First published four years ago today. Today the memory returns.
I have a very wonderful memory of a long-ago May Day in the 1940s. My mother and I were staying with my grandmother in Lansing, Kansas, a tiny town at the time, notable only because it was the home of the Kansas State Penetentiary, where my grandfather had been quartermaster for many years. He had suffered a stroke and my grandmother needed the help of my mother to care for him. So she and I left my father in Kansas City and settled in with my grandmother for what was to be a stay of a few months.
Life in Lansing was very different from that in the big city! I was enrolled in the elementary school and much to my amazement suddenly achieved an unfamiliar status as the most popular girl in the class, owing to my big-city resume.
I didn’t know there was anything special about May Day, but late that afternoon the doorbell rang repeatedly. When I answered, there was no one there, only a series of paper cones filled with wild flowers which had been hung on the doorknob by anonymous admirers. I can honestly say it was one of the best days of my life.
The celebration of May Day seems to have been a pagan religious custom. Later secular versions included dancing around a May Pole and the leaving of May baskets, a custom that so enhanced my childhood self esteem.
I know, I know, we already celebrated President’s Day, but today is really Washington’s birthday. (If you want to know why we don’t celebrate his birthday on his birthday, go here.)
Today we remember George Washington; we honor him and celebrate him (sort of), but we don’t love him the way the 19th century loved him and we should. Not only did he lead the Continental Army to an improbable victory over the most powerful nation on earth, but by first relinquishing his military commission and then refusing to continue his presidency past two terms, he insured that our revolution would remain true to its republican ideals. Today we enjoy the liberty and freedoms the patriots fought for, though regrettably we too often take them for granted.
In the 19th century, Washington’s birthday was celebrated with bell ringing, cannons, parades, fireworks, and grateful prayer. Countless images of him hung in public places, schools, and private homes throughout the land.
People then were close enough to the founding to understand in a very personal and concrete way the risks the revolutionaries took, the dangers they faced, and the part George Washington played in winning our independence and establishing our freedoms.
Several years ago I visited Mount Vernon with my family on Washington’s birthday. One would imagine that on that day his home would be overrun by tourists and school children who were on vacation. But no—as it turned out there were only three or four others touring the home with us. When we moved outdoors to the kitchen, the laundry, the stable, we were all alone. I should explain that the weather was absolutely miserable. There was no sun; it was bitterly cold and sleeting, which no doubt accounted for the lack of visitors. Yet the weather somehow enhanced the experience for me. I could really feel the presence of George and Martha Washington in that place on that cold winter day. I will never forget it.
Some of you may have read this before. I have posted it several times in honor of my family’s soldier who served so bravely. I just thought Veterans’ Day was a good time to post it again.
When those of my generation speak of “the war,” you should know that we are referring to World War II, when every able-bodied young man was in uniform and every family had “their serviceman”–if not a father, son, brother, or husband, then a cousin or the son of a friend, or the boy down the street.
Our soldier was Lt. Daniel Leffel, who was married to my mother’s sister, my aunt Florence. When Danny marched off to war, he and Florence were newlyweds. They were a vibrant young couple. She was beautiful and funny and lovable. I adored her, and I thought Danny was simply the perfect boyfriend—so handsome in his dress uniform, which I remember Florence told me they called their “pinks,” I suppose because of the slightly rosy tone of the drab trousers. Danny came home for one last leave, and then Florence accompanied him back to California where he shipped out, and she made the long, lonely train ride home by herself to Lansing, Kansas, where she spent the war years living with her mother, my grandmother.
Danny was the commander of Company G, 184th Infantry, Seventh Division, a veteran of four Pacific campaigns: the Aleutians, Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Leyte, and finally Okinawa. At Okinawa, in the early morning of April 19, 1945, Danny and his men were the first to come under fire from the Japanese as they attempted an assault on Skyline Ridge of Ouki Hill. According to the official military history, Lt Leffel sent a squad forward to “feel out the enemy.” When they came under heavy fire, he radioed for an armored flame thrower. Fighting continued all day, and finally the American forces were forced to retreat to the bottom of the hill.
At 1525 G Companies of the 32nd and 184th Regiments undertook to resume the attack which had been stalemated since early morning, without a great promise of success. Along the base of Ouki Hill both companies were pinned to the ground at 1620 by an extremely heavy 81 mm mortar concentration. Amid the din of exploding mortar, slivers of flying metal filled the air. In small groups or singly the men dashed back in short spurts toward their former position. Many were killed while in flight. One man running wildly back toward safety stopped suddenly and assumed what appeared to be an attitude of prayer. In the next instant, he was blown to bits by a direct hit.
And worse was yet to come. The fiercest fighting of the bloodiest battle of the War occurred from April 20-24. Danny was wounded on April 23 and flown to a hospital in Hawaii where he died on April 26, 1945. We know he fought bravely, for he was awarded the Silver Star for heroic action on Leyte.
I still have a letter he wrote me in August of 1944 from Oahu, Hawaii after the Seventh had returned to Hawaii following the Kwajalein campaign. There is sort of a sweet formality to the letter.”Well, Little Chum, I haven’t heard from you in a little while, but I feel I owe you a letter, so here goes.” He discusses the weather among other trivialities, although on the second page he gets around to telling me with great pride that his division has just been honored with a presidential review at which not only President Roosevelt but General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and General Richardson were present, and the other units lined the streets in honor of the Seventh Division (“our organization”).
Those of us who lived through this war will never forget it or the young men who served. The whole nation waited and worried and wondered if their boys would come home. Many of them did not.
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Not long ago, I was waiting for Herb outside a used book store near our apartment, browsing through some books on a cart that had been rolled outside. My attention was drawn to a small volume, which upon closer inspection proved to be a New Testament. I discovered that it was a Gideon publication, and according to the flyleaf, had been presented to Michael Zeamer by the Showers of Sunshine of the First Pentecostal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on December 29, 1943. A message from the Commander-in-Chief appeared in the frontispiece. I read:
January 25, 1941
To: The Armed Forces:
As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Through the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest inspirations of the human soul.
Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt
About that time, Herb appeared, I put the book back on the cart, and we started home. But after two blocks, a funny thing happened. As we walked along I experienced an emotional tug on my heart strings that I simply could not ignore. I realized that I had to have that little book, for it seemed to me that this object was a powerful, powerful connection to an important period of my growing up. We returned to the bookstore and bought it, and it has proved to be an object I treasure.
So–in honor of Danny Leffel, whom I knew well, and Michael Zeamer, whom I knew not at all, and all the others who have served our country in times of war and peace, I remember you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
When I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.
Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:
“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .
“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .
“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.
“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.
“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.
“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.
“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”
For more from An Old Merchant’s Housego here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.
Visit to friends in Scarborough, the Meades. We dined at 5:00 and stayed in the evening. Barry amused the children very much with a slight ventriloquism making the youngest’s doll speak, and making Santa Claus speak from the chimney—a man from the furnace.