She never threw anything away

Susan Mower

April 30, 1993|By Susan Mower

MY mother never threw anything away.

The other day, I came across our family's ration books from World War II, and I discovered she was only following the letter of the law. "Do not throw this book away when all the stamps have been used or when the time for their use has expired," the government warned. "You may be required to present this book when you apply for subsequent books."

God forbid it should come to that again, but if it does, I'll have something to present. I won't throw the books away, even the ones that have nothing left but the covers with their warnings.

The other day I showed these souvenirs of war to an 11-year-old friend. She leafed through the remaining pages of small blue and green stamps imprinted with tiny pictures of tanks and planes. She read aloud another warning: "Rationing is a vital part of your country's war effort . . . Any attempt to violate the rules is an effort to deny someone his share and will create hardship and discontent. Such action, like treason, helps the enemy. Be guided by the rule: 'If you don't need it, DON'T BUY IT.' " On the back of that book, my mother had scrawled in pencil: "1 lb. cottage cheese, 1 qt. sour cream, herring in wine sauce."

My friend was impressed that among these books, each one issued to a different member of the family, was one with my name. She has few acquaintances who are relics from that era. Her parents are 30-something. I was a baby at the war's end, but my took testifies for me that I also served.

My mother was a champion knitter. Along with the ration books, I found some thank-you notes. During the war, olive drab wool was distributed to housewives who would knit sweaters for the troops. If a woman enclosed her name and address with the sweater, she might get a note from the recipient. "Dear Mrs. Mower," wrote one young man. "Perhaps if I ever get to Frederick, you might allow me to take you and Mr. Mower out to dinner."

Out to dinner? In a restaurant? So far as I know, my parents seldom went out to dinner. Perhaps as a special treat, my mother might have stopped at a lunch counter for coffee and a tuna salad sandwich on toast. When she shopped, she used to jot down each expenditure in minuscule writing in a tiny notebook: "Stamps -- 3 bobby pins -- 1" When one notebook got filled with jottings of financial disbursements, she would start another.

I found one of those notebooks, and I can no more throw it away than my mother could. Had the recipient of my mom's sweater turned up at our house on North Market Street, she would have insisted that he stay for dinner. Visitors were fed at home.

Another letter came from nearby Fort Detrick. "I and the rest of the squadron, I'm sure, feel that it was a wonderful thing for you all to knit us these sweaters. Coming as they did right after our return from Carolina, they made a very welcoming present." I looked at the letter's date and was surprised -- Dec. 12, 1941. Even my mother wasn't so fast that she could have turned out a man's sweater in just a week after America's entering the war. Were the ladies mobilized to knit before Pearl Harbor Day? I wish I could ask my mother.

She did tell me many times what she was doing that fateful Dec. 7. She was ironing. As the war wore on, my mother continued to iron. She saved fats and oils.She knitted. She had a baby.

In Frederick in those days, the ladies used to make household articles out of feed bag covers. One of the bag series had repeated cartoon renderings of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. Their egg-shaped heads sizzled in a pan. I'd study the pictures, which helped me learn to read. "Bad eggs!" was the caption under each cartoon. Only years later would I piece it all together. I had been swaddled by the Axis!

My mother was a homemaker, not a historian. "Why bring it all up again?" was her unvarying response years later when there was a television documentary about Nazi burnings, or London's blitz, or the death camps, or about any aspect of the war.

She, who was reluctant to toss out anything, didn't realize how easy it is to discard history. But I'm glad I found those ration books. I'll pass them along to my young friend. I won't throw them away.

Susan Mower writes from Towson.

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