July 12, 2012

postcards: catalina, 1930

They had never been on a trip like this together. Myrtle had never even seen the ocean before. Frank had spent some years in the Navy, and sure, he had told her all his stories. But the stories tended to center on people and events: the time he got into trouble on leave, or the ways he and his sailor friends entertained themselves on their 60-day stints out on the water. She always asked him to describe the ocean to her - she had seen pictures, but they looked like something from a painting, and beyond anything she could grasp from her own experience. He was never much of one for poetry, and the only words he used were “immense” and “impossible to describe.” But she could tell in those moments how he welled up inside with the nostalgia of those memories. His breath seemed to drift up slowly from his diaphragm, high into the top of his head. He grew a little taller, even as his expression softened: a juxtaposition of posture and expression exactly opposite of his usual self. And this light would come into his eyes, as all that soft breath settled at the top of his strong, level head: it was like looking into a reel projector at the tiny circular source of the image it projected out into the darkness, the microscopic scene playing out in its most true form from the reel. Myrtle loved these moments.She had not really been prepared for her own first trip to the ocean, for the wonder of it all. Frank’s words had failed to conjure up much, they seemed so bland and generic. She attributed it to his maleness, his seeming inability to communicate in these conversations and every other. Now that she was out on the water herself, she understood his wordlessness for the first time, and perhaps the most she had in their twenty years of marriage so far. She sat down to write the postcard to the Carlsons, their kind-hearted neighbors who were watching the girls for them while they were away. As she set her pen to the picture postcard of the Catalina ship, she tried to harness the words that had flooded her mind at that first glimpse of the water from the shore. "Lovely, majestic, breathtaking, endless, powerful, serene, captivating, gorgeous, magnificent, marvelous, amazing..." She summoned the words to the tip of her tongue and willed them to organize themselves into neat and orderly sentences, but they failed her grasp and danced away into the back of her mind as she wrote.They had set out on their journey from Chicago in celebration of their twentieth anniversary of marriage. Myrtle had been hinting that she would like to find a proper way to celebrate ever since their fifteenth anniversary, which had come and gone without any proper sense of the milestone she believed it to be. The girls were just ten and thirteen then, and Frank had just started his new job. Their finances were tight, she knew, and he couldn’t take much time off. So she hadn’t made a problem of it; she did not like to be a pessimist. Instead, she put her focus on the next milestone to come: year twenty. She tried to wait a fair amount of time to mention her hopes to Frank. She shut down her thoughts anytime she caught herself daydreaming about what type of celebration they might choose. But she could not help letting her mind wander from time to time. A big theme party? She had read in a magazine a list of the top trends in themes. Flappers (this would be fun if they chose to dress in costume), Speakeasies (certainly an adults-only party, and Italian was such a fashionable new cuisine), and Murder Mysteries (this one was her personal favorite to consider, as she was quite taken with a newer author named Agatha Christie and could imagine a million possible ways to incorporate her theme): these had been her favorites from the list. 

She did not mention a word until one week before their sixteenth anniversary, when Frank asked if she would press his best white shirt in time for a celebratory dinner. She had, of course, already thought of this, but she simply said, “Yes, dear.” She paused to let him continue, as she knew he would. “Where would you like to go to celebrate?” His questions and planning always arrived out of order. She mentioned the new steakhouse downtown and he nodded in agreement; he would make sure to be home by five-thirty sharp that night so they could take their time and enjoy their evening. She appreciated that she did not have to explain this to him. Once he thought of something, he was pretty good about the execution. And she praised him now, “Thank you, dear, that will be really nice,” before she continued on to plant the seeds of hope for year twenty with a quick mention of her idea for a party.
By January 1930, at the turn of the new year, her list of ideas had grown even longer: Mickey Mouse was a very fashionable new cartoon in the papers, and seemed like a perfect fit for a family party that might include the children as well. And a “Hollywood” themed party would offer many ideas for costume and decor and could be tailored to any group dynamic. Myrtle was proud of her discretion: she had mentioned her high hopes to Frank just once in each interim year leading up to 1930, and always in relation to the current year’s plans, looking lightly ahead. If she knew anything about her husband, it was his dislike of nagging women, whether it was her or his sister or their neighbor-friends. He believed that nothing needed to be so complicated as all that fussing and nagging. So she dropped her thoughtful mention each year and hoped that it would all work out when it came time.
In March, as the weather warmed a bit and Springtime came on the horizon, she considered bringing up her ideas for a party. The days grew busier as the school year approached its end, but each night, after the girls retreated to their rooms and all the dishes were put away, Myrtle and Frank spent a quiet hour or two in the living room together on the sofa. The stress of his day dictated whether or not they would invite the company of the Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcast in to join them on the Crosley Bandbox radio that was Frank’s pride and joy. Many nights he chose to read instead, or to complete the crossword puzzles he clipped from the newspaper each morning and saved in his old cigar box on the bottom shelf of Myrtle’s round English mahogany side table next to the sofa. She sat on the other end of the sofa with her knitting: a baby blanket in pink or blue for their newest relative, or a brightly-colored winter hat or scarf for the latest charity project her group of friends had chosen as their cause. Typically, their conversation remained brief, but one or two nights a week the words would stretch out longer and they would dive deeper into the learnings of one another that came with a good discussion.
It was a Tuesday night when Myrtle decided it was time to bring it up officially. Frank had a good day at work and the girls had gone to bed, and it was not yet time for their radio program to begin. In the quiet of the evening and the soft light of their two matching lamps, she pulled out her knitting just as Frank shuffled through his crossword clippings to make his choice. She waited for just the right moment. His short pencil began to scratch over his crossword in rhythms like Morse code. Her fingers back on a knit row, she kept her eyes down as she began. “Frank dear, I have been thinking about our anniversary.” “Oh?” “Well, as you know, I would like to celebrate a little bit more this year, and so I have been thinking of themes and ideas.” She paused. She looked across the sofa to catch his eyes, to see if he was keeping up alongside her as she chose her next words. But the light in his eyes was much brighter than she expected, and his eye contact much quicker, more immediate than usual. And his answer left her speechless: “How about we take a trip to California to celebrate?" 
“I am on this ship bound for Catalina and very thrilled. I am on the Pacific and it is a beautiful day. We get a trip on the glass bottom boat and another trip on the island also our lunch. Myrtle”

(To read more about my postcard prompts, click here!)

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