The Summer of ’44

During World War II, Dr. Sydney Stringer, a Syracuse surgeon, was called up for duty in the U.S. Army. In 1944, he went overseas, arriving in North Africa in May. Back in the States, his wife and four children waited for his return. Also considered a member of the family was Eula Mae Jordan, who Helen Stringer described as “my faithful friend and first assistant in the unpredictable care of our fast-growing family.” The correspondence between Sydney Stringer and Helen Dann Stringer was collected in 1997 in a volume entitled Letters of Love and War: A World War II Correspondence, edited by Mrs. Stringer.

It is an extraordinary collection; I was drawn to it because of the stateside family’s rental of a cottage on West Lake Road in the summer of 1944, a time when Dr. Springer had followed the battle lines to Italy. Here are a few excerpts:

Skaneateles Lake, July 2, 1944, V-Mail

Dearest Syd,

We are here at last! … after the children were tucked in I made up the bed on the sleeping porch, hopped into it between our very own sheets and went to sleep hours before dark. The cottage is quite isolated, seems more so since the leaves have come out.

1 a.m., July 3, 1944

Nancy started to bleed from the tonsillar bed about seven o’clock tonight. I called Dr. Dolan in Skaneateles who said he had nothing here to work with and that I should get her into the hospital in Syracuse. We have no telephone here so old Mr. Bentley who lives next door in a ramshackled cottage helped me literally break into a cottage where I could see there was a phone. Called Dr. O’Connor who told me to bring her right away… She seemed fine as I left her sleeping on the children’s ward again. I drove back about 4 a.m. with the  moon shining on the road all the way.

“Skanny” as Dann says, July 5, 1944

The lake is beautiful. This side has high cliffs. Down at the shore the children have found an old flat-bottomed boat. They had a fine time rocking in it as they ‘sailed to Italy’ to see you.

Sunday morning, July 9, 1944

I’m down on the stones by the lake in the sunshine with the children this morning. David is perched on the prow of the beached boat swishing an oar in the water and having a wonderful time. He’s getting husky and tanned and big. Looks much older than a year and a half…

And later–once again it is night. The children have been asleep since seven o’clock. The storm threatened so I put all the lawn chairs on the porch and piled up the pillows. So far a good stiff wind has cooled us without a drop of rain. White caps suddenly appeared on the lake. And now thunder, as the lights go off. Not even a flicker. In spite of everything I treasure this comparative solitude. Besides catching up on my own equanimity, it is giving me a perfect setting for being close to the children again as I want to.

July 18, 1944

Good morning. The morning sun is shimmering in a pathway across the lake. It’s seven o’clock and cool. And now down to breakfast of pancakes and bacon while the children toast their toes in front of the fire.

Dann and Dick have figured out a way to play basketball by throwing a big rubber ball into the wood basket. It is so good to have imaginations take over and to let them run more or less loose.

July 19th

I took Danny out alone in the rowboat for his first lesson. He did very well–fine coordination. Very proud of himself. All the youngsters are re-tanning, look marvelous.

We are off for a walk up to the main road by the lane to the cow pasture. Stopped yesterday to watch the sheep. Danny thought the brown hens were white hens which had gotten sunburned!

July 26, 1944

I drove the car down close to the cottage tonight to unload the ice. You should see me heave a 50-pound block into the ancient ice box. Afterward I found David on top of the kitchen table on all fours with the cookie jar open and his mouth filled.

July 29, 1944

The children have been in the water twice daily–loving it. After the morning dip we all walked up to the farm to buy two chickens and a dozen eggs. Down into the cellar we went to watch the farm hand clean the birds. Dick looked at the pail of entrails and whispered he never knew chickens had so many worms. Life is a constant revelation to him.

July 31, 1944

The month here has been healthy for all of us. I am on an evener keel. The children sleep soundly, look tanned and beautiful, eat heartily and are even learning to do a few chores.

August 8, 1944

Yesterday did you hear us all singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you as we rode along the West Lake road to town?

August 18, 1944, One a.m.

The Hand family  heard about my broken foot. Stopped in with their children. Invited me to see a movie in Auburn on the Life of Mark Twain. It was raining hard when we returned. You should have seen me sliding down the muddy hill. Even my crutch skidded! We had a good laugh.

August 21, 1944

Wish you could see the baby toad Danny captured in a jar this morning. Name is John. And the bugs he catches to feed him! Tonight they are all up in the field catching grasshoppers. They don’t need toys.

August 23, 1944, Skaneateles at night

We all went into town yesterday–to the library. It was good to see the four of them sitting at a little table looking at picture books. And David was as gentle as he turned the pages as the rest. Dick kept trying to whisper because he was in the ‘Liberry.’ Then to the drugstore for ice cream cones.

August 31, 1944

This note comes from a ‘Jitter Bug Joint’ outside the village. After seeing a mediocre movie, Fran McC. and I are watching a bunch of local youngsters and their sailor partners sway to music without taking a step. One of the aspects of this behavior is to look as bored as possible.

September 10, 1944

From now on I know what mopping-up operations entail. Yesterday when I came back from town the entire interior of this house and everything in it was covered with a heavy layer of SOOT–black, oily, sticky, smearing. Something went flooey with the kerosene water heating system while we were gone and it simply vomited black evil all over the place. Oily soot filtered into drawers upstairs leaving a layer of the stuff on all the clean clothes. What with three babies with diarrhea–and me too–and no Eula Mae. I have scrubbed and mopped and mopped and scrubbed today until I broke the mop! The worst moment was when we first came into the house. I sat down on the sooty couch with my white cast suddenly black and began to cry. All four of our children stood in front of me–laughing. Nancy, bless her, said quietly, “Mother, you look so funny when you cry.”

September 15, 1944

I never realized until today, when I took a car full of duffle into the house, how very glad I am to be actually going home and that we have a home to go to rather than an apartment or a room with kitchen privileges! The children are all better today and eager to see home again.

* * *

On September 16, 1944, the family returned to their house in Syracuse, which had been rented to other tenants. Sydney Stringer returned to the United States and was reunited with his family in Syracuse on August 5, 1945.

I can’t say enough about this book. It’s a remarkable collection of letters, a wonderful story.

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