Margaret Beck is proud of her work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard sewing stars onto the Stars and Stripes, but she yearns to contribute to the war effort more meaningfully. She's angling for a promotion to the mechanic section, but she doesn't want to wait to make a difference. So with her two best friends, she decides to start a knitting club, where they will knit socks for the boys at the front. Thinking of the young men so far from the comforts of home, Margaret slips a note into her first pair of socks, offering a connection to an unknown soldier that will forever change her life.For Thomas Powell serving his country was not only his duty but an honor, and he wore his Army uniform with pride. Yet being on the frontlines, witness to unspeakable tragedy and despair, has shaken him. The one shining light is Margaret’s letters—written to his best friend William. When William is killed, Tom doesn’t have the heart to write the warm, generous, and hopeful Margaret and tell her the news. Not about William’s death and not about the way he’s fallen in love with her—across an ocean, amidst the darkness of war, and through the letters she never intended for him.Instead, he picks up his pen and responds to Margaret’s latest letter, signing it William. As the war intensifies, so does the affection between Tom and Margaret, and Tom knows he owes her the truth. But as he heads out for his most dangerous mission yet, Tom wonders—will he ever get the chance to tell her?
Release date: March 1, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 384
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Until We Meet
Camille Di Maio
Margaret Beck closed the door of her family’s narrow Brooklyn row house and rested her head against the wood. The black paint had peeled enough to reveal the whorl-like curves of its grain, and its faded color matched her mood. She slipped her hand into her coat pocket and pulled out the key, inserting it into the lock and turning it until it made the robust thunk that assured her that the safety lock had engaged. The sun had not yet appeared over the chimneyed rooftops, and her parents would not wake for another half hour.
She was on the early shift at the Navy Yard today and she hadn’t gotten any sleep since last night. Worry was a poor bed companion.
What had begun as a normal evening had taken a turn that left a pit in her stomach.
Margaret had just sprinkled the dregs of their last box of Dreft powder into the water, watching as it fizzed into foam when she swished her hand around in it. There were no more to buy on scant grocers’ shelves, purchases limited to two boxes per household since the company’s equipment had been recommissioned for Uncle Sam’s use and others were following suit. From now on, her mother would be making a paste of lye flakes and vinegar, and Margaret could already imagine the havoc it would wreak on their hands.
Dottie had come in from the back entrance and Margaret knew from the slam of the screened door and frenetic pace of her movements that something was wrong. Her friend picked up a towel and started drying the dishes with such force that the enamel was in danger of rubbing off.
Margaret knew better than to ask what was wrong. Dottie would say so as soon as she was ready.
The sound of the radio blared from the overhead bedroom and the girls could hear Margaret’s parents laughing to The Great Gildersleeve.
It was good to hear them laugh. There had been too little of it lately. But the merriment it gave her wasn’t reflected in Dottie’s face, as it normally would be.
“Margaret,” Dottie said, glancing up, as if to make sure they couldn’t be heard. She took a deep breath and exhaled in a nervous stutter. “I’m…I’m just going to say this.”
Margaret set down the jadeite bowl she was holding. Dottie had been looking uncommonly tired lately and Margaret feared that her friend wasn’t getting enough to eat. Much like the rest of them. Dinner tonight had been watered-down tomato sauce over rice, hardly enough to keep anyone full overnight. They saved their chicken cards for Sundays.
Dottie lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m receiving a visit from the stork.”
Blood rushed from her head to her toes.
She immediately pictured the implications, much like how people’s lives were said to flash before their eyes before they died. This was not the joyous news it would have been in a different circumstance. Dottie’s devout parents would surely be livid and turn her out. She’d be let go from her position at the Navy Yard.
She’d be destitute.
Because John had been drafted before the wedding could take place.
Margaret grabbed Dottie’s hands, suds forming a bubbling cuff, and squeezed them to keep them from trembling. Though she couldn’t tell who was shaking harder. “Are you sure? Did you go to the doctor?”
Dottie shook her head, and her long, dark curls bounced from side to side. “Of course not. The rabbit test would be too expensive, and I’d be devastated for one to die on my behalf. But it explains my nausea. And my exhaustion. And why…why my monthly didn’t come.”
“The rabbit test?” Margaret asked. Dottie had been a nanny for an Upper East Side family last summer when the mother had become in the family way for a third time. So of course she would know the latest things like that.
“Yes. They make you”—she lowered her voice even more, looking around as if someone might come in—“go into a cup. And then they inject it into a female rabbit and cut it open to see if its ovaries reacted.”
Margaret was appalled, and the image of it distracted her for a moment from the weight of the news. “They really do that?”
Dottie nodded and her curls fell over the right side of her face at their part. “Well, I guess the doctors for rich women do.”
“That might be the only thing that makes me grateful I’m not rich.”
A thin smile spread across Dottie’s face. “Me too.”
“How do you know that’s even true?”
“The woman I nannied for was a showgirl before she became the second wife of a banker on Wall Street. The things she talked about would curl your hair.”
Margaret laughed. “Is that how you got this mop?” She ran a finger down a lock of Dottie’s hair and it bounced right back into position.
Dottie smiled, bigger this time. “We’ve been friends for more than half of my life. You know I come by these honestly.”
“Honestly with a little help from pomade.” But all joking aside, this was serious news. Margaret drew Dottie into a hug and could feel both of their heartbeats racing. Dottie’s slender frame was rigid at first, but at last she rested her head on Margaret’s shoulder, heaving staccato breaths as tears surfaced.
Margaret pulled away after some time and handed Dottie a handkerchief. She led her to the kitchen table and set a newly washed cushion on the wooden chair. Then she joined her on the other side. The tension of the situation was enough to steal the air they breathed.
“What are we going to do about it?” she whispered.
Dottie raised the handkerchief to her nose, reddened, perhaps, by the chill in the air. But more than likely, she’d shed some tears before even coming here. “What do you mean, we? This is my problem.”
“Dottie.” Margaret lifted her friend’s chin up with her hand and mustered a firm look that she hoped was more convincing than she felt inside. “This is our problem. And let’s not even call it a problem. That’s my little niece or nephew in there. Do you realize that? That’s John’s child! John’s going to come home and he’s going to marry you because he loves you and has loved you for as long as I can remember.”
“But my parents…”
“…are not going to find out until we figure out a plan.”
Dottie ran her hand along her waistband. “We’d better figure out something soon. I don’t know how long it will be before it will be obvious to everyone.”
“How far along are you? John left for basic training six weeks ago.”
Dottie nodded. “That long.”
Margaret bit her lip as she was thinking. Maybe Dottie could come live here and stay in John’s bedroom. She was sure her parents would rather do that than see Dottie turned out. Although, if word spread that they were harboring an unwed woman who’d gotten herself into trouble, people might take their business elsewhere and their shoe shop might suffer more than it already was.
But then—a solution. Or at least the fledgling hope of one.
“I know what we’ll do,” she said. “We’ll talk to Gladys.”
* * *
It had been impossible to get any rest after that. Dottie had stayed until The Great Gildersleeve gave way to Dreft Star Playhouse on NBC and it had occurred to Margaret that its host, Marvin Miller, had the unenviable task of promoting a product that was no longer available. Even the loss of something as otherwise insignificant as dish detergent was like another knife in her already worried heart. Each one took her by surprise—there was no solace to be found in everyday routines because they, too, had been altered.
Regular reminders that nothing was what it should be.
At last the radio turned silent as Margaret’s parents went to sleep. Dottie looked at her watch and apologized for the late hour and hurried home with Margaret’s promise that they would get through this together.
It was a night saturated with concern. For John. For Dottie. For the world. When Margaret’s alarm clock sounded in the dark early hours, she swung leaded feet onto the floor and pulled herself up by her bedpost, exhaustion weighing heavily on every bone in her body.
Margaret stood now, head to door, eyes closed and listening to the sounds of the morning as it mustered the energy to turn into day. Birds perched on electrical wires, the baker’s ovens hummed, car horns blared as drivers maneuvered their way down streets that fell into worse disrepair as each day passed. Resources were needed elsewhere.
She felt unraveled. It was the Word of the Day in yesterday’s New York Times and she thought it an ideal term for the circumstance. Like spiraled heaps of yarn laying waste after discovering a flaw in a knitting project.
Dreams were like that too. You imagined what your life would be like and it didn’t turn out to be so. She remembered sitting under red-and-white umbrellas at the shore the first summer she met Dottie and all the ones after that. Little girls with big plans who never could have imagined what a world at war might look like.
What having a baby under these circumstances would mean.
Indeed, Dottie’s news had left Margaret feeling tangled up inside. That her dearest friend was pregnant should have been something to celebrate. Their childhood full of dolls and dress-up and playing house was about to blossom into something real and wriggling.
It was all they’d ever wanted.
But one paramount step in the long-ago playacting had been bypassed: the wedding.
It’s not that Margaret held any religious opinions on the order in which things had happened. The joy she felt at the revelation was genuine—in seven months or so, a little niece or nephew would make an entrance into the world. Margaret’s brother, John, was the father and she had always known that he would make such a very, very good one.
It was the need for secrecy that unsettled her.
The worry over what Dottie’s family would do when they found out.
And the fear that John might never make it home.
That part, she couldn’t share with Dottie. Not in her condition. But every day, the local newspaper posted the names of the dead and missing from Brooklyn. How could they presume that their family would be spared the great tragedy that had befallen so many others? At least for now, John was safe, training in England, parachuting from the airplanes he loved so much. Out of danger as far as they could tell. But how long would it be before his unit was called up to the front and the real peril began?
War draped every breath in a cloak of uncertainty, and Margaret ached to tether herself to something dependable. The need to keep quiet about Dottie’s pregnancy only added to the many shadows that had been cast upon their lives.
She pulled herself away from the row house door, one beleaguered step at a time until she made it to the bus stop and the short journey passed by in a haze.
Twenty minutes later, they rolled up to the entrance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Margaret’s spirits were raised by the pride that arose every time she saw the masts of the three unfinished ships through the dusty glass panes. The handiwork of tens of thousands of men. And more recently, a handful of women like herself. A flag stood outside the entrance, billowing in the morning breeze. Forty-eight stars reminding her that her troubles were mere droplets in the vast sea of sacrifices being made here and around the world.
Just two weeks ago, she’d stood in this spot along with thousands of civilians watching thousands of troops board the Samaria, bound for Liverpool. Once a grand passenger ship in the Cunard Line, it had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy for troop transport. Including her brother. He’d gone to basic training in Georgia and then jump school in North Carolina, and by some unexpected twist, his company in the 101st Airborne was departing from right here in Brooklyn. Right here in the Navy Yard, just a few miles from where he’d been born. She’d hoped to see him, but the soldiers had been given no leave time for visiting families since few of them were from this area. Instead, she and Dottie and her parents had stood in the bleachers hoping to catch a glimpse of that one face they loved so much.
It was to no avail, but John knew they’d be there in that crowd and she hoped that was enough to bolster him as the shores of his homeland disappeared from view. They’d watched with handkerchiefs pressed against their faces as the uniformed young men sailed off, about to learn that war was more than the playacting they’d done in their youth.
The memory brought tears to her eyes once again, a salty concoction of pride and fear, but she wiped them away as soon as they formed, leaving only their tannic burn behind. She had to stay strong. For John. For Dottie. For her parents. For all of them.
She wished she had someone who could be strong for her.
Margaret pulled her identification card from her bag and strung it around her neck before stepping off the bus, avoiding puddles from an overnight rain. The fumes from the exhaust and the fishy stench of the East River made for a nauseating combination, but seeing Gladys Sievers’s bright red hat near the fence brought a smile to her face.
“There you are, doll,” Gladys shouted through a haze of cigarette smoke. She smoked the unfiltered kind, preferring the gravelly, husky contour it gave to her voice. “Maybe if I sound more like a man, I’ll be treated as well as one,” she’d say with some sarcasm.
She dropped the butt onto the sidewalk and ground it down with her stiletto heel.
Entirely unsuitable footwear for this weather and this place—they had to walk over steel grates to get to their workroom—but she insisted it was all part of the picture she liked to paint about rights for women. “Men know deep down they couldn’t take two steps in these babies, though I’d like to see them try. Ha! That would show them what we’re made of.”
Every breath Gladys took was tinged with the burden of a father who’d left and a mother who had quite literally worked herself to death before the preponderance of unions and workers’ rights. So she never missed an opportunity to advance the causes that combated such injustices, in all ways large and small.
She didn’t have any more money than the rest of them, but Gladys was a whiz at embellishing old pieces and making them look snazzy. As Margaret approached, she could see that today’s heels were red with gold embroidery. She recognized the shoes as one of Gladys’s thrift-store purchases. One had a coffee stain on the toe, if she remembered correctly. But the way Gladys had used gold thread to create a flower pattern on them had made them look brand-new.
“Where’s your sidekick, sick again? Dare we hope she’s loosened up at last and given herself over to a night of debauchery?” Her thick gardenia perfume nearly masked the cigarette smell and it put a tickle in Margaret’s nose.
Margaret checked her wristwatch, relieved that she’d be able to clock in on time. She smiled at her friend. There were some things the war could never change. Gladys would always be a force unto herself, her words and ideas and sarcasms a perfect storm of originality that had earned her the nickname of Hurricane, at least between Margaret and Dottie.
“Yes—well, at least to your first question. She must have eaten something rancid. She hasn’t been able to keep anything down.”
Margaret winced at the untruth, but Dottie had begged her not to tell anyone about the baby yet. Not even Gladys, whom she wanted to tell in her own time. Not until she could think things through. If her mother got wind of her pregnancy before they made a plan, she’d be sent away to a home for unwed girls, where the child would be taken away as soon as it was born.
It had happened to Dottie’s older sister, and the poor girl had never been the same from the grief of it. She walked as if she were broken inside, and Margaret would give her life to prevent that for her best friend.
Gladys offered her usual advice. “Nothing a cup of brandy wouldn’t fix, but Dottie isn’t one to imbibe, is she?”
“She’s never had a liking for it.”
“Too bad. Brandy for Belly Aches. Vodka for Viruses. Whiskey for Woman Troubles. Dr. Gladys’s prescription for a long life.”
Margaret grinned and held up an imaginary cocktail glass. “Here’s to that.”
They joined the long line of women who were reporting for the first shift at the Navy Yard. They were bright-eyed and chatty, incongruous given the early hour. But they were used to being awake before the light of the morning blanketed the city, and Margaret wondered if she would ever consider the soft-lit dawn as routine.
This shift paid an extra dollar per week, though, and Margaret was glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the family coffers in exchange for a few hours of sleep. She was hoping for a promotion out of the flag-sewing wing and was counting on her punctuality and her ability to adapt to be among her assets when an opening in the new mechanic section became available. The other would be her vocabulary. They accepted only the smartest girls—replacing the engineers and hard-hat workers who had been sent overseas—and though she’d been an average student, she read the Word of the Day every morning and maneuvered it into conversations to help her stand out.
Gladys had already made it into the ranks that most of the women just dreamed about and relished the chance to show the men that she was every bit as capable as they were.
So far, nothing had materialized for Margaret, but the foreman over there promised to put in a good word for her. George was John’s best friend and would do anything for the Beck family. And a promotion like that would mean an additional two dollars per week.
That would leave some leftover money to buy herself a few of the posher cosmetics at the Macy’s counter rather than the ordinary ones from Woolworth’s. Like a Pink Perfection lipstick from Elizabeth Arden. She’d once seen it in an advertisement in a library copy of Vogue and had thought of it ever since.
It would also mean that her father could work a few less hours in their cobbler shop and give his arthritic hands a rest. Though other girls in their early twenties had fathers about double their age, hers had been a good bit older than her mother when they married and was frequently mistaken for Margaret’s grandfather when they were out together.
George Preston was exactly the kind of Brooklyn man her parents would love to see her settle down with. Dependable. Hardworking. Well-mannered. He was as good a guy as they came. But there had never been the kind of spark between them that romance novels promised. She’d not yet felt more than a passing flutter for a boy. Nothing she could call love—nothing that resembled the possibility of longevity she so admired in her parents. Or John and Dottie.
Margaret believed it was better to love vicariously through the printed word in books than to pursue a fleeting feeling built on quicksand, and she was determined to either hold out for the real thing or not have it at all. She’d seen too many marriages among her parents’ friends turn rancid in the wake of the difficulties the world put forth.
Better to be alone than saddled in misery to someone chosen in a bout of head-in-the-cloud youthfulness.
In this regard, she admired how Gladys stuck to her guns.
John and Dottie’s story had started years ago when the Beck and Troutwine families had rented small cottages next to each other on Brighton Beach. Margaret had been excited when she saw a girl her age sitting shoeless on the front porch, sand baked onto her feet. When their parents discovered that they lived only one subway stop apart, the girls became inseparable.
But as soon as her brother was old enough to consider girls as something more than a nuisance, it became forevermore Dottie and John, John and Dottie. As if one name couldn’t be spoken without the corresponding other. And Margaret didn’t mind. The two people she loved most in the world loved each other. It didn’t get any better than that.
Their wedding had been planned for October. But John was drafted and sent out to basic training in July.
War was a particular kind of thief that stole not only the lives of the boys who went overseas, but also the plans and aspirations of the families at home.
Among Margaret’s friends, doubt had seeped into the traditions they’d been raised with as life and loss permeated their conversations in ways they’d never had to consider before. Instead of trifles such as how to make the perfect gravy or what ice cream cone flavor to choose at the pharmacy counter, they worried: What if the men don’t make it back? What if the Germans come here across the Atlantic? And the corollary response: Do what you want to because this all might end.
(Corollary had been a recent Word of the Day, and Margaret had already used it three times in conversation. And once in her thoughts: The corollary to John shipping off unexpectedly was that he and Dottie had the wedding night before the wedding.)
Gladys changed into a pair of flat leather boots just after they passed through the iron gate at the security check. The twin carcasses of the USS Maine and the USS New Hampshire towered above them, sparks flying from welders’ blowtorches as they disassembled the battleships piece by piece. Margaret watched in fascination, never tiring of seeing the power of fire against metal.
Five such ship orders had been canceled here and in Philadelphia and Norfolk, their superior firepower capabilities falling into less favor than the new class of ship that could serve as a sea base for air operations. Aircraft carriers.
Ships built like runways so that airplanes could land and refuel in the middle of the ocean.
The war, at least, produced marvels that might otherwise have been relegated to futuristic fiction.
Margaret regretted the years of toil that Brooklyn workers had poured into the battleships, only to have to erase their own efforts. Thankfully, their shipyard had been chosen to build the vessels that introduced a cause for hope.
It was like a death. A death that also brought new life. Sorrow and joy could only be known because of the existence of the other.
She paused as they passed the third one—the USS Missouri. The last of this class of battleships. Too far into production to cancel. The one that connected the past to the future.
Much like Dottie and John’s baby.
The work siren blew, echoing through the foggy air and shaking Margaret from her wistful thoughts. This was not the time to be defeated by worries and musings. The future of this little child would be secured only by taking action. Not just here at work, but in the hours between.
John’s most recent letter had arrived yesterday and it had given her an idea.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” she asked as she slipped her yellow card into the punch clock.
Gladys grinned and Margaret watched her sort through some of the more scandalous answers that she would have characteristically given. But she restrained herself, perhaps as eager to get the workday started—and finished—as Margaret was.
“Nothing I can’t back out of. What do you have in mind?”
“Something you won’t want to miss out on. Meet me at my pop’s shop at seven. I’ll tell you then.”
The air was brisk, the newness of fall descending on Gladys and Margaret as they stood outside of the cobbler shop.
“Darling, if this is your idea of an exciting Saturday night, I am going to pen an obituary and etch a tombstone for you right now, because you’re already dead and buried.”
Margaret grinned. “And would you have come if I told you that we were going to be knitting?”
Gladys shook her head, her curls bouncing with newly set perfection. Unlike Dottie’s natural ones—assisted by only the tiniest bit of gel—Gladys’s spirals were the result of painful nights spent in foam rollers. Her hair was fiery—something Margaret always thought was a fitting crown for her personality. Between them, they made a complete set. Dottie with her ebony locks, Gladys the redhead, and Margaret with the shiny straight hair that her grandmother used to call “spun gold.”
And these were exactly the girls with whom she wanted to grow gray someday.
How she missed the days when how you styled your hair was the worst thing you had to worry about.
Gladys shivered and pulled a flask from her purse. “Hot chocolate,” she insisted before Margaret could comment. “I’m not a total lush despite reports to the contrary.”
“I wasn’t going to ask.”
“Sure you weren’t. Look—I can prove it.” She pulled a small envelope from her coat pocket and opened it. Margaret could smell the rich aroma of the chocolate powder, even though she could scarcely make it out in the dim light. The blackout hour was nearly upon them and shopkeepers in the neighborhood had begun the process of shuttering their windows for the night.
“Did you get that at Rockwood?” Margaret asked, referring to the factory that sat near the Navy Yard. In the right wind, the scent of cocoa teased the workers, and more than once, Margaret had found her mouth watering as she sewed stars on a flag.
Gladys closed the lid and returned it to her pocket. “Not on your life. All of their stuff is going to the boys overseas. Getting chocolate out of them would be harder than breaking into Fort Knox. Nah, this here is from Ebinger’s.”
“Ebinger’s! Mama said she’s going to treat me to one of their Brooklyn Blackout cakes for my next birthday. Have you had. . .
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