Americans rejoiced on May 8, 1945, when Germany surrendered and President Truman declared V-E Day. In the small Iowa town of Guthrie Center I had another reason to celebrate. The following Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I had the best mom a 7-year-old boy could ever want.
My mother was all-wise, all-knowing, and capable of magic. Her knowledge of celestial matters comforted a frightened son when she explained window-shaking thunder claps were caused by angels moving their furniture. When I asked how the light came on when we opened the refrigerator door, she displayed an understanding of the principles of electricity. A little man named Yahoody, she told me, lived inside and turned the light on and off. She even let me climb inside the refrigerator while defrosting it to look for Mr. Yahoody. I swear I caught a glimpse of him. And I witnessed Mom’s magical qualities when she and her trusty sewing machine reduced a surplus army uniform to my size, complete with a khaki shirt, tie, and overseas cap. Perhaps thinking I was too young to be an officer, she awarded me the stripes of a master sergeant and a marginally deserved red and white good conduct campaign ribbon.
I figured the best mother deserved the best Mother’s Day gift, and I intended to find it. After skipping two Saturdays of ice cream cones to amass 10 cents for a present, I raced across the grassy courthouse lawn, a thin silver coin tightly squeezed in a sweaty palm, heading for Beach’s dime store.
My trips to Beach’s usually involved a candy mission. This time, however, I bypassed the sloped glass candy bins and headed straight for a counter filled with barrettes, combs, lipstick, and other lady things. I looked and sorted, examining item after item in search of the perfect Mother’s Day present. And I found it! An eye-popping piece of jewelry in the form of a plastic bullet-shaped lapel pin, khaki in color, and adorned with a gold star.
I knew stars meant importance. Our flag had stars, General Eisenhower had stars, and houses had pennants in their windows with stars, a blue one for each family member serving in the armed forces and an occasional gold star with special significance I did not understand. Our neighbors across the street, the Elys, had a pennant with two blue stars, while we had none. It almost seemed our patriotism was in doubt. I could fix that in one swoop by awarding my deserving mother the gold-starred bullet.
“I would like to buy this,” I said to the kindly, silver-haired Mr. Beach, and handed him a moist dime.
“Sonny,” he replied, “you do understand this pin is for a gold-star mother, don’t you?”
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“Uh-huh,” I responded, thinking gold star meant extra special instead of his reference to a mother who had lost a son or husband in the war.
I skipped along the three blocks of Guthrie Center’s business district, crossed Fifth Street after looking both ways twice, and sprinted the remaining two blocks home, arriving out of breath and bursting with anticipation.
“Here, Mommy,” I said in handing her a small white sack. “This is your Mother’s Day present.”
Mom turned from her sewing machine. Her eyes glistened. Without a word, she took the gift in one hand and wrapped her other arm around me in a tight squeeze. She held me close for several moments before slipping a hankie from her apron pocket and dabbing at her eyes. “Sweetheart, that’s so thoughtful of you,” she said. “I can hardly wait until tomorrow to peek in the sack.”
“Can’t ya open it now, Mommy,” I begged. “Please. Pretty please with sugar and ice cream on it. You can wear it to church tomorrow.”
Mom placed her hands on my shoulders. “You know we have a rule against opening presents early,” she started. Then she smiled and continued, “I guess we can treat this Mother’s Day differently. Let’s see what’s in here.”
My eyes glowed with anticipation as a nimble hand reached into the sack and removed the plastic bullet. A puzzling moment of hesitation followed. Then my mother produced a large smile, hugged me, and exclaimed, “This is just beautiful. I’ve been looking for one of these for a long time.”
“Aren’t ya gonna put it on?” I asked.
“I think we better wait ’til tomorrow?” my mother responded. “We wouldn’t want anyone to know I opened my gift early.”
As always, Mom was right. I would have to wait another day to admire the bullet pin on her lapel.
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The next morning I waited anxiously at the foot of the stairs for my mother to descend sporting her new khaki jewelry with the gold star. Alas, she wasn’t wearing it.
Tears formed. My lower lip quivered. “Where’s your pin?” I asked.
“Oh,” Mom replied. “I wouldn’t think of wearing it outside the house. It’s just too precious to risk losing.”
Once again, Mom knew the right words at the right time. I yielded to her superior wisdom and resigned myself to sitting in church beside my unadorned mother while the handsome gold star pin remained at home.
For several months afterward, until the war ended and Mom told me wartime jewelry was no longer appropriate, she wore the bullet pin in the house on the strap of her apron. Whenever guests arrived, she slipped off the apron and hung it in the hall closet.
As time passed I learned of the true meaning of a “Gold Star Mother,” and have smiled ever since at my mother’s artful dodging of the embarrassment of the bullet pin while shielding a loving son from disappointment.
Decades of Mother’s Days passed before Mom was called on high to help the angels move their furniture. I made a sad survey of her personal possessions, including a purple, velvet-covered jewelry box. Pinned to the satin top inside I found the plastic bullet with the gold star and a note in Mom’s handwriting: “Mother’s Day 1945.”
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org