by DC Diamondopolous
I first saw Teresa out my kitchen window back in 1928. Her father, a widower, had moved into our neighborhood. I was kneading dough when I looked up and watched the child glide her sled down a snowbank and slam into a tree. I ran across the street. “Are you hurt?”
She scowled. “Mind your own beeswax.”
I ignored her sass and asked if she would like a nice piece of hot homemade bread. She rubbed her bump with a snow-crusted mitten and shook her head. Teresa repeated the stunt and sailed free all the way to the sidewalk. I clapped my doughy hands. The little one smiled. “Can my pop have one too?”
The next year the stock market crashed, and we plunged into the Depression.
I’d see Teresa walk home from school, alone, shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. We all wore threadbare clothes, but her charity hand-me-downs never fit her growing body.
One day, I invited her to see Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. Coming out of the theatre, she reached for my hand, such sweetness in her grasp. From then on I became her cheerleader, my pompoms the crocheted scarves and sweaters I made for her.
From the end of the Depression to another War, changes occurred every minute—and right here, in Farmingdale, New York.
In the winter of ‘42, Teresa got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’d be at my window at six o'clock making dinner as she arrived home in a car full of girls. She ran with newfound joy up the steps to the front door, turn, wave to her friends and then to me. Her smile brought riches not even Rockefeller could buy.
Teresa had every other Sunday off and we’d have lunch on my back porch. “Oh Aunt Lena, I never knew working with my hands could be so much fun. There’s a lot of us gals, cutting and soldering, doing everything the men did. But our paychecks are nothing compared to what they earned.”
“Well, of course not. Men have families to care for.” My comment hung in the air like a barrage balloon.
Why, I never questioned my pay working in the factory during the First World War. It would’ve been unpatriotic—but this, I kept to myself. Now we could vote. Women smoked. Teresa wore overalls at work—so much had changed.
On a spring day in ‘43, she told me about her promotion. “I work on submarines, welding.” She put down her fork.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“They’re cramped quarters. My boss rubs up against me. When I told him to stop, he put me out in the rain to weld, knowing I’d get electrical shocks.”
“Can’t you go to his boss?”
She shook her head. “It’s always the girls’ fault.”
I worried that after the war, young women like Teresa, who built our ships, tanks and planes would question traditions. Men wouldn’t stand for it. If I went to work, Roy would raise Cain, though he did let me sell war bonds.
In ‘44, Teresa made management, and our lovely Sunday lunchtimes came to an end. Her new boss, a decent man, depended on her. She worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week and took care of her ailing father.
I helped out by sitting with Pop. One night when she returned late I expressed concern for her coming home alone in the dark.
She laughed. “With the boys gone, we girls can walk anywhere day or night and feel safe. Even Central Park.”
Her breezy comment gave me chills. I saw thunderclouds on the horizon. “You respect our boys who are fighting for our freedom, don’t you?”
“Oh Aunt Lena.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Of course, I do. But women are fighting for freedom too. Just not on battlefields.”
The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, but it dragged on in the Pacific.
Teresa’s final promotion came in early June. She oversaw seventy-five women in the construction department. I couldn’t have been prouder of her.
On August 15, the radio blared, “Official! Truman announces Japanese surrender.”
“Aunt Lena, Uncle Roy!”
We all had tears in our eyes as I opened the door.
“I’m going to Times Square, then on to the shipyard. Can you look in on Pop?”
“Of course, dear.” A car waited for her. The girls waved flags. I held up two fingers making a V for Victory. “Do tell me everything that happens.”
Roy and I went back to the radio. We heard about the thousands of people who turned out in cities across America. I imagined the red, white and blue rippling and waving, confetti and ribbons, wet eyes and cheering—if only our beloved FDR had lived to see it.
That night we grew anxious as the hours passed and no word from Teresa.
The next morning I recall burning myself on the skillet. My mind filled with worry about our girl. Then from my kitchen window I saw her come out the front door. She wore slacks and a blouse and marched down the walkway to the car. Rigid—with dark smudges beneath her eyes.
I ran across the street. “What’s the matter?”
“We wouldn’t quit, so they fired us.”
A girl in the car said, “With the boys coming home, we got canned.”
“Of course. They’ll need their jobs back.”
Teresa glared at me. “My boss told me to get married and have babies.”
“What did you expect?”
Teresa opened the car door. “I expected more from my country.”
Back then I didn’t understand the full impact of the war and what its aftermath meant to our daughters.
Now with Roy gone and Teresa out west, I think about those days and the car full of girls who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I know now as I watched them drive off to gather and speak up for their rights that what I saw was the future.
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DC Diamondopolous website: http://www.dcdiamondopolous.com/