Thursday, September 18, 2014


I’m young enough to still remember the patriotism and aid my family joined with other American citizens to support the home and the war fronts in the mid-1940’s. We saved tin cans, limited our sugar intake, made balls out of  foil gum wrappers. The most memorable effort in which our four-member family participated was saving our money to help others.
 Living in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1940’s did not afford many luxuries. We owned no car, using the city bus or walking to and from work or school. Movies were inexpensive enough to afford a night out with friends a few times a month. However, everyone possessed a radio, the single most important way to hear the  progress of the war, general news or the President to deliver his “Fireside Chats.” There were fun shows like “Amos and Andy,” and “The Jack Benny Show“. After dishes were washed and dried and homework complete, we listened to the radio from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m.
One evening we heard an advertisement seeking Americans to send food packages to families in war-torn Europe. Sending in $25  the applicant  was supplied with the name and address of a European family with whom to correspond. The money sent to CARE, Inc., afterwards would be converted into a food package for the assigned family.

Before the evening was over, we had voted to save dimes from our change. My sister was only six years old and I thirteen. We wouldn’t be handling much money. But the excitement of nightly checking Daddy’s pockets and Mothers’ coin purse, with their permission, of course, made Sis and me as much a part of the savings effort as that of our parents’. 

My metal dime bank was cylindrical in shape. A narrow indention on one side  measured amount of money saved. The little bank sat on top of the dresser in our parents' bedroom. When the bank reached the top at five dollars, my sister and I took turns pouring the coins into a box. The savings began again. After we accumulated twenty-five dollars, which took from a month to six  weeks, Dad sent a money order to the CARE . Then we waited several weeks for a letter from France.

Time has erased the particulars of a French family. There were a mother and several children. Since I was the letter writer in our family, I wrote them about our lives, school, our friends, being careful not to offend this family under strife. I had to restrict my words to two sheets of onionskin paper, for keeping the postal services open for mail to and from soldiers was another voluntary aid to the war.

Madam Poret scribbled on a page shaped like an envelope laid out unglued. She folded the flaps and with a swipe of her tongue sealed the letter.  She wrote in her small, careful handwriting using a fountain pen of blue ink. In each letter she described the contents in the latest box, about her children, how they were growing. Never did she mention the war.

When the familiar white envelope decorated in red, white, and blue arrived from France, stamped with PAR AVION, we were eager to get it translated. Jackson was small then, and Mother, who worked downtown, inquired around about a translator. One man, the patriarch of a Greek family and owner of a downtown restaurant, volunteered to read our letters. Although he agreed to the job, he never seemed happy to see me. He instructed me to be in his restaurant on Capitol Street at exactly 3:45 p.m. My school rang its final bell at 3:15. I rushed the two blocks from school to the bus stop to catch Bus #4 to arrive at the precise time. 

Never did he see me more than once a month, but any customer enjoying his afternoon coffee would have sworn with Mr. Translator that I was in there every week. Without a hello or good afternoon, Mr. T took my letter, mentioned nothing about my sitting down. He remained behind the cash register to read.  Fretting, he skimmed the pages, murmuring that the letters were "poorly written”, and then spit out the translation like he‘d eaten hot peppers. That, combined with his heavy Greek-English accent made listening difficult. There was no time to jot notes, despite my having a pencil and pad ready. The strain of listening to the news between his mutterings trained me to memorize better. By the eighth letter I could spout the exact information. Until then, I reviewed the contents in my head while riding the bus home. It was important to relay the information at the evening meal.

There were probably fifteen letters in the two years of correspondence. Mother kept the letters tied with a ribbon on a bookshelf in the family den. Over a span of thirty years when I visited my parents, my eyes drifted to the family den to check on the bundle. Just that move gave me the satisfaction that they had not disappeared.  One day I asked permission to take them home. They needed to be in a safe place, I told to Mother. By that time I had studied two years of French and wanted desperately to renew their contents. 

My mother died in 2002. Cleaning out her house, I gathered up all her correspondence and boxes of albums full of snapshots of a life time. Inside one was a sepia photograph sent by Madam Poret. She had been a beautiful woman whose long brown hair swept up in a pompadour above her face. The photography studio stamped its name and address on the back. The printed copy was very small, as though part of a strip of prints. She looked away, perhaps at the photographer, with a slight smile.

In 1975 I made a trip to Europe with a group of students. The packet of letters had not been located before I left. I had the idea of going to the town where she lived and inquire about the family, if there was such an opportunity. That town is now long forgotten, but M. Poret and her family are not.