Future Homemakers of America
By Laurie Graham
Published by Warner Books
October 2002 in trade paperback; 0446679364; 432 pages
We were down at the commissary, just for something to do, me and Lois, pushing Sandie in her stroller. Breath puffing out like smoke every time we laughed and just hanging there in the air. The cold hadn't killed the scent of the beet harvest, though. All my born days, I never knowed such a sickly smell.
"I swear," she said, loud as you please, "this place is colder than a gravedigger's ass." Lois always did have a mouth on her. "Uh-oh," she said, "here comes the Pie-Crust Queen." And sure enough, there was Betty running after us, flagging us to wait till she could catch her breath and tell us the big story. "Peggy!" she said, gasping and wheezing and hanging on to my arm. "Have you heard the terrible news?"
When your husband flies F-84s, sitting up there on 3,000 gallons of jet fuel, cruising-now there's a word--cruising at 510 mph, hoping to get his tail waxed by some Russki so he can be Jock-ofthe Week back at the base, there's only one kind of Terrible News, but we both knew, me and Lois, that it wasn't that.
That kinda news comes quiet, on flannel feet. The base chaplain brings it to your door, and the CO's wife follows through with a few brisk words about courage and dignity. After that, you better hope you got some friends. Some squadron wives to take turns answering your phone and feeding your kids and keeping you from falling into a thousand pieces.
When Terrible News comes to married quarters, there's no pulling down of blinds. Military don't hold with closing the drapes. Word gets round, but you'd never know, looking in from outside, that anything was happening, because heck, if air force wives went around yelling "Have you heard?" the whole thing could run out of control. Next thing you know, every girl on the base'd be out there screaming, "His poor wife! His poor orphaned children! It's so tragic. It's unbearable. But I'm okay. I'm okay. It's not me. Not this time!" And that would never do.
Still I guessed we both missed a beat. Terrible news? "His Majesty King George of England," she said, "died in his sleep at Sandring Ham Palace."
Betty always had a thing about royalty, clipping photos, pasting them in her albums, specially anything about that Princess Margaret, or the royal babies.
"Princess Margaret had tea with General and Mrs. Eisenhower," she told us one time. "She was fifteen minutes late, but it wasn't her fault. They had angel food cake and dainty little sandwiches, but the princess probably didn't do cake, watching her lovely figure an' all. She wore a yellow shirt and the cutest black dirndl skirt."
"Well, I'll be dirndled." Lois was always taking the rise out of Betty, but she took it in good part. When you're in a hole you gotta stick together and USAF Drampton was a hole, no two ways. I knew Betty from way back, at Topperwein High, Class of '42. I was captain of the softball team and she was president of Future Homemakers, stuffing toy bears for needy children and selling lunch-boxes for Healthful Living Week. We really didn't run with the same crowd. But then she married Ed Gillis and I married Vern Dewey which made us both 96th Bomber Wing wives. By the time we were posted from Travis, Texas, to some frozen salt marsh, East Anglia, next stop Siberia, we were blood-sisters, near enough. Never would have thought I'd be so glad of Betty's everlasting cheerfulness. That's homesickness for you.
"He was found by a servant," she said. "That'd be a footman or a pageboy, taking him his coffee. Imagine. He'd put down the tray, all beautiful silver and jewels, and say, 'Good morning, sire' and ba-boom, the king's dead."
Gayle Jackson was parked, waiting for us. "Y'all wanna come back to my place?" she said. "Get a coffee or something?" Time hung heavy for Gayle, poor kid, stuck out in a rental waiting for her darling Okey to come home.
Lois said, "Sure. You won't mind if I bring along something, give it a little lift?" She had a liquor bag hanging from the back of Sandie's stroller.
Gayle's face lit up. I guess there always was that weakness in her.
Betty said, "Honey, did you hear? About the king?" "He's dead," Lo chipped in. "Ba-boom."
"Course," Betty said, "it had to be a servant found him, not the queen. They'd have separate bedrooms. Kings and queens always do."
"Jeez," Gayle said. "How come?"
"Why, because they have such palatial homes, of course!" We relied on Betty for that kind of inside information. "They have separate closets, separate everything." Sounded fine to me.
"And poor Princess Elizabeth is thousands of miles away in Africa, having the news broke to her by her courtiers. She's just going to have to pack her bags and fly right back here and get coronated."
She leaned down to rub Sandie's frozen little cheeks. "Hi, sweetie pie. Have I been ignoring you today? My, you're so cold. Lois, is this child warm enough?"
Sandie gave Betty a big smile. "Told," she said. "Digger's ass." So we all headed down to Gayle's place, and Audrey came in from next door, for coffee and a little something from Lois's bottle, just to warm us through and wish the old king Godspeed. Even Betty came along and that didn't happen too often, on account of Ed keeping her on a short tether. Betty was allowed to go any place she liked, as long as it was the PX, the chapel or the school gate. "I'm just fine," she always said. "If Ed Gillis is happy, Betty Gillis is happy. Anyways, I don't have time for gallivanting. My babies keep me busy. Caring for my home and my babies." Her babies were Deana and Sherry, but she included Ed too, for some reason we could never fathom, so that made three whining brats, leaving their skivvies for her to pick up and generally giving her the runaround.
Gayle and Audrey were off-base, on account of they didn't have kids. The rest of us were in quarters. They weren't much more than cabins, with flat asphalt roofs, but at least we had each other. At least inside that perimeter fence we were one Nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all. Audrey didn't seem to mind being outside. She was of a pioneering disposition. They could have put her in a mule wagon and she'd have made the best of things.
"When in Rome," she always said. Well, when in Rome, maybe, but not when you've been posted to the asshole of the universe.
Lois said, "Aud, you're wasted here. Can't they send you some place you'd have to live in a pup tent? I may just have a word to the CO's wife. See if they got any mutinies need putting down. Any prairie fires need extinguishing."
The rentals were just outside Drampton, in a place called Smeeth. It wasn't a town. Just a couple of places growing sugar beet and a pumping station, supposed to keep the river moving along. It was called The Drain and it ran higher'n the roadway, which didn't seem natural to me. I hoped and prayed that pumping station never broke down. Been me quartered there, I'd never have dared turn my back on it. I wouldn't have slept nights for fear of waking up drowned.
Where they were, looked like one house but it was two, back to back, holding each other up but only just. Every house out there had that look about it, sagging in the middle, crouched down, like the sky was too much for it. They had a whole lot of sky in Norfolk, England.
Audrey and Lance were in one side of this broke-back house, Gayle and Okey were in the other, and oh how Gayle longed for a baby. A baby, and quarters, with steam heating and a Frigidaire. "Next year," Okey said, "next year."
They seemed like a pair of skinny kids, playing house. Her with her ponytail and her bobbysocks. Him with his crewcut. Gayle put on the coffee and Audrey fetched a kitchen stool from her place, Gayle and Okey not having much in the way of seating.
"Right, this king?" Lois said.
"The king." Betty put her straight.
"Whatever. They'll have a fancy funeral for him, right? With a big parade and everything. And it'll be in London, huh? Because he's the king."
"Well, I guess."
"And where exactly is London?"
Audrey said it was in the southeast. Fact was, though, none of us had seen the sun since the day we landed, so that didn't help much. Get to the base gate, we still wouldn't know whether to turn left or right.
"Anyone else thinking what I'm thinking?" Lois was looking excited, jiggling Sandie up and down on her knee. "We go, girls. We go. Find London, see the parade, then have some fun. See a new movie, or a show. Find ourselves some top-hole toffs, whatho, treat a girl to dinner, dontcher know."
Betty said much as she'd love to go and pay her respects, Ed'd never allow it. For starters, who'd look after Sherry and Deana? "And Crystal," she said to me, "who'd mind her?" She was looking to me to stop her building up any silly hopes. When it came to playing the mommy card, showing how you just had to rein yourself in once you had kids, Betty always turned to me for backup because you sure as hell couldn't rely on Lois.
Gayle said, "I will." Her love of children extended even as far as Deana Gillis. Deana was in third grade. Sherry, Betty's youngest, was in first grade, same as my Crystal. Well, they should have been, except nobody ever heard of grade school in England. In elementary school there they just had names like Miss Boyle's Class, Mrs. Warley's Class, Miss Jex's Class. Crystal's reading and writing seemed to be coming along okay. Still, every night I prayed we weren't ruining our child's education. Wrecking her future just so's her daddy could save their English asses from the Red Menace.
"And what about little Sandie?" Betty now felt she had a watertight case. I could tell because she wasn't furrowing her brow quite so deep. "You can't drag a tiny tot thousands of miles," she said. "Not even knowing where you're going to. Do you realize, they don't even have enough food out there? I'm sorry, Lois, but it'd be just too crazy for words."
Audrey said, "Well, I guess that's the kinda attitude opened up the West."
She never had a lot of patience with Betty. Besides, even I knew nothing's thousands of miles away in England. You keep going, it won't be long before you run outta country. Then Gayle piped up. She said, "I'll look after all of them. I don't mind not going. I never even heard of this king."
Betty said, "No. It's a wild and irresponsible idea."
"Hey. . ." Lois was pepping up her coffee from the bottle. Those little red patches were breaking out over her cheekbones. "Hey," she said, "I could care less. You're the royalty freak. I can go to London any damn time I please." And everything went quiet, 'cept for Sandie, crying with the hot-aches, thawed her little fingers out too fast against the woodstove.
Gayle said, "Okey's mom mailed me the new McCall's pattern book. Anyone want a look at it? There's a real easy pattern for a bolero." And she ran upstairs to get it. I whispered to Audrey, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
"Mm-mm," she said, "and the dressmakers." I took Sandie on my lap, tried to rub her hands better, and Betty squared away the bottle of Jim Beam behind a cushion; hoping Lois might forget it, I guess.Copyright © 2002 Laurie Graham
Reprinted with permission.
For five American Air Force wives, Norfolk, England, in 1952 is a long way from home. But Peggy Dewey and her friends are determined to make the most of their overseas mission. While their husbands patrol the skies in F-84 fighters, the high-spirited group of military wives and young moms staves off homesickness by clipping coupons, trading gossip, and going to London to see Princess Elizabeth "get coronated." Over a stick of Juicy Fruit, brass polisher Audrey Rudman, good-time girl Lois Moon, alcohol-loving Gayle Jackson, "Pie Crust Queen" Betty Gillis, and the ever reliable Peggy meet a scrappy Englishwoman named Kath Pharaoh and a lasting friendship is forged. Through marriage and divorce, separations and reunions, the gang will try to hold fast to one another in a story that takes us to the heart of female friendship---and reveals the secret of the perfect Three Color Refrigerator Cake.(back to top)
Laurie Graham was born in 1947, in post-war Britain, a grey place of bombed buildings and rationed food. She begin writing in her mid-30s when she realized that she had to feed her four children after her marriage failed and she realized she had no real career.
Over the years, Graham has written over 15 books including fiction and non-fiction, numerous radio plays for the BBC, short stories and occasional journalism. Dog Days, Glen Miller Nights was longlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize. She lives in Venice with her second husband, whom she met through a lonely hearts ad and has been happily married to Howard ever since.