It was Christmas 1917 and Cathleen hadn’t heard from her husband in months. Americans had entered the war in August and John was declared missing in action during the first battle in Europe. It wasn’t unusual for the dead to be buried on the battle grounds where they were killed. It had been long enough that they assumed he had been killed.
At first she had been certain that he was still alive, but eventually she had to accept the fact that he might never return. They had three children and she needed to turn her attention to them. It was with that thought in mind that she began decorating their home for Christmas. Her heart was heavy with grief, but she tried to be cheerful for the sake of the children.
Caroline, their oldest daughter at sixteen, wanted to go caroling on Christmas Eve. Cathleen wanted them all to be together, but she finally allowed her to go with her friends. That left her at home with Matthew, fourteen, and Marie, who was twelve. Matthew decorated the tree while Marie and Cathleen made desserts. Wheatless Tuesdays weren’t the only days she had rationed so that they could have the ingredients for this holiday. Christmas was on Tuesday and they would have both wheat and meat. The chicken had been donated by her sister who lived with her husband on a farm.
President Wilson had appointed Herbert Hoover as head of the US Food Administration. The idea was to get people involved in a voluntary food rationing program. The purpose was to make more food available for the troops. Meat, wheat, fats and sugar were items that could be shipped to the troops, while fresh fruit and vegetables would spoil. Thinking of the troops and the starving families in Europe made the sacrifice easier. Cathleen had spent days praying that John was getting enough to eat. Then she spent months praying that he was still alive. Now her prayers were centered on their children. Still, she said a silent prayer every night that John would come home alive.
Each present under the tree was home made. There was no money for items that couldn’t be worn or eaten. The scrawny little tree had been delivered by her sister along with the chicken. It was cut from their farm. They were so fortunate to have family. Some didn’t have that luxury.
While the cookies were cooling, Cathleen pinned some mistletoe under the door frame. It was a custom she had always enjoyed with John. He would slip up behind her, grab her around the waist and kiss her. Of course, she always made sure she paused in that doorway long enough to give him the opportunity.
She stepped down from the chair and eyed the mistletoe. It was slightly off center. Normally she would have kept trying until it was perfect, but her eyes were becoming blurry with unshed tears. She left the mistletoe as it was and took the chair back to the kitchen. She prepared the chicken and placed it in the ice box. She would get up early and cook it.
The front door opened and shut. That would be Caroline returning from caroling. When she didn’t come into the kitchen, Cathleen wondered if something had upset her. She went to the foot of the stairs and called, but Marie and Matthew said she wasn’t home yet.
Cathleen was certain she had heard someone enter the house. She went from room to room, expecting to find Caroline sitting somewhere feeling melancholy. As she paused in the doorway to search the family room, hands circled her waist, pulling her close.
She screamed and tried to turn, but the arms held her tight. Then a deep voice whispered in her ear. “Cathleen, I’m home.”
She stood still, barely able to breathe as John kissed her neck. She turned and he took her in his arms.
Feet pounded on the stairs as the children ran down to investigate the cause of her scream.
“Daddy!” they yelled, and ran to him.
At that point Caroline came through the door and joined them.
John had been wounded and taken in by a farm family near the battle area. He had beaten the news of his recovery home. All their prayers had been answered; their prayers for his safety; for his return and for the farm family who had rescued him. They were the lucky ones and they were eternally grateful.