by Melody Carlson
November 21, 1944
San Diego, California
Amelia Richards blinked back tears of hopelessness as she pressed the lid of her over-packed suitcase closed. Pausing to shove an escaped baby sweater sleeve back into the well-worn case, she snapped the last brass fastener with a click of finality.
“There.” She stood up straight, trying to appear confident as she set the heavy suitcase by the bedroom door. “That’s it then, Claudine. I’m packed and ready.”
Her roommate, still in her pale pink bathrobe, looked worried as she gently rocked Baby James back and forth in her arms in an attempt to soothe him after a particularly bad bout of colic. “Are you sure you really want to do this?”
“I’m not sure about anything,” Amelia confessed. She was too tired to think clearly at the moment. The baby had kept her up most of the night, and based on the headache pounding behind her eyes, she was probably getting the head cold that had been circulating around the beauty parlor where she worked as a hairdresser.
“You don’t have to go.” Claudine handed Amelia the baby. “I know it’s been rough going lately, but we can make it work . . . somehow.”
“You’ve already been more than generous.” Amelia continued to jostle the baby, trying to settle him down and hoping he might take a little nap before it was time to leave. “It’s not fair to you, Claudine. As much as I appreciate your help, Jimmy and I can’t be your charity case.” Amelia looked down at her fussing baby and sighed. “It’s not fair to him either.” She forced a smile. “And I’m guessing you won’t miss us when Jimmy cries for his three o’clock feeding—or for several hours like he did last night.”
“But how will you manage?” Claudine frowned. “Juggling your baby and luggage and a long train ride—all by yourself?”
With one arm holding Jimmy close to her, Amelia used the other to get her large handbag, which would also double as a diaper bag on this trip. Slipping the purse’s strap over her shoulder, she picked up the bulky suitcase that she’d inherited from her grandmother and experimentally strolled through the tiny apartment. “See, it’s not so bad,” she assured Claudine. “I can manage just fine.” She continued walking around, feeling her baby relaxing with the motion. Poor Jimmy had been fretting for several hours now—almost as if he was reflecting his mommy’s stress. “Besides, I’ve heard that babies like riding on trains. I think the sound of the wheels on the tracks soothes them.”
Claudine still looked skeptical.
“I just hope he doesn’t disturb any passengers tonight. I’d hate to get us thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere.”
“That’s silly.” But Claudine’s brow creased as if she could imagine this. “What time do you arrive in Rockford tomorrow?”
“Early morning,” Amelia spoke quietly. Jimmy was settling down now. “A little after seven I think.”
“And you’ll call me after you find a place to stay?” Claudine lowered her voice as Amelia nodded down to Jimmy’s fluttering eyelids. “So I can send the rest of your things?”
“Yes, of course,” she whispered. The limp weight of her baby told her that Jimmy had finally nodded off. “Not that I have much. Just those two boxes. They’re in the bedroom closet. Hopefully out of your way.”
“Thanks.” Claudine pointed at the wall clock. “Well, you don’t need to be to the station for a couple hours. And I’ve got a send-off breakfast almost ready for you.”
“You’re a doll.” Amelia bent down to tuck her slumbering infant onto one end of the sofa, wedging a cushion against his back to keep him from rolling off. Not that the seven-week-old baby was doing much rolling yet, but according to the baby-care booklet her pediatrician had given her at Jimmy’s first appointment—a pamphlet she studied almost like her Bible—one couldn’t be too safe.
“It’s only Spam and eggs and hotcakes,” Claudine said as Amelia joined her in the kitchenette.
“Only Spam and eggs and hotcakes?” Amelia grinned as she sat down at the little plastic-topped table. “Sounds like a royal feast to me!”
Claudine set a cup of steaming coffee in front of her. “I really wish you weren’t going. I’m still mad at Alliette for backing out on her promise to you.”
“Alliette didn’t know that Jimmy would have such a set of lungs when she told me I could bring him to work with me. It went well at first, but you saw how it’s been the last couple of weeks. I know it bothered clients to hear him wailing like that. Especially if you consider how many women come to the beauty parlor to relax for a bit. And the truth is I got so rattled on my last day there that I nearly burned Mrs. Barnaby’s hair with her permanent wave.”
“But what about hiring a babysitter?” Claudine set a tempting plate in front of Amelia.
“You know I can’t afford that. I’m barely getting by as it is.” Amelia grimaced to think about her finances. She’d made a stringent budget for the trip, but she still needed to buy baby formula and a few other things on her way to the train station. The expenses of motherhood never ended. And without any employment lined up in Montana, she would need to keep close tabs on her cash.
“I still don’t understand why you’re not getting a pension from the War Department.” Claudine scowled as she sat down with her own plate. “It shouldn’t take them this long to sort through their paperwork, Amelia. Hasn’t it been at least six months since James died in the war? You really should file a complaint against—”
“I’ll sort it out in Rockford,” Amelia said curtly. And now, although Claudine never said grace over a meal, Amelia bowed her head and prayed her usual silent blessing—adding in a petition for God to give her strength for the upcoming trip. “Amen,” she proclaimed, opening her eyes to see Claudine watching with her usual amusement.
“You’re such a good girl.” Claudine used a friendly, teasing tone. “I’d say you were brought up right.” Her smile faded. “Except that I know that’s not true.”
Amelia pursed her lips. She’d confided a lot about her past to Claudine this past year. But she hadn’t told her everything.
“Sorry.” Claudine looked genuinely contrite. “I know you don’t like talking about your parents.”
“That’s right.” Amelia picked up her fork. “And as far as my childhood and how it relates to my faith, I already told you that I found God through my grandmother when I was a teenager. My parents had nothing to do with it.”
“I know, but I still think you should go to your mom and stepdad. You should demand that they give you some financial help. I’m sure they can afford it. And after everything your stepdad put you through—personally I think the lowlife should be in prison—he owes you. You should make him pay!”
Amelia inhaled sharply as she gave Claudine a severe warning look.
“Okay, okay.” Claudine held up her hands in surrender. “I’m done. No more grousing about that. Like you’ve told me a dozen times, the past is the past.”
“Thank you.” Amelia’s voice was husky and, once again, she worked to hold back her tears. If she wanted to make it through the upcoming days, she would need to contain her emotions. For some reason that had been no easy task of late. One of her beauty parlor customers had assured her that emotional ups and downs were to be expected with new mothers, but Amelia wasn’t so sure.
“I know you’re always saying you were born under an unlucky star, Amelia, but I keep thinking that one of these days your luck has to turn around.” Claudine sighed. “Maybe this trip will do that for you—maybe your luck will change in Montana. Anyway, I hope it does.”
“So do I.” Amelia nodded as she forked her eggs.
“Now . . . I hate to keep nagging you about this, but did you ever write to James’s parents? To let them know you’re coming? Will they meet you and the baby at the train?”
Amelia slowly chewed, staring down at her coffee instead of answering.
“You didn’t contact them, did you?”
Amelia took an uneasy sip of coffee.
“Even if you didn’t do it yet, you can still send them a telegram from the train station. It will get there before you do. And remember you’ll be arriving just one day before Thanksgiving. They might be busy. They should be expecting you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll deal with it,” Amelia reassured her.
“It’s like I keep telling you—ever since you heard the news about James—his parents will probably be thrilled to discover they’re grandparents. I can’t imagine why you’d want to keep it from them. I do understand your reluctance with your own parents, Amelia. They’re not worth your time. But James’s parents might be—”
“I’m going to tell you the truth.” Amelia set down her fork, twisting the band of gold on her left hand nervously.
Claudine’s eyebrows arched. “What?”
Amelia took in a deep breath, holding it as long as she could before the words exploded from her lips. “I lied to you.” She watched Claudine’s expression go from curiosity to confusion. It might not be easy, but Amelia knew this confession would be good practice for her. It wouldn’t be long until she’d have to do it all over again—to James’s parents in Rockford. Compared to them, telling Claudine was nothing.
“What do you mean?” Claudine sounded slightly angry now. “What did you lie to me about?”
“About James. He and I . . . we never got married.”
Claudine’s hand covered her mouth, and thankfully she said nothing.
“We met exactly like I told you—at the USO New Year’s Eve dance.” Amelia allowed her memory to meander back to that magical time in January. “James was so handsome in his Navy officer’s uniform. As you know, he was a pilot, and had been serving in the South Pacific. Ever since the war began. He was in San Diego for some well-deserved leave time. He was supposed to have two whole weeks.”
“Uh-huh?” Claudine’s brow creased as she listened.
“Anyway, I was used to the attentions of servicemen. I’d been serving as a USO hostess for more than a year by then. Guys were always flirting with me . . . and I was adept at maintaining a safe distance. One guy even called me the Ice Queen. Not exactly flattering, but I tried to keep things cool. I always avoided any romantic involvement.”
“Well, everyone knows that’s against the USO rules,” Claudine said. “But from what I hear, it happens all the time.”
“Right . . . and that’s what happened with James. I honestly couldn’t help myself, Claudine. I fell instantly and hopelessly in love. I just knew he was the one for me and I suspected he felt the same. New Year’s Eve was on a Friday, and we danced until the club shut down. Then he called on me the next morning—just hours later. We spent the whole day together . . . falling deeply in love. Sunday was even more magical.” Amelia felt a lump in her throat. “On Monday, James came to the beauty salon and asked to take me to lunch. And that’s when he got down on one knee to propose, complete with a beautiful engagement ring. Of course, I
“That’s so romantic.” Claudine sighed.
She nodded. “Yes, it was. James had even stopped by City Hall to get a marriage license application. We filled it out together and our plan was to get married the very next day. On Tuesday . . . January fourth.” She paused to remember how wonderful that day had been. “We thought we’d have ten whole days to be together before James shipped out. But our plans were interrupted by the Navy that same afternoon. James was commanded to report back to his ship by midnight on Monday. His leave had been cut short because his aircraft carrier was shipping out.”
“Why so soon?”
“James couldn’t say, but I later began to suspect it was related to MacArthur’s decision to move troops into the South Seas. The liberation has been in the headlines all year long—our Pacific forces driving out the Japanese. Naturally, they needed lots of pilots to launch air attacks and drop bombs.”
“And that’s probably how his plane got shot down.”
Amelia nodded grimly. “I know this is no excuse, Claudine, but I think James knew that his chances of surviving the war were slim. He said as much to me on our last night together . . . I’m sure that’s why I gave in to him. And, of course, I loved him.”
“I know you did.”
“I’m sure there are people who would judge me harshly for saying this, Claudine, but I don’t regret what I did that night. Not really. If I had to lose James . . . well, at least I have Jimmy.” She choked back a sob.
“Well, you don’t have to tell people the truth, Amelia. Just let them all think you’re a war widow. I’m sure there are lots of other women doing the same thing.”
Amelia cringed inwardly. Living a lie wasn’t easy. Not for her anyway. But she could keep her secret for the sake of her child. “I didn’t find out until months later that James had been shot down in early February—he was killed just one month after we’d gotten engaged.” Amelia used her napkin to blot her tears. “Plus I didn’t even realize I was pregnant until March. It’s embarrassing to say, but my mother had never told me the . . . you know, the facts of life. I was thirteen when I went to live with Grandma—to get away from my stepdad. But my grandma never talked about such things. Then she passed away shortly after I started beauty
“You’ve been through a lot in your life.”
She nodded. “I suppose I was pretty naïve about men. I think I wanted to be oblivious.”
Claudine pointed to the plain gold band on Amelia’s ring finger. “You mentioned a beautiful engagement ring?”
“Right. Well, I finally went to the doctor—because I thought I had a stomach bug that I couldn’t shake. Plus I was very blue about not hearing from James. I nearly fainted when the doctor told me the news. Then, after I recovered from the shock, I decided to pretend that James and I were married. I knew that was what James would want me to do. But to do that I needed a fresh start. So I quit my job and moved. And to pay my bills, I had to sell my engagement ring, but I got this one to make it look like I was married.” She twisted the plain band. “When I got hired at Alliette’s, I still didn’t know that James had been killed. And I told myself that as soon as he got my letter informing him I was ‘in the family way,’ he would be allowed to return home, just long enough to marry me. I’d heard they do that for servicemen.”
Claudine reached across the table, grasping Amelia’s hand. “Oh, honey . . . I’m so sorry. That must’ve been terribly hard for you. But you could’ve told me the truth. I wouldn’t hold it against you. I know these things happen.”
“Thanks for understanding.” Amelia sighed, remembering how kind Claudine had been to her on the very first day she’d gone to work in the beauty parlor. “When I got hired at Alliette’s, it was important that you all believed I was a serviceman’s wife. And I honestly thought I would be . . . as soon as James came home. In the meantime, I wanted to keep up a strong front.”
Claudine squeezed her hand. “You’ve been a very brave woman.”
“When I received only that one letter from James—sent shortly after he’d shipped out in January—I got worried. I wrote him again and again—and never heard a word back. Not even when I wrote him about my pregnancy. Then when my unopened letters were all returned to my post office box last May, well, I didn’t know what to think. Either something very bad had happened to him . . . or else he’d changed his mind about marrying me. I honestly hoped that it was the latter . . . that way he’d at least be alive.” She took another sip of coffee, hoping it would steady her nerves. “Then, last summer, after hearing so many news reports about war casualties in the South Pacific, I contacted the War Department.”
“And that’s when you learned he’d been killed?”
Amelia just nodded.
“So . . . do James’s parents know about you?”
“I doubt that James had a chance to write to them. He barely had time to write to me. And it won’t be easy telling them.”
“Oh, my. You are a brave woman, Amelia.”
Amelia wished that were true. She would need an extra-large portion of courage for this trip, and even more to face James’s parents. But she thought she could do it—for little Jimmy’s sake she’d have to face them. It looked like her only option. And it was the right thing to do.
Taken from Chapter 1 of The Christmas Blessing by Melody Carlson with permission from Baker Publishing Group.
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