"Susanna, for the last time, leave me alone before I clobber your stupid face!"
Rachel heard the threat from her older daughter and the shriek from her younger one all the way in the bedroom and quickly dropped her shoes back on the floor, padding over the plush carpet in her bare feet and into the room shared by her daughters. The three-year-old, Susanna, froze, her finger's still wrapped around her eleven-year-old sister's wrist. "What's going on in here?"
Carolyn glared at her little sister and complained, "Like always, she won't leave me alone. How am I supposed to write this letter if she won't go away, Mommy?" Her voice climbed the longer she spoke and by the time she'd finished, she was whining.
Rachel dropped her hand on her slim hip and shook her head, pointing at Susanna. "You, young lady, need to go bother your Daddy and your brothers. Your sister has something she needs to do, okay?"
Susanna dropped her head like a chastised puppy, her dark brown curls pooling around her shoulders, and then shuffled out of the room toward the front of the hotel suite they were staying in to find her father. Sitting down on the bed next to the small writing desk, Rachel crossed her ankles and stared at Carolyn, who was now looking intently at her half-filled sheet of paper while tapping her pen against her chin. "I don't know what to say, Mommy. I mean, I have a lot to say but it's hard to figure out what I should say and what I should leave out."
"Well, baby, why don't you just write what you feel comfortable with, okay? You can say whatever it is that you want. This is a letter to your Dad and nobody will read it so you can say whatever is in your heart."
Carolyn nodded, her eyes thoughtful as she glanced at the worn journal sitting next to her papers. "I finished reading it this morning. You wrote a lot of letters to him back then."
"I did," Rachel said with a gentle smile. "After he died, it was how I coped. I missed him so much and it seemed like the best way for me to deal with how sad I was. And I was nervous about becoming your mommy so the letters made it better."
"But Daddy gave you the idea," Carolyn clarified.
"I know. He wanted me to feel better, honey. His idea was a good one."
Carolyn stuck the top of her pen in her mouth and tapped it against her front teeth before looking back at Rachel. "Why was the last letter you wrote him the night before you married Daddy? Why didn't you write him anymore after that?"
Rachel leaned back on the bed, propping herself up on her elbows, her eyes on the ceiling. "Well, Carolyn, I think that I was ready to move forward with my life and I knew that Sam was going to live on through you. Besides, as a new bride with a two-year-old, I was quite busy. And then not too long after we got married, we had Tommy and then we had Jack and then we had Susanna I've been too busy cleaning up after you all since then to write any letters to anybody!"
Neither of them spoke for a moment before Carolyn asked, "Mommy? Can I keep the journal? I know it's yours but I…" Her voice faded and she looked curiously at her mother, who stood up and stepped behind her chair, bending to hug her.
"Of course, baby, it's yours now." Rachel smoothed her hands over her daughter's shoulders, squeezing them in her fingers before releasing her.
"Thanks," Carolyn said softly, her mind whirring with what she wanted to write.
In the hallway, Noah listened to the conversation between his wife and daughter for a moment. When they paused and silence fell between them, he stepped into the room. "Girls? Are we about ready to leave?"
Rachel turned and smiled at her husband, slipping her arm around his waist when he walked up to her. Noah dropped his arm across her shoulder and kissed the top of her head, his eyes on his oldest child. "How's it coming, sweets?"
Carolyn glanced over her shoulder, her voice slightly exasperated when she answered, "I'm halfway done, Daddy. I just need some peace and quiet to finish it."
Noah chuckled at Carolyn's attitude and ticked his eyebrow up at his wife, who smiled and lifted up on her toes to kiss his jaw before she told Carolyn, "Baby, we're going to leave you alone. We'll be in the sitting room. Let us know when you're done and we'll go."
Carolyn nodded wordlessly, her focus already back on her paper. She had to finish this letter.
Noah was surprised at how little the area had changed in the twelve years since he'd been there. The cemetery was nearly untouched except for the dozen more tombstones or so that were scattered throughout the small, green space. The oak tree, which was already large when Noah had seen it back in 1942, now towered over the entire cemetery, keeping most of the graves in the shade all the time.
The Puckerman family quietly made their way through the expanse of grass and stone markers, Noah slowing down as the approached the base of the tree. Rachel's eyes landed on the familiar white stone marker topped with a cross that signified an American military grave. She let her gaze glide over the name "Evans" and her eyes filled with tears, her heart pounding somewhere in the vicinity of her throat. She couldn't believe that after all this time and all these years, she was finally standing here, staring at Sam's grave. She stood silently, one hand in her husband's and the other holding onto the hand of her quiet seven-year-old, Jack. Her eight-year-old son, Tommy, stood a few feet away, his fingers linked with Susanna's, who was fidgeting with her tights irritably. Quiet settled over the family until Carolyn stepped up next to Noah and slipped her small hand into his larger one and looked up at him. "What do we do, Daddy? Do we say something?"
Noah glanced at his daughter and squeezed his hand. "If you're comfortable, you can."
Her eyes darted to her mother, who gave her a reassuring smile before she stepped forward slightly, not letting go of Noah's hand. "Hi, Sam. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get here. I honestly never thought I would but thanks to Noah, here we are. I've…" Rachel paused, her eyes on the rustling branches that hung right above their heads. A few birds chirped in short, staccato peeps before they flew off and the cemetery settled into silence again. "I've never forgotten you, you know. I think about you all the time and I see you in Carolyn so much. She laughs like you and when she's thinking, she makes some of the same faces you used to make. And you'd be happy to know that I'm doing great, Sam." Rachel glanced at Noah and tightened her grip on his hand before looking back down at the grave. "I'm fantastic, honestly. I couldn't ask to be any better."
Stepping back, Rachel slid herself against Noah, winding her arms around his waist. He wrapped his arm around her and let his fingers dance across her side absently.
Carolyn caught her lip between her teeth and then glanced up at her father before stepping forward, her eyes on the name on the marker. "Hi, Dad. I don't really know what to say but I wrote you a letter." Letting go of Noah's hand, Carolyn carefully stepped up to the grave and put the letter, neatly folded inside a white envelope and with "Dad" written on the front of it, carefully in the grass so that it leaned against the marker. When she looked back at her father, Noah motioned her to him and she stepped back quickly toward him, pressing her face against his abdomen and curling her fingers around his hand again. He bent and kissed her forehead before he looked at the grave and cleared his throat.
"Uh, hey buddy. I… I always wanted to come back but the years got away from me. But we're here… we finally made it. I—" He shot a nervous smile at Rachel, clearly uncomfortable at being somewhat unguarded with his words before he continued. "I just want to say thanks, Sam. When you asked me to watch out for Rachel and Carolyn, you did it because you were worried about them. But in the end, I think you gave me more than I could have ever asked for and I hope that in the years since, I've made you proud. I think I've done a pretty good job."
Tears silently slid down Rachel's cheeks as she listened to her husband speak and when he was finished, they all stood ramrod still, lost in their own memories. When Susanna broke free of Tommy's hand after a few minutes, letting out a peal of laughter as she darted back towards the front of the cemetery, the quiet reverence was broken. Noah surveyed his family and then asked, "Are we ready to go?"
Carolyn, Tommy, and Jack all nodded, their mother's stern lecture about being quiet and respectful in cemeteries still ringing in their ears. Turning, the family made their way back through the cemetery and out the gate. Noah darted after Susanna, who was laughing as the wind sent her skirt flying skyward. The children climbed into the car and Rachel and Noah both cast one last glance toward Sam's grave before settling inside the vehicle. Reaching across the small space, Rachel placed her hand on Noah's and they locked eyes. Leaning forward, she brushed her lips over his, silently thanking him before settling back into her seat for the ride back to their hotel.
July 9, 1954
I know you'll never read this but Mommy wrote you letters after you died and when I was a baby and I decided I wanted to write you one since we came all the way to England to visit your grave. Daddy saved up money for two years so we could all come over here and we got to ride in a plane! I was scared but Tommy and I didn't cry like Susanna and Jack did. You probably don't know who they are so I'll tell you: Tommy, Jack, and Susanna are my little brothers and my little sister. Because I'm the oldest, I get to babysit a lot. Don't tell Mommy and Daddy but I don't really mind even if I pretend that I do.
Even though I've never met you, I know all about you. Daddy has been telling me stories about you since I was old enough to understand. I was confused when I was little because he's my daddy but he explained that you are, too. He told me how, right before you died when you were in the war, you asked him to watch out for Mommy and me, even though I wasn't born yet. I think that was really nice because Daddy has done a great job. He doesn't treat me like I'm not really his daughter and when I asked him why one time, he said it was because I am his daughter in all the ways that count. He told me about how I started calling him Daddy when I was really little and how he loves me like he's the one that put me in Mommy's belly. He loves all of us just the same so I really don't feel different from everybody else. He's a good Daddy, too. He works hard at the factory and he's the production manager now (I really don't know what that means. He explained it once but I got bored listening.) He's at work a lot but he comes home for lunch every day and he always makes sure he's home in time for supper. Some of my classmates think he can be kind of mean but I think that's because he likes to cross his arms and make scary faces when the boys try to come and play with me. (He says I'm so pretty that it's dangerous. I don't know what that means, really, but maybe that's why the boys all seem afraid to come play at our house? I don't want to be dangerous but all the boys are stupid anyway so it's okay.)
We have a good life, Dad. Daddy just bought us a television set about two months ago and it's really swell. My favorite program is I Love Lucy. Mommy says that television is going to ruin the world but I think she's silly. She says she will always want to listen to the radio instead and she only lets us watch two programs a night before she turns it off and makes us go play. I caught her and Daddy watching it once after we went to bed so I think she's just being stingy.
Mommy is a singer now. When you knew her, she was a secretary but now she sings! She doesn't get to do it very much because we keep her busy but sometimes, she goes into the city and sings on stage with a whole orchestra behind her! Daddy took me to see her once and the whole place was full of people and they all clapped for her. I was so proud of her and Daddy was, too. She says when we all get a little bit older, she's going to try to do it more because it makes her happy.
Uncle Finn comes around a lot. You never met him but he's Daddy's best friend now that you're gone. They met in the war after Daddy got hurt. Uncle Finn loves to bring us candy and cookies and then Mommy yells at him for it but it never stops him from doing it again. He's got a new lady friend named Tina and I really like her. She one of Aunt Quinn's friends and she looks exotic, like she's from another country, and Daddy said he thinks Uncle Finn is going to marry her. He says that Uncle Finn is a big dope and doesn't know when he's got a good thing but that he thinks that Tina might be just what he needs. I hope! I haven't been in a wedding in six years! The last time I got to wear a pretty dress and walk down the aisle was when Aunt Quinn got married. I know she's not really my aunt but she's like an aunt because she's at our house all the time. She's got a baby in her belly right now and so Uncle Artie makes her stay home a lot. Mommy said that you grew up with Uncle Artie so I don't have to tell you who he is, either. He gives us rides in his wheelchair and he told me a bunch of stories about you from when you and him were little kids. You did some really stupid things when you were my age, Dad. Daddy says that you were an angel compared to how bad he was but then he refuses to tell me about what he used to do. He told me that I have to wait until I'm older but I'll probably just ask Grandma Miriam because she loves to tell me goofy things about Daddy when he's not around.
I spent the night at Grandma Eleanor and Grandpa George's house the other night and sometimes when Mommy and Daddy say they need time alone, we all go stay with Grandma Shelby and Grandpa Walter. I have more grandparents than any of my friends but that just means I get more birthday and Hanukah presents.
My hand is hurting and everybody is waiting on me to leave to go to your grave so I'm going to end this letter now. I really just wanted to write you like Mommy used to so I could say thank you. I know I've never met you but I know all about you and what a hero you were. Mommy says that you loved me enough before I was even born that you sent Daddy to us to make sure that we would always be happy. So I'm actually writing to say thanks for that, Dad, because we are happy. Really, really, really happy.
Author's Note: Thank you ALL for reading and reviewing. I'm happy you came on this journey with me!