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A Love Story by

Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo



Chapter 46 – Our Journey, 2nd Stop, Atlanta - Goodbye Varsity



After breakfast in the motel's restaurant, which Billy refused to put on our 'tab' as Gene instructed, he paid for our meal in full, but decided as expensive as the meal had been the night before, he would let his father pay that bill and the bill for the room since we could have gone on to Atlanta. He packed the car, and not once turning to look back, he left his boyhood home behind him for the very last time.
Michael, of course, wanted to sing our silly songs, but I thought that perhaps Billy needed some time to reflect, so I took Michael in my lap since Margie was sleeping soundly in her car bed. My intention was to deflect his mind from the usual travel routine of silly songs, so I thought perhaps if I we looked out the window for animals - horses, cows, birds, etc. - that game would keep him occupied for our short journey. Soon Michael was enjoying this new game and then all of a sudden Billy burst out in song! "Old McDonald had a farm, ee i, ee i, oh. And on this farm he had a cow, ee i, ee i, oh…"
Soon Michael joined in since this was one of his favorite silly songs and he knew all of the words. Billy then took my hand and held it as he continued to sing with his son and soon I joined in too. It did not matter whether we sang well, we were singing again, singing as a family and my precious Billy was holding my hand, smiling and once again looking like the man I had grown to know and to love so very much. He was my life and if he was sad, I was sad, and if he was happy, then my heart filled with joy. Now he seemed not only to have left Griffin in the rearview mirror, but his own dark mood that had drawn over him like a curtain the moment he learned we were not welcome to stay at the house. Now that dark day was over, and the heavens once again were smiling too, as the sun broke through the clouds and the familiar skyline of Atlanta came into view.
We planned to make brief stops to show off our little girl to both sets of great grandparents who lived only blocks apart, and remembering that the cemetery was not far from our route, I asked Billy if he wanted to go by his mother's grave.
Without taking his eyes from the road, he simply stated, "I'm not a hypocrite." Soon though, he reached for my hand, and said, "Honey, I'm sorry if I was short with you when you mentioned my mother, but I really don't have any desire to go and visit a grave. She is not there, only her earthly remains, and God only know where she is now. I just hope she is well and happy since her life here on Earth was pure hell for everyone who loved her. I just know that I never forgave her for treating you and our son like she did."
I held his hand close to my heart and told him I loved him too. Although I finally knew I had been right when I suspected once his own mother had not accepted his family, she had effectively killed the last bit of love Billy had left for her, so I said no more. He loved his grandparents though, and he could not wait for them to meet Margie before we were gone, for who knew how long.
Our first stop was Gram and Poppa's brick ranch-style home that Gene had had built for them some years ago. Here, in is retirement, Poppa liked to work in the yard and in his garden, but the ground was too wet for outside work this Saturday, the day before Easter, 1965. As we pulled into the driveway, Billy honked the horn, just once, and in a moment, Gram and Poppa opened their front door to greet us. Michael threw himself into Poppa's still strong arms. Arms that had become strong as a fireman and Gram could hardly wait for me to take the baby out of her car bed. With Poppa carrying Michael, and Gram gently holding Margie, we went inside the house. They had gifts for both children, an early birthday present for Michael since we would be in Hawaii for his third birthday in May, and a new baby gift for Margie. Of course, this was clothing, a dainty pink dress made of soft lawn fabric with tucks, lace, and tiny, tiny buttons, and booties to match. Gram said she knew we had not planned on a baby girl, but reminded me of her prediction the Thanksgiving before, and of course, I remembered. She said she had found the dress not long after Christmas, and since she was so sure I would bring forth a daughter in the spring, she bought it for the yet to be born infant.
"Gram, you are amazing," I said, "how could you have possibly have known I was carrying a girl?"
"Remember," she said, "I told you that you were carrying this one all out front like a bonnet, and that meant that you were carrying a girl."
I had first heard that particular folklore from Gram, although my own grandmother had used some thread and my wedding ring to predict Michael's sex, but from the moment of conception, there was never any doubt in my mind he was a boy. I had not seen her while pregnant with Margie since she did not live in the Atlanta area, rather in a small white house in the countryside outside of Dalton, Georgia, but I wish I had known how that particular test would have come out. Not that I would have ever believed it, even if it predicted we would have a daughter. I scoffed at all predictions other than a boy because of the four boys in Billy's family, but we were blessed and I conceived early in my cycle, thus the baby girl, but it was years before I learned that time of conception played a major role in the sex of the baby. I just knew my handsome husband was on cloud nine over his tiny daughter, and his joy was contagious, although I had never admitted I longed for a girl too. Billy once told me if I ever hoped to have any daughters, then I should not marry him, but we had broken the mold and now had the 'perfect family'. Of course, I never thought this would be the end of my childbearing days since I was only twenty-two years old and Billy just twenty-four. We both had a lot of time to have more children, and with our record of conception, I had a feeling before too long we would have another, and another, and another. So far, with four years of marriage, I had conceived four times, once a year, so we seemed to be a most compatible couple, not just in love but in all other ways.
We visited with Gram and Poppa for just over an hour and a half, and when Billy told his grandparents we had stayed in a motel in Griffin the previous night, they only commented that there had been a lot of changes in Gene's household, and there were sure to be many more. I had a feeling they too had been 'shut out', and I knew Bubba and Pop would certainly not be welcomed either by what Billy called, 'that woman'.
Finally, with the great grandparents carrying the children, hugs for and from everyone, once again we tucked our precious bundles into the car and were off to visit the other great grandparents. I had asked Gram if she thought enough time had passed that we would be welcomed by Bubba, and she assured me Bubba was anxious to see us and the new baby, and had called her just the day before to ask when to expect our visit. I knew, deep in my heart, she could not shut her favorite grandson and his children out of her life forever - she just needed time to grieve, and that we had allowed her.
Billy and I decided we would not upset his elderly grandparents with talk of Vietnam, and so far, this delicate package had remained unopened. We hoped that with a short visit and the distraction of the great-grandchildren no one would even think to ask about it, and so far, so good. Certainly, no good would come from Poppa knowing that when Ruth denied us a room in the house in Griffin, obviously his own son had been helpless, even though he knew about Vietnam. Better that we not mention it at all. Both of the grandparents had lost sons during WWII, although not in combat, but this had always been a subject rarely mentioned, and particularly with Bubba, who had now outlived her middle son and her only daughter.
Our next stop was the older home where Bubba and Pop raised their own family, filled with memorabilia of children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. Pop raised worms for fishing in their basement, and that had always been a favorite place first for Billy, and now his son. Theirs was a home that welcomed friend and family alike, and I could just imagine the years when their own children were small and the house rang with young voices. There was always some delicious aroma from the kitchen permeating the entire house since Bubba was an excellent cook who enjoyed putting a nourishing meal on the table, and visitors could always find hospitality and a meal.
Obviously, we had not seen Bubba since Helen's funeral, but we had heard through Gram how upset she was with Billy's purging of his mother's possessions. She knew Gene had told him to do so, but resented that no one asked if she wanted anything, and she thought, probably correctly, Gene wanted to erase their mother's presence forever from the minds of her three younger sons. I had no doubt if we had not cleaned the house, then Ruth certainly would have at the first opportunity, and in fact, I was a bit surprised she had not asked Gene to buy her a new house yet. I understood Bubba's feelings, although I also knew Billy and I had no choice in our actions, and I had brought Helen's fur stole with me and intended to give it to Bubba. I just silently prayed she would accept our 'gift' as a 'peace pipe', and we would once again, and always, be welcome in their home.
We pulled into the familiar driveway, hoping someone would be there, and were pleased when we saw Pop's car parked in the backyard. Billy did not honk the horn as he had at Gram and Poppa's home, so there was no open door or rushing out to greet us when we arrived. I was holding my breath that Bubba would not give Billy a harsh greeting, since I knew his wounds from the day and the night before still lingered just beneath the surface. He needed to feel welcome here where he spent so many happy childhood hours, and I knew Bubba loved him dearly. I did not think I could bear to see him hurt again, and this time I was primed to defend my vulnerable husband at all costs. Surprisingly, by the time we reached the steps to the front door, Bubba came outside in her neatly ironed housedress with an apron around her waist, and Michael, as usual, was the first she hugged and kissed. She then turned her attention to Billy, and although his arms were full of infant paraphernalia, she hugged him the best she could, and at that moment, I realized I was physically holding my breath. Tears in her eyes, she held her oldest grandson, while I stood aside to let this healing moment happen. They both needed this, and I needed to see it since I knew how dear he was to her, and I knew how much he loved her too. After all, she had been the first member of the family he had introduced me to and told he loved me and was going to marry me, and she had always been kind and accepting of our marriage. She made up triple-fold for her daughter's obvious dislike of me, and I loved her in return. Just as Bubba turned her attention to her first great granddaughter, Pop came to the door and with his booming voice biding us welcome, picked up Michael, then put his arms around Billy's shoulders.
"Well, don't just stand there, come on in!" Pop said in his best courtroom demeanor.
They had always been more financially well off than Gene's family, and I knew that at least Bubba always thought Helen married beneath her. Gene worked hard to prove her wrong about him, and he made a good living giving Helen everything she desired, everything that is except a daughter. However, even all her possessions, her large white house, and four handsome sons, had not been enough to keep her from sinking, and finally drowning in bourbon. I thought it sad she had not lived to see Margie, and knew she too would have spoiled her to death. As I watched Bubba gently cradling our newborn, I wondered if she was thinking about how much her own daughter longed for a baby girl, and how much she would have loved our little miracle. Billy thought that his mother was "too far gone" to even enjoy her, but I have always wondered what if, and had visions of dainty dresses hand-sewn by Helen. Although I had no fantasies that she would ever care for me, she would have come to accept me for her granddaughter's sake. However, this was all an illusion, and 'what ifs' have never made any difference in anyone's life, particularly my own.
As we entered their pleasant home, as usual, wonderful aromas were coming from the kitchen, but Bubba led us to the living room where we all sat down. All except Michael, that is, and this time, I held my breath wondering which of Bubba's lovely bric-a-brac he would break first! This child was a typical rough and tumble McConnell boy, destructive to say the least, but Bubba produced some little trucks and cars, a coloring book and crayons and soon Michael was happily tracing the pattern of the elaborate Persian rug with one of the cars. She seemed to be particularly fond of Michael, but she had always been particularly fond of his father, so why not? I had heard so many times how Billy was always Bubba's 'favorite', not with jealousy, but with love. Barney, Bubba's nephew, who had lived with them since he was a boy, and whom she loved like a son, was not at home that day, but we had not let anyone know we were coming since we did not want them to go to any trouble for us. We just wanted to show off our new baby, and of course our rapidly growing almost three-year-old son.
Bubba too had a gift for the baby, another delicate little dress; this one also pale pink with a scalloped hem and lace medallions in each tiny scallop. There was more lace all around each medallion, the hem, and the tiny puffed sleeves, and she too had added booties to match and a soft pink blanket.
"What a beautiful complexion she has," Bubber cooed over Margie, "and I think she looks like Michael, except she looks like a baby girl, no mistaking her for a boy."
I told Bubba that once my mother had said I could not have a little girl any prettier than Michael was, but I now thought she had been wrong, and of course, Bubba agreed. Now that most of the parchment skin had flaked off in warm bath water, Margie did have an almost translucent glow to her fair skin, and healthy pink cheeks. Bubba agreed she did not look like any newborn she had ever seen, and looked at least two months old, which she actually was. I then asked her if I could heat Margie's lunch since she was beginning to get fussy, so Billy searched through the diaper bag and produced a jar of bananas and a box of rice cereal, her tiny silver spoon, and the electric dish. I then followed Bubber to the kitchen.
It was in her homey kitchen, while she watched me feed my ravenous daughter that I asked her if she wanted Helen's fur stole, and if she did, it was in the car. I told her I felt that I was too young, that it was inappropriate for me to wear it, and Billy and I wanted her to have something that had belonged to Helen. Tears came to her eyes when she said she would like to have it, so Billy, who had been standing in the doorway, went out to the car and brought her the stole. We had not had it cleaned since it was so expensive, and Bubba buried her head in the soft mink and said it smelled of Helen. She then went to Billy and hugged him tightly, told him she loved him, and thanked me for insisting he stop to see them, and for the stole. Billy, looking a bit teary-eyed, left three generations of his girls in the kitchen and went back to the living room to make sure our son was not in his destructive mode and was still playing with his gifts from Bubba. There he found Pop on the floor with his great grandson building a garage out of books taken from their shelves, so Billy sat with them and told his grandfather about Vietnam. He asked him not to tell Bubba until we left because she was already in tears, so solemnly nodding; he agreed to keep his secret, at least for a little while.
"Son, don't you think your grandmother should know you are leaving for the war?" Pop asked, but Billy having lived all his life with Bubba's grief over Edwin, the son who was in flight training during WWII when he crashed his plane and died, thought it best she not know, not yet. I had agreed with Billy when he told me he did not want to tell her, but I did tell him I thought he should tell Pop. Then Pop would know when, where, and how to tell Bubba, so he decided and now it was done. As for Gram and Poppa, they would find out eventually from Gene, but we had not wanted to ruin this day for any of them.
Bubba left the kitchen briefly, and asked Billy to stay for lunch, but he told her he was looking forward to one last visit to The Varsity since it would be a long time before he would be back to enjoy their 'steak burgers and fries' again.
When Michael heard his daddy mention The Varsity, he looked up from his play, and jumped up and down, repeating his fathers words, "The Varsity, I want to go to The Varsity." He did not care about the food near as much as he enjoyed the guiding us to a parking space, but he did say he wanted chocolate milk with ice.
Bubba repeated the offer of a meal when she returned to the kitchen while I nursed Margie, and I knew it would have been far more nourishing and tasty than The Varsity. I also knew Billy had his heart set on eating there one last time, and our plans included this favorite stop of his, so I thanked her again but told her he had been looking forward to the Varsity for weeks. After all, we had not even eaten there the last time we were in Atlanta for Gene's wedding, but I thought best not to mention what had to be a sore subject for Bubba.
With our daughter satisfied and her tummy full, we bid Bubba and Pop farewell, until we met again, and invited them to come to Hawaii to visit, although I knew Bubba would not fly.
She insisted on carrying Margie to the car just as Gram had, and she put her mouth close to the sleepy infant's ear and I heard her murmur, "Tiny little girl, how I wish your grandmother could see you. You would have been her pride and joy."
Now I had tears in my eyes knowing Bubba had never accepted the harsh woman her lovely daughter had become, and I would not be the one to tell her either. Why break her heart over, and over again? She would never have believed it anyway. Pop asked Billy if we had enough money for our long journey and while Billy insisted he did, Pop gave him two twenty dollar bills, all he had in his wallet, and told him to keep it for an emergency, and then said that he had never known him to have too much money! Billy thanked him and hugged his grandmother, then he reached out to shake his grandfather's hand, but the anticipated handshake quickly became a hug, the only time I had ever seen Pop hug his now grown grandson. I watched as Pop backed up still keeping both hands on Billy's arms, and he looked into his oldest grandson's face as if he was studying it, and as if he wanted to memorize each feature. The moment passed without notice by Bubba, and with more hugs for the children and for me, soon we were once again back in the car leaving another piece of our lives behind, and a big part of our hearts. Whenever I saw Bubba, I always remembered Billy told her he was going to marry me, even before he told me, and she had been the first to love our son and to accept me as family. I said a silent prayer they would still be around when we returned from our adventure.
Michael spotted The Varsity long before we reached the exit off of the downtown expressway, and in the mid 60's it was still the only expressway in the Atlanta area, which, when finished, was already ten years out of date. The usual clamor of the Georgia Tech students was absent since they were on spring break, and as the curb boy jumped on our bumper to lead us to a parking space, Michael waved at him through the back window. This was his favorite part of the entire visit, waving to the curb boy!
We now allowed him to give his own order, and I wish I had a recording of my sweet little boy in his soft southern accent, so like his father's, saying, "One steak, one order of fries and chocolate milk with ice, please."
Billy got such a kick out of this that he had tried to teach him to give the entire order, but Michael was content with ordering just for himself. Billy added the rest, and although I was not very hungry, I agreed to a chilidog without onions, and of course, chocolate milk with ice while Billy ordered his own six steak burgers, large fries and a large coke. In the early 60's, in Atlanta, and perhaps in most places in Georgia, Pepsi was unheard of, and the only beverage available, other than iced tea and milk was Coca-Cola, and all soft drinks were called 'coke'. After all, Atlanta was the home office of the rapidly enlarging conglomerate and now is the home of the 'Coca-Cola Museum', but it was not a small company, by any means even then. I know some of you remember looking at the bottom of your bottle of 'Coke' to see whose beverage had come the furthest distance. Those old pale green, thick glass bottles, with the city and state of the bottling plant stamped on the bottom, were the only way to buy Coke, and for some reason, in those bottles, the refreshing drink seemed to taste the best. Now those old bottles are actually collector items! Naturally, that was the only soft drink carried by The Varsity, and I believe an orange drink made by the same company, so there was not much choice, but we never missed it either. 'Coke' was Billy's favorite beverage and he never even drank beer, and for that, I was very grateful!
Our meal passed quickly and uneventfully without even a spill from Michael, and Margie slept through it all. After we finished eating and Billy paid our bill, he decided he wanted to circumvent the downtown traffic and take a last ride down Peachtree Street. As I mentioned, he made me promise to never nurse in traffic, but we were right in the middle of a traffic jam in downtown Atlanta, with trucks on each side of us when Margie woke up, wet and hungry.
I tried to keep her from fussing by putting my folded thumb in her mouth, but after several hard pulls, not at all fooled by my feeble ruse, she began to wail at the top of her tiny lungs, and like her brother, she had a good set of vocal cords.
Frustrated by his screaming daughter, Billy exasperatingly said, "Just take it out, and feed her! It won't be anything anyone else has not seen before anyway!"
Thus ended our battle of where and when I would nurse. Although I would never had done so in public since at heart I was still a naïve, decorous Southern girl, and Billy loved me just the way I was, so why change.
It never dawned on me until many months later that Billy wanted to take this more congested route to pay homage to our first child who never had a chance to live, since we certainly passed what I suspected was his burial place. Billy never told me where he buried this unfortunate fetus, like our two living children, the result of our love for each other, albeit premature, but I think I know, and I think that is why he wanted "one last look at Peachtree Street." His story about wanting to drive down the now famous boulevard one last time was solely for my benefit since he had not grown up in Atlanta, or even lived here, and could not be as attached as I was to the heart of the Atlanta of the 60's.
Due to traffic delays, it was mid-afternoon before we finally arrived at my aunt and uncle's home, but we had told them we did not know when we would be there, just sometime before supper since we were stopping to see the grandparents. My uncle, a workaholic, usually spent some time on Saturday at the office, but he was home today, probably because of the Easter holiday, and I knew there would be a cookout for supper and possibly homemade ice cream since my uncle knew how much Michael enjoyed helping him turn the handle of the old hand-cranked machine. However, this Saturday, Homer was anxiously waiting for us to arrive so he could take Billy with him on a short trip to the lake to see if he could help him fix the canopy on their ski boat. I was tired, and happy to be in a place where we could stay for more than an hour or so, and grateful my uncle did not want me to go along, so I stayed with my aunt while Billy went with Homer. Michael wanted to stay at the house too and play with his cousin, Ginny, although Ginny was a bit too much of a 'priss pot' for Michael to enjoy for too long. He was not a boy who played with dolls, except briefly with Elizabeth who let him be the 'daddy', but he and Ginny played on her swing set in the backyard while I sat on the patio and visited with my aunt. Of course she thought Margie was beautiful and a good baby, and she said it was hard to realize she was not quite three weeks old since she was so 'filled out', which was a Southern lady's way of saying 'fat'!
We sat, visited, watched the two children, and made small talk, until the men returned, so Helen excused herself to prepare the steaks for Homer to cook on the grill, and I followed shortly afterwards to feed Margie, but not before Billy had given me a great big kiss and a hug. Having him at home so much lately spoiled me. I knew when we arrived in Hawaii, and once again he would be working long hours, I would miss him as I had never missed him before, but now was not the time to dwell on that.
He held me in his arms and told me how pretty I looked, and said softly, "You know, little girl, you have not lost that pregnant glow, and I just want to thank you for what you have given me these past two days. I could not have survived the scene in Griffin if I had not had you by my side to let me know how much I was loved and needed. Nor would I have been humble enough to stop by Pop and Bubba's - I am just that stubborn, but you insisted I do the right thing, and I will never forget the moment Bubba first saw our baby girl."
Of course, I was delighted he felt that way, although I would not have wished his estrangement from his father, and his separation from his brothers for the entire world, and I realized that without the children and me, this probably would not have happened, but then again it might have, but we would never know. While Billy was with my uncle at the lake, I had told my aunt about all the emotional 'stuff' we had been through the past twenty-four hours. She was horrified that Billy had not been able to stay in his own home, but after Gene's wedding, I had told her I thought Ruth would try to cut us out of Gene's life, and sure enough, my prediction had come true, much to my regret. I just wished she could have waited, for Billy's sake, since the Army was taking care of keeping us far apart.
Helen was amazed by how much rice cereal and applesauce the baby ate, and I reminded her that technically she was over a month old, and after I washed her dish, I went downstairs to my cousin Doug's basement room where Billy had moved a rocking chair from the den, and I nursed my baby in privacy and solitude. These moments I cherished because I knew before too long she, like her brother before her, would be too old to nurse and would be outside playing with the other children. I wanted to enjoy the precious baby who seemed to thrive on my breast milk, and while I nursed her, Billy came into the room. He said he just wanted to sit and watch, but he moved close to the chair and put his big finger in Margie's tiny hand and she grasped it eagerly, as she continued to nurse.
After I finished, she rewarded her father with a healthy burp, and Billy walked her up and down until she was sound asleep. He laid our daughter in her car bed, and we joined the other family members on the patio with the door open so we could hear if she uttered a sound. However, this arrangement was not sufficient for Billy, and he frequently went inside to check on her saying he just wanted to make sure she had not thrown up and was lying in it or anything like that. Only I knew better, the miracle of having a daughter would always remain with him, and he even enjoyed watching her while she slept. My aunt commented about how helpful and thoughtful Billy was with the baby and with me, and I told her if she had been a he, I did not know if he would have been quite as intense, although he had been just as wonderful with Michael. He was our firstborn and the much desired and anticipated son, so Billy had just what he wanted the first time too, but there was something very special the way he looked at Margie, and I knew he would pamper and adore her for the rest of his life.
Dinner was rather late which suited us fine since The Varsity's greasy food stayed with us for a long time, and we both enjoyed watching the children play while we talked to my aunt and uncle about everything. They both loved Billy almost like a son, but he had that way with family. They also knew he would most certainly be going off to war before they would see us again, and for some unknown reason, my aunt was particularly concerned. Perhaps she was just remembering how she had been a young mother with an absentee husband who was in danger on the seas during WWII, but she did not confide in me any of her thoughts.
My uncle tried to become a pilot when the war first broke out, but his eyesight prevented him from fulfilling that dream, and then he tried for the glider corps and again was disappointed. The only service that would take him as a commissioned officer was The Merchant Marine Service, so as a lieutenant J.G., Homer was in harm's way twenty-four hours a day ferrying troops and supplies from the United States to Europe, and then to the South Pacific. I have always thought these brave sailors were our unsung heroes and I am so glad that finally the Merchant Marine will be recognized at the new World War II memorial being built in Washington that will honor all of those brave men and women. I realized my aunt knew what it felt like to be a brand-new mother without a husband's support, and she even lived with her mother-in-law since my mother and I lived with my grandmother while my own father was overseas. At least I would not have to endure that situation; rather I would stay as close as possible to my precious Billy.
Vietnam was becoming nasty now, more and more Americans were training for deployment, and of course, we knew, and had told the family that the 25th Division could be among the first entire Divisions to go. I tried not to think about it because I knew I could not successfully nurse our daughter if I worried about my darling Billy going to war. I had to live for the moment, and this moment on a warm April evening in Georgia was one to savor, while Billy held my hand in the descending twilight. Once, he cradled my hand next to his face and kissed it when he thought no one was watching while we enjoyed the peace and quiet of suburban Atlanta. It was too early for mosquitoes or even crickets, so the quiet of the wooded backyard was enjoyable. Ginny and Michael had gone inside the den to watch television, Margie continued to sleep soundly, so the adults just sat outside and talked while Billy occasionally continued to check on his daughter, and once he went inside to find my sweater since with the descending sun, the evening air became a bit cool.
I think both my aunt and uncle were surprised that Billy and I had made our marriage work as well as it did. It was obvious we were still very much in love, we had two beautiful children, and Billy had fulfilled his dream of becoming an Airborne Ranger. Now we were on our way to a remote island, thousands of miles away from family, and I do not think they could have been any happier for us, other than the guillotine of Vietnam hanging over our heads. We slept well that night, all of us, and woke up to a bright sunny Easter Sunday morning.
When Margie awoke, Billy got up with her, changed her diaper, and then took her into the kitchen for her applesauce and cereal. Helen was up preparing breakfast for their church bound family and watched in amazement while Billy did just as good a job as I had the night before feeding his daughter, and after he wiped her tiny hands and face clean, he brought her into the bedroom for me to nurse. While he lay on the bed with us, as he usually did, enraptured with this tiny miracle, I cherished the moment and took a mental picture so I would never forget these first precious months in our daughter's life. Little did I realize that these moments would become even more precious far sooner than I had anticipated.

Michael was stirring by the time Margie was finished, so Billy took him into the kitchen to feed him a bowl of cereal since my aunt, uncle and cousins were now getting dressed for church. As soon as I put Margie in her car bed, I pulled on my robe and followed Billy into the kitchen where I offered to fix a good breakfast for my boys. Billy said he was content with a bowl of cereal and orange juice since he knew we would eat a large meal in mid-afternoon, so he just wanted something light for breakfast, and I agreed. It would not be too long before my grandmother would arrive, tying on her apron as she got out of her car. We could look forward to all the Easter favorites, baked ham, and candied sweet potato casserole, Waldorf salad, stuffed celery, deviled eggs, and my own favorite asparagus casserole, along with other traditional dishes. Everyone would eat until stuffed, and no one would be hungry for anything more than a ham sandwich, if even that, by suppertime.
After he finished his cereal, Billy took Michael to the bedroom to dress him in his Sunday best, the little suit we had bought that day at the P.X. Knee socks with brown and white oxford shoes that Billy had polished as diligently as he had his own, completed Michael's outfit. By now Margie had received so many pretty dresses and some barely worn hand-me-downs from Ginny that I had a hard time selecting an outfit for her, but finally chose a tiny pink dress with a flower embroidered white organdy pinafore and some soft pink booties. They both looked like angels, but one of us would have to keep a close eye on Michael or he would be filthy before the family got home, and my family arrived for pictures. Billy took the first shift while I curled my hair, put on makeup, next dressed in on one of the three dresses I had bought at the P.X. Then it was his turn to dress in his Class 'A' green uniform with the brand new black and gold crescent of the U.S. Army Rangers on his shoulder and the silver airborne wings on his chest. He looked so handsome my heart did somersaults, and we all made a perfect family picture, almost too perfect I thought, as once again my brow creased with worry, although I was not sure why I felt such apprehension on this beautiful Easter Sunday.
"Don't frown, little girl," Billy said as he noticed the look on my face "Everything is always going to be just perfect for us, I promise". When I finally smiled at him, he continued, "Do you really think God would let anything happen to any of us? We are just too 'pretty'!"
With that, I laughed aloud, but something was still worrying me and I could not put my finger on it. He was ready to enjoy this last day in Atlanta and I was not about to dampen his high spirits.
I still have some of the photos taken that Easter Sunday afternoon so long ago, and Margie is just an arm full of pink blanket. However, Billy, my charming Billy, looks the epitome of a soldier, tall and handsome in his Army green uniform. The camera loved him, but as for me, I looked just like I felt, as if I had just given birth, bloated and tired, but with my newly frosted hair, which Billy was still crazy about, I did not look too terribly bad. As for Michael, the photo does not show him pulling and untying first Ginny's and then Lynne's sashes on their frilly Easter dresses. However, I can almost see the mischief in his little eyes, but what really stands out is how much those eyes mirrored those of his father, and how the camera seemed to focus on the two of them.
Of course, Margie captivated my grandmother since she had always preferred little girls, and now she had three little ones, Lynne, Ginny, and Margie. My mother was impressed that we named the baby after her, and when Billy looked at me with surprise in his eyes, it suddenly dawned on me that my mother's name was Marjorie Elaine! I had forgotten since she had always gone by the name Elaine. Now I realized that between the three of us, my mother, my daughter, and me, we shared three names, and each of us known by a different name. My name was Diane Elaine, my mother's Marjorie Elaine, and my daughter's Marjorie Diane. My mother never knew I had forgotten her birth name and thought we had named our daughter after her. Billy finally accepted and forgave my forgetfulness, since he realized how easy it was to forget a name my mother did not use, and besides he had always said his daughter looked like a 'Margie'.
My father was not drinking, and on his best behavior, but then he always was around Billy since he knew Billy would not tolerate his drinking or his abuse, and Billy was a much larger and younger man. We had a nice family visit, and even the tension that usually existed when any of the family was around my father seemed lessened by all the little children in their Easter finery with their Easter baskets and stuffed toys. After dinner, we even had an impromptu Easter egg hunt for the three little ones, and they played very nicely together all afternoon, even though they were so very different. Actually Lynne and Michael played together better than he and Ginny since Lynne did not mind getting her clothes soiled while Ginny would run to her mother crying if any dirt got on her dress or her shoes, and they were all close in age. Lynne was almost six, Ginny almost five, and Michael almost three, but he could keep up with both of them, and in fact was often the leader, particularly if there was mischief involved.
"Just a typical boy," my aunt would say to excuse his behavior, while my uncle, even though he loved him too, was less tolerant. It was obvious who the disciplinarian was in that family, and all too often, when Ginny and Michael's behavior in later years was to become intolerable, my aunt would stick her head in the sand while my uncle would call it as he saw it. In this, he and I were quite alike, and well should have been since we were born under the same sign, my uncle's birthday just one day after my own.
That evening, after my family left, Michael and Ginny shared a bubble bath, then the two tired children fell asleep in front of the television, and their fathers carried them to their beds. My grandmother told us 'good-bye' with tears in her eyes since she knew she would not see us for a very long time. Although she was not usually that sentimental, I could see she would have definitely preferred me to stay behind with my daughter and to let Billy go by himself to Hawaii. She also was wise enough to know that I would follow Billy wherever he went if possible, so she said nothing. She just hugged us and told us to have a safe trip, and that she would miss us. That, in itself, was a huge emotional statement for my grandmother whose heart never healed from the pain of my grandfather's illness, and by my parents taking me away from her when my father was called back into the Navy.
I asked her to take her vacation and come to Hawaii to visit, and she just said, "Perhaps."
I knew she would not come since she held onto a nickel with both hands, although she had always been more generous with me than with her own daughters. I too would miss her, but now I had a husband. A husband I loved with all my heart and she knew this, so once again, as we had so often, we parted with hugs, kisses, and tears.
Billy bathed Margie in the kitchen sink after her last feeding of cereal and applesauce, and then stayed with us while I nursed her to sleep.
We then joined my aunt and uncle in the den, where Homer was watching a ballgame and my aunt was reading the newspaper. I sat next to my handsome husband on the soft sofa and he put his arm around me, pulled me close to him, and it was not long before I was sound asleep with his shoulder my pillow and he let me sleep there until my aunt and uncle were ready to go upstairs to bed. When he woke me, it was to tell my uncle good-bye since he would have already left for work by the time we rose the next morning.
Our first leg of the trip was our shortest, from Atlanta to Memphis, Tennessee, but we planned on leaving no later than 10 a.m. Homer told Billy to take care of his little family and to come home safe and sound, then he hugged me, shook Billy's hand and told us to kiss the children for him. I thought I saw tears in his eyes, and I would not have been surprised since he was one of the kindest, most loving men I have ever known.
The next morning, Billy told me Homer had given him $200 saying he did not want us to run out of money along the way, and he had to have planned this 'gift' since he never carried that kind of cash in his billfold.
Before his death, the last words my uncle said to me after I told him I loved him were "I love you too, sugar."
Tears sting my eyes as I think about this wonderful man, and I miss him every day. The many kindnesses and the love he showed my little family were countless, and he simply did not have a mean bone in his body. Related only through marriage, he was more a father to me than my own, at least after I met and married Billy, it was to him I always went when I needed words of wisdom. There is no way I can possibly convey how much he meant to all of us, but he was the catalyst behind this book since he told me that I should write it since my life had been "stranger than fiction".



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