Picture the Waiting

Picture the Waiting

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Picture the Waiting

Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.

Jean Kerr

In my grandmother’s home, there is a framed image of a young girl with long blonde hair sitting on a high, rocky ledge overlooking the sea. The intense colors of the darkening, star-filled night sky mix with the deep blues of the calm ocean. She wears a white dress that glows in the light of the moon. Her tiny, sharp-featured face is sullen and sad, and her arms wind loosely around her legs. Her eyes gaze out longingly over the sea, but she cannot see what lies many miles away.

On September 18, 1917, my grandmother was sitting alone in her tiny one-room shack holding a newborn baby girl. The only things that adorned the walls of her home were a medicine chest that her grandfather had made for her and the picture of a young girl looking out toward places unseen.

Attached to the picture’s corner was a letter. It read:

Dearest Lenny,

Woodrow called me to serve and you know I had to go. I’ll send back my pay so that you and Grace will be taken care of. Pray for my comrades and me, and give Grace a big kiss. I’ll be home soon.

With all my love,
Jim

Her Jim was a man who never wrote, and this note was a surprise to her. She folded it neatly several times and tucked it safely in her apron pocket.

She did what she had to do, but the nights were long as she walked and rocked her young, crying daughter. A tiny radio foretold the possibility of war, and, on October 23, 1917, her throat tightened and her heart pounded as the news reported that “the first American Doughboys were stepping onto foreign soil.”

Grandma knew Grandpa was one of them.

Within two months, Grandma received Grandpa’s first check and was able to pay up the bills. An enclosed letter said that her husband had made arrangements for his checks to be delivered directly to her the first of each month. That comforted her because she knew as long as the checks came, Grandpa was okay.

As the months wore on, Grandma was grateful that the army hadn’t visited her door. Neighbors and friends were already dealing with the loss of husbands, brothers, uncles and children. Her own sister received an official letter that stated her husband was missing in action.

Grace started walking at six months. Grandma packaged a picture of their beautiful daughter stepping lightly across the floor with a long family letter. Sealing it with a kiss, she wrote, “Miss you much,” on the envelope and mailed it off. After several weeks, the letter and picture were returned with the handwritten message, “Unable to locate soldier,” scrawled across its front.

Grandma tucked the letter in her apron pocket and slumped into the big, overstuffed blue chair that faced the picture. Her tears flowed as she stared into the picture and placed herself into the body of the girl. She felt her hollow heart skipping beats as the Atlantic slammed her soul.

Taking a deep breath, Grandma prayed for all the men who were lost and scared this night. With a strong “Amen,” a calm came over her. She realized that the young woman in the picture was also waiting for her love to come home. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so alone. She had someone to wait with.

When the months had rolled into the second year of America’s involvement in World War I, Grandma had settled into a quiet routine. Grace was walking and talking, the house was immaculate, and life went on. Grandpa’s checks were arriving each month and she told no one about the returned letter.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, a cease-fire went into effect for all combatants. The war was over, but before the official armistice was declared, 9 million people had died on the battlefield, and the world was forever changed.

On April 6, 1919, Aunt Martha handed Grandma a letter that she had received by accident. It was official army issue, stamps, seals and all. She carried it inside and sat heavily in the chair. She called Grace to her lap and cradled her close as she opened the envelope with trembling, cold hands. As she pulled the letter out of the envelope it fell to the floor. Two words jumped out at her: coming and home. Retrieving the letter, she smoothed it out and started reading. Jim’s unit would be coming home on April 7, 1919, at 9:00 A.M. That was tomorrow!

The next morning, she dressed Grace and herself in their finest attire, and they arrived at the dock at 8:30 A.M. The ship was already there, and she placed herself at the end of the gangplank. A serviceman came over and asked her whom she was there to see. She told him but then asked, “Why?”

“We have special messages for some of the wives. Let me see if you’re one of them.” With that, he walked away.

Soon cheers were heard from the ship and men of all ages were running down the plank toward waiting arms. As the last of the men were embraced, Grandma found herself manless. Swallowing hard, she squeezed Grace’s hand tightly and scanned the ship. Suddenly, the serviceman appeared at the top of the gangplank with a handful of envelopes and a high-ranking officer. As they descended the plank, Grandma stepped back and caressed Grace’s hair. She closed her eyes and started to pray.

“Mrs. Adams?”

“Yes,” a weak voice sprung up from behind the crowd.

“We are sorry to inform you that Robert J. Adams was killed while in the service of his country. . . .”

Grandma’s heart fell almost as far as the just-widowed wife’s did.

“Mrs. Becker?”

Another note was passed on.

By the tenth passing, Grandma turned and started the long walk home.

“Mrs. Creed?”

Grandma’s heart stopped.

“Don’t you want to go home with your husband?” the voice said.

She turned slowly to greet the face that asked the question. Grandma fell to her knees and sobbed into Grace’s dress as Grandpa knelt beside her and hugged his family for the first time in almost a year and a half.

After they tucked Grace into bed, Grandpa found Grandma sitting in the big blue chair staring at the picture. For the first time, it looked to her as if her friend in the painting was smiling.

Candace Carteen

More stories from our partners