String of Pearls
By 1943 the world is in the thick of war and the home-front continues to play a vital role. The Mulligans of San Francisco do their part in the war effort, but hardships and deprivations are taking a toll and each the four Mulligan sisters are tested in their own way. The war years urge young Molly to grow up quickly. Besides playing family ‘war correspondent,’ Molly manages the victory garden, finishes high school, and takes an internship at the newspaper. Meanwhile Bridget, an Army nurse in a dangerous region of the South Pacific, is attracted to a young doctor but so are all the other nurses. Margaret runs the family store, but suffers the loneliness of a single parent as she cares for her young son and frets for the welfare of her husband Brian as he serves on the European front. As an up-and-coming movie star, Colleen’s life might appear glamorous, but film making comes with its challenges she tries to conceal her grief over her lost flyer as she helps out in the famous Hollywood Canteen. Each of the Mulligan sisters grow stronger more capable as the war wages on working and hoping and praying for victory.
Molly was flying high as the airplane landed in San Francisco, but as she disembarked the sleek silver craft, she felt a definite letdown. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Mam and Dad again, as well as Margaret and the baby, but she wasn’t the least bit eager to return to her “normal life.” Not that she’d wanted to remain in Hollywood forever…but any excuse not to return to high school seemed a good excuse.
Molly wasn’t even excited about seeing her “friend” Dottie anymore. Back in the old days, she would’ve been eager to tell Dottie all about her Hollywood visit. But Dottie had been dating Bill Brimfield since last fall—she was head over heels for the guy—and Bill was Charlie Stockton’s best friend…and Charlie was a dirty rat! As a result, Dottie and Molly had been a bit estranged.
The wind whipped against Molly and, tightening the belt of her wool trench coat, she waved at Margaret, hurrying across the tarmac toward her.
“Welcome home, world traveler!” Margaret hugged Molly, kissing her on the cheek. “I missed you, baby sister.”
“Thank you—and thanks for picking me up.” She linked her arm in Margaret’s as they scurried over to the terminal. Molly couldn’t help but wonder whether Margaret had truly missed her or simply missed her help as her part-time nanny. “Where’s Baby Peter?”
“With Mam at the store. It was too cold to bring him out.” Margaret slowly shook her head. “And I hate to admit it, but I don’t mind having a little time off from motherhood. I never knew that babies could be so demanding.” She turned to peer at Molly. “But forget about that and tell me everything. How was Hollywood? Did you see anyone famous? Did Colleen let you go to the movie set with her? And has she heard anything from Geoff? Did you—”
“Slow down.” Molly held up a hand. “I can’t answer everything at once.”
“Sorry. It’s just been so quiet around here lately. And I’m curious about life down there.” She scowled. “To be perfectly honest, I was a little envious over your visit. Just this morning, I found myself wishing I were in your shoes.”
“Then you’d be the one sitting in Mr. Barnes’ boring old algebra class tomorrow.” Molly grimaced. If only she could trade places with Margaret!
As they collected her luggage, Molly described Colleen’s compact apartment. But, not wanting to feed her sister’s envy, she played down the modern appliances in the kitchen, trying to make the place sound less glamorous than it actually was.
“So it’s really tiny then?”
“Yes…although the grounds are pretty. And there’s a swimming pool,” Molly confessed as they hurried across the parking lot. “But I only used it once. It really wasn’t hot enough to enjoy a swim.” She shivered. “Although it was a whole lot warmer than here.” She smiled at Margaret. “By the way, happy New Year. Did you do anything special last night?”
“We had the Hammonds over. They stayed up until midnight, playing bridge and merry making like old people do. But I was a party pooper. I went to bed with Baby Peter.” Margaret sighed as they put the luggage into the trunk. “My life must sound terribly boring. I bet you and Colleen had fun. What did you girls do last night?”
“We went to the Canteen!” Molly couldn’t hide her enthusiasm now. “It was my third time to visit—but it was still absolutely amazing, Margaret.”
“You mean the Hollywood Canteen? That’s like a USO club, right?”
“Yes. It’s for the servicemen down there. But it’s so glamorous! So exciting! Naturally, Colleen insisted on dressing me up. I got to wear this dreamy satin gown of midnight blue with silver sequins around the neckline. Someone from her agency gave it to her when she did her screen test. But, honestly, I felt just like a starlet in it. Colleen warned me that since it was New Year’s Eve, the Canteen would be crawling with celebrities. Mostly starlets, of course. Although I nearly fell out of my shoes—rather, Colleen’s shoes—when James Stewart walked in.” Molly fanned herself like she was swooning.
“No kidding? James Stewart was really there?”
“In his air force uniform.” Molly let out a loud sigh. “So handsome! And he had Hedy Lamarr on one arm and Judy Garland on the other.”
“His costars from Zigfield Girl,” Margaret said in an awed tone. “Oh my! I just love Jimmy Stewart.”
“Colleen begged me not to gape at him.” Molly laughed. “Believe me, that was not easy. Oh, you should’ve seen the lineup of starlets coming through the door, Margaret—all dressed to the nines. Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Joan Fontaine, just to name a few. Honestly, it was hard not to stare. But I did my best not to embarrass Colleen.”
“Oh, my goodness! I’m sure I would’ve made a complete fool of myself.”
“I don’t think anyone guessed I’m still in high school. And the servicemen I danced with assumed I was an actress too.” She giggled. “And since it made them happy to think that I was famous, I sort of just went along with it. I mean, I didn’t lie—I did tell them my real name. But if they acted like they recognized me from the silver screen, I simply kept my mouth shut.”
“That must’ve been so fun!”
“And, oh yeah, I got to meet Miss Bette Davis too. You know she really helped to get the Canteen going in the first place. She’s such a nice lady.”
“Did you actually speak to her?”
“Well, just barely. She was pretty busy—but she was very polite to me, treated me like I was just as famous as any of them.”
“It all sounds like a dream. I still can’t believe our own Colleen is really an actress, living in Hollywood…making a motion picture.”
“You know what was the most fun about being at the Canteen?”
“Just seeing all those servicemen. You know how they always look so strong and capable in their uniforms, so devoted to the war effort. But then I’d catch one of them being star-struck by an actress. It’s hard to explain, but it was really sweet. It made them seem so human.”
“Well, of course they’re human.”
“I know. But I usually think of servicemen as being so mature and grown-up. You know how those uniforms make them seem so suave and polished, but last night I got to thinking about how a lot of them were barely older than me. For all we know, they could’ve been fresh off the farm, barely out of high school, the kid working at the local gas station last week. And now they’re getting ready to head off to war.”
“But last night, I was watching them more closely. Like when this sailor came in and instantly recognized Rita Hayworth.” She chuckled. “It reminded me of a Loony Tunes cartoon. Like when Daffy Duck’s eyes pop out of his head.”
Margaret laughed. “I can just imagine that.”
“And last night, I got seriously worried that a young sailor I’d been talking to was about to faint when Judy Garland asked him to dance. The poor guy was totally speechless and barely breathing. I had to practically push him into her arms. Fortunately, she caught him.”
They both laughed.
“Did you take any photographs?” Margaret asked.
“Colleen wouldn’t let me take my camera to the Canteen, but I got lots of other pictures of Hollywood. I can’t wait to get them developed.” She let out a happy sigh. “I just loved being down there with her, Margaret. Don’t tell Mam and Dad, but I really didn’t want to come home today.”
Margaret looked slightly alarmed now. “Don’t tell me you’ve got the Hollywood bug now! Are you thinking about becoming an actress too?”
Molly shook her head. “No, of course not. That wasn’t it at all. I just liked feeling, well, sort of grown-up…you know?”
Margaret scowled. “Don’t be so eager to grow up, Molly. It’s not nearly as much fun as you’re imagining.”
Molly considered this. Maybe adulthood wasn’t fun for Margaret, but Molly felt fairly certain that Colleen was having a good time. And the idea of leaving her immature high school peers behind her was extremely enticing.
“What about Geoff, Molly? You haven’t mentioned him. Has Colleen heard anything?”
Molly grimly shook her head. “Not a word. And she even called Geoff’s mother last night, to wish her Happy New Year…but no news.”
“Poor Colleen. As relieved as we were to learn that Geoff survived getting shot down, it’s horrible to imagine him in a Japanese prison camp right now. Honestly, I just shudder to think about it.”
“I know. And I could tell that, even though Colleen doesn’t talk much about it, she’s worried for him. I pray for Geoff every night. Actually…I pray for everyone I know that’s serving overseas. I hate to admit it, but every time I read the news lately, well, it sounds worse than before. Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting the devil himself. I don’t understand how there can be so much evil in the world.”
“I know. Hard as I try, I still can’t take too much news. I don’t want to be an ostrich with her head in the sand, but a little bit goes a long way with me.”
Molly knew how anxious Margaret could get over the war. Mam too. Certainly it wasn’t easy for any of them, knowing their loved ones were right in the thick of the fighting. “Did we get any letters while I was gone?”
“We got a nice one from Bridget. It was short, because she said they’d been very busy.”
“I’m sure there must be a lot of wounded servicemen in her area.” Molly had just read the newspaper on her flight. There’d been many devastating battles near the Philippines—the number of lives lost, as well as the wounded, was overwhelming.
“Despite the workload, Bridget sounded in good spirits. She really loves nursing.”
“What about Brian?” Molly asked tentatively. She knew that Margaret’s greatest anxiety was probably related to her husband. Brian was serving in the army, where his unit, the Mulligans suspected, had been recently relocated to North Africa. According to the news, the fighting there was fierce.
“I haven’t heard from him since the V-mail I got before Peter’s christening.”
“He’s probably got his hands full.”
“You’ll be pleased to know you’ve got a letter from Patrick waiting for you, Molly. I actually had to control Mrs. Hammond from opening it last night.”
Molly blinked. “Really? She would open someone else’s mail?”
“Probably not. But she hinted that since it was from her son, she should have the right to read it. Anyway, I put it in your room. Of course, that probably just made her even more curious.” Margaret chuckled. “Honestly, she was acting like you and Patrick have some kind of secret romance going on.”
“Oh, not—not really!”
“I reminded her that you’re not even seventeen yet. And that Patrick is seven years your senior! Of course, Mr. Hammond simply pointed out that he’s nine years older than Mrs. Hammond.” She glanced at Molly with a slightly suspicious look.
Instead of responding to this, Molly began to tell Margaret about visiting the movie studio with Colleen. “It was so interesting to see the sets and how they make films.” She described how the scenery worked. “In person you can easily tell that it’s fake, but when you see it on film, it looks real.” She explained how a cinematographer actually let her look through his camera lens. “You know, Margaret, if I did get bitten by the Hollywood bug, it would be to control one of those huge movie cameras. Now that would be fun.”
“Do you mind if we go straight to the store?” Margaret asked as she turned down Market Street. “I told Mam I would stop by there first.”
“Not at all. I’m surprised the store’s even open today. Isn’t New Year’s Day usually a holiday?”
“It always has been for us. But Dad insisted on opening. He got it into his head that we could get some new customers by being open when everyone else was closed. And I have to admit that we’ve been somewhat busy.”
Molly suspected Dad was getting overly concerned about finances again. She knew that, despite Colleen’s help with Margaret’s hospital bills related to Peter’s birth, their family’s finances were still in peril. She’d never heard real numbers, but she knew that Dad’s long stay in the tuberculosis sanitarium had set them back considerably. “And I can work at the store this afternoon,” Molly offered. “So you and Baby Peter can go home.”
“No, that’s okay. I plan to stay and work on the books this afternoon. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to take Dad home with you.” Margaret frowned as she turned down the back alley behind the store. “I don’t want to alarm you, Molly, but Dad didn’t seem too well this morning.”
“Oh, no—it’s not TB again, is it?”
“No, no. I don’t think so. I mean, after all, he got a clean bill of health last fall.”
“What was wrong then?”
“He just seemed a bit pale.” Margaret turned off the engine. “Naturally, he played it down. Dad said he was worn out from staying up too late last night. But I’m not so sure. It seemed he had trouble catching his breath after he carried a case of green beans out of the backroom. Anyway, I don’t want to make scene, but I hope you can talk him into going home with you.”
“I’ll do my best.” Molly felt a rush of concern. She had enjoyed getting closer to Dad over the past several months. She relished their chess games and discussions about the war and perusing the atlas together. What if his TB were back? And what if he had to return to the sanitarium?
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Following a happy reunion with Mam and a quick cuddle with her infant nephew, Molly turned her full attention to Dad. “Why don’t you come home with me?” she said in a teasing tone. “I’m due to beat you in a chess game.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Dad frowned. “I need to finish cutting that beef and—”
“I’ll finish that,” Mam said quickly.
“Come on, Dad,” Molly urged. “We can catch up. I’ll tell you all about Colleen’s life down in Hollywood.”
“Yes,” Margaret eagerly agreed. “Just wait until you hear what your baby girl has been up to, Dad.”
“And Margaret and I will be fine,” Mom assured him. “You saw how slow it was this past hour.”
“All right then.” Dad nodded firmly as he untied his grocer’s apron. “I’ll go home with Molly.” He winked at her. “As long as you promise to tell all about your glamorous Hollywood vacation.”
“Pick us up around five.” Margaret tucked the car keys into Molly’s hand.
“And I just used my ration card to fill the tank,” Mam told Molly. “Although I still don’t understand the need for gas rationing on the West Coast. Goodness knows that California has plenty of gasoline.”
“That’s not why it’s being rationed,” Molly pointed out. “I just read an article about it, Mam. It has to do with rubber shortages.”
“But why ration gas then?”
“There’s a simple reason.” Dad pulled on his winter coat. “The government decided the best way to conserve rubber was to limit automobile use. What better way to do that than by limiting our gasoline?”
“But why is there a rubber shortage?” Mam asked absently.
“Because the tropical countries that produce rubber are caught in the middle of this war,” Molly reminded her. “In the Pacific and Malaysia.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose I hadn’t thought of that.” Mam nodded. “That does make sense.”
Dad put on his hat. “Don’t forget to add the right portion of fat when you grind the beef and make—”
“Don’t you worry yourself, Riley.” Mam gently nudged him toward the back door. “I know how to grind beef, old man. I’ve been doing it since I was a girl.”
Dad kissed Mam good-bye, but he and Molly were barely out the door when he held out his hand for the keys, insisting on driving.
“The doctor never said I can’t drive,” he said sharply. “That was your mother and sister’s doing.”
Molly wasn’t too sure about this, but deciding that driving the short trip home would do him no harm—and possibly lift his spirits—Molly surrendered the keys. Dad smiled as he got behind the wheel, but when he turned in the opposite direction of their neighborhood, Molly felt a wave of concern. “Are you taking a different route home?”
“Worried about wasting gas?” He continued driving in the wrong direction.
She shrugged. “No. Just curious.”
“Do you think your old dad is lost?” His tone was teasing but his expression seemed sober. “Or losing his senses?”
“No, not at all. You know San Francisco better than anyone.”
He just nodded and continued driving south.
“Where are you going?” she asked cautiously.
“Just a little side trip.” His expression grew serious. “Somewhere I need to go.”
“Are you feeling all right, Dad?”
“Oh, sure…I just need to pay someone a little visit.”
Molly frowned, trying to determine who Dad knew on this side of town—a friend he could pop in on unexpectedly. “Uh…who do you want to visit?”
There was a long silence as he waited at a stoplight before finally he answered. “Your brother.”
“Oh…” Molly didn’t know what to say as he turned down the street that led toward the Golden Gate National Cemetery.
“I’ve not been to Peter’s gravesite. Not even once. And it’s been troubling me.” He glanced at her. “Do you know where his stone is located, Molly Girl?”
“Yes.” She slowly nodded. “But are you sure you’re up for the walk, Dad? It’s a little ways to it. And it’s pretty cold and windy out today. We could always go another time and—”
“I want to go today,” he declared.
As they got out of the car, Molly tried not to consider what Margaret would say to this unplanned expedition. Here she’d expected Molly to get Dad safely home to rest…and now they were outside walking through the damp chilly air through the National Cemetery. Still, what could Molly do? Weren’t children supposed to respect their parents?
“I still find it hard to believe that he’s gone sometimes.”
“I know.” She sighed. “So do I.”
“I thought it would help to come here. I’d meant to come here on December seventh, the anniversary of his death, but there was too much going on… And truth be told, I think that was a difficult day for all of us.”
“It’s only natural you’d want to see his memorial stone.” Molly reached for Dad’s hand. Then, surprised at how cold it felt, even through her gloves, she wrapped her fingers more snugly around his. She wanted to suggest they walk faster to stay warm, but remembering what Margaret had said about him being tired, she let him set the pace.
“Your brother was a fine young man,” Dad said quietly as they strolled down a path.
“My only son.”
“My only brother,” she said softly.
“It’s hard to accept that he’s really not coming home again.”
“Yeah.” She sighed, leading him past a tidy row of identical carved stones.
“Parents should never outlive their children, Molly.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that, and so she simply nodded, grasping his hand more tightly. “It’s right over there.” She pointed to the section.
“I realize that Peter isn’t really here,” he said slowly.
“I know. But I’ve come here too, Dad, hoping to make a connection with him.” She paused in front of Peter’s stone. It was the same dull gray color as the sky.
Dad stood in front of the marker, just staring down at it…with such a sad expression that Molly felt her own eyes filling with tears. Dad released her hand and, kneeling down before the stone, leaned forward to brush a dead leaf away from Peter’s name. Molly knelt beside him, wrapping an arm around Dad’s shoulders and wishing for something to say…something to comfort him. But no words came to her. And so she simply waited. But as she waited, she realized how frail her father felt beneath his thin woolen overcoat. A shadow of the big strong man she’d grown up with. But was it any wonder, considering what their family had gone through this past year?
As she listened to Dad’s quiet, choked sobs, she realized her own face was wet. Extracting a handkerchief from her coat pocket, she wiped her tears then handed it to him. He blotted his cheeks and then slowly, with her help, got to his feet.
“Thank you,” he said in a husky voice. He handed the damp handkerchief back to her.
“I can understand you wanting to come here, to see Peter’s stone in person,” she said quietly. “But the truth is I can feel Peter’s presence more in other places.”
“Other places?” Dad’s brow creased.
“Like Golden Gate Park…or the Presidio…or the zoo… or even just our neighborhood and home. You know—the places where we spent time with Peter. Places we know he loved.”
Dad nodded. “That makes sense.” He pulled his coat collar more snugly around his neck.
Molly shivered. “It’s really cold out, Dad. Let’s get back to the car.”
He put an arm around her now. “Yes, we’d best do that.”
Neither of them spoke as they walked, a bit more quickly, back to the car. To Molly’s relief, Dad didn’t argue when she took the keys from him. Fortunately, the car was warmer than the winter air and, after she started the engine, she reached into the backseat for the lap robe. Tucking it around her dad’s legs, she noticed that, not only did he look pale, but his lips seemed almost blue. “I think you got colder than you realized out there,” she said as she turned up the heater. “Let’s get you home.”
As she drove through town, Dad sat quietly. To fill the air, she chattered away about her visit in Hollywood, commenting on how much milder the weather down there was compared to San Francisco. “Maybe you and Mam can go down for a visit sometime.”
But Dad, leaning back in the seat, said nothing. By the time she got home, Molly agreed with Margaret. Dad was not well.
She felt huge relief to get Dad safely into the house and settled in his easy chair with today’s morning paper in his lap. Satisfied that some of the color had returned to his face, she went to the kitchen to put on the tea kettle. She suddenly wished that Bridget wasn’t so far away. With her nurse’s training and general interest in well-being, she would probably have some helpful suggestions for Dad’s healthcare. But Bridget was halfway around the world at the moment, tending to wounded soldiers…some whose lives would be changed forever by their severe injuries.
“Here you go, Dad.” Molly set a teacup, as well as a piece of bread and jam, onto the table next to his chair.
“You’re too good to me.” His pale blue eyes twinkled as he smiled. “It’s good to have you home again, Molly Girl.”
“The truth is I’m worried about you.” She sat on the ottoman across from him.
“Worried about your old dad?” His smile faded. “Whatever for?”
“I know it was hard on you to visit Peter’s gravesite…but it’s more than that. You don’t really look too healthy to me.”
“Well, now, I’m not in such good shape anymore, not like I used to be. I get winded more easily and—”
“I think it was more than that, Dad.” She reached for his hand. “I think you should have a checkup with your doctor.”
He pulled his hand away from her, waving it in a dismissive way. “No need for that, darling. It’s just like they told me at the sanatorium. I need to take it easy for a spell. The doctor said it could take up to a year before I get back to my old self. And truth be told—though you don’t need to tell Mam or Margaret, since they’re the worriers in the family—I’ve probably been overdoing it lately.”
“Is that all this is? Really?” She studied his face hopefully. “You just need to take it easier?”
He reached for his teacup. “For sure and for certain, Molly Girl. That’s all ’tis. I give you my word.”
“And do you promise to take it easier, Dad?”
He nodded solemnly.
“Then I’ll make a deal with you.” She stood up, placing her hands on her hips and looking down on him in what she hoped was an authoritative stance.
“A deal, you say?” He set down his teacup with amused interest.
“You promise to take it easier, and I promise not to nag you to go to the doctor.”
He rubbed his chin, nodded, and stretched out his hand to grasp hers. “You drive a hard bargain, Molly Girl. You’d make a formidable businesswoman.”
She chuckled. “Wonder where I got that trait from.”
Dad pointed to the nearby chess set. “So…you still think you can beat your old dad?”
Molly grinned as she reached for the small table, setting it between them. “I don’t know, but I’ll give it my best shot.”
The game started out with the usual competitive bantering, but after just a few moves, she could see that Dad was tiring. And when he left his queen wide open to her bishop, she knew it was time to quit. “You know, Dad, I’m a little worn out from my trip.” She made a weary stretch. “Mind if we finish this later?”
“Not at all.” He leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “I might grab forty winks myself—good to be home when the house is nice and quiet.”
After she put the chess table aside, Molly picked up the afghan and gently laid it on Dad’s lap. His eyes were already closed, but he mumbled his thanks as she tiptoed away. Still concerned for his health, she reminded herself of their agreement. If Dad didn’t take it easy, she would insist on calling his doctor herself. And that was that.
As Molly unpacked her suitcase, which—thanks to Colleen’s generosity—had come back fuller than when she’d left home a week ago, she felt slightly glad to be back in her old room again. Although she and Colleen had shared this room for most of Molly’s life, she had enjoyed having it all to herself this past year. One of the only perks for a family that had changed so drastically thanks to the war.
Spying a corner of a V-mail letter tucked beneath her jewelry box on her bureau, Molly realized that was the letter from Patrick. Feeling even more grateful for this private space, she eagerly but carefully slit it open and started to read, but to her dismay—and what would probably be Mrs. Hammond’s relief—the letter was rather impersonal and brief.
The letter had been written in mid-December, and Patrick blamed the brevity on the increased activity in the Pacific region. Probably related to the disturbing newspaper article she’d read on the plane. But, as usual, Patrick went into no detail about military activities. As a naval officer, he knew the importance of withholding vital information from loved ones at home. In his line of work, loose lips really could sink ships. And Molly respected this.
She put the letter in the old hat box where she kept the rest of her correspondence from overseas. But as she tied the box closed, she wondered why she hadn’t received a letter from Tommy Foster during her absence. Tommy usually wrote at least once a week, but the last she’d heard from him was early December. As she continued to unpack and put things away, she prayed that Tommy was okay. And, even though he hadn’t written, she was determined to send him a letter before the end of the week. Thanks to her recent visit with Colleen, she should have plenty to write about—to everyone.
Molly put her camera case on the bureau. If it weren’t New Year’s Day, she’d brave the chilly weather and run her undeveloped films down to the drugstore. But suspecting they—unlike her family’s grocery store—were closed today, she decided not to waste her time.
Instead, she would answer Patrick’s letter. But unlike his short memo, hers would be a long one, complete with lots of colorful details about her recent and exciting visit to Hollywood. And updates on Colleen. And the good news about Geoff. She wished she could put some photos in with it, but that would have to come later.
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