I was never an orphan, not even a half-orphan, but until I was five, I remember only Mommy and a photograph she called Daddy. That silver-framed photograph sat on a nightstand in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, Eleanor, in a small, stucco-clad bungalow on Spaulding Avenue in Berkeley, California. Sometimes Mommy told us stories about Daddy, about how he was in the Army and was far away across the ocean doing a very important job in the war in the Philippines. I asked a million questions about where is the Philippines and how did Daddy get there and what is a war and what were its jobs and why did Daddy have to have a job so far away and why didn’t he send me a bike for Christmas. Sometimes Mommy tried, but after three or four answers, she usually ended up by saying, “I don’t know, Trish. I just don’t know.” Other times, she just turned away and blew her nose in her Kleenex.
I had stared at that photograph of Daddy so long and so hard that I didn’t really have to look at it anymore, I knew it in my head. But knowing it and having a real daddy weren’t the same thing. The Bradley kids next door had a real daddy who came home from his job every afternoon and played with them and kissed them and told them to eat their spinach and bought bicycles for them. My daddy was different. In my head, I tried talking to him, but he would only smile his same little smile from the photograph and wouldn’t say a word, not even my name. I didn’t know if his voice was high and squeaky or deep and scary or soft and sweet. Sometimes in my head I tried to get on his lap and snuggle up close to see what he smelled like or if his chin was scratchy like Mr. Bradley’s was on Sundays. I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t feel him and I couldn’t smell him and I couldn’t hear him. In some ways, I felt like an orphan, or at least a half orphan.
Most nights, before she tucked us into our beds, Mommy listened as we recited a little prayer that always ended with: “Please, God, bless our daddy and bring him home safely to us.” I had memorized all the words perfectly, but they meant little to me, no more than “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are….” I’d never heard the term “missing in action, presumed dead.” Even if I had, it’s doubtful I would have fully understood its meaning.
In 1943 and 1944, during the middle years of World War II, our lives on Spaulding Avenue were predictable. Before dawn, every morning except Sunday, Mommy turned on the light in our room and shook us awake. We had to dress ourselves and we were always in a hurry. Eleanor knew what she was doing, but I often put things on backwards, and sometimes my colors clashed. My favorite outfit was a pair of red-striped seersucker overalls under a bright yellow dress, with a pink cardigan sweater on top to keep warm.
“That doesn’t match,” Eleanor said, her voice snotty and condescending.
“Does not! Red doesn’t match with pink. Mommy said so.”
“Does, too,” I replied, raising my voice half an octave.
“If you don’t change that sweater, I won’t tie your shoes!”
“I don’t care. I can do it myself.”
But I couldn’t and she knew it. I had one pair of shoes, white high-tops with laces all the way up. I was trying to learn. I knew how to shape one lace into a loop and hold it between my right thumb and pointing finger, but the next step stumped me. My left hand kept forgetting which way to wrap the other lace around, and pretty soon my right hand would drop the loop and I’d be right back where I started.
“You girls hurry up and get out here,” Mommy called from the kitchen. “Your oatmeal is getting cold.”
Eleanor tossed her curly hair and flounced toward the kitchen. I stuck my tongue out at her back, shoved my stocking feet into my shoes, and shuffled to the kitchen, laces dragging.
“Eleanor, honey, would you be a good girl and help Trisha tie her shoes?”
“Yes, Mommy,” Eleanor replied in her best mommy’s-little-helper voice. Then, with a big smirk on her face, she knelt down and tied my shoes. She was a big girl, and I was nothing but a baby who couldn’t figure out how to tie a bow.
Not content with one win, Eleanor added, “Trisha has on her pink sweater with her red-striped overalls. I told her not to, but she wouldn’t—”
“Stop it, you two! We don’t have time for that nonsense! Finish your breakfast and get your teeth brushed or we’ll be late again.”
If it was spring or summer, we had Cheerios or Rice Krispies with sliced banana on top, but in the wintertime we always had oatmeal with raisins. As we ate, Mommy brushed Eleanor’s curly hair and twisted her top hair into a knot. Sometimes she braided the sides into pigtails. I didn’t have enough hair for pigtails. Mine was blonde and very fine, and Mommy said it had a mind of its own because it mostly stuck straight out. Even with water, it wouldn’t stay smoothed down for long, so Mommy kept it cut short all around—a Dutch bob, she called it—with bangs trimmed straight across my forehead.
The reason I only had one pair of shoes was because they were rationed. I liked that word ration, the way it whooshed out between my top and bottom teeth. I’d repeat it over and over: ration, ration, ration. But I didn’t really understand why Mommy had to stop at the post office every week to sign for a little paper book that had rows of coupons in it that were torn out whenever you bought anything at the store. Well, a lot of things, anyway. Kids’ shoes were rationed. You only got enough coupons to buy one new pair for each kid every six months. Even if you wore holes in the toes, you weren’t allowed to get a new pair ahead of time. Mommy said our government needed all the leather it could get to make combat boots for the soldiers away in the Philippines fighting the war.
“Why don’t they just make more leather?” I wanted to know.
“It’s complicated, honey. Leather is made from cow skins, but our milk also comes from cows, so they can’t go around killing all the cows to get their skins or we wouldn’t have any milk.”
I didn’t like hearing about killing cows to get their skins. “Maybe I’ll just go barefoot when my shoes wear out.”
“You can’t do that. You’d freeze your feet off in winter.”
“Would so!” Eleanor nearly always got the last word.
Around seven-thirty, Mommy dropped us off at a child-care center just over a mile away. Dozens of other kids got dropped off too, from babies all the way up to six-year-olds, because just about everyone’s mommy had a job. The kids were divided into three groups: the babies; the two-, three-, and four-year-olds; and then the older ones. Each group had its own room and its own uniformed ladies in charge.
Eleanor was five, so she crossed the playground with the other five-year-olds for morning kindergarten from nine until noon at Washington Elementary before returning to the child-care to eat lunch and spend the afternoon in the big kids’ room. They had real schoolwork in the afternoons, like practicing their numbers or reciting the alphabet or singing songs like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle.” They had jars of paint and brushes and a big easel and could paint anything they wanted.
How I wished I could be in that room! I already knew my numbers all the way to a hundred, and could say most of the alphabet too, as long as I sang it: Aye-bee-cee-dee-e-eff-gee, aitch-eye-jay-kay-ellemeno-pee…. But I had to stay in the room with the little kids. I spent ten hours there every day except Sunday. My group had wooden alphabet blocks in a wagon, a bunch of hard-cover picture books, and coloring books and crayons, but most of our stuff was just dumb baby toys.
The best part of the day was recess. The child-care had its own playground, with swings, a slide, monkey bars not as high as the ones on the regular playground, and a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was just a flat, round, wooden platform with a circle bar in the center for the riders to hold onto and another circle bar on the outside for the pushers to grab and run alongside and push as hard as they could to make it go fast. I liked the merry-go-round, but I never rode it when we first got there in the morning because it made me dizzy and my oatmeal would try to come back up.
I liked the monkey bars best. The girls who just wore dresses wouldn’t go on the monkey bars at all because they were afraid a boy might see their underpants. You know, boys were always trying to look under girls’ dresses and see their underpants. A few girls who wore overalls under their dresses climbed up and swung from the bars by their hands, but they were afraid to hang by their knees. Not me. I always wore overalls under my dress at the child-care, and I had big blisters on my palms from swinging from one end of the bars to the other just as fast as I could. And I could hang by my knees too, just as well as any of the boys. Mommy said she thought I must be half monkey.
The charge ladies in the little kids’ room made us take naps on the floor after lunch every day. We each had a cubby to keep our nap rugs in. Mine was a red-and-pink-and-yellow rag rug that Mommy let me pick out at the dime store on University Avenue. It had some black in it too. I thought the colors were perfect all woven together, not clashing at all. At naptime, I always spread my rug in the corner where I could face the wall. You see, I had a problem.
Sucking my thumb was a big problem. I always sucked my right thumb and twirled a lock of hair on the top of my head with my left hand. I was ashamed of doing it because it was such a baby thing, but I just couldn’t stop. Mommy nagged me, Eleanor nagged me, and even Grammy nagged me: “If you don’t stop that, your front teeth will stick out like a gopher’s!” Mommy tried painting awful-tasting stuff on my thumb just before bedtime, but that didn’t help much. The bad taste in my mouth only lasted a few minutes. I tried wearing a mitten to bed, but that didn’t help either. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d just pull it off. Sometimes Mommy even put a Band-Aid around my thumb. In the morning, my thumb was right back in my mouth and the Band-Aid was on the floor. I just couldn’t go to sleep without my thumb.
The child-care center was the worst. If Cynthia Ellerby caught me with my thumb in my mouth, she’d yell, “Patricia is sucking her thumb!” and in a flash every other kid would chime in and make fun of me too: “Patricia is a baby, baby, baby, thumb-sucking baby!”
The lady in charge was just as bad. “Now, Patricia, you take thumb out of your mouth. Don’t you know your thumb is covered with germs and it’s going to make you sick?” Once when I was taking my nap on my rag rug in the corner, she snuck up on me, bent down, and yanked my thumb right out of my mouth and held onto it tight while she told me again what a nasty habit it was. I got so mad that I grabbed her other hand with my left one and bit her middle finger as hard as I could. That got me a spanking, one at school and a harder one with a coat hanger from Mommy after I got home. The spankings made me cry, but they didn’t break my habit.
I have to tell you about Cynthia Ellerby. She was two months older than me, and I hated her. She was my emeny. On her first day at the child-care, when the lady in charge introduced her to us as Cindy, she stamped her foot and announced, “My name is Cynthia, not Cindy. You can call me Cyntha, but not Cindy. My mother says Cindy is a common name and you’re not to call me that!” I don’t remember exactly when I started hating her, but probably it was that very first day. She was one of those girls you knew right away you weren’t going to like.
Cynthia was an only child. She lived with a real daddy and her mommy and a grandmother who sewed all her dresses, the prettiest dresses you ever saw, with ruffles and lace or rickrack trim on the skirts and collars and sleeves, just like princess dresses. Cynthia never, ever wore overalls. She also had pink cheeks, creamy white skin, and shiny, dark curly hair down to her shoulders. She wore it pulled back and up on the sides, held in place by pairs of barrettes to match each dress.
And Cynthia didn’t chew her fingernails right down to the quick like I did. Hers were always nice and smooth and painted pale, pale pink. She had a dainty gold ring with a tiny pink stone that she’d gotten for her birthday in June. She was always stretching out her fingers to show it off. “It’s my birthstone, a real amethyst,” she’d say. “That’s nice, Cindy,” I’d mutter under my breath. I always called her “Cindy” in a voice she could barely hear because it was a common name and I knew she hated it and she was my emeny.
At recess Cynthia never went on the monkey bars or the merry-go-round but instead went straight for the swings. If she wasn’t on the swings, she played hopscotch or a skipping game called “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the big girls. I loved that game, but I never played it at the child-care because I could only skip on one foot, not like Cynthia and the others, who could skip on both feet.
The worst thing about Cynthia, though, was that she watched me like a hawk, just waiting to catch me with my thumb in my mouth. Then she’d march up to the charge lady and tell: “Patricia is sucking her thumb again just like a baby.”
Mommy worked six days a week as a clerk in the Intelligence and Public Relations Division at Oakland Army Base, and she didn’t pick us up until five-thirty. Twice each week, Mondays and Thursdays, she had to work until ten at night. On those days Aunt Lucille, Mommy’s youngest sister, picked us up at child-care after her last class at University High. Aunt Lucille was sixteen, I think. She walked from her school to the child-care and then walked us home to Spaulding Avenue, where she’s play with us, feed us dinner, supervise our baths, and get us ready for bed. Because she didn’t have to do any washing or ironing or housecleaning after dinner—Mommy always did all that stuff at night—Aunt Lucille read us at least six stories before turning out the lights. On those nights, we didn’t have to say any prayers.
Our lives were busy and had schedules, but we weren’t sad or bored. We had Rusty, a mischievous cocker spaniel whose favorite pastime was chasing cars or cats. We also had a black-and-white cat named Mittens that sometimes got kittens in her tummy and squeezed them out in the middle of the night under the stacked boxes in the musty garage at the back of our lot.
Rusty had to stay alone in the backyard every day except Sunday, but he came in the house at night. If we didn’t let him in, he’d howl and wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t allowed to sleep on our beds because sometimes he had a few fleas. But just like my thumb found its way into my mouth when no one was awake to see, Rusty found his way up onto my bed every night after everyone was asleep. He’d jump up at the bottom, then wriggle forward until he had his head right on my pillow, where I could burrow my face in his fur. He felt warm and soft and smelled s-o-o-o-o good—kind of like the insides of my shoes. He didn’t give a fig if I sucked my thumb, and I didn’t care one bit about a few fleabites. I loved him with my whole heart.
On Spaulding Avenue there were plenty of kids to play with, including our cousins, Margie and Brycie, who lived with their mommy, Aunt Charlotte—Mommy’s other younger sister—in a tiny house behind the Bradleys’, next to the garage at the end of the driveway. Their daddy, our Uncle Bryce, was away in the Army in the Philippines too.
The Bradleys and their kids—Mike, Kate, and Jay—lived next door, on the other side of our shared driveway. Mr. Bradley owned a drugstore, so he didn’t have to be in the war. That was just fine with me because sometimes, as a special treat, we got to drive to the drugstore for milkshakes or sundaes. Bradley’s Claremont Pharmacy was on Domingo Avenue, right across the street from the fancy white Claremont Hotel and Tennis Club in the Berkeley hills. I’d never set foot inside the Claremont—and I certainly didn’t know how to play tennis—but I remember hearing Mommy and Grammy talk about it. Mommy had played tennis there sometimes when she was a student at the University of California, long before her marriage, before her babies, before the Japs became our emenies, and before our daddy had to go across the Pacific Ocean to do a very important job in World War II in the Philippines.
Inside Bradley’s Pharmacy, right next to the cash register, a row of clear glass jars held red and black licorice ropes, yellow lemon drops, chocolate-covered raisins, cinnamon red hots, and just about every other good thing you could think of. If you had a penny, you could buy a handful. If you had a nickel, you could buy a whole bag. At the soda fountain, we sat on silver stools, their seats upholstered in navy blue, mottled plastic. The stools weren’t really silver, but I had a hard time with the word a-loo-mi-num. If you pushed off from the edge of the counter, the stools would spin. Once I got my stool to go around four times before it stopped. At Bradley’s, I always ordered a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Sometimes Mr. Bradley even gave me two cherries. He never made us pay for anything. The Bradleys were our best friends.
Pictured left to right: Our cousin Margie Brooks, me, our cousin Brycie Brooks, Eleanor (minus her two front teeth), and Kate Bradley.
Most of the kids on our block helped in the war. Eleanor took a dime to school every week to buy a red stamp to paste in our War Bond book. When the book was full—it took 187 stamps to fill all the pages; then you added a nickel in a slot at the back to make a total of $18.75—Mommy exchanged it for a $25 War Bond. I had no idea how a paper book full of red stamps or even a War Bond would help win the war, but Mommy always let me lick the stamp and stick it on the page, so it must have been important.
An older boy at the other end of our block had a red Radio Flyer wagon, the biggest model you could buy, and every once in a while a pack of us would go door to door up and down Spaulding Avenue, collecting paper or anything made of metal: tin cans, wire coat hangers, broken tools, rusty muffin tins, strainers, anything at all made of metal. When we collected enough to fill up his daddy’s pickup truck, his daddy would take all that junk somewhere to help win the war. Just like the stamps, I never could figure it out. His daddy said our boys needed tanks and airplanes, but I didn’t see how they could make a tank or an airplane from a coat hanger or an empty tin can. Anyway, I cared less about winning the war than about being part of the gang on Spaulding Avenue.
One weekday morning in early December 1944, when I was four, a catastrophe happened at our house. Across the end wall in the breakfast room—really just an extension of the kitchen—a built-in wood cabinet filled the space between the floor and the sill of the window that faced the Bradleys’ kitchen window on the other side of the driveway. Our new dial telephone sat on top of the cabinet, not far from a dime store glass bowl, home to two fish named Goldie and Fin.
That particular morning, Eleanor and I were eating our oatmeal-with-raisins at the table when the phone rang. Mommy, exasperated because we were in a hurry, picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, and snapped, “Hello?” She didn’t say another word, but after several moments, she collapsed on the floor in a heap, the phone cord upsetting the fish bowl as she went down. The bowl remained on its side on top of the cabinet and didn’t break, but gunky water, pink aquarium gravel, and greenish water plants sloshed all over the floor, where Goldie and Fin flipped and flopped about in the mess.
Eleanor sprang into action. She raced out the kitchen door, down the back steps, and across the driveway to the Bradleys’, screaming all the way, “The fish are dying! The fish are dying! The fish are dying!” Jayne Bradley didn’t ask questions. She hurried after Eleanor back across the driveway, up the steps, and into our kitchen, where she discovered that not only were the fish gasping for air, but her close friend and neighbor, Lillian, was lying on the floor, just regaining consciousness. The receiver dangled by its cord, emitting the piercing beep-beep-beep-beep that meant an interrupted conversation.
Jayne grabbed the fish bowl, added a few inches of water, then scooped Goldie and Fin back in, putting an end to Eleanor’s and my wailing. Next she dipped a dish towel in cold water and knelt down beside Mommy, who by now had pulled herself up to a sitting position and was slumped against the wall. As Jayne held the wet towel to Mommy’s forehead and cheeks, she asked, “What is it? What’s happened, Lil? Is it your mother?”
Still dazed and disoriented, Mommy blurted, “Art is alive!”
“What? He’s alive? How? Where is he?”
“That was Western Union. They read a telegram from the War Department. Art is alive in the Philippines. They’re sending a letter.”
Jayne burst into tears, threw her arms around Mommy, and the two of them wept together as Eleanor and I stared, bewildered about the need for all this crying now that Goldie and Fin were saved.
Finally Mommy turned to us and held out her arms. Wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of one hand, she gathered us close and said softly, “My darlings, our prayers have been answered. Your daddy is alive, and soon he’ll be coming back to us.”
“Tomorrow?” I asked. “Is he coming tomorrow?”
“No, honey, not tomorrow, but soon.”
But it wasn’t soon. It didn’t happen for another nine months. In the meantime, Mommy and Daddy wrote letters to each other to tell about what they’d been doing during all those years while Daddy was missing in action and presumed dead. Mommy sent him pictures of us, taken at different ages, but for a long time he couldn’t send any back because he didn’t have a camera.
Once Mommy read part of a letter to us so we’d know what was going on with the guerrillas in the war in the Philippines. Eleanor listened intently, but I started to laugh and kept laughing until tears came out of my eyes. I could just picture in my head a whole bunch of huge black gorillas carrying guns and chasing the Japs up and down mountains and my daddy being the leader and riding in a tank and yelling for the gorillas to hurry up and shoot all the Japs.
“What’s so funny?” Mommy asked.
“Gorillas,” I said.
“What’s so funny about guerrillas?”
“I know about gorillas ’cause they’re in a book we have at school about Africa—”
“Oh, no, no, no, sweetie. Not gorillas. Guerrillas. It sounds almost the same, but they’re two different words. Daddy doesn’t mean gorillas like the ones in Africa. He’s talking about the thousands of native Filipinos who formed a big army up in the mountains of North Luzon and fought as hard as they could against the Japanese who had invaded their country and were trying to turn all the Filipinos into their slaves. But for a long time the guerrillas didn’t have enough guns or bullets, and the Japanese killed them by the thousands.”
“Are all the guerrillas dead now?”
“No, not all of them. But many thousands have been killed. General Douglas MacArthur and our American Army arrived just in time to help them defeat the Japanese. And now the job is almost done.”
Mommy resigned from her job at Oakland Army Base on July 15, 1945, telling the Army she needed to get ready for her husband’s homecoming in late September.
She and Aunt Charlotte repainted the whole inside of our house on Spaulding Avenue. I remember that because Eleanor and I got to choose the color for our bedroom—pink, of course—and then we were allowed to paint the inside of the closet all by ourselves, up as far as we could reach.
Mommy pulled the weeds in our yard and planted bright red geraniums in the bed below the front window and in flowerpots on the porch. Those geraniums were the brightest red you could imagine, and I wished right away I had a dress that very same color, or at least some seersucker overalls. I remember a flurry of clothes shopping, but we couldn’t find a red dress, so I had to settle for a blue one.
Mommy made a trip to the beauty shop and got a permanent wave, but she went back to an older hairstyle because, she said, it had always been Daddy’s favorite.
Finally, the news came. Daddy sent a telegram saying the work of the war was nearly finished, and he was ready to come home. After a stopover in Hawaii, he would land at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco at 10 a.m. on Monday, September 17.
By Sunday evening, everything was ready. The house was spick and span, we were all bathed, and our new clothes were laid out. Mommy tucked us in at our usual bedtime, around seven-thirty, and Eleanor fell into a deep sleep. I slept for a while but then woke up again. Seeing a light on in the living room, I went to investigate.
Mommy was sitting on the couch, her legs curled up beneath a brightly colored afghan, her white chenille bathrobe pulled snug around her shoulders. Her pin curls were covered with a yellow string hairnet that kept the bobby pins from falling out. In her lap lay an open magazine, but she wasn’t reading, only picking at a freshly manicured nail, deep in thought. She looked up. “What’s the matter, honey?” she asked.
“I woke up, Mommy. What are you doing out here?”
“I couldn’t sleep either. I guess I’m just too excited.”
She lifted up the corner of the afghan and patted the couch beside her. Relieved at not being sent back to bed, I snuggled up close as she described again our itinerary for the next morning. We would get up early, just like on a school day, dress in our new clothes, have a quick breakfast, and then drive up to Travis in plenty of time to be there before nine.
“Can Rusty go? Please, Mommy, please?”
“No, not this time. I don’t know how much luggage Daddy will have. It might not fit in the trunk, and some might have to go in the back seat with you girls. Daddy can meet Rusty after we get home.”
“What does Daddy look like?”
“Well, honey, he used to look like the picture on the nightstand next to your bed. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world. I’m not sure how he looks now, but I’m sure he’s still very handsome. Remember, he’s been away in the Philippines for nearly five years, ever since you were a little baby.”
“Did he kill all the Japs and so now he can come home?”
“I don’t know about killing all the Japs, Trish, but the war is finally over, so now he can come home.”
I guess I must have fallen back to sleep there on the couch—I don’t remember—but sometime after midnight, I was startled awake by a loud banging on the front door. Mommy jumped too.
“Who is it?” she asked, frozen in place, her voice quivering.
“Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy!”
Still Mommy didn’t move. She just sat there, uncomprehending.
The big, booming voice continued: “I got an earlier flight out of Hawaii and then caught a cab. Let me in!
With that, Mommy jumped up and rushed to unlock the door. In barged a tall Army man dressed in a rumpled khaki uniform and big black boots. He dropped his duffel bag on the floor, and Mommy threw herself into his arms. There was a bunch of hugging and kissing, and some crying too.
After a bit, Mommy turned and led him over to the couch, where I still huddled under the afghan, my thumb in my mouth, my eyes as big as a lemur’s. “Trish, honey, this is your daddy. Can you say hello?”
I took my thumb out of my mouth and wiped it on my pajamas. “Hello, Daddy,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.” Very polite, just as I’d been taught.
At first he took my hand and gave it a gentle shake. Then he broke into a big grin. He reached down, swept me up into his arms, and planted a big kiss right on my face. “I’m pleased to meet you too,” he said.