“Oh, Margaret. I almost forgot,” Margaret’s mother Velda Raucher said, pulling an envelope from her apron pocket with her fingertips as though she might be dirtied by it. “This came for you, in your maiden name. Tillie at the post office gave it to me.” Velda stiffened her already stiff spine and set her jaw. “I suppose Elmer never heard you got married.”
They had all but finished washing, drying, and putting way the Christmas dinner dishes. A big round table
dressed for the holy day in Velda’s only linen tablecloth took up about a third of the kitchen. A single bulb dangling above the table cast a spotlight and
shadows; the corners of the room were almost dark.
Margaret blushed and sat at the table on the edge of the spotlight but as far away from her mother and sisters Maxine and Harriet as she could get. Feigning nonchalance, she fussed with her light brown hair—styled in a fashionable sausage roll resting on her shoulders—and the buttons on the red cardigan she wore over her best winter rayon jersey dress, which was dark gray. Slowly, she opened the envelope and took out a card decorated on the front with two red, lighted candles in a nest of green holly, beneath “Merry Christmas,” in fancy red letters. She opened the card to find a letter printed in tiny script and dated November 1, 1944:
Dearest Margaret, I know you have not heard from me. I am sorry I have not written. I think about you all the time. I hope you are not going with somebody. I did not ask you to wait for me after we went to dance to Glen Miller’s band at the USO. But I wish I did. So I will ask you now. Will you wait for me? If I live through this war, I want to settle down with you. Please write and let me know. All my love, Elmer.
Margaret smoothed her skirt, which was full enough to conceal the fact that she was four months pregnant. She thought of her husband Joe in the next room, visiting with her father and watching over Harriet’s infant son while he napped. Joe had been so excited when she told him she was pregnant that he took her to the jewelry store in Madison to pick out a diamond engagement ring that same night. Saturday, October 6. She could not forget the date. Two weeks later, they went together to Father Murphy, Margaret’s parish priest. When they told him Margaret was pregnant, he agreed to marry them, and did, on November 9, before Advent, when the Catholic Church forbade its priests to officiate at a Nuptial Mass. Margaret considered herself fortunate that Joe had married her without a fuss; he did, after all, have a lot of girls to choose from, with so many men gone to war. Joe would have been in the war, too, if he had not had a 4-F deferment; his left leg was crippled. It had never healed properly after he broke it when he was twelve.
But Joe Baumann was Margaret’s second love. Elmer Simmons was her first. From what she had read about the battles the Marines were fighting on all those Pacific islands, she imagined him a war hero, too. Making sure her face was hidden from the searching eyes of her mother and sister, she choked back a sob.
Margaret had known the Baumann and Simmons families as long as she could remember, in the way that Roman Catholics knew one another in those days in majority Protestant Hamilton County, Iowa. Joe and Elmer came from St. Peter’s parish, in Aachen, seven miles northeast of Holy Infant parish in Lexington, Margaret’s hometown. Immigrants had founded both parishes—Franco-German in Aachen, and Bohemian in Lexington—and built them into the most important organizations in their towns. In 1922, when Margaret was an infant, after the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of Holy Infant Church, the ties between the parishes deepened. Their priests took to their pulpits and preached that no one should patronize businesses owned by Protestants who might support the KKK. To strengthen the solidarity between their parishes, the priests initiated dances, dinners and socials to mark both religious and secular holidays, which also gave young people the chance to meet potential Catholic spouses. Joe had first made a good impression on Margaret at the 1935 St. Valentine’s social at Holy Infant, when he complimented her for the solo she sang as part of the choir that performed at the event.
Longing to be in the vanguard of a great crusade, Elmer had enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Margaret was swept up in the romance of war for women on the home front: Give yourself in love to a soldier, sailor or marine before he went off to battle, and then say “Yes,” when asked to wait for his return. Margaret had longed for the moment Elmer gave her, the first Saturday in June, taking her to Des Moines in his 1939 Dodge to dance to Glen Miller’s orchestra at the big USO club there while he was home on furlough. During the last long, slow, dance, Elmer pulled Margaret’s hips into his and whispered, “I’m In the Mood, Margaret, just like the song.” Then he swept Margaret out of the dance hall, across the parking lot, and into the back seat of his car, where they made love, Margaret’s first time.
Having surrendered her virginity to her Marine, Margaret expected that he would ask her to wait for him, which would allow her to present herself in society as Elmer Simmons’ girlfriend—almost his fiancée. But Elmer asked no such thing. Instead, two nights later, he boasted of his conquest of Margaret in Wally’s Tap in Aachen, where he got drunk before he went off to the Pacific Front without as much as a good-bye to her. Margaret felt too ashamed to talk to anyone about Elmer, except Father Murphy, to whom she confessed her liaison as a mortal sin. The priest chastised her, and prescribed penance—a Rosary a day for three months—as the price of absolution. Meantime the story of Elmer’s romance with Margaret made its way on the tongues of gossips from Wally’s Tap to most of the households in Aachen and Lexington.
Joe had always remembered how sweetly Margaret sang. He saw how she had blossomed into a woman who turned men’s heads, whose blue-grey eyes sparkled flirtatiously behind her eyeglasses. At the 4th of July 1944 social at St. Peter’s, Joe asked Margaret to go with him to a movie in Madison, and she accepted. Then he courted her with a sweet disposition, cash from the wartime prosperity of his family’s farm, and the car that his older brother had loaned him while he was in the Army in Europe. The car gave Joe and Margaret privacy and mobility—a way to carry on a romance away from the prying eyes of their hometown gossips, from whom Joe had heard that Margaret had gone all the way with Elmer Simmons. Joe took Margaret to movies in Cedar Rapids, to the Hamilton County Fair, to a country graveyard where they made out. Joe and Margaret also “drove around” in Aachen and Lexington—a ritual of traversing all the streets in their hometowns in Joe’s car, allowing others to see them and to understand that they were courting.
A passionate woman, it had not taken Margaret long to surrender to Joe, especially after he told her that he had heard how she had gone all the way with Elmer Simmons. Within a month of their first date, Joe stayed at least one night a week in Margaret’s room in the Madison boardinghouse where she worked. On weekends, when Margaret returned to her family home in Lexington, Joe and Margaret used the privacy of Joe’s brother’s car and that country graveyard for their lovemaking.
“What’s it say?” Harriet said, trying to see behind the hand that Margaret held in front of her face. Harriet had caught a glimpse of the envelope and recognized the military “approved for mailing” stamp. She looked forward to the letters she got with that stamp, from her husband Vern, who was somewhere in Europe. Pregnant, Harriet had caused a scandal when she married Vern before a justice of the peace right before he left and not long before their son, whom Vern had not yet met, was born.
Staring down her nose, looking back and forth between her older sisters, Maxine sniffed, stiffened and buttoned up to her chin the white sweater her parents had given her for Christmas—saying louder than words that she was the only sister who could resist temptation and remain chaste. Velda watched Margaret tug on the side seams of her skirt.
“Oh, just this Christmas card,” Margaret said. She raised the card, hiding her face, and without another word stood and walked across the room to the iron cook stove. Margaret lifted the big iron plate that covered the firebox and dropped Elmer Simmons’ love letter into the glowing coals of the wood fire. Then she covered the fire, slamming the iron plate as though she could keep the turmoil the letter aroused in there. Her anger flared almost hot enough to force open the lock on her throat. Almost hot enough for her to tell her mother and sisters the truth. But shame made Margaret swallow over and over until her mouth felt dry. Then, her lips clamped into a tight, wrinkled line, Margaret walked away from the stove, picked up a dishtowel and grabbed, from a pan of hot water, a handful of forks. These she dried with such concentration and force that her mother and sisters were persuaded to say nothing, to never talk again about the letter Elmer Simmons sent Margaret in his 1944 Christmas card.
Tillie Dennis, the Lexington postmistress who had given Elmer’s letter to Margaret’s mother, told others about it when they came in for their mail. She also offered her customers the reminder that Margaret and Elmer had had a romance. The gossip reached Aachen after Tillie told Lizzie Baumtrager as they walked to their cars through the churchyard of Holy Infant Church after Midnight Mass, while the last words of "Silent Night" drifted from the church into the cold air. But first, Tillie uttered pleasantries—because Lizzie was engaged to Charlie Argent, an Aachen boy who might be having the silent night of the dead, in the Rhineland, in what the news reports were calling the Battle of the Bulge.
“Well Lizzie,” Tillie said, tightening the knot on the dark green babushka covering her round head. She was portly and waddled on new, tight-fitting shoes with Cuban heels. “Did Santy Claus bring you a lump of coal?” As soon as the words left Tillie’s mouth, she thought that Elmer Simmons might also be dead in the Pacific war.
“If he couldn’t find some sticks,” Lizzie said. She pushed her hands deep into her pockets and pulled her brown tweed wraparound coat closer to her young, lithe body. She wore a tan felt fedora over her auburn hair, styled like Margaret’s in a sausage roll.
“I see the Thompson boy sat with his mother tonight.”
“Well, you know he got drafted. So that Harmon girl broke up with him. Mary, the oldest one.”
“You don’t say. Now is that the one who went with Harry Alcorn until he got drafted?”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. The same. Speaking of drafted. You know Elmer Simmons wrote to Margaret Raucher—or Margaret Baumann she is now.”
“You don’t say. I heard they were an item before he went into the service. Then she married Joe Baumann. Couldn’t have been more than a month or so ago. Right before Advent.”
“You don’t say. They say Joe flunked his draft physical.”
“That’s what they say. I heard he was healthy enough to sneak into her room at that boardinghouse in Madison where she used to stay. They sure are some pair.”
“They sure are.”
“Margaret’s sister Harriet got herself in the same pickle, you know. I feel sorry for their mother. You having Christmas dinner with your folks?”
“I heard that, too. Mom’s cooking a big meal, as usual. You know what they say. There’s no place like home for the holidays.”
So it was that the word went forth that Elmer Simmons, from a combat zone in the South Pacific, had written a love letter to Margaret Raucher, who had had to get married to Joe Baumann. Nine hours later, Ernestine Baumtrager, who had learned about Elmer’s letter from her sister Lizzie, told Joe Baumann’s aunt Addie Sylvester about the letter as they walked out of St. Peter’s Church in Aachen. Addie, always quick to pass on any gossip, spread the story of Elmer Simmons’ love letter to Margaret to four more people in the crowd coming out of St. Peter’s Church. Those four people then went off to four different Christmas dinners, where the story was passed along, sometimes with embellishments. By New Year’s Day of 1945, almost everybody in Aachen and Lexington had heard about Elmer’s letter, and many believed the embellishments. For instance: that the baby swelling Margaret’s belly might be Elmer Simmons’, not Joe Baumann’s.