The best gifts


by Frances Edstrom

This year we did Christmas presents differently. All of us have houses that need lots of work, so our children, instead of giving us expensive presents, gave us a future weekend of work, the time and project to be determined by us. They also gave the same thing to each other. I still got my crossword puzzle books from Cassidy and Angie, and a new nightie and scarf from Morgan and Dan, but I think we may have started a new tradition with this work weekend.

It would have been a short gift opening day except that the grandchildren still got presents from all, and had a great time playing with them. (I am pretty sick of the Chutes and Ladders game already! How about a game that actually ends, for heaven’s sake?)

Several days before Christmas, a package came from my Aunt Kay and Uncle Paul. Kay is my late mother’s only sibling, thirteen years younger than my mother, and thirteen years older than me. We have always been close, as they live in Omaha, and when I was in college here they were much closer for a visit than Massachusetts, so I spent some great times with them and their five kids.

I opened the package from my aunt and uncle, after correctly surmising that it was a book. But I was floored by what type of book it actually was. My aunt, over a period of years, had transcribed all of the letters my mother wrote to her and their mother during WWII, when mother was in the WAVES, which was an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service in the U.S. Navy, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30, 1942.

Mother, Margaret Ann Muraine, or Margie to her family and Mugs to her friends, had graduated from the College of Saint Teresa and after a stint working for Conrad Furs in Superior, Wisconsin, was teaching grade school in Bloomfield, Nebraska, a town today of 1,126 people, not far from the South Dakota border. Reading between the lines, it wasn’t hard to tell that my mother had larger ambitions than presented themselves in Bloomfield. Apparently, when a WAVES recruiter came to the vicinity, Mugs must have gone to find out what opportunities this might hold for a smart, pretty, adventurous girl from the Midwest.

She joined up, and left on the train from Sioux City, but the school year hadn’t as yet ended. No problem! Her mother, my grandmother, a widow with a small daughter, my Aunt Kay, moved to Bloomfield and completed my mother’s contract at the elementary school.

The first letter in the inch-thick book is posted from Chicago in April of 1943, probably the 9th or 10th, guessing from the next letter, posted from Northampton, Massachusetts. The WAVES officers training was a two-month course held at Smith College in Northampton, with the women living in Smith dormitories and training on Smith athletic fields and gymnasiums. But they took their meals at the Northampton Inn in the former ballroom, complete with chandeliers and “The food is grand. You’d never be aware of any shortages here.”

Mother also wrote that she would appreciate her mother hanging on to her letters, and other things she might send home, since the WAVES were not allowed to keep a diary or to keep letters, and she wanted a record of that time when the war was over. My grandmother did keep the letters, but mother was apparently too busy raising a family to ever get back to them. Of course my siblings and I know the story of how our parents met, in Washington D.C. during WWII. But this is an almost day-by-day account of my mother’s life leading up to that fateful meeting.

I have read through 1943, which took mother from Northampton to Washington D.C. to work in Communications (where she had security clearance), and her adventures there, which included a very active social life — dinners, dances, dates — a far cry from Bloomfield, Nebraska, or Superior, Wisconsin, where one local swain took her out for a rat shoot at the town dump. It won’t be until 1945 that she will meet the man who becomes her husband and my father, so for now I am wading through a dizzying account of her life seeing George, Bob, Tim, Joe, Mel, and a dozen other men who may have been in the running, but didn’t make the final cut.

What a labor of love for Kay to have undertaken. How fortunate I am to have an aunt who understands the richness of family history, and who didn’t just throw the letters out some time during the last sixty-nine years.


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