“August 1945,” my mother let out a deep sigh. She wrapped a Swirl cotton dress around her naked body, feeling more comfortable without the extra undergarments. New York was hot and humid.
She opened her shoe hassock, looked inside at the shoes secured by padded satin, closed the hassock and decided to leave on her backless bedroom slippers.
She walked, slippers slapping the back of her feet with each step, to her dressing table and sat down. “I’m tired today,” she spoke to her reflection. “Guess I’m tired of ration books, trying to read photographed V-mail, air raid drills, kids bickering, the heat.” She stared at her face. Small lines had begun by the sides of her hazel eyes. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were so blonde they seemed to not exist. She pulled a Maybelline crayon pencil from the center drawer and ‘put on’ eyebrows.
The machine-permanent-wave had singed her naturally straight hair at the ends and left the rest frizzy. Certain if she brushed it the curl would be pulled out, she merely loosened it with her fingers. It looked frizzy and uncombed. “Too hot for a snood,” she sighed again and pulled out a tube of lipstick. The intense color wasn’t flattering, but Revlon had promoted it as the most fashionable. She stared at her features. Although her bone structure was envious, and she had porcelain skin without blemishes, she noticed the lines radiating from the sides of her eyes. “Only the beginning,” she uttered.
As she lifted herself from the velvet bench, the mirror glass caught the reflection of her wedding portrait which was hanging on an opposite wall. Innocent eyes expressed anticipation and uncertainty; a virgin garbed in satin and veil clutching calla lillies seemed less important in the frame than the feelings caught in her eyes.
Mom pulled back the coarse top sheet on the double bed. She remade hospital corners on the loosened bottom sheet. “I’ll let it air,” she spoke to herself.
“Mom. Mom.” My call sounded urgent.
“What now?” Mom sighed again. Louder she responded, “What’s the matter?”
“I need you.” I whined.
“You always need something, and I wish the whining would stop.” Mom thought she’d talked under her breath but I heard that. “I’m coming,” she called back.
“I can’t straighten up. Pain. Here.” I pointed to my right side. I was leaning at the bathroom sink, supporting myself on the basin’s side.
Mom’s fatigue was forgotten as her concern focused on me, her bent-over daughter. “I’ll help you downstairs.”
“It hurts. I can’t stand up normal.” I whined again.
Mom held back her usual automatic response for correcting grammar; she wanted to remind me that ‘normally’ was proper and go through the adverb routine. Even with my pain, real or an attention getter, speech flaws were something she wouldn’t tolerate.
“Sit here.” Mom closed the lid on the toilet and moved me from the sink.
“Where ya going?” I panicked.
“Just to call the doctor.” The wrap dress was caught in my grasping fingers. It opened a bit and I noticed my mother had no slip nor underwear on.
“I’m not fooling this time. I really have pain. Do you believe me?” I sounded out each word.
“Yes, yes, yes.” Mom wasn’t sure but never took chances when it came to health. I pulled so many antics, it was always difficult to distinguish real from fake.
She returned to the bathroom, lifted my arm. “We’re going to the doctor, now. I’ll help you walk.”
“I can’t get downstairs.” My voice showed fear.
“You can, honey. I’ll help you.” Mom began to dismiss the possibility that this was a prank. Her heartbeats were getting faster. “That’s good. Only twelve more steps to go. Good. See? In the car you can lie down.”
“Oh, goody. Just what I need. Itchy wool seats.” I was sarcastic.
“Glad you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” Mom smiled, relieving some of the tension that was mounting.
Gas rationing wasn’t too bad for us as Dad took the train to work each day. Cars were for emergencies; this met the criteria.
A white count of my blood confirmed the doctor’s suspicions: appendicitis. Right from his office, Mom drove to Jackson Heights Hospital and checked me in for emergency surgery. She first called Dad, then Grandma to drop by and watch that my sisters, Carole and Joy, didn’t fight too much and to feed them; then she sat on a hard upright chair in a waiting room.
The surgeon told her he’d use clamps, a new idea, instead of stitches, and that there was only one other patient on the ward so it’d be quiet for me after the operation; then he left her alone. Her eyes welled up with tears. She felt ineffective; she could not kiss away this boo-boo or prevent pain. Her children were getting older, too.
She twisted a linen towel, left on the chair by the person who’d sat there previously.
A radio was going. “The Andrew Sisters. God I hate the Andrew Sisters!” Mom spoke to the silence.
In a sterile room, I fought the ether mask and screamed that I wasn’t asleep yet so don’t cut me; my teeth hurt. The anesthesiologist turned out to be Dr. Burke who lived two houses away and was the very first on the street to own a television set, but he didn’t like children coming over to his house. I was even more afraid, because I did play near his house, that he’d let the surgeon cut me before the ether became effective. Blackness.
“She’ll be fine.” The surgeon seemed shorter than before as he bent down to talk with Mom. He pulled up another wooden chair and gave post-op procedures. “The ether hasn’t worn off yet. Does she know about periods? Sometimes this shock can bring it on a bit sooner.”
Nods of understanding, and response to questions, came quickly. Mom stood up to thank the physician, and was suddenly aware of her housedress and nakedness underneath. She didn’t even realize she’d driven a car in backless scuffs on her feet. She felt embarrassed; my pain and how to fix it had made Mom unaware of her own appearance. If the surgeon noticed, he said nothing.
“We interrupt this program to announce that Victory in Japan has been declared.” A radio speaker small in size delivered large news. “V-J Day, Americans!”
With tears of pleasure in his eyes, the physician quipped, “One day people will ask you where you were when the war ended.”
Mom pulled the housedress tighter around her body, and smiled.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Palo Alto Review.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.