Ana Perelli watched Mother over her breakfast bowl of CheeriOats and wondered when the deep creases etched above her forehead began to stick. At ten years old, she knew better than to ask her about them, so as to not hurt her feelings, but she couldn’t help but stare anyways. She would look down at her soggy cereal bowl if Mother glanced her way, but since she had been gaping down at her plate of greens plucked from her victory garden for the last fifteen minutes, Ana figured it was safe to keep staring.
Her younger brother Daniel Perelli hummed with his mouth full, milk dribbling down the corners of his lips and swinging his feet cheerily as if the war had ended yesterday.
She decided Daniel was too naïve to understand that the war had just begun for us. It’s been over two months since Pearl Harbor was attacked. It was amazing how something that happened on a tiny island so far away could affect their life here in Cedar Mills, Minnesota. Nobody in their house felt the rumbles or heard the cries from the attacks on December 7, but it snatched up Father from the flour mill where he worked and sent him to fight somewhere overseas anyways.
Was that it? Was that what etched Mother’s creases into her face? It must be. Ana thought the letter her father sent would have smoothed those wrinkles away. He had made it all the way to Northern Ireland! He mentioned how beautiful and green the world was over there, and that Mr. Henke, who worked at a café in Hutchinson until he was also scooped up into the war, was the first American soldier to land on British soil!
For a brief moment, the three of us huddled around the mailbox, Mother ripping open the letter with shaking hands and reading it aloud, excited about his adventure. That is, until Daniel ruined it.
“Daddy is soooo far away! How will he find his way back?!”
The brief smile on Mother’s face turned back into a grimace, the wrinkles that had almost smoothed themselves out now set deeper.
Naïve Daniel didn’t get an answer.
Margaret stared unseeingly at her plate of flimsy cabbage leaves and onions. All she could think about was Leonardo.
She knew she wasn’t the only wife who had to see their husband off, most even travelling all the way to Brooklyn, New York to spend their last precious moments together before the Army whisked them away on a boat. She knew they missed their loved ones just as much as she did, but they didn’t have the burden of guilt on their shoulders. A weight so heavy, it’s a wonder she could wake up in the mornings and survive every day without him.
They listened to President Roosevelt from the small television set in their living room, the grainy footage of him standing grimly at the podium telling the world of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Margaret saw from the corner of her eye how Leonardo rested a palm on the top of Ana’s head and turned to look at his wife. She didn’t dare meet his eye, afraid of the look that would greet her.
No, she had hissed to him later that night. She hated how he wrapped his arms around her, trying to will her to see reason. You are not leaving me here alone to fight some war that doesn’t concern us!
He kissed her cheek. She took a hand and wiped it away, not caring that it was childish.
She knew nothing she could say would stop him from doing what he thought was the right thing. Regardless, she remained cold to him for the rest of the month.
It’s my duty to protect you and our little ones, he would plead with her.
Then why are you leaving? A real man would stay, I don’t care what the posters in town say!
Even Milburn, Carl and Louise Henke’s boy, is going.
I don’t care about the Henke’s.
No matter how hard Margaret pushed or squirmed out of Leonardo’s embrace, he always tried. She turned away from his touch at night, turning her cheek when he tried to kiss her. When he walked into a room she walked out. She wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
January second came, and Leonardo got down on his knees and hugged his children, promising to send letters and goodies if he could while he was gone. Ana nodded her head, her brow knitted in concern. Daniel’s big brown eyes glittered with excitement at the idea of presents.
He stood up slowly, looking at his wife with wide and hopeful eyes.
Don’t make foolish promises to the children that you can’t keep, she had snapped before walking off into the kitchen to do the dishes. The first words she had said to him in two weeks.
With his shoulders slumped, he grabbed his hat and walked out the door, the screen door banging behind him.
The guilt and horror of her words immediately settled over her like a heavy blanket at the sharp snap of the door. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks seeing her children dance in the plumes of dust his rolling black Model T left behind.
What she meant to say was, I love you.
The “Red Bull” Division landed in Belfast on January 26. The men who were seasick were beyond thankful to reach land again, embracing the chilly forty-degree weather with rosy cheeks and bright smiles. Leonardo spent the last week nauseated not by the sea, but by the looming fear of running into German U-boats.
Like the seasick men, his fear and nausea diminished when his boots hit land, realizing they made it across the Atlantic unscathed. They were greeted with cheers of joy from the locals of Northern Ireland, the song Marching Through Georgia blasting from somewhere among them.
Many women smiled and batted their eyelashes at them while they marched through, but Leonardo had only one woman on his mind.
Margaret’s fierceness gave him butterflies, even after twelve years of marriage. She was a woman like no other. Boarding the boat in Brooklyn, he watched the other soldiers around them kiss their wives and children goodbye, eyes brimming with tears. He scanned the crowd for the black hair neatly pinned and a pair of scowling, electric blue eyes. Not seeing them, he boarded the ship alongside Milburn.
“Why’d Margaret and the kids not come along? They’ve missed out on seeing a real city!” Milburn chimed.
Leonardo shrugged. Not many men would be able to understand Margaret’s love like him. He knew her coldness came from a place of hurt. A hurt that can only be reached by the deepest kind of love. In her own way, she had convinced him to win the war and come home so that he would be allowed to feel her tender embrace once more. Is there any love deeper than that?
The letters grew more and more scarce, but as long as they came, they could breathe easy again, if only for a few minutes. The last they heard from him, he had been in France.
Cedar Mills hadn’t changed in the three years since Father left, but Ana looked in the mirror and saw her brown curly hair had grown longer, and her stockings and shoes were far outgrown. Her cheekbones were more defined, partly because of rationing and partly because she was a teenager now.
Can you believe it, Mother? I’m practically a little woman.
Mother didn’t answer, her eyes having been glued to the window.
Daniel grew like a weed, stretched thin despite his desire to eat everything he could get his hands on. He asked about Father sometimes, but Ana had to pull him aside and answer his questions as best she could. The last time he had asked Mother about him, it was because he was trying to draw a picture of him for school.
I can’t remember what color his eyes are, he had said, looking to Mother for an answer. She snapped out of her thoughts, eyes spilling over with tears. Instead of answering him, she stood up from the kitchen table, walked to her bedroom, and shut the door quietly behind her. Ana could hear her sobbing softly all day and night.
Mother had changed the most. Her hair, which was usually neatly coiled and curled against her head, was wilder than Ana’s on a bad day. Ana even counted at least a dozen gray hairs. The creases on her forehead seemed to have spread across her face, crinkling the corners of her eyes and the sides of her seemingly permanent frown. Even though she spent so much time in her room curled up in bed, the deep purple bags and bloodshot eyes she had told Ana she was barely sleeping.
Daniel ran into the house, his feet muddy from playing at the edge of Cedar Mill’s Lake.
“Daniel, Mother is going to get mad. You know she can’t stand the slam of that door!”
Daniel ignored her, his awkward lanky body taking three big steps across the room to her bedroom door where he burst through.
“Daddy’s car! He’s coming home!”
At first, Margaret thought it was a dream. A cruel trick of the mind. Daniel’s words took a moment to register, but what made her leap out of bed was the sound of tires on gravel.
The last letter they had received from Leonardo was eight months ago. She wished that letter never came. France had been heavy with German troops, and for the last eight months she tortured herself with the worst possibilities of where he could be. Lying in a trench? Captured and tortured? Suffering of hunger and disease? Frozen to death?
Sure enough, the same Model T car that left her with her guilt over three years ago had rolled up to the house. She gasped…was it really him?
Ana and Daniel raced outside, flailing and cheering around the car. Margaret glided out the door, afraid of the hopes that were rising inside her. She clutched her chest and dropped to her knees seeing the man who stepped out the car. The children stopped their cheering, looking up at the shell of a man and wondering what was off about him.
One month after Leonardo’s return, President Truman announced the end of the war. Margaret never thought the war would touch the sleepy farmland of Minnesota, so Truman’s words didn’t make her jump for joy like the rest of the world. Everything they had seen on the television talked of the destruction across Europe and of misplaced families. Mounds of rubble and disease and chaos stretching from Europe to Asia to Africa. Almost like a terrible fairytale. Not one blade of grass in Minnesota felt the crumbling soil of countries thousands of miles away.
Truman’s words didn’t soothe her because to her, a new war was beginning, and the chaos spanned across the tiny Perelli home.
Margaret had rushed across the yard and wrapped her arms around her husband that day in August, weeping and sputtering how sorry she was and how she had missed him. When she looked up, she saw a smile so small on his sallow face she wondered if she imagined it. The smile, if what she thinks she saw was true, never reached his eyes. His stared unblinkingly back at her, without seeing her. She hugged him tighter, willing him to see how sorry she was. Was he not happy to see her? Was she too cruel to him three years ago, that it shattered his heart beyond repair?
She never stopped trying to say how sorry she was, but sometimes she thought he didn’t hear her. He barely ate the favorite meals she cooked for him. When she turned on the television and sat next to him on the couch, he’d get up to leave and sit on the porch. He yelled out every night and flailed to the point where she had to sleep on the floor in the children’s room so she wouldn’t get hit in one of his nightmare fits.
The burden of guilt buried itself deep into her heart. If only she could have been a good wife to this good man…. How could she ever forgive herself?
No matter how many times she said I love you now, she missed it the one time it mattered most.
Ana noticed a similar gaze in Father’s eyes that she had witnessed in Mother’s while he was away. Father stared at the walls without blinking, and Ana would watch him, knowing he couldn’t see her. One time, she even stood directly in front of him, lining her eyes up with his and he still was unfazed.
At thirteen years old, she had heard stories in the schoolyard from other classmates whose brothers or fathers or uncles had come home. Words like shellshock and trauma and war neurosis had her wondering what he had seen.
“The guy next to my brother had his arms blown off,” said Davie Brody, the boy next to her in class.
“My uncle has to sleep with a radio on beside him every night. He can’t even sleep on the bed, he has to sleep on the floor,” answered Louise Beckinsale.
“My father left his soul in France, I think,” Ana whispered to her, “His body is here in Minnesota, but not him.”
Louise shook her head with pity, her blonde curls jostling. “He must have seen something awful like Davie’s brother did.”
Ana was hoping with his return, she would get Mother back too. She tried to be thankful that she wasn’t an orphan in Europe somewhere, starving to death. Or that she didn’t have to endure a painful death in a concentration camp. At the least, she tried to be grateful that her father even came back when so many didn’t.
But every day Ana came home and saw Father on the porch staring out at the old flour mill or Mother pacing in the living room, gnawing on her nails, she couldn’t help but curse the war, Hitler, Roosevelt, Truman and the Army for taking away her family.
No matter how many times Ana looked them square in the blank, unseeing eyes and said I love you, she couldn’t bring them back. The ripples of war had claimed them.