Huddled Masses

“God bless America, land that I love

Stand beside her, and guide her

 through the night with a light from above.” – words and music by Irving Berlin; 1938

Things didn’t go smoothly for my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf when they immigrated to the United States in August of 1923.

Most devastating was the death of their baby daughter Laney, who died on January 27, 1923, months before they left their homeland. Their passport photo shows my grandparents, my Aunt Liz at age three, and Laney, whose face was exed out by some official along the route. (The photo has since been photoshopped to reveal her little face under the X.)

When Jacob, Lena, and Lizzie arrived at Ellis Island on August 1, 1923 after their voyage on the ship America, they ran into a snag. It seems that my grandfather misunderstood how much money the family needed in order to enter the country. And, he didn’t have enough. So, he wired his brother Andrew, their sponsor, in Chicago. Meanwhile they were required to remain on Ellis Island until the money arrived.

Detained. Men housed in one area, women and their children in another. Details about their time spent on Ellis Island are sketchy. My grandmother never spoke of it, probably too traumatized to tell the story.  My Aunt Liz, not even four years old at the time, only remembered that her mother cried a lot.

I can only imagine. Grandma was not quite twenty-three. She had buried a child back in her hometown of Neu Banat, Romania. She spoke only German. She wasn’t sure where her husband was. What was going to happen to them?  Would they be arrested? Sent back? How long would they remain housed here? Why had they come?

As for Lizzie, what might she have been thinking? Where was her daddy? Why was her mama crying? Surrounded by strangers, she couldn’t understand the words they spoke. Why weren’t they going on the train ride that her daddy had promised?

A week, perhaps two passed before Jacob was reunited with his wife and daughter and they were able to continue on to Chicago. Their story had a happy ending.

But what if their story had taken another turn?

What if my grandfather had been sent back, since he’d failed to meet the monetary requirement for entry?

What if the President railed against them, called them criminals who were infesting the United States?

What if Lizzie had been ripped from my grandmother’s arms and put behind a chain link wall with other little ones? What if my grandmother couldn’t find out where she was? What if no one had kept track of where Lizzie had ended up? What if my grandparents couldn’t find out where she was, for days, or weeks, or months? Or ever?

What if?

In Chicago, armed with only a sixth grade education and a determination to work hard, the Wolfs thrived. Their family grew. They attained the American Dream.

Their story is like so many others. Yes, they came “legally” – at a time when there were almost no restrictions on who could enter. Might their story be different today?

Irving Berlin and his family fled from Russia when he was five years old, seeking asylum in the United States. If they had come today instead of in 1893, they would probably have been deported just for having the audacity to seek a safe haven from persecution.  Young Irving may have found himself separated from his family and tossed behind chain link fencing. And we’d have no “God Bless America” to sing on the Fourth of July.



Yes, I Wore That

“You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” From Annie: The Musical

Bustles. Hoop skirts. Bloomers. Boned corsets. Fox stoles with the beady-eyed, toothy head still attached – ewww! Yeah, we can laugh and say, “What were they thinking when they put on this stuff?” That is, until I think about some of my clothing choices.

Old photos are the silent evidence. Yes, I wore these.

Bathing caps. On a rare Dineen family trip, we stayed in a St. Louis Holiday Inn, one with a pool. For us, it was as exciting as a trip to the Cote d’Azur.  Yet, no female dipped in without a bathing cap. Unsanitary! And, long hair might clog the pool drain. Did anyone look good in a bathing cap? I sure didn’t.

My head resembles a dodgeball in this puckery creation, its texture similar to bubble wrap. Even teh perky plastic flower didn’t help. Eventually, the “girls must wear caps” dictum went by the wayside, but what happened to the pool drains?

And, babushkas. These weren’t just for grandmas from the old country. We kids wore them, too. When I was nine or ten, my Uncle Bob, the coolest guy in the family, did his basic training at an Army base in Missouri. He gifted me and my girl cousins with big babushkas garishly emblazoned with Fort Leonard Wood, and we were thrilled. “Look what my Uncle Bob gave me! He’s in the Army!” Pretty impressive stuff.  Movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly may have looked glamorous in their silky headscarves as they tooled around Paris or Rome in convertibles, but everyday gals just looked shlumpy. Then, in the 60’s, we teens updated the look with little triangle scarves, a baby sister to the heavy babushka. We tied their strings under our chins or on the back of our necks… just like the models in Seventeen magazine did.

I guess that the Church of England still follows the words of St. Paul who wrote to the Corinthians and declared that women must cover their heads. Attendees at the recent royal wedding all donned gorgeous millinery concoctions – from fetching little fascinators to lavishly brimmed chapeaux.   When I was at St. Bede’s School, forgetting to bring a beanie on Mass day brought down the wrath of the nuns. Lest we shame ourselves at the altar with uncovered heads, we bobby-pinned squares of Kleenex onto our hair. Ladies often kept a chapel veil — a circlet of lace in its plastic case– tucked in their purses so they could plop one on for an impromptu church visit and avoid the disgrace of exposed hair. On Easter, we pulled out all the stops. Decked out in a ribboned and veiled straw hat from Goldblatt’s and a pink and spongy Easter coat, I knew that Spring had arrived.

No priest ever told us that we could discontinue wearing hats to church. But women, emboldened by the feminist movement of the early 70’s, simply abandoned them. For my wedding, I raised a few eyebrows by deciding that my bridesmaids would go hatless, and even my mother and mother-in-law bucked tradition and dared to bare their heads.

Hatless, maybe, but not gloveless.  My bridesmaids, my mother, and mother-in-law all wore prim little white gloves, even though it was a ninety degree August afternoon.

Since my dress was long-sleeved, I opted out of wearing the gloves especially made for brides, the kind that allowed the ring finger to be peeled back so the groom could slide on the wedding band. But, every childhood Easter outfit required gloves, white or pastel, to complete the ensemble. Gloves weren’t only for church. For my high school prom, I wore an elbow-length lacy pair – tres chic! 

Crinolines, girdles and garter belts that clipped my nylons in place, stirrup pants, mohair sweaters,– yup, I wore them all. I’m happy to say that each of these has gone to the fashion graveyard.  Still wish I had that CPO jacket, though.



C’mon, Deliver the Letter, the Sooner the Better

“Please, Mr. Postman, look and see

If there’s a letter in your bag for me.” “Please Mr. Postman”, The Marvelettes; 1961

On a recent rainy weekend,  I dug through boxes to unearth letters that Michael and I wrote to each other during our courtship. There were piles of them, all neatly stacked in bunches, some bound together by ancient rubber bands that had lost their snap. Our college romance was peppered with separations. He was from Iowa; I was from Chicago, so we were apart all summer. Then, I student taught in Chicago during the winter. Long distance calls were too pricey and saved for special occasions, so we wrote letters. Lots of them.

I curled up on the couch and read every one, taking a nostalgic trip in the Way Back Machine. Long-forgotten names and faces popped up. Whatever happened to Joe and Rita? Did they ever get married? Are Bonnie and Tim, nicknamed Smutty, still together? Who was the Weird Linda I referred to? And what was George’s last name, a guy who worked with us in the dishroom? No clue.

In our first summer apart, 1969, I wrote about summer school and Mike wrote about working. He was a carpenter’s helper, building rafters and hauling them to the top of a new house in Storm Lake. Once in a while he baled hay. One letter describes the 95 degree heat, the hoisting of huge bales into a barn. Grueling, but he said, “I made sixteen dollars.” We counted the days until the fall semester started again, and we’d both be back on campus.

We were only twenty but we were in love. We dreaded another long separation while I student taught. And then, when I graduated in June, we’d be apart again. I’d go back to Chicago and work and he’d finish his senior year.  We wondered, what if I could get a teaching job near Macomb? Maybe we could get married.

In November, we both went home and broke the news to our parents. IF and only IF I got a job, we wanted to get married in the summer. I wrote Mike to report my parents’ reaction, then waited by the mailbox to hear what the Brosnahans had to say. His folks were skeptical; mine, not too much. Both sets, rule-following Catholics, worried, what if Ellen gets pregnant? They may have gnashed their teeth in private, but they held their tongues.

While I student taught, I wrote every day. Mike wrote almost as much.

A couple of letters chronicled the draft lottery held on December 1, 1969. I was in Chicago, Mike in Macomb, glued to the TV.  Mike’s number was 319, a very lucky one, but his celebration was muted. One of his roommates, Don, was 27. It was THE topic of discussion back then: “What number did you get?”

Mike wrote about an econ project and about seeing The Thomas Crown Affair at the student union. I wrote about crying during the final scene of Funny Girl. I told him about my forty-six unruly seventh graders, and boasted about a good evaluation from my supervisor. We each got our first pair of bell- bottoms! One of his letters began, “Last night, all hell broke loose.” He and his roommates had a study break/ war that involved throwing banana pudding all over each other.

He worked out a budget for us. How much did we think rent would be? Or food? Or health insurance? He made a list. When he joined the Columbia Record Club, he described the terms of the agreement to me. It would all work out to about $2.70 a record album, quite a good deal. He signed us up for a married student apartment for the fall. I sent letters to every school district near Macomb and waited for replies. Our weekends were boring and lonely, and our hopes were tied to my finding a job.

Spring semester—my last one– rolled around, and I was back on campus. Then… Miraboli dictu! I was hired to teach at Bardolph Elementary School, about ten miles outside of Macomb. We were getting married!

After graduation, Mike and I separated again, for the last time. That summer, our letters were sprinkled with wedding details. I described the cake my mother and I ordered; all white with no “hideous bride and groom” on top — a marriage cross instead. The bridesmaids would wear white gloves but no hats. Did the guys mail measurements into Gingiss yet? I bought a blue and green bedspread for $12.99 plus my employee discount at Drapery Fair.

Meanwhile, Mike told me about working in the hot Iowa sun every day, pounding nails. After work, he repainted two old dressers for our apartment. They were bright blue with white handles and they sat in our bedroom until 1979.  Scouring auctions, he found us a serviceable twenty-five dollar couch. He reserved a room at a St. Louis Holiday Inn for four nights for our honeymoon.

Our letters counted down to his arrival in Chicago, about a week before our wedding day, August 15, 1970.

So ended our letter-writing days.

When I sat down to read these letters, I figured that we’d come across as clueless and immature. Funny thing, though. We didn’t. The letters mostly sounded like us. Sure, we were corny and a bit naïve – or maybe just optimistic.  And, we loved each other. We still do.

We also sounded organized and task-oriented. We worked every chance we could get. We didn’t spend money. We saved it. If we didn’t have the money for something, we didn’t do it. I wanted to hop on the train for Macomb on weekends while I student taught, but I only went a time or two. No money.

And boy, did we have no money.

Three was no attitude of entitlement, especially when it came to our parents. When I pitched the wedding idea, I told them that since we wouldn’t have any money, we’d be okay with cake and punch in the church basement. My parents, though, nixed that. They generously insisted on throwing us a regular wedding reception with all of the Chicago-style frills. I’ll always be grateful for that.

We assumed that as married people, we were on our own. Rent, car, tuition – all on us. So, we figured it out. Today, the guy who did the cost analysis on the advantages of joining the Columbia record club (“10 records for $3.99 plus 25 cents handling!”) pores over spread sheets and has mapped out our retirement expenditures down to the penny.

Of course, there have been changes. Back then, we called each other “Honey” and “Babe”… nicknames that have gone by the wayside. In one letter I mentioned my weight, a number so low that I shuddered when I read it. Mike has gotten rid of the muttonchops and is a better man for it.

His letters were infused with “Hot Damn!” — an expression, I’m relieved to report, he never says today. I misused the word “real” on a regular basis; for example, “the party was real nice.” In spite of this repugnant gaffe, Mike remained smitten with me. Luckily, I have since cleaned up my act, grammar-wise.

After hours of reading, I packed the letters back into their boxes and returned them to the basement. I doubt if I’ll ever read them again, and I certainly don’t think our kids will want to after we’re gone. Still, I just couldn’t go the recycling bin route.

Letters are from a by-gone era, and today it’s all texts and Instagrams. Fifty years from now, basement shelves will be free of dusty boxes of correspondence, but I think it’s a bit sad. Long-married couples like us won’t be able to while away a rainy day holding their history in their hands, one crinkly envelope at a time.













A Summer Wedding, 1952; Part 11

August 28
It’s my wedding day!

Sue opened her eyes and looked around the blue bedroom in her parents’ home in Spokane. She didn’t quite know how to feel, and allowed herself to lie back for a few moments and gather her thoughts. The happiest day of my life, right? And it will be. At twelve o’clock, I’ll be walking down the aisle to meet my beloved Ray and to say our vows. Walking down the aisle. Her eyes flooded with tears. Just how many tears can I shed? Oh, Daddy! I can’t believe that you aren’t here! I miss you so.

Will I ever forget July 17?

Just by luck, she’d happened to be in her apartment, getting ready to leave on a flight, her last one. She’d given notice two weeks before, and she was excited to take one last trip to Billings. Leaving Northwest was bittersweet. Hadn’t being a stewardess been fun? But no married women were allowed to fly, so she’d be unpinning her wings and taking off on life’s biggest adventure – marriage! Her roommates had promised her a surprise when she returned, and her mind bubbled with anticipation. A bridal shower? They’d dropped several hints.

The phone rang. “Hello!”

“Sue, it’s Mary.”

“Oh, Mary! I’m dashing out the door. What gives?”

“Sue, it’s Daddy.”

The tone in Mary’s voice forced Sue’s stomach to clench. “Is he okay?”

A ghastly sob burst forth. “Sue, he’s gone.”


Of course, there was no last trip to Billings, no celebratory party with roommates. Under a numbing blanket of shock and grief, she, her mother, and her sister waded through a blur of arrangements, phone calls, telegrams.
“He’ll be buried back home in Minot,” her mother had insisted, so they traveled by train to their home town, where the congregation at St. Leo’s surrounded them with the comfort they craved. Sue and Mary, shattered, garnered strength from their mother. “Daddy’s seated with the Holy Family now. His suffering is over.” Catherine’s blend of faith and pragmatism carried them through the ordeal.

And Ray. She’d discovered even more reasons to love him. He couldn’t get away from his Texas assignment, but he’d phoned every evening. Sometimes she did nothing but weep. Sometimes, she told him funny stories about Daddy. No matter what she was in the mood for, he was there listening. The night that she returned to Minneapolis after the funeral, her father’s final letter, the carbon copy of the one he’d written to Ray, was waiting for her. Tearing open the envelope, she could only wail as she scanned his final words to her, especially the line “I am sure I can march down the aisle with Sue.”

She was distraught when she called Ray. “Daddy’s letter’’ were the only words she could manage amidst her sobs.

“I know. I cried, too. Your grief is mine, Suse,” he’d told her.

Sue looked over at her wedding gown, hanging from the drapery rod. A light breeze sent its skirt dancing. She wiped her eyes. It’s my wedding day! Suddenly the door burst open and Mary hurtled herself onto Sue’s bed.

“Better get up, bride! The show is about to start!”



Was there going to come a day when life didn’t center on the wedding? Mary was tired of it, tired of stifling her grief, tired of putting her own life on the back burner, tired of putting a smile on her face when all she wanted to do was cry.

It had only been a few weeks since she’d gotten the terrible phone call.

Margaret had come into the lab, looking for her. “Mary, you have a call. Says it’s important.”

”Not supposed to get calls at work,” Joe commented. She ignored him.

No one had ever phoned her at work before. Was it Daddy? In the outer office, a secretary, barely hiding her curiosity, handed her the phone’s receiver.

“Mary, this is Doctor Cunningham’s nurse. I’m so sorry, but I have some bad news for you.”

How had she mustered up the presence of mind to jot down the details? Calmly, she’d removed her lab coat and handed it to Margaret. “My father… has passed away. I need to go.” Woodenly, she left the building, got into her car, and drove. I need to be with Mother. I need to be with Mother. It was only after she arrived at the hospital and saw her mother huddled on a chair in the chaplain’s office, her handkerchief twisted in her lap, did she allow herself to weep. Her father was dead.

Somehow, they’d gotten through the funeral.

And now, the aftermath.

Mother was moving home. “No reason to stay in Spokane,” she’d said. “It’s not home.”

Mary couldn’t disagree. Of course, Mother would have no reason to stay. She was only here because this was where Harvester had sent Daddy. What was keeping her?

But what is keeping me? I have only a smattering of friends here. My job is a disappointment. And where would I live, once Mother gives up the house? “It’s up to you, Mary,” Mother had told her. “You do whatever you think is best for you.” But just what was best for me?

And then, twisted through everything was the wedding.

Mary stepped into the yellow maid of honor gown and adjusted the chiffon sleeves on her shoulders. I look as broad as a barn. I never would have chosen this. But bridesmaids never choose. They do what the bride wants and they smile all the way through it. Mary smiled at herself in the mirror. Really, what bad luck for Sue to have her wedding spoiled by Daddy’s death. She’s being brave; Mother is being brave. So can I. And tomorrow, when all of this is over and Ray and Sue have sailed off into the sunset, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do. She pinned on the yellow hat, stepped into the perfectly matched yellow heels and headed downstairs. Sisterly duty calls!

August 29

The house was empty for the first time in days, or was it weeks? Catherine savored the quiet as a she looked around the living room and sipped her coffee.

“It was a beautiful wedding, Henry,” she whispered. Will I always feel the urge to speak to him as if he were here in the room with me? Suppose not, but it feels good right now.

She continued. “Ray turned out to be a nice fellow. You would have liked him… even though he isn’t a Catholic. Maybe that’s not as important as we think it is. He certainly loves our Sue. His mother was pleasant, but the sister seemed a little odd.” She laughed. “Not that we don’t have a few odd ducks in our family. After all, we’ve got my brother Bill.”

“Sue was radiant. I’ve been so worried about her. Seeing her walk down the aisle without you, why, that nearly broke me in half. All she’s been able to talk about was what you said in the letter you sent to her and Ray; you know, about marching her down the aisle. But we all got through it.”

“Father gave a lovely sermon and blessing. He’s been so kind to us all. And Mary has been a good sport about all the commotion around her sister. She tries not to show it, but she’s so at a loss without you.’’

Catherine sipped her coffee. Her eyes glanced toward the place where the hospital bed had been. The room looked so much bigger now, even cavernous.

“I can’t stay here, Henry. I’m going home, as soon as I can get everything settled. It’s where I belong. It’s where we belong. I want to be near you.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Will I ever stop crying? Really, Henry, you know this isn’t like me. I even managed to keep the tears at bay yesterday. I just miss you so.” She allowed herself the luxury of weeping, unabated. It felt good to let down her guard, just for a few minutes.

When her tears subsided, she drank the last of the coffee, now cold, and carried her cup to the kitchen.

“Lots to do today, Henry. There are wedding gifts to organize, silver and dishes to pack away. I’m so sorry you weren’t here. You missed a good party. I love you, dear.”

Squaring her shoulders, she headed for the dining room. My goodness, there’s a lot that needs my attention. She leaned over to the centerpiece of lilies and breathed in their fragrance. Then she clasped her hands together and closed her eyes.

“Thank you, Blessed Mother Mary, for getting us through.”




A Summer Wedding, 1952; Part 10

July 2
Sue and Ray

The letters arrived; Ray’s, the original; Sue’s the carbon copy.

“Dear Ray,
It looks like we are to remain in Spokane. Therefore Mother and I visited Fr. Buckley last night to find out what documents would be necessary.”

Ray scanned the page. Looks like a lot here. Better get on it and see what I need to do.

“I told him that I was under the impression you had completed the necessary religious instruction classes but that I believed Sue had mentioned that those were taken under a priest you had known at school. If that is the case a letter from that priest to Father Buckley certifying that you had received and completed the course of instructions will be required.(Most of these university priests go to summer school, visit their families in places like Puyallup, Washington, or go street preaching in South Carolina, and cannot be located hurriedly! – why not consult with him about the completion of the enclosed forms?)

Ray smirked. I get the hint. Turn in this stuff… or else.

The letter continued.

“Forms M1 G and 3 are to be filled out by your parish priest on the information you can furnish; likewise the agreement and promises listed on the back of “3”…
Form #2 “Testimony of External Witness” will be filled out by the priest… Finally your baptismal certificate or certified copy form the church records where you were baptized is required.”…
“All of this sounds like a lot of work but after you look over the forms you will see that there is not too much effort involved…
The wedding will be held in the Church (home weddings are not permitted); Mass of course so the ceremony will be quite brief.”

Scanning the pages, Ray considered all that was expected of him. Not for the first time, he tamped down his irritation with the arrogance of the Catholic Church. Sue had explained the belief of Catholics that theirs was the One True Faith, but he could not agree. Weren’t all God-fearing people equal in the eyes of the Lord? He and Sue had agreed to disagree, and he certainly had no quarrel with her devotion to her faith. He was more than willing to respect her devotion to the Church, to raise their children as Catholics, and so on. But all these forms! I don’t think I was under this much scrutiny to become accepted into the Air Force Intelligence! More hoops to jump through than the United States Air Force – now that’s saying something.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Sue was looking over the same letter. It certainly doesn’t look too complicated, and I know Ray will take care of this right away. That’s the way his Air Force mind works – so on top of things. Daddy’s comment about those college priests … so true! And he’d know! Daddy has had so many priest friends over the years.
As soon as these forms are mailed in, we’ll be official!

July 16

Hours before his wife and daughter would be coming downstairs, Henry woke. He struggled to sit, then stand, and tried futilely to stop the gasping. Wincing, he shuffled into to bathroom and back. Why has the swelling in my feet worsened overnight? The pain is nearly unbearable today.

Later, while Catherine and Mary bustled around in the kitchen, he remained in the living room, rooted to a chair, his feet propped on a footstool. “Not too hungry this morning,“ he‘d replied when Catherine offered to make him an egg.

“See you tonight, Daddy. Gotta run!” Mary called out. The door slammed, and Henry heard her car backing out of the driveway. Catherine came in to the living room.

“Here’s your coffee, dear.” She glanced down. “Henry, my goodness! Your feet don’t look good today.”

Trying to mask his discomfort, he said, “I’m no worse for wear.” But he knew she was seeing right through his charade.

Catherine shook her head. “I’d better call Doctor Cunningham. He told me to call if things got worse.”

He wanted to protest, but couldn’t muster up the energy to object. Besides, why argue? She was right. Catherine headed for the phone, and he listened to her leave a message with the nurse. Then she returned and joined him while he drank his coffee.

“Catherine, let’s change the subject. I want to get a letter off to Ray with the particulars.” He shambled toward the desk, grasping for the backs of furniture as he went, his worn moccasins dragging along the floor.

“That would be a good idea, if you’re up to it. I only wish that we’d gotten the opportunity to meet him before the wedding. It just seems so strange that our daughter is marrying a man we’ve never met.”

“It is unusual, but I have to say he’s done nothing but impress me. He’s responded so promptly to all of the requests from the Church, and his letters to us have been so heartfelt. Our Sue is certainly taken by him.” Leadenly, he sunk into the chair.

“Yes, she certainly is. I’m just finalizing the list of invitees. Tomorrow I plan to pick up the invitations, then address the envelopes and get them in the mail. But, I’m certainly not liking the looks of your puffiness this morning. I hope the doctor calls back soon.” She eyed the telephone.

Henry plunked at the typewriter keys. Even the simple task of getting out a letter drains me. Was I this fatigued a month ago? It’s hard to tell. When was the last time I felt like myself?

He leaned forward and scrolled the paper upwards to reread what he’d typed.

Dear Ray,
We have learned that the only restrictions in securing a marriage license in this state is the three day waiting period….
We have made some plans which we hope will meet with the approval of both of you…
Mother thought she could hold a party on Sunday, the 25th, if you could arrange to be here on the night of the 24th. Then she thought that we could have our friends and neighbors in for a reception Sunday afternoon which would replace the one normally held on the afternoon of the wedding…
The wedding has been set for Thursday, August 28, at 12 noon…
I am sure that I can march down the aisle with Sue…
We shall have the wedding breakfast at home immediately after the ceremony and you and Sue could leave right afterward if we can hold the reception on Sunday as outlined above. …
This plan seems to have much merit because it would not crowd too much excitement into the one day. And it would give us a chance to visit with both of you for the two or three days between your arrival and the wedding day….
Let us know what you think of the schedule…

“Catherine, I’ve made a carbon to send to Sue as well. Here, read this, please, and see if I’ve covered everything.” He handed the letter to her, and waited for her to skim through it.

“It sounds very clear. Shall I put both in envelopes and address them for you?”

The phone rang, and Henry strained to hear Catherine’s end of the conversation. But, she spoke in hushed tones. Then, her volume increased.

“Yes, Doctor. We’ll be on our way immediately. Thank you.”

“On our way? To his office?” he asked as she returned to the room.

“No. He’s checking you into the hospital again.” She grasped his hands, and leaned forward to look into his eyes. “I know you don’t want to be there, but he feels you need to have the aspiration procedure again, to drain fluid. Remember how much better you felt when he did it a couple of months ago? He’ll do the procedure this afternoon, and you can come home tomorrow.”

His shoulders slumped. Another ordeal, for me and for Catherine. Damn it! He looked into his wife’s eyes. She’s so tired, so beaten down. I won’t make this any harder on her.

“So, let’s get this over with. I better get some decent clothes on. We can mail these letters on our way to the hospital.”

“All right. I’ll help you into the bathroom and get some clothes for you to change into.“


Standing outside of the bathroom where Henry was getting dressed, she mulled over the doctor’s words. “This is build-up of fluid is a common problem for a man in Henry’s condition. But, let’s see if we can make him more comfortable.” The doctor’s tone was gentle and kind, but he’d sounded resigned, too. Without hope. With just a short-term remedy. Once again, she was reminded that there was no cure, and only minimal ways to alleviate some of Henry’s suffering. For how long? How long will I have my husband? Please, dear Lord, keep him with me for a while longer.

“We’ve got quite a warm day in store, Henry. I don’t think you’ll be needing to wear a tie,” she said through the bathroom door.

“Nonsense! Of course I’ll wear a tie.” He opened the door and stepped out. Beads of sweat glistened at his hair line and he gasped for air. Putting on the oxygen mask, he inched his way into the living room, holding on to the wall for support, and plopped into the nearest chair.

“Well, I’m going to dress in something cool. I’ll go on upstairs and get ready quickly, and then we’ll be on our way.”

Upstairs, Catherine slipped into a short-sleeved linen dress. Has it only been a few weeks since Henry had last seen Doctor Cunningham? His ankles have ballooned, and that oxygen mask! I rarely see him take it off any more. Blessed Mother, please intercede and allow this procedure to give Henry some relief. She tucked a handkerchief into a navy handbag, and slid into her navy pumps. Time to go! Impulsively, she grabbed the rosary on her nightstand and tossed it in her purse.

“Have you got my tie?” Henry asked as she descended the stairs.

“Yes, I do. Is this one all right?” She held up his favorite, the one in Notre Dame colors.

“Perfect!” Expertly, he tied the knot and slid it up to the collar of his shirt. “Some things I can still do. But I hate having to wear these old moccasins. They’re disgraceful.” He looked down at his swollen feet.

“No one will notice that you’re not wearing your wingtips,” she assured him. “I’ll go get the car and park it right near the kitchen door. Then I’ll come in and help you.”

She rolled down all of the windows to the Buick before she drove it close to the back door, then put it in park and went into the house for Henry. The walk to the car took several minutes, and by the time she was behind the steering wheel again, a rivulet of perspiration trickled down her back and her stockings clung to the backs of her knees. Henry’s once-crisp white shirt was now splotched with damp patches.

The drive to the hospital was a short one, but the breeze through the open windows allowed them to cool off a bit.

“Whew! Pretty hot for Washington!” she remarked. Henry only nodded, not bothering to remove the mask so he could respond.

She helped Henry out of the car near the entrance, then parked in the lot. Inside, an orderly brought out a wheel chair for Henry and they were taken to a room on the fourth floor. After Henry was settled into the bed, Doctor Cunningham arrived.

“Doc, I can’t walk my daughter down the aisle in these moccasins! I’ve got to be able to get shoes on for the wedding!”

“Let’s see what we can do about this,” the doctor said, then proceeded with a quick exam. “It’s a fairly simple procedure, and you’ve had it before. But, you’ll still have a bit of swelling. Catherine, how about taking a pair of Henry’s leather shoes and slitting them open?”

“Ruin a good pair of shoes?” Henry responded, shaking his head. Then he threw up his hands and grinned. “”If that’s what it takes, I guess I’ll have to sacrifice a pair for the wedding.”

Catherine laughed, too. It felt good to find some levity in the situation. “I’m sure I can carve them apart so he can wear them, Doctor. But I hope this procedure will help, too. Wedding is only about five weeks away.”

Catherine was relegated to the hospital waiting room, crowded with others waiting or word of their loved ones. Nearby, a young woman wept silently as her husband tried to soothe her. The poor dear! Is that a photograph of her child she’s holding? How people suffer! What a dismal place to be! Blessed Mother, guide the hands of the doctors here today. Reaching into her handbag, she found her rosary and stroked one bead after another as she prayed.

In the early evening, soon after she was summoned to her husband’s bedside, the doctor returned.

“Go home and get some rest, Catherine. We’ll keep an eye on Henry here. He should be ready to go home by mid-morning.” He shook their hands, and left the room.

Henry looked pale, his eyes rimmed with bluish smudges of weariness. “I agree with the doctor, Catherine. Time for you to skedaddle.” Henry waved his hand toward toe door. She hesitated.

“I suppose we’ll both be more rested if I leave now.” She kissed her husband. “Good night, Henry.”

It felt strange to drive home alone. Mary greeted her at the door.

“How is daddy? Here, I’ve made us chicken salad. Sit down and fill me in.”

“Aren’t you a good daughter, to take care of your old mother? Daddy will be home tomorrow.”

She nibbled the sandwich, and briefly updated Mary, avoiding the mention of the gravity of Henry’s condition.

July 17

As soon as Mary left for work, Catherine headed to the hospital.

“Look at my feet today, Catherine! They look much better, don’t they?” Henry pried off his oxygen mask to speak.

“I think so. Do you feel any better?” in spite of the reduced swelling of his feet, he still looked drawn, an almost grayish tinge to his complexion.

“Yes, a bit. The doctor was just in to see me. Said I could go home.” As he spoke, the nurse entered the room.

“Yes, Mr. Brosnahan, the doctor has released you. Let me help you get ready and your wife can take you. Mrs. Brosnahan, we can meet you down at the main entrance in just a few minutes.”

“Wonderful. I’ll go get the car.” She took the elevator to the lobby, then headed outside. The air was even warmer now, and she mopped her brow with her handkerchief as she unlocked the car doors and rolled down the windows. I’ll make a nice fruit salad for lunch. Too hot to cook. Then this afternoon, I can get busy on those wedding invitations.

“Mrs Brosnahan! Mrs. Brosnahan!”

Catherine looked up to see the nurse rushing in her direction.


One look at the nurse’s expression told Catherine everything.

“Come with me, please.” The nurse reached for her arm and Catherine numbly followed her. As they hurried down the sidewalk and back into the building, a kaleidoscope of images played across her mind. Henry and I on wedding day, our Christmas stockings hung on our mantle, laughter around a Sunday dinner table, his silly old buffalo coat, the annual Harvester dinners, cocktails on the porch, the children’s graduations, nightly rosaries together in the parlor, the Notre Dame tie, the moccasins, his glorious laugh… It was if I’m flying above the scene she was a part of. Is this me scurrying into the hospital? Is this really happening? Is today the day I lose my Henry?

The doctor stood waiting at the door. He reached out his arms to her.

“I’m so sorry, Catherine. He’s gone.”


A Summer Wedding, 1952; Part 9

June 22

The morning sun shone through the bedroom window, and Catherine woke with a start. What time is it? Have I overslept? She strained to hear Henry moving around downstairs, and was relieved to hear Mary’s voice. She looked at the clock. Yes, she’d slept late; it was 7:30. But there was still enough time to get dressed, have a little breakfast, and head to Sunday Mass at St. Augustine’s. Moving to the top of the stairs, she called down, “Good morning, Henry and Mary! I’m sorry I slept late. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Mary called back, “Take your time. We’re doing fine.” The smell of fresh coffee wafted up the stairs.

Catherine dressed hurriedly, guilty that Mary had to step in for her with the morning preparations. Dear Mary. She shouldn’t have to take charge. I must have overslept because I didn’t get to sleep for hours. Nights are the worst. During the day, I tell myself that everything will work out, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, my mind is awash with worry. Will Henry ever recover? Will we stay in Spokane or go back to Minot? Can we really give Sue a nice wedding with all that is going on? What will we think of Ray when we meet him? Is Sue doing the right thing, marrying a non-Catholic? What about Mary? If we leave Spokane, will she stay or go? Will she find another job if she moves? The heaviest question of all snaked through all of the other concerns that swirled around her. Am I going to be a widow soon?

As she brushed her salt-and-pepper hair into its usual chignon, the question of widowhood struck her once more. Mother Mary, please deliver me! She and Henry both hesitated to confront the eventuality of his death, but she knew, as did Henry, that hope was running out. Yes, there had been talk of getting Henry to Philadelphia where experimental heart surgeries were being performed, but the trip across the country was arduous. And, the procedures were in early stages, none being done on humans with two leaking valves like Henry’s. Bill Geist, Henry’s longtime company friend, had consulted with the Harvester doctors on Henry’s behalf, but to no avail. Right now, there was no viable treatment for Henry’s condition.

How long will Henry live? It was a question they dared not answer. But Catherine had seen her husband’s steady decline in just a few months’ time. His once robust appearance had been all but erased. His booming voice, his ready laugh had faded. The expression “a shell of his former self” now applied to the man she so dearly loved.

Once again, Catherine said a quick prayer. She pinned on her white hat with the dotted netting, the one she saved for summer Sundays, and applied some lipstick. “On my way!” she called out. She and Mary would get to church in time to say a quick rosary before Mass commenced.


“One cup of coffee per day,” the doctor had instructed, so Henry sipped his slowly, savoring every drop. Sunday mornings were no longer his favorite time of the week, not since he’d had to give up attending Mass with Catherine, something they’d done together for their entire married life. Just when was the last time he’d been at Mass? February? March? Back then, he’d thought it was only a temporary setback, but Sunday after Sunday had gone by, and his stamina had only lessened. How he missed the rituals of the Eucharist… the familiar Latin passages, the Gospels he’d heard all of his life, the sanctity of Holy Communion. It was strange to see Catherine head out the door for St. Augustine’s without him.

He nibbled at the now-cold toast that Mary had prepared for him. I’d better eat it, or she’ll scold me when she returns. He crumbled the dry bread onto his plate. How terrible to be treated like a child. I’m waited on, coddled, and get pats on the head like I’m a good little boy. Catherine tiptoes around me, afraid to say anything that might upset me. I’m barely allowed to dress myself! He looked down at his plaid bathrobe in disgust. Catherine had made him promise that he wouldn’t get dressed until he returned from church. “I don’t want you to exert yourself too much while I’m out of the house.” He’d agreed with her, knowing what the simple act of dressing did to his heart, but it frustrated him to sit around in his pajamas half the morning.

Like an invalid! Well, Henry, you ARE an invalid, face it. Your mind may be as sharp as ever, but your body is failing you. He slowly stood, dragging the oxygen tank along with him. His everyday clothing was no longer kept upstairs but piled on a dining room chair, and he changed into a pair of trousers and a neatly pressed shirt. No sense in looking like a hobo. The exertion of dressing exhausted him, and he headed for his usual spot in the living room to read the newspaper. Before he made it to page three, the paper fluttered from his lap and he fell asleep.

June 26

Dr. Cunningham put his stethoscope to Henry’s chest, took his pulse, and examined his swollen feet while Catherine sat on the sofa, hands folded in her lap. She tried to read the impassive expression on his face, hoping against hope that he would say something encouraging. He did not.

“Well, Henry, Catherine, it sounds like the leakage in your valves is worsening. And, by the look of your swollen ankles, your circulation is diminishing as well. I know you were hoping to travel to North Dakota, but I can’t recommend it. I’m sorry.”

“Sounds like you’re saying I’m not much longer for this world,” Henry said with a forced chuckle.

The doctor’s face remained somber. “I want to be honest with you both. Your condition is grave. I hope that you will live for many months, even years, but I can’t guarantee it. I know you want to walk your daughter down the aisle this summer, Henry, and I think that if you take care of yourself and don’t overdo it, you’ll be able to manage it. But medical science has not come up with a solution to your problem yet, I’m afraid.”

Catherine blinked back tears and clenched her hands together. Months! Was he saying that Henry would be gone within months? She’d known things were serious, but she had not allowed herself to contemplate a world without Henry in it so soon. A year or two, maybe. That was unbearable enough, but now the doctor was implying an imminent death. She forced herself to speak.

“Doctor, is there anything else I should be doing for Henry?”

“She’s a trooper, Doctor,” Henry interjected. “She waits on me hand and foot.”

The doctor smiled at her. “Catherine, I can see that he is in good hands. Keep doing what you are doing.”

“And tell her not to hover,” Henry said. “I don’t want her to be afraid to leave me alone.”

“I agree with Henry. He can be alone. Go on with your errands, with shopping and church. It will do you good to get out of the house.”

The doctor made a few suggestions regarding Henry’s care, and there wasn’t much left to say after that. Henry thanked him for making the house call, and Catherine showed him to the door. She wanted to fall on the floor and weep, but instead she returned to the living room. “Henry, I am so sorry.”

He reached out for her and she knelt at his feet and laid her head in his lap. The pent-up tears rolled down her cheeks, and he stroked her hair. “Be strong, dear. Be strong.” She allowed herself to succumb to tears for a few minutes, then sat up, reached out for Henry’s hands. “I shouldn’t be crying. That doesn’t solve anything.”

“We have lots to talk about, including your future.” Henry held up his hand to stifle her protests. “Yes, Catherine, your future. But right now, we have a wedding in the offing.”

A wedding. Where shall I find the enthusiasm for a wedding? Yet, Sue deserves a happy occasion.

“We’ll have to let Sue know that it must be in Spokane. I know she and Ray may be disappointed with that, but she’s a good girl. She’ll understand. Now, let’s talk about this business of Ray being a non-Catholic. This muddies the water a bit.” His forehead puckered. “I never expected one of ours to marry a non-Catholic, but Sue seems determined. I suppose it will be all right.”

Catherine grimaced. She and Henry had been so dismayed to learn that Ray was not a Catholic. There’s was the One True Church, the one founded by Our Lord Himself. A mixed marriage was fraught with difficulties. Was Sue aware of all that lay in front of her, or was she so dazzled by love that she was blind to it all?

“We can’t change her mind, Henry, and we don’t want to push her away. So we have to make the best of it.”

“Of course. You and I have been over this and over this. I’ll call Father this afternoon and firm up the exact details about what Ray still needs to do. Can you call Sue and tell her what the doctor said about my not traveling? I don’t have the heart to tell her.” Henry leaned back in his chair. “It’s been quite a morning.” He replaced the oxygen mask over his face, ending the conversation.

“Certainly. The long distance rates go down at five p.m. and I’ll call then. I hope she’s not on a flight and I can get a hold of her. Now you rest. I’ve got to see to something upstairs.” Up in the bedroom, she reached for a rosary and lay on the bed, praying. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. The hour of our death. Was Henry’s hour of death imminent? We’ve been together for nearly thirty years, gone through hardship and good times, raised our family, and all the while I’ve know that Henry was at my side. In sickness and in health, until death do us part. What shall I do without him?

“Doctor Cunningham came to see Daddy today, Mary. We’re staying in Spokane for now. Daddy can’t travel. The wedding will be here. So much to do! Now, Ray will have to see when he can get away. Sue will be have to give her notice to Northwest, then come home for a few weeks before the wedding..”

Mary interrupted. “Mother, what else did the doctor say about Daddy?”

“Well, he’s very sick, as you know. There isn’t much more the doctor can do for him.”

“But, Mother..” She scanned Catherine’s face, searching for clues, but her expression was impassive. Just what isn’t she telling me?

“Mary, that’s really all he had to say. Now, we have to continue to pray and put our trust in the hands of God.”

“Sure, but..”

“The doctor says that we are doing a good job of taking care of Daddy right now. And I so appreciate your help. But we have a wedding to arrange.”

I know when I’m being given the brush off. So, I guess they got bad news. Mother isn’t fooling me with her phony jollity. Well, I can play along.

Mary dove in. “A Spokane wedding will be lovely. I’m just as glad that we don’t have to make the long train trip back to North Dakota. Do you think many people from Minot will come?”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. I know Aunt Gert wouldn’t miss our girl’s big day. You know how fond she is of Sue… and you, too, of course.” Mary read the relief that crossed her mother’s brow. Surely, she’d rather talk about weddings than about Daddy. This wedding rigmarole will be good for her. Maybe for me, too. If I concentrate on my maid of honor duties, I won’t have to think about Daddy’s health, or the jerks at work, or my dismal social life.

“So, Mother, what kind of flowers are you thinking for the altar? White chrysanthemums could be nice.”


Her Mother’s phone call was not unexpected. Sue had hoped that she and Ray could be married in Minot, but with each passing week, the idea became more and more impractical. Mother had tried to sound cheerful on the phone, but Sue felt the weight of her worry.

“Daddy is really sick, not getting any better. The doctor forbids him to travel.”

Was Daddy dying? Surely not! He can’t be that bad! Sue had not dared to ask the question, but sensed the answer in Mother’s somber tone.

“Mother, where we get married doesn’t matter,” she’d said.

As much as she’d wanted Minot, she had spoken the truth. So many months have passed. I wasn’t even there at Christmas! I’ve missed Mother and Daddy and Mary so! Letters and a phone call or two just aren’t the same. And Ray. We’ve been apart for weeks now, and I can hardly bear being away from him. All that mattered is being with the ones I love.

o, an August wedding in Spokane! Suddenly, life was moving along a quick pace. Once again, she took her gown out her closet and draped it against her. The worry that niggled at the back of her mind faded as she pictured herself walking down the aisle of St. Augustine’s. What kind of flowers would be best? I’ll have to write Mother and see what she thinks.