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Patches tells the tale of one woman's life, Wilma, through a series of interwoven short stories. The stories begin in 1943 when we learn that Wilma's father, recently drafted into the army, is about to leave for boot camp. Wilma, an infant and the first born of this young couple, sleeps in her mother's arms as her parents bicker. The sadness and fear of the impending separation looms large.
Roger, Wilma's father, returns home after the war a changed man. Angry and sullen, Roger is unable to hold down a job and becomes like a ghost moving in and out of the family life. Wilma's mother, Pearl, with only meager resources, struggles to piece together a life for her family.
During the Cold War, Roger becomes obsessed with the fear of a nuclear war and builds a bomb shelter in the back yard. Wilma fearful of an atomic bomb attack worries that she will not live to be sixteen. But she does and with much maneuvering manages to go to a junior college by saving her money working as a power sewing machine operator.
Eventually, Wilma moves out of her parent's house, vowing to be a stronger woman than her mother. Throughout her ordeals, she struggles to come to terms with her past and find inner peace.