March 29, 2023 marked the first anniversary of the release of Lita Tomas and Jean Marie McNamara’s book, Lita & Jean: Memoirs of Two Generations of Military Women. Since its release, the book that Publishing Review called “a vivid portrayal of service and sacrifice that is at once gritty and inspiring” has won Gold with the Nonfiction Authors Association and inspired an absolutely incredible audience.
Of course, a few hundred pages are not enough to cover every moment of the lives of these two remarkable women, and they still have many stories to tell. They share them on their podcast, at author talks like this one at the Chicago Public Library, and as a special event here in this blog post.
Jean wrote the following story about an important family friend for the first time. In doing so, she reveals the powerful value of community support and hits the themes of care and service that the book and their lives revolve around.
My mother’s first crush as a freshman in high school in 1969 turned out to be a lifelong family enrichment experience. Although she and Bob L. stopped dating before their senior year, they remain the closest of friends to this day. To my sister Kym and I, it has always been ‘Uncle Bob,’ although there was no family connection until many years later when Kym married Bob’s nephew. Pretty complicated, right? I know; that’s a story for another day!
Bob’s parents, Margie and Bob Sr. took us under their wings on many weekends as Bob Jr. and our mother went fishing or to a Cubs game. On many other weekends, we all hung out at ‘Grandma L’ and ‘Grandpa L’s’ house on the northern end of Oak Park.
Despite being only slightly larger structurally than my actual grandparents’ home to me, their home felt massive. Perhaps their home felt more expansive because there were far fewer people living there (three verses twelve), or maybe it was because everything was more formal and grand. Rooms were larger, ceilings were taller, and the bookcases on either side of the fireplace were filled with books, knickknacks, and gadgets. Since there were no young children in their family at the time, we were fawned over and treated as members of the family rather than friends.
Visits to their home were always a special treat. We would start our visit on the second floor, in the primary bedroom, helping Grandma L get dressed. She had had a stroke at an early age and lived with weakness on one side, which made some things challenging for her. Despite her challenges with day-to-day activities, she was always well-dressed, and her hair was always elegantly coiffured. My sister and I helped button her blouse and sweater and tie her shoes. I learned how to tie my shoes by tying Grandma L’s. Maybe it was easier to work on the intricacies of knots, loops, and bows while looking at the shoe from another angle. Maybe the environment was safe and conducive to learning. Maybe it was easier to act when I knew I was helping someone else. Whatever the case, it was here I laid that foundation.
We would then head down to the main floor to put a record on the record player as our mom set a fire in the fireplace. Grandma L liked to play cards and had an automatic card shuffling machine, a fascinating device. Grandpa L was either in his lounge chair drinking a martini or cooking in the kitchen. We would all sit in front of the fireplace with their black Labrador retriever to play cards, listen to music, or watch television.
Meals were always multi-course affairs served in the dining room on a table set with linen, china, crystal, and matching silverware. We were told to eat our broccoli, referred to as tiny trees, and fruit, which some evil genius had beautifully arranged throughout the otherwise perfectly good gelatin dessert. After dinner, Kym and I would help clear the table and load the dishwasher. Then it was back in front of the fireplace to listen to records or watch a Cubs game. Grandma L was a huge Cubs fan! She would keep the player stats on a pad of paper next to her easy chair.
As I look back on these pictures from forty-plus years ago, the first thing I notice is the honesty of our smiles. My sister and I weren’t necessarily the happiest kids. But this was our place of respite, our shelter in a storm. I will be forever grateful for that support and love and look to pass it forward.
To read more of Jean’s story, purchase the book here.
For more resources on Lita & Jean: Memoirs of Two Generations of Military Women, check out its homepage here. Book Club discussion questions, interviews with the authors, and more await!