Nan Lemm


During World War II I was employed as a secretary to an Army Ordnance Major. I worked on the thirty-eighth floor of the Union Guardian skyscraper in Detroit, a building so tall we had to change elevators part way up to my office.


I remember a certain Monday in December of 1944. It was particularly cold that day. A light dusting of snow had fallen right on top of the mountains of snow still piled up from the last blizzard. Because of wartime restrictions merchants had no lighted displays and few decorations. Furthermore I was all alone. My husband, Fran, was in the Army. The most I could hope for was a letter to share my Christmas with.


On this dreary Monday I left work in a cloud-shrouded evening, not feeling very cheerful.  As was my routine each night, I would ride the  Grand River streetcar home. Then it was necessary to transfer to a bus, which dropped me off a few blocks from where I lived on Greenlawn.  (It cost six cents including a transfer.) On the corner of my stop was a small grocery store that had a meat counter.  I walked in the door hoping the meat cases would not be empty, but as usual they were. A housewife had to shop very early in the morning if she wanted to buy any meat…. that is if she had ration coupons to purchase any.  I would love to have been able to buy even some lunchmeat or cheese for sandwiches.  Alas, my dinner that night would again be milk and corn flakes.   The government never required ration stamps for them.

The Spartan meals I had at the time (mostly vegetables) were actually good for me as I had never been thinner.   However, lack of enough red meat made me anemic.  I tried to donate blood at the Red Cross, but they turned me down.  First of all, I was only 19, and they needed my husband’s consent. (I protested, feeling I was grown-up enough to make my own decision.)  Second, the condition of my blood didn’t meet their requirements. I was told that I should eat more foods rich in iron, such as red meat or else take iron pills, neither of which was affordable on my slim budget.

Carrying home my little supper of milk and cereal, I hurried down the street. Sharp winds were making eerie sounds as they whistled through the ice covered leafless trees and shrubs, I didn’t feel afraid walking alone, and I was grateful to be wearing the fur coat Fran had given me the previous year for our first Christmas together. In addition, I had on my snow boots and fur lined mittens, so I was quite warm. My head was covered with a fringed headscarf I made. We called them “babushkas”, however my ears were still cold.  


Strong winds pushing against my back helped to propel me to walk faster, trying hard not to slip and fall. As I swiftly walked along the darken streets, I could see small red and white flags hanging in different people’s windows.  They had yellow fringe along the bottom of the flag, and a blue star in the center, symbolizing the fact that there was a person in the household in a branch of military service.  I owned a flag too. For a little while, it had hung in my bay window.  After a short time, I began to feel that it was unwise to do that.  Instead I hung it facing the inside of the dinette. I didn’t want to alert some stranger that there might be a woman living alone in the house. I still have that flag to this day. I caught glimpses into the living room windows of some of my neighbors, where I could see many of them had lighted Christmas trees.  It made their homes looked so warm and cozy. I felt envious and even more lonely.


As I approached my little house, I saw that there were some letters in the porch mailbox. “Oh happy day!”  I knew there would be a letter from Fran. He was finishing basic training at Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas. Weeks earlier he applied for O.C.S. training and had qualified, but hadn’t been given word when the program would start.  Now that basic training was nearly over, many rumors floated around Company B at Camp Fannin, about what area Fran’s Company would be sent to, but all of the men would be kept in the dark as to their final destination until they were actually being loaded on a ship to go overseas.  Fighting was fierce in the Pacific, but things were really heating up in Europe.  The Allies were making an incredible defensive action in what would be called “The Battle of the Bulge.”  A huge number of soldiers were needed as replacements for fallen comrades.  Much later, I found out that was where Fran was being deployed. There was nothing definite in his letters.

Our house was cold and uninviting when I entered. I tried to get a fire started in the furnace, but there wasn’t much kindling wood, and I only had a small amount of paper to burn.  The coal bin was full.  Fran had seen to that. But we had received a load of all coke with no coal mixed in, and you needed coal to get a fire started.  After fruitless tries, I would usually give up, shut the door to the basement, close the door to the living room, and light the gas oven in my kitchen.  With the oven door open, the heat would slightly warm the combination kitchen and dinette.  This is where I would spend my evenings writing letters. It was fortunate I didn’t asphyxiate myself. I did have hot water to wash and bathe with, because fortunately the house had a gas hot water tank.


The phone was ringing as I opened the front door.  My heart pounded wildly. I hoped it might be my wonderful husband of one year, calling to tell me when he was coming home. But it was Mom calling to see how I was doing.  She invited me to come for dinner on Sunday.  I usually gave her nearly all of my food ration coupons, as I had little use for them. Incidentally, we were lucky to have any kind of phone at all.  The one installed for me by the phone company was already considered an antique.  It had a long black pipe stem, which held a speaker on the top and a dial at the bottom. A person using it had to bring the speaker up to their mouth holding on to the pipe stem. The receiver was on the end of a cord that was raised to the ear with the other hand.


Except for Mom’s call I had a quiet evening. I sat at the dinette table and ate my cereal.  Afterwords, I composed my nightly letter to Fran.  There wasn’t too much of interest to write about except news I learned about our families.  I tried keeping my letters cheerful so that he wouldn’t worry about me. Fran would have been interested, I’m sure, to read about what was in the material I typed for the Army that day, but I wasn’t allowed to do that. Aside from what the weather was like, there wasn’t much other news to write about, except to tell Fran I was fine, and how much I loved and missed him.


After laying out my clothes for the next day, I washed my spare pair of rayon stockings and rolled them in a towel.  They took two days to dry, particularly in a house with little heat. I missed not having nylons. Up until this time, I only owned one pair, and now they were impossible to

buy. Then I filled up a hot water bottle to place in the bed to warm it up a little.  I was shivering from the cold, so it took a little time to fall asleep.


Later on, about 2 A.M., I was having the best dream.  In it my husband was kissing me.  Then I awoke to find that I was really being kissed.  My husband was the first soldier in his unit to be shipped from Camp Fannin to Fort Meade…. before the rest of his buddies.  He had taken a train home from Texas.  He had a “delay-in-route” stopover to see me. Then he took a taxi from the train station to our house, and had just come in quietly, opening our door with his own key. I never knew he was there until I woke from my lovely dream.


What a joyous and romantic surprise! Our bed was now warm and cozy, and the whole house felt the same way.  We had a wonderful, glorious few days getting reacquainted, even though all the while aware we would have to part again soon. We didn’t know when or where we’d be together again, but in my heart I just knew that we would.


“All alone. I’m so all alone. There is no one here, but me.

All alone, by the telephone, waiting for a ring, a ting a-ling.

I’m all alone, every evening.  All alone feeling blue, wondering

Where you are and how you are, and if you are all alone too!”


Irving Berlin


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