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Home Is Where the Heart Is

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Dr. Molly Jean McIntire’s grin split her face in two the moment she saw what today’s mail call had brought in. There was a big package with plenty of stickers on it, and the big stamp that marked it as from the USA. Molly picked it up off the counter and started back towards her quarters. She couldn’t wait to open it. Every letter and package from home was a little ray of sunshine in her day.

Leaving the mail tent Molly wiped at her face with her kerchief. The weather there was always hot and muggy and filled with mosquitos. Summers could get bad in Jefferson, Illinois, but they were nothing like the summers in Vietnam.

Molly reached back and scooped the strands of pin straight hair brown hair off of her neck with one hand. Her skin, sticky with perspiration felt instantly cooler once the hair was lifted. She slid her forearm under the curtain of hair and grabbed at the collar of her uniform pulling it away from her skin, trying to flap the sweat away. Not having a ribbon to tie her hair back with, she sighed and let the hair fall back against her neck. Yuck, it was hot.

Molly continued on her way towards her tent. She shared smiles and waves with those she passed on her way to her tent. In her MASH unit, that meant mostly medical workers, but there were other military personnel that kept things running.

Feeling her stomach rumble, Molly realized that it had been over sixteen hours since she’d had something to eat and more than twenty-four since she had slept. Despite the excitement over her newly arrived package and her fatigue, Molly made a detour to the mess tent to snag something to eat. She found it hard to make her fingers curl around the edges of the tray. She’d been performing surgery for so many of the previous hours, and her exhausted hands were having trouble obeying commands from her equally exhausted mind.

She settled for resting the tray on top of her package and sliding it along the mess line. The grub here was pretty standard for military rations: mush, mush and more mush. Molly accepted a scoop of a grayish meat in gravy, some liquidy potatoes and some crackers. The vegetable was mashed turnips, unidentifiable by look, but unmistakable by smell.

“No turnips for you, Doc?” questioned the mess tent worker.

“No thanks, Ernie. Never been able to stomach them, even since I was a kid.” She made a ‘yuck’ face that squinched the gray eyes shut beneath her round glasses.

Ernie laughed, “Normally, I love turnips. I make a fabulous turnip gratin at home, but these,” he lifted the spoon and let the turnips slide off and fall into the metal pan with a plop, “these are not turnips.”

Molly laughed, “I’ll have to take your word at it. Thanks Ernie. I’ll bring my tray back later.” She headed towards the door.

“Sleep well, Doc,” Ernie called. “You earned it.”

Molly made it to her tent and crash-landed on her camp bed, nearly upending the tray of food from the top of the package. Just the act of laying down and getting off her feet tempted Molly to abandon the food and package in honor of blessed sleep, but her stomach cried out as if it knew she had thought of such a betrayal.

She scooped a few bites of food ravenously into her month to quell her stomach and then slowed down. She didn’t want to get sick off of this slop. It wasn’t worth it. Molly put down her fork and opened the package so that she could go through it while she ate.

Molly beamed as she laid the flaps of the box open and exposed the contents. The box was filled to the brim with tins, clothing, toiletries and small wrapped odds and ends. But the most important thing of all lay on the top, a big stack of letters, wrapped in twine. She set the letters aside for the moment as she rifled through the rest of the package. She pulled out a stack of newspapers from her hometown and an array of toiletries including soap, shampoo, and bug spray. Wrapped inside some cotton nightgowns were two whole tins of homemade cookies and a loaf of coffee can bread from Mrs. Gilford.

Molly pushed aside the tray of military food and practically ripped open the wrapping on the coffee can. Inside it lay the special kind of bread that you baked right in the coffee can. Mrs. Gilford had perfected this type of bread during World War II when many things were rationed and cooks had to get creative. This particular bread full of nuts and raisins had become a speciality of Mrs. Gilford in spite of the war ending, and it was still Molly’s favorite. Lucky for Molly, it happened to travel very well inside its little can, making it the perfect treat to remind her of home, if only a little stale from its journey.

She slid the little loaf out of the can and ripped a chunk right off the end and sunk her teeth into it.

“Mmm…” the noise reverberated inside Molly, and the warm feeling the bread gave stretched all the way to her toes. This one bite of bread was better than anything else in the world right now. Molly laid back on her pillow and closed her eyes, savoring every single chew.

“What have you got there, Molly?” asked Molly’s bunk mate, Joan, stepping into the tent and dropping her basket of toiletries onto her bed. Joan, clearly back from the showers, had her hair wrapped up in a towel on top of her head, and her face was the pink of freshly scrubbed skin.

Joan Miller, an accomplished war nurse, was living in her second combat situation. Having served in Korea before now serving in Vietnam, Joan’s face was wizened with the look of age and experience. Though she was only in her early 40’s, the stress of Joan’s life experiences showed in the streaks of silver hair that stood in stark contrast with her black curls.

Joan bent over and vigorously rubbed the towel over her hair and pulled it off, her silver and black curls falling in wet clumps on her shoulders.

Molly swallowed the bite and sat up to offer the loaf to Joan. “Coffee can bread from Mrs. Gilford.”

Joan squealed in excitement. “Pretty much My favorite!”

She reached out and grabbed the loaf, ripping a chunk off before handing the can back to Molly. “What else did the family send this time?”

She peeked into the box and rifled through the contents, pulling out one of the wrapped items. Without asking, Joan unwrapped it, revealing a little doll, dark haired and dressed in a World War II Red Cross nursing uniform. “Oh, how darling,” Joan exclaimed. “But, she’s a nurse, not a doctor. Maybe they couldn’t find a female doctor doll to send.”

“Oh my,” Molly whispered upon seeing the doll. “She’s my doll from when I was a little girl.”

Molly reached across the bed to take the doll from Joan. “My dad sent her as a Christmas gift when he was stationed overseas in ‘44. She was all I wanted.” She smiled down at the little doll and familiarly smoothed the white apron over the striped blue dress. She looked up at Joan. “My dad came home a short time after we received his gifts in the mail.”

“How fitting they should send her to keep you company now,” Joan said, smiling. Finished brushing her hair, Joan switched her light off and climbed into bed. “I’m bushed Molly, enjoy your letters and sleep well.”

“You too, Joan,” Molly murmured, already lost in thought and memory.

Molly moved the box to the floor, and made preparations for bed. She changed into her pajamas, washed her face and teeth in the tent’s small camp basin, and tied her hair up. Grabbing the stack of letters and one of the tins of cookies, Molly climbed into her camp bed and curled up against her pillows. She untied the twine on the letters and sorted them. There were four letters in all this time: Mom and Dad, Aunt Eleanor, her sister Jill and one from her best friends Susan and Linda.

Molly put aside the letter from Mom and Dad to save for last. She opened the letter from Aunt Eleanor first while munching a cookie from the tin. Aunt Eleanor, her mother’s sister, had been a female pilot in World War II. She had been injured when her plane had flown too close to enemy lines and had taken some shrapnel to the leg. She had received the Purple Heart medal and was discharged and sent home. She had come back to work the farm with Molly’s grandparents, and had fallen in love with George, a grain supplier who worked with her parents. After the passing of Molly’s grandparents, Eleanor and George took over the running of the farm along with their son Henry.

Aunt Eleanor’s letter was much of the same as usual. Daily life on the farm was good. While George was a good salesman, he was finding he was a natural farmer as well. Aunt Eleanor’s leg pained her a fair amount but it was manageable and she was proud of her contributions to the war effort. Molly’s cousin Henry was now in college, studying business, so that he could, in his own words, ‘make the farm a global empire’. Molly smiled fondly at her Aunt’s straight-forward way of speaking. Aunt Eleanor had always been one of Molly’s favorite people and that still hadn’t changed. She folded Aunt Eleanor’s letter up and slipped it back into its envelope and set it aside. Popping the next cookie into her mouth whole, Molly opened the letter from her sister Jill.

Molly’s sister Jill had married her young sweetheart, Thomas. He was a banker, she a homemaker. They were raising two little girls, Peggy and Betsy. Funny enough to Molly, little Peggy was the spitting image of Jill, while Betsy looked very much like Molly. Everyone joked that their relationship was about the same as Jill and Molly’s had been growing up. Jill liked to say that she was very glad for that, because it meant they would be best friends as adults, the way she and Molly were.

Jill’s letter was only a page. She wrote often to Molly and her letters were never overly long. Molly supposed it was the strain of raising rambunctious girls. Jill said that she and Thomas were well, pretty much the same as always. Jill talked about taking the girls on a vacation to California to visit a place called Disneyland that was all the rage.

The girls were doing well in school and at home. Peggy, aged 10, wanted to be the first woman astronaut and was studying science as hard as she could. Betsy, aged 3, was working on letters, numbers, and tying her shoes. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer most often was ‘a crocodile’. Included with the letter was pictures from both girls depicting their doctor-aunt hard at work.

Molly hugged the pictures to her chest and tried to fight back tears. Sometimes the letters made it difficult to be here, in a place so different from home and so far from her family. She set Jill’s letter aside and moved onto the one from her best friends Susan and Linda.

Susan, Linda and Molly had been a trio as long as Molly could remember. Sometime around 10th grade, something had shifted and Susan and Linda had realized that they preferred each other’s company to that of any boy. They lived in a smart apartment in the center of downtown Jefferson directly above the art studio they ran together. Molly loved that her friends had found such happiness together, though she knew their challenges were great.

Susan and Jill’s letters were full of exclamations about the happenings around town and all the gossip that was fit to share. This time they wrote of their friend/rival Alison and the new house she and her husband were building in town. They had bought a piece of what had been farmland, and were constructing what Susan referred to as ‘the colonial monstrosity’. Linda explained that the house was excessively large for town and stuck out like a sore thumb, and that was just the outside so far. Alison had been bragging all about the furnishings she was purchasing from New York, London and Paris and from what Susan and Linda had seen not one of the ostentatious pieces went together in the least.

Molly chuckled at their letter and tucked it away picking up the last cookie of the tin as she opened the letter from Mom and Dad.

Our dearest Olly-Molly, the letter began.

Molly’s eyes began to water just seeing her dad’s familiar handwriting and the old familiar nickname. Instinctively, she lifted the paper to her nose to try to catch the familiar scent of home. She could almost taste it in her memory, but the paper smelled of nothing at all. Molly lowered the paper and went back to the letter.

Our dearest Olly-Molly, the letter began, You’re another year older, sweetheart. Happy Birthday!

Molly’s birthday had passed about a month ago, but mail was very unreliable here and she would never tell her parents that they had missed it. She was sure this was why everyone else’s letters hadn’t mentioned her birthday, because they had no idea when Molly would actually receive the letters.

Mom and I spent the day of your birth reminiscing about holding you for the first time. How small and fragile you were, vocal from the beginning. So different from Ricky or Jill -- our chatterbox from the get go. Then we watched you grow. From the helpful, inquisitive and determined young girl tap-dancing through life, to the brilliant and brave woman you are today. Our amazing Dr. Olly-Molly. Ok, I am going to blubber here, so I will pass you on to Mom.

The letter continued in a new paragraph with her mother’s handwriting taking over for her dad’s.

Hello, my Molly girl! I know Dad mentioned everything above, so I won’t go into repeating all that, but it bears saying that today of all days -- your birthday -- that we are extremely proud of you and your accomplishments. We are amazed to be your parents, and I, as a fellow woman, am so proud that my daughter is making strides for all womankind. My daughter, Dr. McIntire. Following in your dad and my footsteps alike. We miss you terribly but are comforted by the knowledge that you are serving our country and doing your duty to protect our country. We are counting the days until you can come home to us. All of our love, Mom and Dad

Molly reread the letter twice more as tears slid silently down her face. She wiped them away and clutched the letter to her chest, hugging it tight. It meant the world to have her parents support, love and respect. It made the task at hand easier to bear. Being here was the most difficult thing she had ever done, including making it through medical school as a woman. But being here was also the most important thing she had ever done. She was following in her parents’ footsteps. Her father, also a war doctor had served in World War II. Her mother worked with the Red Cross to assist war efforts. Molly had a strong suspicion that had she had the opportunity, her mother would have also been a doctor.

On top of following in their footsteps, Molly was also living up to the standards of honor and service her parents had drilled into she and her siblings’ minds. She was here to do her duty for her country and to save lives where she could. Above all, Molly could help.

These thoughts warmed her in a way that pushed away the chill of homesickness that had overcome her. She knew her purpose and once she had done all she could, she would be home again to be with everyone. Molly snuggled deeper into bed as a tropical breeze blew across the top of the tent’s netting, bringing a scent of hibiscus. Molly made a mental note to press some of the tropical flowers into paper to send to everyone at home.

Molly grabbed the nurse doll that had been so important to her as a child. She hugged the doll to her and jerked as a rush of scent came from the doll. It was the scent of a spring breeze in May, of baking bread, of a mother’s perfume, of home.

Molly hugged the doll even tighter and fell asleep already lost in the dreams of home to come.