The roses had sat on the kitchen counter for weeks, so long that the water in the bottom of the vase was beginning to congeal. Once a vibrant pink, their color, along with their perfumed aroma, had faded away. But even now, wilted and without fragrance, with edges just beginning to crisp, Marguerite couldn’t bear to throw them out.
She reached out, caressing one of the petals. Buttery soft and smooth, it felt like silk as she rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. She closed her eyes and felt transported, remembering.
The train station was teeming with people, mostly jittery young boys in drab olive green, being sent off to the European Theater. Marguerite watched them as they fidgeted in their seats, saddened by the thought that these innocent kids would return only as men or ghosts.
Henry approached her from the newsstand, one arm behind his back. Dapper and handsome in his Army Service Uniform, he was at least ten years older than most of the other soldiers. He was no boy. He was a man, her man.
He pulled the roses from behind his back. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“You’re not supposed to cry,” he said.
“I know, I know.”
He pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
She reached out and straightened his tie and smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
“You take care of yourself over there, Sergeant Hansen,” she whispered. “And come back to me.”
“Will do, my dear.”
Henry pulled her close and held her tight.
Marguerite carefully pulled all of the contents out of the shoebox. She picked up the first letter and looked at her name scrawled across the envelope in Henry’s poor handwriting. She smiled. She had known him since they were kids, and even back in primary school, penmanship was never his strong suit. Those calloused hands of his just weren’t made for writing. They were made for building, for working, and for holding her close at night.
She pulled out the letter and digested it line by line, word by word, even though the whole letter was almost memorized. All of them were.
They came frequently at first. Jovial and inconsequential, and brimming with optimism, they were written by someone not yet lost in the fog of war. But the pace of the letters slowed as Henry’s tour wore on, and the tone of his words grew more somber. She picked up the last two envelopes and looked at the dates. She tried to fathom the horrors he witnessed in the two months between them. The last letter was dated six weeks ago. She pulled it out.
My dearest Marguerite,
I pray that all is well with you. We are surviving the best we can. I am tired and cold and can’t wait to be home by your side. I thought you might like this map. I got it from a British soldier. Not much else to report here.
Marguerite unfolded the map across the kitchen table. Roughly two foot by two foot and made of beautiful, ethereal silk, the words Zones of France were stamped across the top in black. Beneath was a detailed color rendering of all of France and parts of Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. She picked up her magnifying glass and started in the Northeast corner of the map, going slowly, reading and reciting the names, Rethel, Sauville, Vouziers, Saulces-Monclin, searching for any sort of a mark. She was sure that he had left a sign somewhere on the map of where he was, but she had yet to find it.
This had become her routine. Every couple of nights, she would pull out the letters and the map and begin her search anew. She would pour over the map for hours until her hand cramped and her eyes burned, searching for the slightest hint that would show her where on this big, unforgiving world she needed to concentrate her prayers.
On most of these nights, Marguerite would fall asleep at the table, the softness of the map comforting her cheek and drying her tears.
Marguerite sat in the Church’s vestry. In her hands she held the telegram, worn and smudged. It had rarely left her grasp since she received it two weeks before.
“I almost forgot,” came her mother’s voice. “I have something for you.”
Marguerite’s mother handed her a small gift-wrapped box. She opened it and gasped as she pulled out the contents.
“Where did you get these?”
“I’ve been saving them for a special occasion,” her mother responded.
Marguerite was astounded. It had been years since she put on stockings. Silk imports from Japan had stopped before Pearl Harbor, and even all of the nylon being manufactured had been commandeered for the war effort. Some of the younger and edgier women tried to fake the look by drawing a seam up the back of their leg with an eyebrow pencil, but Marguerite was never that daring.
“Put them on dear, it’s just about time.”
Marguerite put down the telegram and pulled on the diaphanous stockings, enjoying the delicate feel of silk on skin. She finished her makeup and straightened her skirts.
“Are you ready?”
“I think so.”
Her mother handed her the bouquet, a beautiful array of carnations interwoven with twelve dried pink roses. Before they began the walk to the chapel, Marguerite glanced once more at the telegram, letting its message quell her nerves.
Came down with jaundice. Being sent home. Medical Discharge. Will you marry me?
“Of course I will,” she whispered to herself. Down the hall, she could hear the organist as he began to play. “Of course I will.”