Dear Ma and Dad,
I know this may come as some surprise, but I’ve decided to leave my position at Miss Cleary’s to join the Smith College expedition to France
Dear Ma and Dad,
I hope the boys are well. I have some exciting news to share. I’ve signed up with the Smith College Relief Unit. We’re a group of alumnae who mean to sail for France to bring aid to French villagers. I’ve resigned my position at
Dear Ma and Dad,
You may have read in the news about the Smith College Relief Unit.
Would it be all right if I joined you all for dinner next Sunday? I’ll be in town and would very much like to see everyone.
Your loving daughter, Katie
—Miss Katherine Moran, ’11, to her mother, Mrs. Francis Shaughnessy
It was a very long way down to the wharf from the deck of the SS Rochambeau.
Kate hadn’t expected the boat to be quite so large. When Mrs. Rutherford had informed them that a packet boat would be carrying the Smith Unit across the Atlantic to France, she had pictured a cross between the Staten Island Ferry and one of the barges that chugged along the East River, something squat and rectangular and human-sized. Not this behemoth of a ship, taller than a town house, giant smokestacks punctuating the sky, crowded with war workers of all description. American ambulance men exchanged war stories with French aviators; journalists jostled aid workers.
Kate felt smaller than small in the midst of it, among all these laughing, shouting groups, families hugging, mothers kissing their sons one last time, champagne corks—of all things!—popping, baskets of fruits and bouquets of flowers piled into the arms of overworked porters, already staggering under piles of trunks and bandboxes and goodness only knows what else. It felt more like Smith graduation than an embarkation.
Well, she hadn’t really expected them to come, had she? Her mother had made her disapproval clear.
“Have you run mad?” was a phrase that didn’t leave itself open to much misinterpretation.
There were lifeboats all around, swung out in the ready position in case of need. On the walls, strongly worded notices forbade such dangerous activities as smoking after blackout once they reached the war zone.
Blackout. War zone. Maybe her mother was right; maybe she had run mad.
Blame the day. That July day that had been hotter than hot, her room in the boardinghouse sweltering, the stupider-than-usual student who had come to her for tutoring in French, the sweat dripping down the back of her neck making her itchy and irritable. At that moment, any place in the world had seemed preferable to where she was, to that horrible, stultifying room that stank of cabbage, the brainless debutantes she had elected to teach in what had been meant to be a temporary position but had become six years of mindless drudgery.
Kate hadn’t cared terribly much about the cause itself. But the idea that someone would pay her way—there were funds, Emmie assured her; it wouldn’t be charity, nothing like charity—to go abroad had seemed too good a chance to miss.
We need you, Kate, Emmie had pleaded, and she’d allowed herself to be persuaded, less from charity than from desperation, desperation to be anywhere other than where she was.
She knew it was madness in her mother’s eyes. Here she was, with a good position, a respectable position—a teacher at a private girls’ school! She would never have to scrub floors and empty chamber pots, as her mother had; never have to wear a white cap and lower her eyes and curtsy to her betters as they swept past her, making dark prints on a floor she had just cleaned.
She had gone off to Smith, and look what had happened.
Her mother hadn’t said that, not precisely, but it was there between them. There in all the things they never said; there in Kate’s clothes, her accent, the way her dad (not her father, always her dad, the man her mother had married when she was nine, kind, always kind, but not her father, never her father) called her “our college girl.” They were proud, yes, but also wary. She’d become a thing apart.
Or maybe she always had been. Kate was the one relic of her mother’s first marriage. You could stick a ring in a drawer, but flesh and blood was harder to hide, especially flesh and blood that was old enough to remember and to mind that her past was being scrubbed away like chalk from a board. The early years, when her father had driven the cart for the brewery and come home smelling of beer and horse to tell long stories in his heavily accented English. And, after that, the lean years, when she and her mother had been all in all to each other, sharing a bed in the one-room apartment where the radiators never worked and the water came out brown, where her mother scrubbed the stairs in exchange for the roof over their heads, where they ate bread and dripping for supper and pretended it was all they wanted. It had been hard, but they had been together. They had been themselves.
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