New York City – November 22, 1945
“A friend is, as it were, a second self.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)
Jake Kilroy stood in the hallway facing the door to Rose’s apartment. He was gathering himself, summoning the courage to knock. His barracks bag stood upright on the floor. It was opened at the top and he extracted two bottles of wine, a white and a red. Flowers or candy seemed too personal. Johnny would have brought wine when invited to dinner. He raised his hand to knock and froze in mid-air. Why was this so hard?
When he called Rose from Norfolk she was happy to hear from him. They chatted, exchanged pleasantries, mostly small talk. When he told her he had some of Johnny’s personal items he would like to bring to her, she invited him to come to New York immediately. Jake was halfway there on the train when it suddenly occurred to him he would arrive at her place on 22 November, Thanksgiving Day. She surely would have a Thanksgiving dinner prepared. We’ll eat, I’ll show her the letter, she’ll throw me out and I’ll be heading home before dark. Let’s get this over with!
Just as he was about to knock, the door opened. Rose stood there in a flowery print dress with her hair done up and a face made up moderately and tastefully. Her apron was discarded on the floor.
“I thought I heard something. Welcome Jake!” She nervously pressed her palms on her thighs and extended one of them to shake his hand.
Jake lifted his hands to show they were occupied. “Hi, Rose. It’s great to see you.”
“Oh,” she looked at his hands and shook her head. Then she reached under his arms and hugged him tightly. He lowered his arms around her shoulders. “It’s so good of you to come.” They held each other for a moment.
Rose stepped back and took in the sight before her. Jake was in his army dress greens with a chest full of ribbons. His trousers were bloused into a shiny pair of Corcoran jump boots and he wore an overseas cap with the airborne insignia. The sight was too much for her and she broke into tears.
He reached for her but she stepped back, bent down to pick up her apron and wiped her tears with it. She struggled to gain control.
“Come in, Jake. Sit down.”
Jake fingered the strap of a small canvas pouch and lifted it from his barracks bag. He kicked the door close, leaving his barracks bag in the hall. He handed her the wine and sat down at the table. The kitchen was comfortably warm with the odor of cooking and the scent of her perfume. She would have had Thanksgiving dinner alone if he had not come. Nevertheless, he felt awkward and was immediately at a loss for words.
She sat down across from him. “I’m sorry, Jake. I must look frightful. But the sight of you standing there reminded me…”
“It’s alright, Rose. Nothing to apologize for.”
She sniffled and straightened up. “I’ve roasted a nice chicken basted in honey with walnut and raisin stuffing. Some foods are still hard to get so I’m using my favorite Betty Crocker wartime recipes. We also have baked potatoes, that beer you liked and pumpkin pie for dessert.”
“Sounds great. Thanks for having me.” Rose was as pretty as he remembered, even with her mascara running down her cheek. He looked around. “Is anyone else coming?”
“It’ll just be us and John Patrick when he wakes up. I even have some turkey flavored baby food for him.” Rose smiled. She was regaining her composure. “Mrs. Geelan from upstairs might drop down for coffee when her family leaves. She does some babysitting for me from time to time but she’s getting on in years.”
“I’d love to see the boy.”
“When he awakens. Let’s go sit in the living room and you can show me what you brought,” she pointed to the canvas pouch.
They went into the cozy living room and sat at opposite ends of a long, soft couch. Jake noticed the various pictures on the walls and furniture. They were all of Johnny and her before the War, except for two. One was of Johnny taken in a photo studio in Palermo, Sicily and the other was the picture of the three of them taken on the roof two years before.
“That was the last time he was home.” Rose caught Jake staring at that picture. Then she changed the subject. “What do you have for me in that bag?” She forced a smile.
Jake unzipped the pouch, removed the items one at a time and placed them on the couch near her. Johnny’s medals, ribbons and badges came out first. He explained each one to her. There were two purple hearts and a bronze star. The jump wings were new and now had the five combat jump stars. The records had been corrected since the War ended. She noticed Jake had almost the same awards on his chest. Then he handed her the dog tags. Next came three airborne sleeve patches and Johnny’s wristwatch. Rose handled each item with tender respect before placing them back in the canvas pouch. She held the silk escape maps of Sicily and France to her cheek and smelled them before putting them back. She was still fighting to keep her composure. Finally, there was only one item left. It was a letter.
Rose picked up the sealed envelope. “What’s this?”
“He made me promise to bring this to you if he didn’t make it back.”
Rose tore open the envelope and read the letter. Tears began streaming down her face. She wiped them away with her forearm as she continued to read, occasionally looking up at Jake. She finished the letter and put it down.
“Did you read this?” she asked Jake.
He shook his head.
“Do you know what Johnny is asking me to do?”
Jake took a deep breath and let it out slowly. This is the part where he gets thrown out. “I don’t know what he wrote there,” he pointed to the letter, “but I promised I would take care of you and his son for as long as needed.” Jake looked at the floor and braced for the reaction.
Rose surprised him by calmly asking him a question. “And how exactly had you planned on doing that?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
“Well, he did.” She stood up and dropped the letter in his lap. “Excuse me, I need a moment.” A touch of anger seemed to replace her sorrow as she walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
Jake picked up the letter.
If you’re reading these words, the worst has happened and Jake is sitting across from you. I made Jake promise to bring you this letter. Don’t blame him. What I’m about to ask you is not his idea. It’s driven by my undying love for you and my son. Here it goes! I want you to let Jake take care of you and John Patrick. It may seem unreasonable for me to expect him to take care of you and for you to accept, but he is the only man on earth that I trust with you and my son. If I had a chance to request this before I died, to take care of you guys, I know he would have said yes. If I didn’t, I know he’ll do it when you read him this letter.
I’m not expecting that you marry him, although I wouldn’t be disappointed if that happened. I’m just asking you to give him a chance to look out for you, to watch over you and take care of you. It won’t take long for you to see the loyal and honorable guy I fought with. All I’m saying is I want you to get to know him and give him a chance and open your heart to him. As for Jake, he’s smart enough to see what a wonderful and swell girl you are. Besides, he has nothing to go home to. Before you get angry with me, please understand I’m trying to do the next best thing to me coming home. This request comes from my love for all three of you. What I ask may not be fair and it may not work out for any number of reasons. But please consider this and give it a chance.
With all my love, I’ll be watching over you.
“Is that what you signed up for when you made your promise to him?” Rose came back into the room, her voice breaking his concentration.
Jake let out a loud sigh. “He did ask me, with his dying breath. I said yes. I would do anything for him. It would be my honor to take care of you guys for as long as you need me to.”
“This is not fair. Johnny shouldn’t ask me to do this.” There was a mild protest in her voice. “The idea that I’m being forced on you is almost as bad as you being pushed on me.”
“I don’t look at it that way…you being forced on me. In another time, if things were different…” he hesitated, not wanting to come on too strong although he certainly found her attractive. “I don’t mind at all. But I understand if you feel like I’m being forced on you.” He was doing his best to make it easier for her to decide. Then if she turned him down and he had to go home, he could do so with a clear conscience.
She studied his face. He was sincere and contrite. She looked away, avoiding eye contact. “I have a job. I’m a nurse’s aide. I don’t need that much help as it is. So, how would this work?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s awkward but I can get an apartment nearby, drop in on you and the boy. Make sure you’re doing okay. I can baby-sit some if you have night shifts. Help out with heavy stuff and repairs when you need them.” He was playing it by ear and found himself making sensible suggestions. “It would be strictly platonic. I learned that word from Johnny. Also, I’ll be going to school on the GI Bill. I’ll work part-time while I get my degree. Meanwhile, I’ll check in with you guys regularly to make sure you’re doing all right.”
“Just until we get on our feet?” she asked putting a limit on any help she might accept.
Jake nodded his agreement.
She was impressed by his humility. “I think Johnny had a more ambitious plan in mind. And if I said no?”
Jake gulped. Here it comes. “I wouldn’t force myself on you, but I’m asking you to please let me help.”
She sat on the couch and thought for a moment. “I like you, Jake. I wouldn’t mind having you around. It’s this ‘shotgun wedding’ thing that has me upset.” She buried her face in her hands. “I can’t believe Johnny wants me to actually consider this!”
He smiled at her. “I understand. Look, we don’t have to look that far down the road. That doesn’t have to be part of the plan. We’re two adults. We can work things out without getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
Rose didn’t want to appear too easy although she was warming to the idea. “Let’s have dinner. This is all happening too fast. Let me think about it.”
He carved and she served the bird right at the table. They ate and drank the wine and spoke mostly about Johnny and their adventures together. Jake sanitized the stories as best he could. The conversation was unforced and easy. Jake was a good listener and had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He was humble and a bit shy. She liked those qualities. After dinner, she woke John Patrick and fed him a small jar of turkey flavored baby food. She disappeared into the living room to change the baby while Jake cleared the table and did the dishes. After the baby was fed and changed, she came back into the kitchen to find the table cleaned and the dishes in the drying rack.
“I could get used to this,” she joked.
“See,” he smiled back. “This arrangement could have its benefits.”
They had coffee and pie for dessert. Mrs. Geelan called to say she was tired and would not join them. He was also interested in how things were on the Homefront and Rose explained wartime America in great detail. They were getting along better than he had expected after her initial reaction to the letter.
Jake excused himself to use the bathroom and she disappeared into the living room for a few moments. When she returned to the kitchen, Jake was putting on his tunic.
“It’s getting late. I should find a hotel room.”
“Your real name is John, isn’t it?”
She led him into the living room. The couch was made up with a pillow, sheet and blanket. “It’s too late, John. You can do that tomorrow. Just don’t get the wrong idea!”