to see old ‘Fella’, who Michael knew, was ‘his’ dog. Unfortunately, we could not take him to Hawaii with us since there is no rabies in the islands, and each dog coming in from the mainland, or anywhere else has to put in six-month quarantine on a small island not connected to the main island of Oahu. The reasoning behind this was the huge mongoose population, and rabies among those plentiful, yet useful, rodents would have been disastrous due to their large number. These harmless rodents had also been ‘introduced’ to the islands and were not native, rather brought in to deal with the plentiful and sometimes deadly native snakes. Now there were no snakes left, but the mongoose bred like, well like rabbits, and now they had another problem. Finally, after exhausting all avenues, we decided that ‘Fella’ would be fine until we got back home, and if we lived somewhere in Hawaii where we needed a dog, then Billy would just buy one over there! By now, it would have been cruel to take him away from the boys, although we wondered if Fella would have a future when Ruth moved in.

I heard Billy groan as he automatically stretched and his shoulder once again ‘locked’ in position over his head. I rushed into the den and watched with dismayed fascination while he manipulated the injured shoulder until I audibly heard it ‘pop’ back into position, but by then Billy’s forehead was broken out in beads of sweat!

“Honey, you just can’t go on like this,” I said with sobs punctuating my words, while he held me in his arms and assured me it did not hurt as bad as it sounded, although I was not at all convinced of that! As I did several times a day, I removed his sock and checked to make sure the tape was not too tight and found it was just fine. This last injury, while it had hurt the most at first, was the least of my worries, as was his eye, although it was still obvious he had a ‘shiner’. If the last of the swelling went down, and well it should, we could go to the drugstore, buy some heavy pancake makeup, and cover most of the bruise for the ceremony.

Finally, it was Christmas Eve and all the neighbors began to turn on their outdoor lights. Poppa had put lights all over the shrubs in the front yard, and I felt sure this was the first time the neighbors had seen the McConnell home decorated in a long, long time, if ever. I certainly had never seen outdoor lights, and Billy was not sure.

When Poppa brought Michael and the boys inside, their faces were flushed with the chill of the evening, and all said they were starving. Gram had fixed her family’s traditional Christmas Eve supper, and everyone was hungry enough not to leave a crumb, although she had put some aside for Gene, who had not yet shown up or called. Billy asked if his father was coming home, and he might as well have been talking to a wall since no one had heard from him and still did not have Ruth’s number in Atlanta!

“On no, not again,” I thought, surely he would not desert his own sons on Christmas! 

While I helped Gram wash the dishes and get a head start on Christmas dinner by setting the table, Billy scoured through his father’s papers trying to find a phone number where he could get in touch with him, and he was more than a little angry Gram and Poppa still did not have it! How could Gene be so inconsiderate or so careless with his sons’ welfare? Love can do strange things to a person, as I well knew, but not strike them deaf, dumb, and blind where their family was concerned!

“Damn him!” Billy uttered as much under his breath as his anger allowed, “I hate to disturb him, but I have to go call Whitey.” I knew then he was thinking about the boys’ gifts that were at the store, and only Gene knew where.

He disappeared into our room where he could talk in private, but I joined him in a few minutes with our son who needed a bath and his clean pajamas on before his bedtime. The boys had decided to do the same since a Christmas program was coming on television and they did not want to miss one minute of the story of Baby Jesus’ birth. While I ran Michael’s bath water, Billy talked to Whitey, and in a few minutes, he followed me into the bathroom. His face told me Whitey had not been of much help, but he had agreed to meet Billy at the store after the boys went to bed so they could search for the hidden toys. 

“At least their Christmas will not be a total disaster,” Billy said, “I can play Santa, seemingly better than their own father, and while I don’t mind, it’s just that it makes me really angry to think he is with her, and her son, while his own sons no longer seem to exist! I warned him the last time we were here I would go to court for custody, and I will, with your approval of course.”

He knew he did not even have to ask, not only could I not deny him anything, but I loved the boys and was as upset as Billy, a bit more silently, but still distressed. Of course, he had my approval, but we were not going to have a great deal of time to accomplish all of this before we left and then again once Ruth was in charge surely things would be better for everyone. Well, one could wish, and certainly, things could not get much worse. These dear, sweet motherless boys now seemed to be fatherless too – as if set adrift with the responsibility now square on the wide shoulders of Gram and Poppa, but that too was not fair – they had raised their family and earned a peaceful life. Obviously, Gene was not only much of a father, but a very selfish son too. My dear, kind Billy now felt like he had the responsibility for both his own little family and his brothers, just as he had when he lived at home, and with my love and support, we would get through this!

All three boys were lying on the floor with the pillows from their beds, and Charles offered to share his with Michael, but Michael had to have his own. Not wanting a tantrum to spoil what seemed to be a peaceful evening, except of course to the adults who were concerned about Santa, Billy went down to our room to get a pillow for his son. There they were, all four of them, stretched out, intently watching the Christmas program, with Michael right in the middle between David and Charles. Gram fixed all of them a light snack of milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies, which the boys reminded her to leave out for Santa when they went to bed and David told Poppa to remember to leave the tree lights on so Santa could not miss their house. 

“Oh little man,” I thought, “Santa will not forget you, but this year it will be your big brother who plays him, and not your own father!” I was disgusted with Gene, especially when I watched Billy’s face become sad, and then mad as the evening wore on, and finally the program was over, so it was off to bed for all of the boys. Once again, Poppa rocked Michael to sleep while he and Billy talked about his plans to meet Whitey at the store in just a few minutes to search for the supposedly assembled toys.

With Michael sound asleep, Billy carried him down to his makeshift bed, then told Gram and Poppa not to wait up on him, but to go to bed and he would make sure there were gifts for all his brothers, even if they were not what Gene had bought them!

I wanted to go along to the store with Billy, but he wanted me here just in case his father called or came home, so like a dutiful wife, I curled up on the couch with my book and began to read while I heard Billy back out of the driveway on his way to the store. I must have dozed when the sudden opening of the side door made me jump, and Billy came inside carrying an armful of gifts for his brothers. There was a telescope for Dickie, a stereo for David, a camera for Charles with rolls and rolls of Polaroid film, and a color television for their bedroom. There were records to go along with the stereo, all the most popular of the day, to include the album by The Kingston Trio with ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, a song that David was teaching Michael to sing. There was a typewriter for Dickie, the student, expensive bicycles for both David and Charles, and various and sundry other items that would make most any young boy happy, and also must have cost a fortune!

I could tell by the look on my husband’s face he had not found the toys set aside for the boys, and angrily he told me he and Whitey had searched both store’s warehouses from top to bottom, but found nothing. They had also tried to reach one of the warehouse supervisors to see if he knew where they were, but no one answered the telephone at his house. After they had searched very nook and cranny, Billy sent Whitey home to his own family while he gathered together anything and everything he thought his brothers would enjoy, and he did not give a damn how much it cost Gene! He should have thought enough of his sons to show up to take care of their Santa gifts, and I knew Billy would not accept one word of criticism from him when he finally did show up! 

After we had all of the items for the boys in the house and, with my help, carefully arranged around the tree with nametags on each, Billy had to take the truck back to the store in order to get our car with our son’s Santa in the trunk, and this time he asked me to come with him. It was getting close to midnight now, but I was delighted to climb into the cab of the big truck with lots of help from my wounded warrior, and I snuggled against his shoulder while he used his injured arm to shift the gears of the large vehicle. I knew it had to hurt, and that was another ‘X’ I had in Ruth’s column in my book! What kind of woman was this who kept a man, who she wanted to raise her own son, away from his sons on Christmas Eve, and who did not even care if Santa visited them or not! I felt that soon she too would pay for her part in this debacle, and sure enough, I was right – unfortunately, I was the one who paid the ultimate price.

Billy parked the truck behind the store where it had come from, and after he made sure all the dock doors were secure, he told me to walk through the store and if I saw anything I wanted, to take it. He told me he had already put the newest and most expensive new stereo in our car for himself. I looked and looked, and really did not see much I wanted since we were leaving and selling all of our furniture to Snookie and Bill. We would only be packing certain articles, to include our kitchen goods, so surely I could find something! Finally I did! There was a huge rotisserie oven that would be perfect for roast chicken and  beef roasts, and I could even bake in it, and use it as a toaster, so Billy picked up a new one in its box to add to our ‘gifts’. We continued to look around and found a new, larger electric frying pan than the one we owned, and Billy took some dishes with matching glasses, and a set of pots and pans that had a new non-stick coating that was supposed to make clean up easier.

“At least we can outfit our kitchen with the newest and the best,” Billy said. “And he owes us that much, and far more. Honey, I sure am sorry your holiday had to be ruined by his lack of concern for my brothers, but I sure will try and make it up to you.”

I put my arms around my handsome soldier’s neck, kissed him long and deep, exchanging my breath for his, and replied, “Oh my darling, my darling, darling Billy, don’t you know that when I am with you my happiness is complete? There is nothing more I could possibly wish for than to be in your arms.”

His kiss echoed my own in passion, and he held me, as if he never wanted to let me go, while he softly added, “I am the luckiest man in the world to have you and our son and soon a new son. I love you for loving me, and for putting up with my accidents and for loving me even more when I am hurt. Darling, I promise you, the first thing I think of in the morning and the last at night is always my pretty little wife, and it always will be. I know that the first time I told you I loved you more than life itself, I doubt if I really knew the meaning of the words, but we have learned together, which has made our marriage even more interesting. Before you, I treated sex as an end to a means, but certainly not with any true passion, but from that very first time at the copper mine, you made sex synonymous with love. Real love, not teenage boy and girl going steady love, but a love so deep I wanted to take care of you, even more than I wanted to make love to you, for the rest of my life, and God willing, that will be a long, long time.”

How much better could it get than this night? Alone together in this huge store with our voices echoing off the tall ceilings, Billy decided he wanted to fulfill one more of his fantasies, so we made love on one of the beds in the front window with the store completely dark, and only the street lights shining dimly into the interior.

“You know, little girl, I love you all the more for being ‘crazy’ with me, and for going along with my insane fantasies, and I can’t think of but two more things I really want to do. One is to make love with the moonlight streaming through the portholes on the ship, and the other is to make love on the beach, and now we have the opportunity to do both, so believe me, we will do both! Diane, I have never spent a Christmas when I was any happier, in spite of my father’s lack of concern, and it is all because of you. I will love you forever, little girl, and that’s a promise, please love me back and forgive me when I seem to forget how much you do mean to me. I never mean to but sometimes I just get caught up in a moment or a task I must complete, and I may not always show how much I do care, but I do, and I will, forever.”

Without a doubt, I could have stayed there all night with my handsome Billy, making love in the store window, and I felt completely safe with my strong husband to take care of me. In spite of our desire, we had one more little boy who needed to have Santa bring him gifts, and we were not about to forget our parental duties, so we locked the store up tighter than a drum, got into our own car and drove back to the house.

Within 45 minutes, we had Michael’s gifts in place and all the other wrapped packages for the rest if the family, but then I asked Billy to open his gift, and not wait until morning when everyone else was awake. This gift was too personal and I wanted to share it with no one, just as he had wanted not to share his gift of my bracelet. I poured a huge glass of coke for him to wash down the cookies – the milk we poured down the drain - and while we sat on the couch, I took the tiny package out of my purse where I had kept it hidden. He looked at the size of the box and could not imagine what I had bought him that small. When he opened it, and saw the beautifully carved wedding band, tears came to his eyes, and to mine. I reminded him that once he had bought me a new wedding band when I had lost mine after I threw it at him, and accused him of not wanting any wife at all. He had instantly tried to find it, but when he could not, he insisted he would buy me a new once since no wife of his was going to walk around town, particularly in ‘that’ condition (I was pregnant with Michael), without a wedding band. He also reminded me that I could not give back a wedding band like a class ring, and never again did I try.

I now assured him I felt the same way, except I did not want my husband to look like he was available to anyone, but was a very married man, and that way all the pretty little beach girls would know he was ‘kapu’ or ‘hands off’ in Hawaiian. I had learned that word just for this occasion, and he said he agreed that he should have replaced his own band months ago. However, I told him this had been my duty and pleasure as I asked him to read inside where I had engraved ‘To W.E.M. from D.S.M 3/24/61 – 12/25/64 M.T.L.I.’.

“That is a lot of engraving for inside a ring,” he said, but I told him since he had such wonderful large hands, it had been possible to say it all. He held me close as I slid the ring onto his finger, and once again, in unison, we recited our wedding vows, and then he promised never to take it off again unless he was going to be in the field. Now those large hands that made my own feel so tiny and soft held me close, and the memory of our ‘hand sandwich’ that day I learned he wanted to marry me made chills run up and down my spine. Had anyone ever loved like we did? Surely, they had, and surely more would, but for now, we were all that mattered, and this Christmas was the best ever.

Exhausted, we finally made it downstairs to bed. Since our libidos had been satisfied at the store, and dawn was not that long away, we just took off our clothes and slipped under the covers where I fell asleep in my darling’s arms, and dreamed sweet dreams of making love in the moonlight.          

     I sat bolt upright when David, too excited to remember to knock, came rushing into our bedroom. “Billy, Billy, you should see what Santa brought us! And boy is Dad going to be mad! He told us we could not have a television for our room, but Santa did not listen to him!” 

Groggy from lack of sleep, Billy pushed the covers back and slipped on his pants, and before he left barefoot, I reminded him to put on some socks to keep his feet warm and the tape clean. He grabbed the socks he had taken off the night before, pulled them on, and picked up Michael who was now wailing at the top of his lungs from waking too early.

“Hurry up and get your robe on, honey, so you can see Michael’s expression when he sees his presents.”

Still mostly asleep, I reached for my old pink robe, found my slippers under the bed, and quickly brushed my teeth and combed my hair.

“Come on.” Billy urged. “You can do that later!”

However, I could not wait until later to brush my teeth since I did not feel human until I had at least done that much, but I was ready in less than 3 minutes, and with the camera, I followed Billy while he carried Michael to see what Santa had brought him. Oh my! My little man was SO excited – far more so this year than last, of course, and his big eyes were wide open as he tried to take it all in. He wiggled out of his father’s arms, and went straight to his stack of toys, which he knew was his since all he had asked Santa to bring him was right there before his eyes. I imagine he really had no idea yet what this was all about, although I had read him the ‘real’ and the ‘new’ Christmas stories from the birth of the Baby Jesus, to ‘The Night Before Christmas”, but was not sure how much he had really absorbed. Well it seemed not to matter a bit since he was in the thick of things with his young uncles, and each of the boys had received some longed for gift their father previously denied them! 

“Billy, look,” Dickie said as he showed him the note that ‘Santa’ had left in his typewriter (written by me of course), “now I can have the neatest papers in class!” Then David turned on his new stereo and chose one of his new albums, and soon filled the house with music, while flashbulbs kept us seeing stars as Charles snapped photo after photo.

“Hey, Billy, why does it take so long to develop?” he asked, and Billy, so tired, but so pleased with himself tried to keep up with all the questions while making sure that Michael did not begin to tear open the wrapped packages!

It was not long before Gram and Poppa joined us, looking far more refreshed than Billy and I did, but then again they had gone to bed just as our night was beginning. Poppa pulled Billy aside and asked him where all the ‘stuff’ came from, and Billy told him about not being able to locate the toys that supposedly his father had selected, so he had picked up anything and everything he thought his brothers might like.

“Well,” Gram said, overhearing their conversation, “I hate to say this about my own son, but it serves him right, and had I been in your shoes, I would have done the very same thing!”

“I don’t care what he thinks,” Billy said, “And he had better not take one single gift away from them, or he will hear from me! He had no right to be with that woman all night long and not be with his own sons, much less be so irresponsible he could not leave a note or something so I could find the gifts!”

“Or a phone number,” I added to the conversation, but all agreed that Billy and I had done exactly the right thing for all concerned. Poppa too said he would make sure none of these gifts would go back to the store, and I had never heard Poppa say anything in the tone of voice he used this early Christmas morning.

Gram then went into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee saying that both of us looked like we needed it, but I assured her I would have to get through my day without it since it made me nauseous.

“Well drink a coke,” Billy said, “this is going to be a long day, and you will need the caffeine!”

I passed out steaming mugs of coffee to Billy and to Poppa, and then decided the boys and I might enjoy some hot chocolate, and Gram agreed to make it. As involved as they were with their gifts from Santa, when Gram called to say  breakfast was ready, everyone, including Michael, took off for the kitchen table, and I had not realized how famished I was until I saw the huge stacks of waffles! I had never seen anyone spread strawberry jam on a waffle, but that was how the boys wanted to eat them, so first they spread the butter into each tiny square, then the jam, and conservatively, they must have eaten at least four apiece. By the time I cut up Michael’s waffle and put butter and syrup on it, I turned around and the huge stack was gone, but Gram had another waiting in the warm oven, so we all were full to the point of bursting when we finished.

One at a time, the boys asked to be excused from the table, and of course returned to their cache of gifts, and then Michael poured his juice upside down on his plate, and said, “All done!” I wiped his sticky fingers and face, and soon he too was playing under the Christmas tree.

Exhausted, I looked at the clock on the kitchen wall, and was shocked to find that it was not even 7:00 a.m.! Billy and I had slept less than 4 hours, and I knew all of us would need a nap, if we could get Michael down, and at this rate, it was not very likely. Around 10:00 a.m., I was failing rapidly, and could barely make sense of what anyone said to me I was so tired, but since Gene had not shown up, Billy decided it was time to open the packages, and his father did not deserve the courtesy of having us wait for him. He assigned David to take the gifts out from under the tree, Dickie to read the name on the tag, then Charles and Michael to deliver them, although we both felt sure as soon as a package for Michael came up, he would stop and open it, and we were right. Actually, he wanted to open them all, but Billy managed to rescue the half-opened packages before the contents spilled out.

An hour later, there were piles of wrapping paper, tissue, boxes, and bows all over the den, and Billy organized a ‘clean-up’ team while I took our son downstairs to go ‘potty’ and to dress him in his red corduroy overalls and his ‘Santa’ knit shirt. By then, he was actually beginning to fade, and I felt sure that after lunch, Billy, Michael, and I would all be able to take a nap – that is if Gene did not show up first! While I was downstairs putting on my own clothes – my favorite cotton maternity dress – a cream-colored print that I had also made, I heard a now familiar voice and knew Gene was home! Oh boy! I did not want to miss this! I pulled my hair back in a barrette, but did not need to tell Michael his grandfather was here since he had heard him and already headed to the den.

I wish I could say Gene was pleased with Billy’s efforts on behalf of his brothers, but when he saw the ‘denied’ gifts under the tree, and not the gifts he had chosen, he looked at Billy and pointing his finger at the boy’s stash said, “I presume that you are responsible for this?”

“Yes” Billy answered. “And damned proud of it too! I can promise you one thing this is the last time you will ever neglect my brothers on a holiday, or play favorites between them and whatever his name is – Ruth’s son – or I will come back to Griffin and take you to court just as I promised! And another thing, you can tell your lady friend she had better treat these boys just like her own son, or I will take them away and raise them myself!”

Gene tried to say something, but Billy was not finished while his brothers looked on in awe, “If so much as one item that Santa brought them is returned, then all of Griffin will find out where you were and where you were not on Christmas Eve! The rest of this conversation is not for their ears, and we will finish it outside, just you and me!”

I was horrified! Surely, Billy with his hurt arm, his broken toe and one eye already black and blue was not going to take on his father! I reached out to stop him as Gene headed for the side door, and in a whisper, pleaded with him, “Billy, oh please don’t do anything stupid! You are already hurt, and I could not stand it if you got hurt again!”

“Don’t worry, little girl, we have never gone that far, yet, and I don’t intend to throw the first punch. I just want to find out exactly what he was thinking when he left us holding the bag last night, and his sons without Santa! I just don’t want Michael or the boys to see or hear anything else that I need to say. I’ll be right back, and after lunch, Michael, you and I are all going to take a nice long nap. That way I can avoid looking at him, and he can avoid having me look at him with the contempt I now feel! There is nothing he can say that will make what he did all right, but I want to hear him try anyway.”

He kissed me on the forehead, I gently touched his bruised face, and then without even a jacket on, he went outside to talk to his father.

Gram had gone back to the bedroom to get dressed so she could put the final touches on the Christmas dinner, and the wonderful aroma of the brown sugar glazed ham was already filling the house! Three pies were sitting on the counter and ready to go into the oven, rolls were rising in the corner, and, of course, the table was already set. Poppa had slid over to the edge of the window where he could watch his son and his grandson, and I knew if any physical violence began, he would be the first one out of the door, with me on his heels!

“Is it O.K.?” I asked, and he just nodded, not taking his eyes off the two grown men engaged in what I could imagine was a conversation not fit for the ears of women or children.

Michael was so engrossed in his toys, and one at a time, he brought them over to show me, that he had not even seen his daddy or his grandfather go out the door. Thankfully, the boys were in their rooms getting out of their pajamas and setting up their television so that all could equally see it. I knew that before the day was over, both of the new bikes would have been on long rides when the neighborhood boys met to show off and to compare. However, right now my thoughts were entirely on my darling Billy. I simply could not imagine what Gene could possibly say to excuse his actions.

Gram soon came back into the kitchen looking as fresh as she always did with her hair neatly combed and a clean housedress on under the new apron Billy and I had given her for Christmas. I asked her if I could do anything to help, and she put me to work chopping some onions (while tears ran down my face), and celery for the stuffing. Not only had she put a ham in the oven, she also had a turkey she had cooked the day before, and now was warming with the ham, so this meal would be quite a feast!

I felt the cool air of this sunny Christmas Day before I heard Billy come in the house, without Gene, but then I saw Poppa go outside, presumably to talk to his son. Billy came up behind me and put his cold hands on my neck, and then his arms around me, and I leaned back against his familiar chest, closed my eyes, and asked, “Is everything O.K?”

Billy’s answer was short, but I knew he would tell me everything later and did not want to ruin the day for Gram who was working so hard to make this a ‘family’ holiday to remember, so he just said, “For now, but only time will tell.”

With that, I knew he was now even more apprehensive about the woman who he had never set eyes on and who, by this time tomorrow, would be the only mother his brothers would have. I was not as worried about Dickie, who, older, seemed to acclimate better to changing scenarios, but David and Charles, who were both still ‘boys’ and full of themselves – those two I had a feeling were in for a rough ride, and if it got really bad, then they would always have a home with us!

Soon Gene and Poppa came inside, and Gene did not speak to anyone but went straight back to his bedroom, where his parents were staying. We heard him opening and closing drawers, and Poppa told us he was packing for his honeymoon, and making sure his suit was ready for the wedding. Neither Billy nor I could have cared less about this wedding now, and the less we had to see of Gene today, the better.

To say that this long day seemed shorter by the talks outside would be a fantasy, and as the clock seemed to take four times as long to go around to each hour, finally Gram’s big meal was ready. It was exactly 2:00 when we sat down at the table with Gene at the head, although in my mind my handsome husband had earned that chair of honor. Billy and I sat on the opposite end and ‘shared’ the other oval end of the table next to the kitchen with our son, and there was so much to eat I was amazed! Where had it all been? I wondered, since I had not seen all these dishes made, but surely, Gram had been working on this meal all week! Thank goodness, for Gram’s sake, that unlike Thanksgiving, at least her son was home to share a holiday meal with his family!

I offered to help clean up after the last piece of pie was consumed, but Poppa told both Billy and me to take our son and try to nap since he knew we had only a few hours of sleep. It was beginning to show on me by my not being able to grasp the conversation, and Michael was now playing with his pie like finger paints while Billy was watching him like a hawk so he would not rub the mess into his hair!

Gene was the first to stand up and said, “Excuse me, I have a call to make.”

As if we did not know whom he was calling, and then Billy stood up and said, almost facetiously, “Excuse me, but I have a young son to clean up!”

One by one, each boy excused themselves from the table, and while Charles and David took their new bicycles outside, Dickie went into their bedroom to ‘practice’ on his typewriter. After Gram and Poppa rejected my offer of assistance, I followed Billy down to our room, and found him leaning over the playpen rubbing his son’s back in an effort to get him to sleep.

“Sleepy, sleepy little baby, and when you wake, we’ll bake a cake for all the pretty little horses.”

Within 3 minutes Michael was sound asleep, and within another two minutes so were his father and I, in each other’s arms.

When I woke, it was dark outside, and both my son and my husband were gone, so moaning aloud I got up, washed my face, brushed my teeth and combed my hair, then followed the sounds of a football game upstairs to the den. Gram was once again in the kitchen and had just finished making a huge platter of cold turkey and ham sandwiches, so I asked her if I could take orders for the drinks.

“No orders,” she said, “just pour some coke for Billy, milk for Michael and the boys, and I have made coffee for the rest of us. What can I get you?”

I told her I would share some coke with Billy, and satisfied she had made enough sandwiches, she carried the platter to the den where all the men were sitting. Billy was on the couch with Poppa, Gene in his stained recliner, and the rest of the family was on the floor, including our son. I took a small plastic bowl down and cut some of the turkey and ham in small pieces, buttered a roll, and opened a can of peaches for Michael’s supper, and Billy came into the kitchen to sit with me while he ate his sandwiches. Michael could feed himself quite well, but it was what he did after he finished that kept an adult on duty. Tonight it was obvious Billy wanted to be with his own little family, and not in the same room as his father.

“Feel better,” he asked, and I replied I felt almost human again but still quite pregnant, and he teased and said I also looked that way! Then he reminded me I had performed like anything but the previous night in the store’s window, while he called me a “shameless hussy”! I returned his banter saying if I was a ‘hussy’ then he had surely taught me, and that earned a huge kiss! Then I asked him how long he had been able to sleep, and was amazed both he and Michael had slept for three hours!

“I hate to say this, but I think our little man will be the devil to get to bed tonight,” he said, and I agreed. A three- hour nap was unheard of for Michael! 

“How are you feeling,” I asked as I touched his sore shoulder gently, and he told me shifting the gears in the big truck had not helped, but he refused to tell Gene he had hurt his shoulder. “I’ll add salt to his wounds later,” he said. Then I asked if Gene had said anything about his eye, and Billy told me all Gene had said was he was a pretty sight for a wedding, and then Billy told him he could change his mind any time and choose another best man, and it would not bother him a bit. His father said nothing in reply.

Softly I touched his eye, then kissing his cheek, I told him I did not think it would be swollen at all by the next day, or so little it would not be noticeable, and as far as the bruise, I could easily cover it. But Billy did not care, and I don’t think he ever forgave his father for the inconsiderate, selfish, and uncalled for behavior he had displayed that Christmas by not being there for and with his own motherless sons, but with Ruth’s son instead, as if he was already choosing ‘favorites’. As for me, I was just glad this long, long day was almost over, all I could think about was getting through the next day, and then Billy could see the doctor and we could all go home. Home to our own warm, inviting apartment where love filled every corner, not tension, and lies, and where I could have my precious Billy all to myself, and as he often said, we could “screw ourselves blind!”


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