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There are two dachshunds on my mantelpiece.

They are more than twins, because they are two images, each carved from a single block of wood, of a dog I never met. Her name was Gracie. Here she is:

On the underside of the smaller dachshund my mother wrote, in three short lines: “GRACIE, by Mary Meigs, 1940”

Speaking of twins, my mother, Sarah Meigs, was Mary’s fraternal twin. They were born on April 27, 1917, so when the United States entered World War 2 after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were still in their early 20’s. Their father had died exactly a year earlier. Soon enough Mary would become a WAVE and my mother Sarah would be secretly cracking Japanese codes for the War Department.

I like to think Gracie was a comfort in all that.

Watching the horrors in Ukraine has me thinking about wars and borders and all the terrible ways people’s lives are ended instantaneously or upended permanently in the blink of an eye.

Mary and Sarah were lucky. They didn’t go overseas. They went on living in Washington, D.C. with their mother and with Gracie.

My father, who in February of 1943 finally worked up the nerve to ask my mother to marry him, left the same day to return to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, and then be shipped by train to California, and from there to the South Pacific. He wrote Sarah almost every day, and she him, but their letters got delayed, often, for weeks. Mary wrote him too. Twins have a special closeness.

Mary, who in addition to sculpture, studied drawing, watercolor and oil painting, was inspired by one of my father’s letters to depict the tough-guy demoralization of privates by their superiors:

She folded it up and sent it off to the South Pacific and it eventually came home in his big, army-green, metal trunk now sitting in my basement. “T. BROWN  L.T. JG. MC.USNR”  is stenciled on its side. Dad was a battalion surgeon.

Sarah, in an agony of fear that she would lose her fiancé before she got to marry him, wrote him humorous anecdotes about her flirtations at the Officers Club and Gracie’s naughty behavior. My mother was very pretty. Mary painted her holding Gracie in her arms. Dad’s photo of Sarah got green with mold in the constant rain of the South Pacific, but we still have Mary’s painting:

On April 29, 1943, Dad wrote Gracie a letter. He wanted to apologize to her for tossing pebbles at her to make her short legs move faster, and he wanted her to drive off my mother’s suitors:

Dear Gracie,

It is indeed poetic justice that I, your erstwhile tormentor, should now be asking a favor of you. Doubtless the recollection of pebbles pelting down on your backsides is still fresh in your mind. That this was most irritating to you and most bruising to your maidenly dignity, I do not doubt and for this I am sincerely sorry. However, I feel that I must point out to you that this was all done in your best interests. Just think how good for your character it was to keep up with your associates for once while walking. Just think too how good it was for your already beautiful figure to arch your back and jump so jauntily. With these thoughts in mind I feel sure that you will lend a sympathetic ear to what I now have to say.

Of late you have noticed, no doubt, that many rank interlopers, Dogfaces, Marines, sailors and such trash, have been accompanying your mistress on walks and such likes. I understand that you have been unusually ‘recalcitrant’ on some of these walks, so I feel that you share my sentiments in regard to this trash. Might I suggest therefore that you assert yourself a little more firmly. After all, it is quite fitting that one of your standing in the Meigs family should so assert themselves and I assure you, you have my support in anything you do. Anyway what I had in mind was that you deftly and swiftly implant your incisors in each and every one of these objectionable characters. Said implantation of the ivories would of course be preferable if located in the seat of the pants; but I realize this would be flying rather high for one of your noble if diminutive proportions. Hence any accessible portion of the anatomy will do.

I do hope you share my feelings on this subject and will act accordingly. I assure you that if you do I will reward you handsomely on my return. Thanking you in advance I remain—

Your Obedient Servant,

Thornton Brown

It took me many weeks, at the beginning of the pandemic, to transcribe my father’s war letters. Still waiting to be transcribed are my mother’s, so I do not yet know what she said about Gracie’s reaction to my father’s request.

They are long gone, my parents, Mary, and of course Gracie. How strange that the unbearable things going on the world right now inspired me to track down these images and words from their young lives in the midst of war. Perhaps I had to do it because I find it so touching, the way that creativity keeps bubbling up in the midst of awfulness. Somehow, if they aren’t blown to bits, people find beauty and humor amidst the tatters.



Posted on: April 20, 2022

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