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"return with your shield or on it," is a phrase few mothers say

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Judith Dugan is a proper woman. She grows up well, a good girl, the apple of her parent’s eye. She never allows herself to be called Judy, always Judith. She meets her husband at a junior debutante ball and marries him two years later. She cooks for her Richard, New England Clam Chowder and Oyster Stew, and keeps their small, modest two-bedroom home on the outskirts of Boston immaculate. She’s a housewife, just like the preacher tells her the Lord ordained women to be.

She never thought about anything else. Her family’s been here since the Mayflower. This is all she wants.

She gives him the first robust, red-cheeked boy in 1904 and names him Alexander. A proper name. A kingly name. Richard comes next, in 1907, and dies a year later. It's a shock, and she wallows in her grief and the neighbors sympathies until 1909 when Henry comes. Timothy is the last in 1912, the same year the Titanic goes down, and there is no one onboard she knows.

Three boys, she thinks with a content smile as she holds her boisterous, screaming son. How very proper.

 

 

Rosa gives her son a gentile name after his father on the day he’s born in a small town called Richford in 1917. Howard, who gets Walter as a middle name, is a smart baby boy. She holds him and nurses him and there’s more than a little bit of sadness when she thinks of how her family will never know him. It grows when she thinks how her son will never know her parents, established in America since their ancestors came from the Netherlands in the 17th century, since the ones before them left Portugal, because she’d married a gentile. He’s got her dark eyes and dark hair, her coloring, and none of his father, who’s as fair as sand and twice as colorless.

Howard the Elder works at a fruit stand, and she goes to mass with him. She never feels comfortable there, as she holds her son in her lap and he mouths baby spit against the mantilla on her head. She doesn’t understand the words, the eucharist tastes like dirt on her tongue and sticks her mouth together like a clamp. The wine does not taste sweet. It’s nothing like her childhood, and she thinks that she and her son do not belong there.

But it's what she’s chosen, and she cannot go back, and they move for work.

They work their hands to the bone in the Lower East Side, selling fruit on the side of the road, come rain or snow. She gets a second job, sewing shirtwaists, and gossips with other weary mothers like herself. She’s too tired to go to church, so she doesn't. She doesn’t wake Howard up for it either.

Howard the Elder spends 12 hours or more at the fruit stand, selling apples and peaches and bananas, and earns enough coin for Howard the younger to go to school.

Her son is going to be a self-made man, Rosa thinks, watching as his tiny face screws up with concentration as he puts the puzzle pieces together. He’s smarter than the rest of us.

 

 

Susan’s husband was a factory worker who should never have left Birmingham. She is the only child of a Lord gone destitute from drink and sin, and she inherits the title with two coppers to her name and a cottage filled with sacks of flour and old pots.

They make enough, she with her cakes and scones, and he with his wages and white cotton lungs.

She names her son James in 1914. It’s his father’s name, his not really English father who says the name as if its a question. She works her fingers to the bone to send him to private school. He’ll grow up right, gain back what her own father lost.

She teaches Annie to sew and cook, and her daughter takes to it like a duck with a screwdriver. Head in the clouds, the little girl dreams of being a nurse.

The trenches take her man in 1917, but she doesn't starve. The factory owner and the brothers with the very fine hats make sure of that.

 

 

Winnie dances through pregnancy the same way she danced through the first nineteen years of her life. With quick feet and quicker turns, and her son’s born with the sound of trumpets amidst his baby wails. She sets the tiny basket crib on top of the old piano in her aunt and uncle’s house in Shelbyville and plays him to sleep every night.

They’re doing well, George writes to his sister whose settled in Brooklyn. She calls herself Ida now. Winnie thinks it’s an auspicious sign. Her boy is healthy. Seven pounds, wisps of brown curls, and eyes as blue as the sky. He’s the most beautiful baby she’s ever seen, even the mohel says so on the day of his bris , and she thinks back to her father in the Old Country.

“See, Papa,” she wants to say in a language she’s not uttered since it was so cold the skin could freeze from her bones. “There was nothing to worry about.”

They call him Yakov in their home, she and Gregor, but in the street, he is James. They choose the name out of a public library book, just like the surname they carry with them now, picked out of old newspaper clippings before they got off the boat. It’s not hiding, she tells her husband, it just is.

Yakov is James, just like her beloved is George, here, in this land of plenty with the outhouse and the leaking roof.

Like Fredye is Winifred Barnes.

 

 

Sorcha—Sarah, she reminds herself, it’s Sarah now—gives birth through a river of tears. Her husband’s gone, lungs that use to sing midnight ditty’s a mess of mustard gas and char, and she feels like she’s dying, too. She calls in the priest, Father Matthew, unfamiliar as this cramped, dirty Brooklyn tenement, with three other Irish families packed into the same floor, and has him say the rites.

Her son comes, thin and red-faced, and they say he won’t last the night.

Anger growing, she rises from the bed, arms and legs shaking, and holds her son close. He’s got Joe’s eyes, blue as a sapphire, but her cornflower, thin hair. Stíofán, her heart whispers, but she calls him Steven, the English syllables like a sin on her tongue.

She survived the riots and the Easter Rising and traveled across the pond. She’ll not allow either of them to die like this.

“He’ll live,” she tells the sad-faced Murdock midwife and waves Father Matthew away. “Just you wait.”

She goes back to nursing and the nuns babysit her son. He gets all sorts of ailments, the wee lad, and four times before he’s confirmed, the priests say the last rites. She carries her rosary beads everywhere, doesn’t think about his long-buried Protestant father, and works, and works, and works.

She passes the signs in the windows, “ No Irish need apply ,” with a fierce scowl and vows her son’s going to grow into a better world.

 

 

Constance has never been to Paris. Chaos passes her village outside Marseille by untouched, and she marries Alexandre with a smile on her face and a white gown. She loves France, loves her village, and never wants to leave. There’s no more than 500 or so who live here, and her husband works the land, her brother fixes cars for men with more money than them, and they smoke and drink and enjoy life.

There’s four stillborn before Jacques, and though she knows their home can fill more, they never have another child. The village prays with them, mourns with them, gossips about them, but Jacques never feels jealousy, not like she did. The men go off to war, Alexandre with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and the women wring their hands. Still, her son wants for nothing.

He wants to see Paris, though, and Versailles. He wants to see London, and her husband rolls his eyes, mutters about the English, and scolds the boy. Her son dreams of far off places, lands she never desired to see.

“Berlin,” he tells her, after the war’s stopped. He’s eight, and its 1919, and the village is the same, though it can never be the same. “I’ll go to Berlin one day. Then Rome, and Athens, and even New York!”

He builds devices in their cowshed, and sparks flames across the hay. He shoots milk bottles off fences and nearly grazes Monsieur Foucault’s leg. By the age of ten he’s earned more beatings than Constance ever got, but he never stops. Alexandre gets sicker and sicker, fingers tighter around the bottle, even as they shake.

He’s a dreamer, she sighs sadly, her arms around her black-and-blue ribcage, and this world might swallow him up.

 

 

Keiko’s parents arrived in 1869, children then, and made their home in Gold Hills. They worked hard and stumbled through interactions with the English-speaking populace. She’s more American than the immigrants arriving the year her son is born, 1919. They give him an American name, James, and teach him to speak English only. The schools are segregated, and sometimes he comes back with words she doesn’t know tumbling out of his mouth, and she tells him not to repeat them.

“We’re Americans,” she says firmly. “We’re no different from them.” It’s a lie, Keiko knows, but Tadashi went to war for this country. He bled for this country. She’s a laundress in this country, and she knows hamburgers and hotdogs and those thin potato strips called French Fries. They don’t celebrate Christmas, though, and Jim loves to talk about Bon Odori festivals. He draws stick fingers on paper and imagines their Japanese-American community together in celebration even though they never have.

But, she reminds him, they’re American to the bone.

Her parents taught her this lesson every day, and Tadashi’s, too, even as he brings poi with him from the shores of Honolulu to Fresno.

Jim scowls, a look too old on his six-year-old face. “We can’t even own land,” he points out. “Dad’s just lost his job.”

Her belly round, she rubs his back comfortingly as she kneels. “That’s temporary,” she says with hope in her voice. “You’ll see.”

 

 

Alma works with cracks in her hands and ash on her skin. Her fingernails are caked with industrial cleaners, the mop a permanent imprint on her tongue. She goes to church on Sundays with a hat that’s been mended far more than once, and a dress she’s owned since before she was married. There’s bruises on her knees, and sore elbows creek like a bridge about to give over a crick, but she raises her voice with all the force in her lungs.

Praise, she sings, even as she feeds and bathes and plays with her employer’s little white girl more than her own four daughters.

“Your grandmothers were slaves,” she tells her oldest son, Tom, named after his grandpappy, before he’s even learned what it means to be free. “Your namesake, too.” Tom and his younger brother Jeff, take care of her girls. Little Betty, pretty Abby, buck-toothed May, and smart-mouthed Carla, before the last, Gabe, is born.

She hands him to Betty, ten-years-old, in 1918, and the neighbor nurses him more than her. They’re a community, in this small part of Macon where the humidity causes a swamp to drip down the skin, and men leave early in the morning and come back in the very darkness of the night with dirt-streaked foreheads. Warren sleeps out there sometimes, and she believes crickets give him more comfort than her.

She barely remembers how to be a mother to him until he’s almost eight years old, and she catches him running around with that little white girl.

 

 

Rosa gives Howard her favorite books. Hands him dogeared copies of The Odyssey and The Three Musketeers . Gifts him with volumes of brokeback spines: Pride and Prejudice, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Aeneid . He rips out the pages and uses them as fuel for the Bunsen Burner he’d saved pennies for two years to buy.

He spends countless hours writing down equations, a pencil behind each ear, erasers scattered on the wooden floor. There’s a baseball bat he’s never used for a game being stripped to go into some sort of experiment Rosa doesn’t understand. He’s ten days away from his eighth birthday and his mind’s as sharp as a trap.

She’s got a list of ingredients to make a cake. Howard the Elder comes home on Sunday and tells her he’s bringing in their son to be confirmed. She doesn’t know what it means, has stopped going with him into that cold, drafty place, but her son comes home that night with another middle name.

“Anthony,” he tells her with a shrug as she goes right back to picking at his baseball bat. “Dad picked it. Some saint, I think? That’s what Joey told me.”

Rosa nods, and chews her bottom lip, and wonders if her son will ever have a ceremony to become a man. He takes out the pencil from beneath his ear, and doesn’t see her sad eyes upon his small, dark-eyed face.

 

 

Winnie and George move to the edge of Vinegar Hill in 1927, and they blend in as best they can with the Irish huddled there. They’ve got an Anglican name, they’d told themselves, and thought they’d barely be noticed, but they stand out regardless, even with James, Rebecca (Rivka), and Abigail (Avigail). They whisper Yiddish so low the children aren’t meant to hear, but they’ve got scholars’ brains, and all three speak the words of the Old Country, and English hardly enters their home. The apartment is two bedrooms, and there’s a tub in the kitchen, and it’s close to the shipyard George works at. Winnie commutes across the city and plays in swing joints and speakeasies until she’s so round her children can’t hug her around the middle anymore, and then she waits at home with a scowl.

It’s nearly Shabbat when James brings the boy home. “I’m fine,” she hears, English words, as she stirs the cholent for dinner that night, “Really, Barnes—”

“Bucky,” her son insists, “My name is Bucky.” She puts the spoon down, turns on the balls of her feet with a frown, and makes her way to the door.

The unfamiliar voice, reedy and thin, continues as if he didn’t hear. “My mom’s a nurse, she’ll fix this up.”

She rounds the door as her son begins to insist that anyone fighting off three bullies in an alley is bound to be exaggerating and sees the smallest boy. He’s four inches shorter than her son, and his hair is so thin she thinks it might break off his skull. He’s blonde and fair, with dark circles under his eyes, and cracked lips.

She remembers another child, blonde and thin, with bruises on his face, and her sister’s cries. She rests her hands over where Miriam (Mirele) sleeps, the last child, she knows, and raises an eyebrow.

“James,” she asks as she shakes the memories away, “Who is this?” The English comes slow, halting, and the boy stares at her with sullen eyes. He’s not looking around, no, his eyes are focused on her son. Her son smooths his hands over the bruises, and has one arm around thin shoulders to hold the boy up.

“Steve,” Bucky tells her. “This is Steve, Mama. He’s my new best friend.”

 

 

Amanda never feels more joy than the day Harrison Carter escapes military service with a heart murmur and disappointment. Michael’s a babe, still, and she didn’t want to be left like the other village women. They eye her with envy, at the same time they mutter about her husband’s weakness, but she goes to church every Sunday with her men, and thanks God.

Margaret comes after the flu sweeps across England and takes too many to count. Amanda’s parents are gone, buried in the courtyard of their Anglican parish church, and Harrison’s, too. They’re all that’s left of the Carters and the Sawyers, and she dresses her little girl in fine clothes she buys from a shop.

Margaret—Peggy—she insists on being called, climbs trees and comes home with sticks tangled in her curls. There’s dirt on her stockings, and mud caking her shoes. Amanda finds her dangling upside down from a tree swing in the woods when she’s supposed to be doing chores and announces her intention to send her off to a proper girl’s school. Peggy, ten years old, screams and kicks and gets sent to her room with a stinging cheek.

They’ll make a fine lady of her, she thinks, and gives Michael another scone to cheer him up. The teenage boy continues to stare forlorn out the window, straight down the cobblestone path.

Harrison finishes his bacon, and leaves without a word, the same as every morning.

 

 

Jacques brings home a wife with a piece of paper from Paris in 1933. Alexandre is in the ground, the drink long taking him, and Constance’s brothers take care of her the way her son should. He’s twenty-two, not handsome, no, not with that mustache, but still with his dreamer’s eyes.

She’s not seen him since 1929. He smells of tobacco, harsh and cloying, and the girl smells like roses. They stare to one another with hearts in their eyes, the way she used to look at his father. Shoshanna, she tells them, and explains it means rose. She’s different, and Constance’s brothers nod tightly, eyeing her son, and don’t say a word.

“Mère,” her boy says, and Constance swallows past her feelings. She clutches her stomach in her throat and tells herself that mother’s sacrifice for their sons.

Mother’s protect their sons and accept their choices.

With a tight smile, she holds him close, and then hugs the girl, face pressed tight into her dark curls.

“Welcome,” she says, and sets up the room in the attic for them, while her son sprouts nonsense about unions and workers behind her, his new wife joining in.

“The village will be happy you’re home,” she says when she’s done, with a pointed look at the broken car in the driveway that’s never been fixable.

Shoshanna stares to her feet, and Constance feels a twinge, while Jacques grins. “I can’t wait to see them!”

 

 

Boston is a good city to die in, Judith thinks, as she coughs blood into a white lace handkerchief. She’s seen two grandsons born, and there’s another on the way. Tim’s not married yet, but he’s only twenty-two, and there’s still time. Her boys are grown, and that’s what matters.

She is grateful Tim’s no longer stepping out with that Italian dancing girl.

She sits in the rocking chair on the balcony and lets the breeze ruffle her gray hair. Tim hands her a cup of tea with milk and sugar and doesn't drink his own. “Are you scared?” he asks her. She stares to him with surprise. He’s never been existential, and they’re lucky, because the Depression barely hits them at all. They’ve got a Ford in the driveway.

“Of course not,” she replies, because she’s not. She watches her daughter-in-law, a flighty girl who works at a diner in town, and continues, “I’ve done everything I was supposed to. I know I’m going to be just fine.”

Richard will be, too. She’s seen the way the Thomas’ widow eyes him at church. They’ll take good care of each other.

Tim’s large hands tremble around the delicate tea cup, and he nods, but doesn’t say another word.

 

 

Sarah smiles and tells people in the TB ward that she has two sons. Oh, she’d never steal James from Winnie, no. The woman is her best friend in the entire world. It’s almost as if they’d known each other all their lives, the way they fit like puzzle pieces. They drink together, they dance together, they picket together. They work themselves to the bone the same tired, hard way together.

They starve together so that their children eat.

Still, if she sometimes catches herself calling James Seamus, well, no one need know but her. And she sees the way the boys look at each other. It’s wrong, she knows, but she loves them so much she feels like her heart will burst out of her chest for it. If they’re wrong, then what is right? So, she doesn’t confess it to Father Matthew, doesn’t confront Steve about it. He deserves what happiness this world will give him.

Steve is a fighter. He’s got pluck in his bones and a bullhead. He’s got fists that swing with no target and lungs that can’t keep up, but he doesn’t care. She’s never been prouder of her son then the day he comes home nursing black eyes and she slaps peas on the wound. Her little bairn, the one never meant to survive this world.

It will break James’ heart when her boy goes. And there’s no denying that Steve will go before him. James is heartbreakingly healthy and beautiful, and despite her efforts, her boy still hasn’t grown strong. She’s thankful for each day with him, but she knows they’re living on borrowed time.

She coughs and clutches the sink under her white knuckles. Red blossoms against the drain.

Precious, borrowed time.

 

 

James calls himself Monty and joins the army. He’s restored the family name just as Susan knew he would. If he’d had a hard childhood, well, no one knows or cares but her. He’d been a troubled youth, hanging around that gang too often, playing with guns. She’d never been so ashamed as the day she’d heard how he held someone down to be caned while away at school.

She moves to another part of Birmingham with tears in her eyes, and he joins the army. He comes back from leave straightened out, and she smiles when he dances with Emma Miller.

They name the girl Jacqueline, and when England enters the war, he hands the child to Susan. “Her mother’s gone,” he says sadly, but Susan knows this before its uttered. That girl’s got wanderlust in her blood. “Please, Mother, take care of her.”

Annie goes off to become a nurse, and they don’t hear from her.

He’s going to save up enough pay to get them a large, fine house. Right now, though, the baby rests next to rising bread rolls, and Susan hopes she won’t have to close shop.

 

 

Amanda holds onto the arms of Elizabeth and Jane like a chain the day they bury her son. She doesn’t dare go near Harrison, as he stands with a stern face. There are no tears in his eyes, and he doesn’t need a woman’s wailing. He’ll break down in private, she thinks, or not at all.

She dreads the thought that it won’t be at all. Her son is dark and silent and still-faced in that beautiful chestnut box. All its magnificence covered by dirt. She wonders if Michael can see it.

Margaret feels no such compunction. She sobs into her hands, the black veil over her dark curls complimenting her. Amanda’s daughter is a beautiful woman. If only Amanda wasn’t keenly aware how much Margaret longs to follow in her brother’s footsteps.

Next to Margaret, Michael’s wife holds their son in her arms, and tears slip from her brown eyes. This, right here in their parish churchyard, is the last of the Carters.

Amanda straightens her back.

 

 

They force them out of their home with three suitcases to their name in 1942. By the end of that year, Jim’s enlisted, but Keiko and Tadashi and their youngest son William are stuck where their government put them. The conditions are horrible, proud Americans stripped of their dignity and their homes.

Suddenly, they’re not American any longer. Keiko feels lost, a woman without a home, without a lifeline. They get scant letters from Jim, money, once, but its hollow. Her people have abandoned them. Tadashi gets thin, and stretched, and quiet. In 1943, he goes completely, the day the letter comes.

She weeps with the other women and feels like her tears will never stop. The condolence letter fades into nothingness. But her screams echoes through the room like a wave of wails. She imagines that she will drown, and she thinks about her ancestors, and wonders if she has cousins on the opposite side. She wonders if their tears drowned them, too.

 

 

Alma gets a letter that her boy is coming home and falls to her knees. “Thank you, Jesus,” she says through her tears, and her girls join her, too. Tom and Jeff are gone, lost over there in a war they never should have fought, but she’s proud of Gabe. “He can go back to Howard, now,” she tells Betty with a trembling smile. “Make something of himself.”

It will be a while before he comes home, though. Women congratulate her even through their grief, proud of her boy. He’d never quite told her about the secret commando unit he’d been a part of, but he’s got medals and stories. He writes about the men he served with.

Two of them ain’t never coming home, and she prays for those unknown soldiers and their poor mamas.

When he finally comes back to Macon, on a day where the air is so blisteringly hot you can fry an egg on the ground, he’s got ornaments pinned to his pressed uniform. He hugs her tight and cries, and she asks when he’s going back to school.

“I don’t know, Mama,” he tells her. It’s 1946 and the world’s been turned on its head. She fries Johnny Cakes in the pan and cooks grits in a pot. “I feel like I’m not done yet.”

She runs a hand through his hair, her own wrinkled skin a testament to the life she’s lived. The world, she knows, is going to be better for her son.

He’ll make it better.

 

 

Freyde is old. She still dances, but it’s a somber melody. Her feet blister, her knees give out. It’s been twenty years since she lost her sons. Gregor died not long after, though whether that’s from drink or sorrow, she never figured. She speaks English better now than before, but the words still trip on her tongue.

Avigail left for Israel, and sometimes she thinks she should have joined her, but there’s a foundation set up by the community in Brooklyn that honors her Yakov. Rivka disappears so often she might as well be a ghost, leaving her two children with Freyde, and comes back with secrets she’ll never tell.

She’d been escorted to a place in the front row of this room filled with reporters and military and government officials. Over on the stage, there’s a large, blown-up black-and-white photo of her boys. Steven, stronger and healthier than she ever imagined him being, and though she’s known since 1945, she doesn’t picture him as Captain America.

Can’t picture him that way, even more than she can look at Yakov—Bucky—with his hat tilted to the side. He’d never wanted to be in a war. There’s a woman with an English accent sitting next to her. She’s old, too, with white hair, but the remnants of a beautiful face. Beautiful like Fredye used to be.

There are younger women, too, and children. A woman with the name Alessandra, “call me Sandy,” and the last name Dugan. Three little girls next to her and one’s called Stephanie, another is Jane. A brother that doesn’t speak, and a woman with corkscrew curls and dark skin next to him. He’s named William, and the nephew, too, but there’s a Jaime, as well, his sister. At the very end of the row, a woman that reminds Fredye of herself, with shadows in her eyes. They whispered to one another when they met. A few more children, and a woman who stands like a soldier. Like her English father.

Mirele clutches her hand and talks with the woman that sits next to the English woman. She’s dark-skinned, Alma, her name is, and her son made it home. Her son sits next to the other boys who made it home, part of that unit that was tearing her boys apart, and they’re sitting on stage.

They survived. Survived, where Freyde’s not heard from her relatives, will never hear from her relatives, and can’t even bury the boys. All she has are her memories, a candle once a year, and tradition. She takes part in the community now.

And the foundation. The admiration. She straightens, muscles firm and upright, and the three women next to her, Susan and Alma and Keiko, mothers all in a row do, too. They don’t sit apart from one another. As if moved by some unseen force their hands reach for one another. They’ve raised heroes. They’ve raised children that will change the world.