Christmas at our house during the war years
by Lenore McKelvey Puhek
The most memorable Christmas seasons of my childhood occurred during World War II. My daddy was “gone to war,” my mother told me. But, to me, gone to war meant daddy was gone from me. We lived in Helena, Mont., and I really didn’t know about a bigger world when I was only 4 years old.
I was enrolled in an all-day kindergarten in 1943, and Sister Mary Cleophas placed great importance upon attendance. My report card was covered with gold stars, except in attendance. One red star for Fourth Period stood out like a badge of courage ” it occurred because I went to the train station with my mother and my two older sisters. After all, my Daddy was “going to war” that day. My mother and Sister Mary loudly discussed the appearance of the red star. Mother didn’t think it was fair that the Sister was so “unpatriotic” as to dock me because I missed one afternoon of school.
Every day I’d race home from school and watch for the mailman to turn up our walk. I knew how to read and write before I started school, and I wrote daddy faithfully. He faithfully wrote me back. All of his letters began with “Somewhere in Germany” or “Somewhere in France”or “Somewhere in Holland”; as the mail was censored. He could not reveal where he was exactly.
Sometimes words were crossed out with a black heavy marker by the censors. Other letters had words cut out.
One letter, “Somewhere in Holland,” dated Dec. 7,1944, is written with pencil on a plain white sheet of Army-issue paper. Daddy wrote that he had been in France, that little Dutch girls reminded him of me, and that he wanted to come home too, but that we had to wait a little while longer. He always told me to pray for him and he always signed his letters, “lots of love to Daddy’s little girl.”
That year, a huge box arrived a couple of days before Christmas. It contained several carefully wrapped gifts for the family … plain white paper with no ribbons or bows. My package remained a mystery for only a few hours. I could not wait until Christmas to open it. After everyone was asleep, I crept to the tree, found the package with my name on it and I opened it. Inside was a ceramic statue of a German bulldog. The violet-gray color, the eyes, the pointed ears, the perfect size, held me spellbound. I did not re-wrap the package. Instead, I took the dog statue to bed with me. Mother didn’t scold me when she found it in my bed the next morning. (Today, when I look at this favorite statue on my shelf, I am still in awe of its beauty and that it arrived in one piece.)
My favorite mementos of that time include a Christmas card from daddy. This Christmas card was sent in 1944 and is handmade. Daddy was an artist. The card is bright red construction paper. He calligraphed “Christmas Greetings from Somewhere in Germany” on the cover. The inside reads, “A Merry Christmas to Lenore and may your Happiness Be Galore, from Daddy.” I placed that card on a branch of our Christmas tree, and read it and re-read it until the tree came down. Then I put the card into my mini treasure chest.
Mother did her best to keep her little family together. We decorated the tree, went to church, wrapped our hand-made gifts that we had secretly crafted for each other and had family members for dinner. My grandparents visited us. They drove to Helena from their ranch near Augusta, Mont., in a 1936 Chevrolet pickup truck. We shared our letters from Daddy.
Somehow, something stayed just a little out of kilter when the most important person in my life was not there to share the celebration of Christmas.
Upon his return, Daddy took on the responsibilities of raising his family, ran a successful business and remained active in his church all his life. He often spoke of how important it was for him to be gone for all those years to fight in the “War to end all wars,” protecting this great nation. He spoke of how important it was for him to know his family was safe and waiting for him at home.
I didn’t fully understand or appreciate his war stories as a child. I only knew that the emptiness I felt in my heart gradually dissipated over time. Now, over 50 years later, I frequently return to that simpler time when my world suddenly expanded beyond my imagination, and blurred my father’s face.
Thankfully, my daddy did return to my world and by the grace of God, we were together as a family to celebrate many Christmas seasons far into the future.