Saturday, December 28, 2013

Yesterday, December 27, would...

...have been my parents' 70th wedding anniversary.

I called my mother, who, at age 94, still lives independently in Minneapolis, and told her I was thinking of her. (My father died in the spring of 2010.)

As family lore would have it, my dad, who was stationed in Florida with the army at the time, called my mother's sister Betty a day or two before and left a message "to tell Nance that I'll be home this weekend and that we're going to get married." If you knew my father you would have no trouble believing this story, but when I talked to my mother yesterday she said she didn't recall it happening quite that way.

My dad was indeed stationed in Florida in 1943 and came home on short notice but the two had been engaged since the previous spring. According to my mom, "everybody was getting married," so it wouldn't have been so unusual for them to tie the knot, especially since my father's future in the military was so uncertain.

So my dad did arrive home on a Friday or a Saturday, which would have been either Christmas Eve or Christmas of that year. Since Catholic churches didn't typically perform weddings on Sundays, the earliest my parents could have gotten married would have been Monday, the 27th. And on that morning, at ten o'clock, James Francis Tracy and Nancy Ann Crawford walked down the aisle of Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois. I've seen the pictures; my mother didn't have time to buy a traditional wedding dress and my father wore his uniform. (We had been told growing up that my dad couldn't have worn anything else; to be out of uniform during wartime would have been considered treasonous.)

Ascension, above, was the parish in which my father had been raised and the one to which my mother's family had recently moved. Only 24 years old at the time, my parents grew up in the same general area and had known each other since grammar school.

After the wedding ceremony, a breakfast was held at the nearby Oak Park Arms Hotel. (Today we would probably call it "brunch.") I asked my mother where the young couple spent their wedding night. Since my Aunt Betty and Uncle Sandy were "the only ones with a car," they drove my parents downtown for dinner at the Palmer House Hotel.

(I can only imagine what that evening was like since my father couldn't stand my aunt and uncle. Was it because Uncle Sandy didn't serve in the war? I doubt it; my dad didn't like a lot of people.)

After dinner the newlyweds were whisked away to the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the city's North Side, which was actually on the edge of the water in those days. (The city later built Lake Shore Drive to the east. What's left of the hotel is now condominiums; it's that pink structure you see where the Drive meets Hollywood.) Their room was only ten dollars a night and they stayed there for the next three days, entertaining their parents for dinner in the hotel's dining room.

By then it was time, however, for my father to return to Florida and my mother to her parents' apartment in Oak Park. She took a train down to meet him about two weeks later and they rented a room in the back of a house owned by a couple of schoolteachers named Gwen and -- are you ready for this? -- Shady. The house was in Apalachicola, on the panhandle, and my father hitchhiked the five or six miles to the base each day. My mother couldn't recall if they had to share a bathroom with the other couple or not, but they did have access to the kitchen. She remembers preparing steaks there that my father had brought home from one of the cooks on the base.

This was 1943, remember, and Apalachicola was smack dab in the Jim Crow South. My mother, who had never been out of Chicago in her life, witnessed the "separate but equal" treatment of blacks, saw people drinking Coca-Cola from bottles (!) for the first time and, with her experience as a secretary, got a job as a file clerk in a V. D. clinic. (It had some other euphemistic name she told me, like the Social Disease Hall or something, but it was clearly there to treat the base's soldiers.)

Also, according to family lore, the naive Irish Catholic girl quit as soon as she found out what V. D. was (usually brings a laugh), but my mom told me yesterday that that was not true either. "What was I supposed to do all day, sit in that house?" Besides, my parents were only down there for two months.

In the middle of March my dad shipped out to Martha's Vineyard, where he prepared for the amphibious war in the Far East. My mom, meanwhile, returned to Oak Park where she lived with her parents for the next two years while he was away.

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