Chapter no 3

The Women

By the time Frankie got back on island, the streetlamps were coming on. Downtown Coronado was dressed for the holidays with streamers and lights; white-bearded, red-coated Santas stood in front of several shops, ringing bells. Illuminated snowflakes hung from lines strung above the street.

At home, Frankie found her parents in the living room, dressed for dinner. Dad stood at the bar, flipping through the newspaper, while Mom sat in her favorite chair by the fire, smoking a cigarette and reading a Graham Greene novel. The house was decked out for the holidays, with an extravagance of lights and a ten-foot tree.

At Frankie’s entrance, Dad closed the newspaper and smiled at her. “Heya, Peanut.”

“I have news,” Frankie said, practically bursting with excitement.

“You’ve met a boy you like,” Mom said, putting down her novel. “Finally.”

Frankie came to a stop. “A boy? No.”

Mom frowned. “Frances, most of the girls your age—”

“Mom,” Frankie said impatiently, “I’m trying to tell you something important.” She took a deep breath and said, “I joined the Army Nurse Corps. The ANC. I’m now Second Lieutenant McGrath. I’m going to Vietnam. I’ll get to be with Finley for part of his tour!”

“That’s hardly funny, Frances,” Mom said.

Dad stared at Frankie, unsmiling. “I don’t think she’s joking, Bette.”

“You joined the Army?” Mom said slowly, as if the words were a foreign language that she was trying to sound out.

“I’d salute but I don’t know how. Basic Training starts in three weeks.

Fort Sam Houston.”

Frankie frowned. Why weren’t they congratulating her? “McGraths and Alexanders always serve,” she said. “You were thrilled when Finley volunteered.”

“The men serve,” Dad said sharply. “The men.” He paused. “Wait. Did you say the Army? We’re a Navy family, always have been. Coronado is a Navy island.”

“I know, but the Navy wouldn’t let me go to Vietnam until I’d served two years in a hospital stateside,” she said. “Same with the Air Force. They said I didn’t have enough experience. Only the Army would let me go right after Basic Training.”

“Sweet Jesus, Frankie,” Dad said, running a hand through his hair. “There’s a reason for rules like that.”

“Take it back. Unvolunteer.” Mom looked at Dad. She got to her feet slowly. “Good Lord, what will we tell people?”

“What will you…” Frankie didn’t understand. They were acting as if they were ashamed of her. But … that made no sense. “How many times have you gathered us in your office to talk about this family’s record of service, Dad? You told us how much you wanted to fight for your country. I thought—”

“He’s a man,” Mom said. “And it was Hitler. And Europe. Not some country no one can find on a map. It is not patriotic to do something stupid, Frances.” Tears filled her eyes. She dashed them away impatiently. “Well, Connor, she’s what you taught her to be. A believer. A patriot.”

At Mom’s rebuke, Dad left the room, trailing smoke behind him.

Frankie went to her mom, tried to hold her hand, but Mom stepped adroitly aside, not letting Frankie touch her. “Mom?”

“I shouldn’t have let your father fill your head with all that history. He made it sound so … epic, those family war stories. Although none of them were his, were they? He couldn’t serve, so it became … oh, for God’s sake, none of it matters now.” She looked away. “I remember when my father came home from the war. Broken. Stitches holding him together. He had

nightmares. I swear it’s what killed him early.” Her voice broke. “And you think you’ll go over there and see your brother and have an adventure? How could you be so stupid?”

“I’m a nurse, Mom, not a soldier. The recruiter said I’ll be stationed at a big hospital, far from the front. He promised I would get to see Finley.”

“And you believed him?” Mom took a long drag off of her cigarette.

Frankie saw how her hand was shaking. “It’s done?”

“It’s done. I report to Basic Training in January and then I ship out for my tour in March. I’ll be home for my birthday next week and for Christmas. I made sure. I know how much that matters to you.”

Mom bit her lip, nodding slowly. Frankie could see that her mother was trying to corral her emotions, trying to look calm. Suddenly she reached out, pulled Frankie into her arms, hugged her so tightly she couldn’t breathe.

Frankie clung to her, buried her face in the teased, sprayed hair. “I love you, Mom,” she said.

Mom drew back, wiped her eyes, and looked hard at Frankie. “Don’t you be a hero, Frances Grace. I don’t care what you’ve been taught or what stories men like your father have told you. You keep your head down and stay back and stay safe. You hear me?”

“I promise. I’ll be fine.” The doorbell rang.

It was a distant sound, barely audible above the combination of their breathing and the unspoken words swirling in the silence between them.

Mom glanced sideways, toward the foyer. “Who on earth could that be?”

“I’ll go,” Frankie said.

She left her mother standing in the living room, alone. In the foyer, Frankie stepped around the gleaming rosewood table that held a large potted white orchid, and opened the door.

Two naval officers in dress uniforms stood there at attention.

Frankie had lived on Coronado Island all of her life, watched jets and helicopters roar overhead and sailors run in lines along the beach. At every party or gathering, someone told a World War II or Korea story. The town cemetery was full of men Coronado had lost in wars.

She knew what officers at the front door meant. “Please,” she whispered, wanting to back up and close the door.

She heard footsteps behind her, heels on hardwood. “Frances?” Mom said, coming up beside her. “What—”

Mom saw the two officers and let out a quiet gasp.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” one of the officers said, taking off his hat, tucking it under his arm.

Frankie reached for her mother’s hand, but Mom pulled away. “Come in,” Mom said in a husky voice. “You’ll want to speak to my husband…”



Sorry to inform you, ma’am, that Ensign Finley McGrath has been killed in action.

Shot down … in a helicopter … No remains … all hands lost.

No answers to their questions, just a quietly spoken, It’s war, sir, as if that said it all. Answers are hard to come by.

Frankie knew she would remember this evening in startling, scalding images: Dad, standing tall, his hands shaking, showing no emotion until one of the officers called his son a hero, his voice quiet as he asked for details— as if they mattered—Where, when, how? Her mom, usually so elegant and cool, curling into herself on the chair, her carefully coiffed hair falling slowly apart, saying again and again, How can it be, Connor, you said it was barely a war.

Frankie didn’t think either of her parents noticed when she slipped out of the house and crossed Ocean Boulevard to sit in the cool sand.

How had he been shot down? What was an officer’s aide doing in a helicopter? And what did it mean that there were no remains? What were they supposed to bury?

She felt tears well again, and closed her eyes, recalled images of Finley on this beach, running into the surf, holding her hand, teaching her how to float on her back, how to swim, taking her to see Psycho when Mom had specifically forbidden it, sneaking her a bottle of beer on the Fourth of July. She closed her eyes and let the memories flow; she remembered him and their life together, their fights and squabbles. Going to Disneyland for the

first time, riding their bikes in the summer, and racing to the tree on Christmas morning, him letting her win. Her big brother.


How often had she and Fin been out here at night together, running on the beach, riding their bikes home at night, guided by streetlamps, laughing, poking each other, holding their arms outstretched and thinking that riding a bicycle without holding on was taking a risk?

How free they had felt. Invincible.

She felt a presence on the beach behind her, heard footfalls.

Mom sat down in the sand beside her, half falling the last few inches. “They say we should bury another man’s boots and helmet in my son’s casket,” she said at last. Her lower lip was bleeding a little, where she’d bitten it. She scratched at a red spot on her neck.

“A funeral,” Frankie said, thinking about it for the first time. Mourners in black, perched on pews, Father Michael droning on, telling funny stories about Finley, about his days as a rebellious altar boy, how he’d washed his toy soldiers in the baptismal font. How could any of them stand it?

An empty coffin. No remains. “Don’t go,” Mom said quietly. “I’m right here, Mom.”

Mom turned. “I mean … to Vietnam.”

Vietnam. A car crash of a word now.

“I have to,” Frankie said. It was all she’d thought about since learning about her brother’s death. How to get out of her commitment to the Army, how to stay here with her parents and grieve and be safe.

But it was too late for that. She’d signed on, made a promise.

“I don’t have a choice, Mom. I can’t undo it.” She turned, said, “Give me your blessing. Please. I need you to say you’re proud of me.”

For a split second, Frankie saw her mother’s pain. It pulled the life from her cheeks and the color from her skin. She was pale, washed-out. She stared at Frankie, her blue eyes dull, lifeless. “Proud of you?”

“You don’t have to worry about me, Mom. I’ll come home. I promise.” “Those were your brother’s last words to me.” Mom’s voice broke. She

paused for a second, looked like she was going to speak. Instead, she got slowly to her feet, turned away from Frankie, and walked back across the sand.

“I’m sorry,” Frankie whispered, too softly for her mother to hear, but what did it matter?

It was too late for words.

Too late to take any of it back.

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