Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Love Story

Mary and Charles met at an electrical engineering company in New York City less than two years after the end of World War II. He was an engineer, and Mary was a secretary on his floor. She moved to New York after the war from her hometown in Louisiana, leaving her former career as an Army nurse. One day I was able to talk to them about their relationship over coffee and dessert.

"It was against the rules for us to date. When he'd ask, I'd remind him of the rules, but he said he didn't care. A friend convinced me that I should give him a chance," Mary smiled as she reminisced about her courtship with Charles. Her soft Southern accent lilted as she recalled with a chuckle, "He would carry a roll of nickels in his hand when we'd walk around the city."

"Eh! That was because I wanted to protect her should anyone try to attack us. You know, to be able to make sure that any punch I gave some scoundrel counted. She was stunning! And I wanted to keep her safe," Charles's tone was full of typical New Yorker candor, but he couldn't hide his grin as he leaned forward across the table to talk more about his bride of nearly fifty years.

"She was taller than I was then. I was five feet ten inches, and she was an inch taller than me. But I didn't care! I didn't want to marry a girl. I wanted to marry a woman who looked like a woman, and she was beautiful," he beamed with pride about his wife. Smiling he turned to look at Mary, "You still are!"

Southern Charm and Strength

Charles and Mary came from very different backgrounds, but this didn't stop them from falling in love and spending the rest of their lives together. Mary was born and raised in the South. She grew up on the family's plantation on the Ouachita River in Louisiana. Her childhood was spent riding horses, helping with livestock, swimming in the river, and taking walks along the rural roads into town with her younger sister, Lanier.

Mary's family was Episcopalian. Some of her favorite memories were when she and her siblings (there were six children altogether) would go with her mother across the river in a ferry to take food to families that were sick or going through a difficult time. Her mother played the piano and would sometimes play at church.

"My mother had a lot of faith. One day a gentlemen asked my mother, 'Mrs. C., why do you bother to go down to the river to watch your children swim when you can't swim. You can't save them if they drown.' My mother replied, 'No, but I can pray. I pray the entire time I watch my children.'"

Mary's father died when she was eighteen from a heart attack. He had been an excellent and loving father, and everyone in the family was heartbroken by his sudden passing. At the time, Mary was attending music school. She decided to come home to help her mother and to not pursue a music degree anymore. After being home for a year, she chose to apply to Baylor Nursing School in Texas.

"I thought being a nurse would be a good career and give me lots of opportunities to help people. Just before I graduated, an Army recruiter came by. She made nursing in the Army sound so exciting, full of travel and meeting new people," Mary sat back in her chair as she remarked how naïve she was.

"So I signed up to be an Army nurse. I finished my Army training in December. Then Pearl Harbor was bombed," Mary's face became grim as she spoke. "My unit wasn't sent to Pearl Harbor until January, and we went to relieve the nurses that had been there during the bombing. They were overwhelmed, and they needed rest."

A First Generation American

Charles's upbringing was far different from Mary's. His father was a German immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine. He came over to the United States in the early 1900s, prior to World War I.

"When they left the port in Europe, some of the other immigrants didn't like that my father was a German. They tried to throw him overboard, but he wouldn't let go of the ship's side. One of the men took out a knife and stabbed his hands, but my father still wouldn't let go," Charles took pride in his father's relentless will to live and go to the United States.

Charles's mother came to America from the Czech Republic (then called Czechoslavakia) when she was fifteen in 1906. She made the journey by herself, though she did have extended family who were already in New York City. She worked in the sweatshops as a seamstress, enduring grueling hours and inhumane working conditions. She left when she married Charles's father, when she was sixteen.

Charles's family was Roman Catholic and a part of a German parish in New Rochelle, New York. He was the youngest of five children. The first born child and the only other son in the family had died from an illness when he was a toddler, so Charles grew up being the youngest with three older sisters who doted on him.

Sadly, Charles's father became abusive. Unlike many women of the time who would've been afraid of a divorce and losing their children, Charles's mother kicked her husband out. Charles was too young to be left at home, so she placed him in an orphanage run by a convent so she could earn a living as a cook for wealthy families in New York City.

"Those nuns were strict!" Charles whistled as he remembered the sting of a ruler across his knuckles. "But they were good teachers!" He credited his love of learning with the education he received at the orphanage. Later in life, he and Mary would send donations to the Order that had once cared for him.

"I wasn't in there all the time. My mother would come and get me anytime that she could. My sisters would visit, too. It wasn't all bad, " he recalled with a smile.

After graduating from high school, Charles worked as a bus boy and dishwasher at some of the premier restaurants in New York City during the 1930s. Any job was coveted during the Great Depression, but to work in the exclusive clubs of Manhattan was an unforgettably exciting experience.

"I worked at the Stork Club and the 21 Club. All kinds of rich and famous people would eat there. What struck me though was that although the actresses looked great on stage, in person they looked horrible in all their make up. It was a lesson to me that women are their best when they can let themselves be seen."

Restless in his early twenties, he eventually tried his hand at different jobs. Then World War II started.

"I said to myself, 'Charlie, you're not getting anywhere in this world. You may as well make something of yourself and defend your country. I joined the Navy ready to take on the enemy, but ironically we never left American waters! Ha!"

Post-War America

Mary served in Hawaii for a year. Her unit was then moved to Guam, where she stayed for the remainder of the war. It was difficult for her to talk about her experiences at the Army hospital, and she knew one nurse who went insane from the trauma of seeing so many brutally wounded soldiers. When the war ended, she decided it was time to leave nursing.

Mary went home to Louisiana, but she didn't stay long. Friends she had made while serving in Hawaii invited her to join them in New York. They were a Japanese couple who had worked for the Army hospital and were eventually sent to an internment camp. Along with other nurses, Mary tried to get the couple out.

"It was so sad. I am still mad at the United States Government for what it did to all those innocent people. But that sweet couple kept telling me not to worry about it. When the war ended, they moved to New York City. They told me I could stay with them as long as I needed and make a new life in New York, so I did. I went to secretarial school. After I graduated, I immediately got a job at the company where I met Charles."

"I started working there right after the war," Charles asserted as he took another sip of coffee. "I had learned some things about electrical engineering when bumming around the ocean near Florida with the Navy. I started off doing some pretty easy work, but my boss said, 'Charlie, you're a smart guy. Go back to school and get a degree in engineering. You'll make more money!' So I did!"

A Simple Wedding at the Little Church Around the Corner

Charles and Mary shared a love of music, literature, and art. Charles thought it was wonderful that Mary's family had such a rich history in the United States. Mary admired the determination that Charles and his family had to make America their home. They both believed in being responsible with their right to vote, taking politics and current events seriously. Charles had grown apart from his faith, but he admired Mary's beliefs. They didn't need to date long before deciding they were meant to be together forever.

On June 12, 1948 Mary and Charles married at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, more famously known as The Little Church Around the Corner. Mary's family came up from Louisiana to join in the festivities. It wasn't a large wedding, but it was a happy one.

"I was thirty years old when I got married! I didn't want a frilly dress. I wanted it to be simple and stylish, so I chose a wide brimmed black hat and a pink dress," Mary's eyes were full of delight as she remembered the clear, sunny day.

After the wedding, she and Charles went down South so he could experience the world she grew up in. Two years later they would have their first of four children. They lost their second child when he was four weeks old because his kidneys had a birth defect. At first, Charles and Mary raised their family in Queens Village, New York. They later moved to Great Neck, where they lived until Charles retired. They then moved around the United States to be with their daughter and her family.

"We've had many heartaches, ups and downs," Mary was wistful, "but I wouldn't change marrying Charles for the world. My daughter Julia asked me if I liked New York better than the South. I laughed and told her, 'Nope. I actually didn't like New York. I was only happy there because I loved your Dad so much and that was his hometown.'"

Charles chuckled, "Yeah, but you gotta admit the food was pretty good there, too. Right?"

Mary shook her head while laughing and gave a wink, "If you say so, dear."

Charles and Mary at their Granddaughter's Wedding, three days after their 48th Wedding Anniversary.

(I have written this story to practice writing stories from interviews. In truth, my grandparents and I had some great conversations about their relationship during the many times we'd meet for Sunday dessert in the last few years of their lives. Some things I know, however, because my mother told me about them after my grandparents passed away. I pieced together the different bits of their lives' stories to make this piece read like it came from a single interview. Thank you for being patient with me as I practice.)

© 2009-2015 Emily Woodham

No comments:

Post a Comment