Yesterday was February 29. So every four years February becomes doubly important to me. This is the day that it is permitted that a woman may pop the question to her man. It's not so fashionable these days but it proved quite acceptable to my dad in the year 1944.
His ship was hit by one of the first guided missiles brought into play by those pesky Germans in the last great war. That fateful day was September 13, 1943. That number 13 played a big role in my dad's life. He was born on a 13th and he died on a 13th.
After a temporary patch job the HMS Uganda limped across the Atlantic and into the port of Charleston, SC. He spent almost a year in this fair city while his ship underwent repairs. He and his mates enjoyed the hospitality of the South while waiting to sail back into the war action. He began seeing a young lady her on James Island and used to take the city bus out of the city to visit her.
On one of those bus rides all the seats were taken and he grabbed hold of one of the hanging straps to steady himself as he stood in the moving bus. He told me, many years later, that his eye caught sight of a beautiful brunette sitting by the window. An older woman was sitting beside her. He kept glancing her way as she stared out the window. Eventually their eyes met as he glanced over for the umpteenth time. She smiled. He looked away quickly.
At the next stop the woman beside her got up to leave. Dad looked over as she got up and my mother looked at him with a broad grin on her face. He turned away again.
"You know you are welcome to sit her," she said to him.
"Were you speaking to me?"he said bashfully.
"Yes, you can sit here. I won't bite, you know," she said with that smile he found intoxicating.
A smile lit his face as he sat in the adjoining seat. They began to talk while the bus took him closer to the home of his young lady. The telephone pole with the bus stop sign painted on it came up. He rose to leave the bus. To his shock she stood up as well. When their conveyance stopped he was waiting for the door to open so he could leave. She was right behind him.
"I'm not following you," she said. "This happens to be my stop as well."
"Oh," mumbled my dad. "I guess we part ways here then. I will be heading that way." He pointed up the street.
"So am I," she said. "My house is just around that corner."
"May I accompany you?" he asked, smiling.
"You certainly may."
He walked her to her door.
"Well, here we are," she said turning to him.
"Yes, here we are."
"I certainly have appreciated your company," she said hesitating to open the door.
"Um, may I see you again?" Dad said haltingly.
"What about your lady friend you've come to see?"
"It is not what you think."
"Yes? And what do I think?"
"Uh, well... I don't know. I just know I would very much like to see you again." His eyes ducked to the ground then back to hers.
Her smile captivated him once again.
"I would very much like that, too."
They made plans for a future meeting and she finally after a few minutes of silence broke off the entrancement.
"Well, so long, then," she said reaching for the door knob.
"Yes, until we meet again this weekend."
She went inside. He turned to walk back to the road. He stood at the edge of her yard looking at the door. He snapped his lighter shut taking a long drag on his Players. He stood like that with a silly grin on his face for a full five minutes then turned to head back to the bus stop. His girl would have to forget him.
My mother watched him through the curtain. Her face radiated a happiness she had never felt before.
"What are you doing, daughter?" It was my granddad coming from the kitchen. He was surprised by the smile on her face and the sparkle in her eyes.
"I just met the man I'm going to marry." Her statement was emphatic.
"Oh, you've said that before," he said but he noticed a look he had never seen before. He smiled with acceptance his daughter's pronouncement.
"When are you going to bring him to the house to meet with your mother and me?"
"I don't know, poppa, but I will as soon as I can."
Their lives began to intermingle more with each passing date. The meeting with the parents came up eventually. My granddad liked him immediately. My grandmother, not so much.
"He's a foreigner, Robbie," she said to my granddad after my mother and dad had left for their movie.
"Yes, but a good man. I can tell. Our daughter could not do any better over here. You've seen the boys she has brought around. Nice kids but no one I'd want her to spend her life with."
"He'll want to take her to England when the war is over. What'll we do then."
"Let's not worry about that now. This war is not over. He has to go back to sea and who knows what will happen between now and then. Don't upset yourself so."
My grandmother agreed but the worry never left her.
February arrived and they were still seeing one another. The fourteenth came with all its Valentine ring. Dad offered my mother a wrapped box. She ripped through the wrapping.
"It's a bag," she said.
"Yes, it is. I made it for you," he said a shy smile on his face.
It was blue with a Union Jack on the flap. Inside it was white satin. The beading around the edge was red, white and blue.
"You made it?"
"It's wonderful. Thank you so much."
"You are so welcome," he mumbled in her ear as the hugged.
The day ended with dad walking her home, then returning to the bus for the trip back to the naval base.
"You know he will be leaving as soon as his ship is finished?" My grandmother met her at the door.
"Yes, I do," answered my mother closing the door. "You have to know that I plan to marry him before he leaves."
"No!" stormed my grandmother. "I forbid it!"
"He is the man I will marry!"
It ended there with my grandmother smoldering at the door. The bedroom door slammed.
The fact that it was leap year was the icing on the cake for my mother.
"It's the one time a woman can ask a man to marry her," she told her friend. "On the 29th I'm going to ask him."
"But he's English, ain't he?"
"So? What's the problem with his being English?" asked my mother.
"You gonna go ta England?"
"When the war is over, maybe."
"So you gettin' married before he goes back to sea?"
"I don't know. We'll figure that our when he says yes."
"How you know he'll say yes."
"Because he has to..." answered my mother.
The 29th arrived. It was another movie date. My mother had been practicing asking in her mind for a long time.
When the movie was over she stopped him on the way out.
"Stand right there for a minute," she said hands on his shoulders as much to steady herself as to stop him moving. She looked at him trying to speak as he pulled a cigarette from a pack and lit it.
"I want to ask you..."
Puzzled, my dad watched her. "Yes?"
"I want to ask..."
"Well go on then..." he pushed her.
"For heaven's sake, dear, ask away."
"I want to ask you to marry me," she said then caught her breath.
"It's leap year as you know and I can ask so I'm asking. Will you marry me?"
He looked at her.
"Yes, I most certainly will." He grinned taking her into his arms. "I most certainly will, my darling."
It was settled. They would marry.
Over the months my mother was making plans. My grandmother was still smoldering and objecting. No notice was taken by my mother. Her life was on track, war or no war, they were going to have a life together.
My dad was sent to Philadelphia during this time. My mother was devastated. Dad stayed drunk the entire time he was there. I came across pictures long after this episode of his time in that city. His eyes drooped in his alcoholic haze. I asked why the pictures were cut. My mother looked at them with distaste in her eyes.
"Your dad was drunk and he was staying at a family's home. Their daughter wanted him for a son-in-law. I cut her out of every picture."
When dad came back my grandmother had practically ended my mother's dream.
L H was a good friend of my mother's. Actually, he was in love with her. She had been very unhappy while dad was away. L H was worried about her. Asking what he could do to make her happy, she had answered, "Help me elope."
He told her that he just wanted her to be happy.
"Then help us."
He did just that. He took her to the bureau to get a license then set up the appointment for marriage and collected them together for the ride over to the office. He stood as best man and handed dad the ring when it was called for.
Hand in hand the left the office, stars in their eyes. L H looking a touch weary drove them to my grandmother's to tell them the good news.
They pulled up in the front of the house. There were bags piled on the lawn. My granddad came out to meet them.
"Hello daughter. Hello son. No need going inside. Your mother won't see you. She's packed your bags and left them here so she doesn't have to see you."
Dad's face heated with anger.
"Let me go talk.."
"No, son. It will do no good. Let me help you get the bags in the car."
Dad looked at the house then turned to the baggage on the lawn. He picked it up and tossed it into the car.
As they got into L H's car granddad came close to the window.
"I love you daughter. So does your momma. She's just really hurt right now. It'll get better."
"She.." dad started.
"No need, son. I understand. For me, I want to welcome you to the family. My daughter couldn't have found a better man anywhere. You two make a good life for yourselves."
L H drove off. Granddad, looking tired and sad, waved as the truck pulled away.
My dad had to scramble to get my mother on a ship in a convoy headed for England. She sailed on a battleship in a huge convoy leaving New York. Dad reported to his next assignment and sailed to the South China Sea where he spent most of the remainder of the war and then some.
My mother was met when the ship docked by my dad's family. granddad took to her immediately. My grandmother never truly did.
And so ends my tale of Leap Year 1944, a fortuitous year for my parents and in the end for me.