I am woman, as Helen Reddy sang on her Capitol Records release in 1971, and as a woman, I have long believed the real heroes of war—any war—are the mothers who paste a smile on their faces and wave goodbye as their sons and daughters leave for what too often is death at the hands of unknown people in faraway lands. This is particularly true of the mothers during World War II. They had held the family together throughout the deprivations of the Great Depression and now answered the call to hold the nation together during a war so far away. It is long past time for us to honor those women who formed our lives and made us what we are today.
2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the war fought by what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” He referred to the military. For me, the real hero of that war was my mother, Carrie Morrison Lovelace, and I want to take this opportunity to honor her memory.
Five feet, three inches tall, 115 pounds, 34 years old, shoulders squared, head held high, a smile pasted on her face. That was my mom on May 28, 1943, the day her first born, Robert Lee Lovelace, joined the Navy. She had stood beside the grave of one son, who died of diphtheria in 1931, and now faced the real possibility of doing the same for another, although for a different reason.
Bob turned 17 that day. Since the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he had practiced the rolling gait he admired in the sailors he’d seen on the streets of Asheville, North Carolina, where we lived. To keep him from lying about his age and enlisting, Mom and Dad had agreed to permit their devil-may-care son to fulfill his ambition of going to war if he stayed in school until he reached 17. He didn’t allow them to forget. Now, with his usual cocky grin spread ear to ear, he waved a careless good-bye as he climbed onto the train in Asheville. He was off on his great adventure.
The world changed for our family that day.
My daily life during the war years revolved around Mom. Dad worked from daylight to dark as a laborer on the railroad near our home. He had been too young for the first world war, and a necessary work commitment kept him at home for this one. He, his three brothers, and my grandfather kept the tracks in our area repaired throughout the Great Depression and continued during the war years.
Mom was not new to a war situation. One of her older brothers was a pilot and her oldest sister was a nurse in what we now call World War I. Both survived but within a few years succumbed to the tuberculosis they had contracted during their military service. Now, Mom had to deal with her son in the Navy and her next older sister being in the WACS. Bob’s service on board a battleship in the Pacific was a constant worry, and the knowledge that Aunt Bert did clerical work far from battlefields and military hospitals didn’t ease Mom’s concern for her.
In the ensuing months, life revolved around the daily mail delivery. At times weeks would pass without a letter from Bob, then several would arrive on the same day. No matter what Mom was doing, or needed to be doing, she opened the thin, folded sheets of paper, sorted them in order by date, and hurriedly read each before going back through them slowly, trying to decipher the meaning around the blacked-out sections. We knew better than to interrupt.
A primary conversation subject dealt with who received a War Department telegram that day. The ominous yellow envelope never arrived at our door; however, Bob didn’t survive his great adventure unscathed. He spent time in a hospital in Hawaii with shrapnel in his knees, which continued to bother him until his death in 1992.
Before returning to his shipboard duties, he purchased a small, square cushion with the word “Mother” printed on it along with some flowers. I wonder what happened to that cushion, but no one in the family can recall. That’s one of the many things I never thought to ask Mom before her death in 1994.
Unknown to the military censors, Bob showed his skills with a needle and thread. He unstitched a small part of a seam of that cushion and stuck a letter into the stuffing, then re-stitched it with tiny matching stitches. Somehow, Mom knew to search for the letter, and that’s how we learned that Bob was serving on the USS McDermut, a battleship involved in the battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944.
Bob found another way to communicate his whereabouts and activities to our parents on a more regular basis. He told the censors he wanted to send money home, so, when they finished their blacking out procedure, they returned the letters to him. He had already hidden a note between two bills and, under their watchful eyes, he put them in the letter, folded it over, sealed it and returned it to them.
Mom tended the garden at the back of our lot, then canned vegetables for our winter meals. The chunky applesauce I purchase today in the grocery store doesn’t compare with what she made over the hot wood stove that had to be fed on a regular basis. One of the most used items in her kitchen was the Foley’s Food Mill. It handled apples for sauce and grapes for juice, some of which eventually became jelly. It also gave us tomato juice and crushed tomatoes for fresh vegetable soup, all through Mom’s busy hands.
Margarine came in oblong blocks together with packets of food coloring. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her long fingers working the yellow coloring into the white oleo, invariably leaving streaks.
Ration coupons were a large part of our lives. Mom hoarded them, making sure there was enough to buy shoes for all seven of us who remained at home. She sewed our clothing, often from printed feed sacks. It tested her ingenuity to find small amounts of contrasting fabric to add some individuality to our clothing, but she always managed. She convinced the feed store man to hold for her matching bags of cow feed so we never saw other little girls wearing the same floral dresses or little boys in the same checked shirts. He probably did the same for others.
Another burden on Mom’s shoulders was her ailing mother, who passed away before war’s end. Seeing a certain pie takes me instantly back to the war years. Mom’s parents lived on the other side of town and, to reach them, it was necessary for her to ride two buses. She had time before the transfer to stop at the bakery and purchase her mother’s favorite pie, lemon meringue. I don’t recall that we children visited our maternal grandparents even once during the war years, but Mom visited them weekly. Money didn’t stretch far enough for bus fare for all of us, and there was limited gasoline for Dad’s 1937 blue Chevrolet panel truck, which he used only for emergencies.
Opening and closing blackout curtains was a daily ritual we couldn’t ignore. Mom made sure of that. Her training was such that one of my brothers had blackout curtains on his bedroom windows until he died in 2011.
Air raid drills scared us children witless. We knew they were for practice, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t help that we had to turn off all the lights and sit in the dark while we listened to a battery radio, static and all. It’s a measure of our ongoing fear that we believed German or Japanese warplanes would drop bombs on our little town in the mountains of North Carolina.
Because of a back injury, Dad could not continue working for Southern Railway. After much debate—Bob wouldn’t know how to find us when he came home—we moved to the country where mail delivery was non-existent for several days while the post office got our address straight. Between that, getting settled in a new house, learning farm routine, and getting us situated in two different schools, Mom’s temper was not the sunniest.
Time passed, slowly but surely, until Wednesday, August 15, 1945, when church bells chimed, ringing out over the valley and up Maney Branch Road to our home on the hill. Mom and Dad, with seven kids at their heels, rushed to the long front porch and listened. The chimes seemed to go on forever.
Mom stood on the end of the porch, her head held high, her hands gripping the railing and stared in the direction of our church. We had heard the news on the radio and this confirmed it. Japan had surrendered. The war was over.
For the first time, I saw Mom’s shoulders slump as she shed the weight of the world. After more than two years of duty in the Pacific, her first born was coming home.