On May 8th, 1945, nine in the morning in North America, and 3 PM in Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed ‘the Empire’ and President Harry Truman spoke to the American people. “… the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations,” announced Truman. “The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.”
“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” Churchill said, “but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.” He then declared Victory in Europe Day.
At Harvard University and Radcliffe College, transformed into a training center for the United States Navy, there had been a ‘Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving V-E Day’ held in the College Yard at Cambridge. Ensign Marcelle Prudell Swanson, a WAVE in the U.S. Naval Reserve, enrolled in a course in Disbursing at the Naval Supply Corps School at Radcliffe, probably attendeded that solemn but joyful service with hundreds of other Navy personnel in uniform.
I can only imagine her grief as she remembered her young husband, Carl Robert Swanson, who had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge in Eastern France, January 8th, exactly four months earlier.
My parents’ story began on a beautiful spring evening, just weeks after millions in Allied countries took to the streets, rejoicing at the end of the holocaust in Europe.
Whenever Daddy told this first story of their meeting, I listened closely, especially when I was a teenager, wishing that I would fall hopelssly, fatefully for someone who would love me as much as they loved each other.
Although Harry remembers it as a Monday, Marcelle later says their first date was Harry’s brother Jack’s birthday, May 22nd, which was a Tuesday, two weeks to the day after VE Day. For her the date was a favor to her very good friend Edwina Hurd, who had set up the meeting. For Harry Joseph Hicks, Jr., it was another blind date – he was handsome and as he tells it, in demand. Here, Marcelle with Edwina at Harvard.
I was the sixth child born to them, and from the moment of my birth, there were always many faces, many eyes and ears to hear and witness the events of our shared lives. Privacy was scarce and only stolen or defiantly siezed; even a memory once told became part of the collective lore; as if all of us unborn children gathered around them on that first day our parents met, watching the beginnings of our family story unfold.
Daddy could have been at the head of the table after supper when he first told this pivotal story, all of us with the detrius of a meal hastily eaten strewn in front of us. Mother could have been at the window overlooking the dining room, spooning vanilla ice cream into sixteen stainless steel bowls. Daddy would have cleared his throat or just changed his voice in a way that invited you to stop and listen; his stories always had a good punch line, and he lured us into them easily. Maybe we didn’t understand all the details at the time, but it’s as if we had all been there – watching Mother breeze freshly down the stairs, waiting for the look of recognition in his eyes when he saw her, and a month later, unexpectedly holding our breath to hear her answer to his urgent question.
“I had been sent to temporary duty at Brooklyn Naval Shipyard,” he began, “en route to Harvard. And I met this woman Edwina Hurd, “Eddie Hurd” she was called. I was a single fellow and had quite a few ribbons on my uniform. I’ve always been friendly, I get along with most people and I got quite a few referrals to go out on blind dates. Eddie gave me Marcelle’s name, saying that Marcelle’s husband had been killed in battle.
“When I got up to Boston, I was given a room in Hamilton Hall at the Harvard Business School Complex. Normally, I was taking the weekend off to visit Baltimore. So I made a date with Marcelle for Monday.
“When she came prancing down the stairs and I saw her, I had an intuition. This is the woman I am going to marry. She immediately said, ‘Harry I forgot to tell you. I have a class. You’ve got to drop me off at 8:30.’ So I said, ‘I pick you up at 7:30 and have to drop you off at 8:30? You’re not taking much of a chance, are you?’ ”
So, here is when we all first meet our mother: an attractive young woman who makes a good first impression, intelligent enough to be enrolled in Radcliffe and self-possessed enough not to give up attending a class for a handsome officer who comes to call. It was war time and both of them were loyal patriots, enrolled in the service of defending our country. By the time I heard this story, I was already aware of my visceral response to ‘Navy blues’, the uniform they were both buttoned up and shining through. The first glimpse of my parents was already colored in romance and drama of the United States Navy.
“I had so many things to get straightened out in my own life before I could think about getting married, “ my father continued, “I didn’t want to rush her so I didn’t ask her to marry me until a month later. I met her one month to the day before I asked her to marry me.
“When I asked her, it was a Sunday. We’d been to Mass and had breakfast at St. George’s restaurant. We went walking around the Boston Common. “ ‘I have something I want to ask you,’ ” I said. And then I asked her to be my wife. She didn’t answer me right away. I looked at my watch. “’You know, when a person proposes, they’re asking about a contract of marriage. I’ve made you an offer.’” “’I know,’” she said, “’I have to think about it.’ I was flabbergasted. That was the first time it occurred to me she might say No. “’You have five minutes, ‘ I said. ‘If you don’t decide within five minutes, I withdraw the offer.’
“So she said Yes. We set the date, January 23rd in the next year, 1946.”
Twenty five years after my mother died, my father spent his days shuffling around the family home in Ventura, stoop-shouldered and garble-tongued. He still drove his car, went to Mass often and recited his Little Office of prayers daily against a backdrop of songs from the thirties and fourties, Strauss Waltzes, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Mitch Miller & The Gang. His second marriage in the Catholic Church a year after my mother died, had to be endured ‘until death do us part’, but neither of them ultimately, seemed happy and there was a bit of complaining and bickering. For three months of every year, Dorothy went by herself to Bethany Beach for the summer to socialize with her lifelong friends, leaving my father alone in the sprawling, empty rancher where, when my mother was alive, he lived with eight children.
After he died, all his offspring came from Arizona, Texas and Virginia, from up and down the state of California and from Canada, and we gathered around the left over belongings of his life, remnants from Detroit, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Corpus Christi, Texas, Guam, La Canada, Pasadena and Ventura, California. There were six or eight of us in his bedroom, sorting through his ties and rings, his Navy hat and shirts and photographs, legal documents and a few children’s drawings, while the grandchildren tore through the house, chasing each other into the garden.
And I lay my hands on a passel of letters, 17 of them dated from July, 1945 the last one dated November 7th. I recognized my mother’s handwriting and quickly tucked the letters away, along with several black and white snapshots of the two of them before they were married. In the photographs, they wear the Navy uniforms of commissioned officers proudly, she was an Ensign and he, a Lieutenant. Depending on the season, they were neatly attired in their Dress Blues or their Dress Whites.
They look into into the lens with the love they carried between them, palpable as the smiles on their faces.
My father kept these things sorted and close to him in the last years of his life. As if he had gazed into the photos of their courtship and youth, like he did when they were separated before they were married. As if he had opened her letters and read her handwriting, bringing her into the room.