Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perspective on an Unusual Veteran

My aunt Celia never wore any underpants. I never could figure out why, but then I never met her until she was in her sixties, and, at that point, it seemed rude to ask. Not that she was immodest. Quite the contrary. She always dressed in tailor made lavender suits, with hems five inches below her knees, remarkable considering her measly pension from the U.S. Army and the State of California. She never left the premises without white gloves and fancy hats. At her neck, she sported either a purple chiffon scarf or lace folded carefully over the suit lapel, usually matching the embroidered handkerchief, with a monogrammed C tucked in her black leather purse. She once advised me (unsolicited) I could never get a decent job if I continued to carry Kleenex in my purse to an interview.

I never understood Celia. For one thing, she looked and acted so differently than her brothers Sandy and Gus, the latter being my father. Whereas Celia was pale, squat and round, they were thin and swarthy. All were small of stature, but their genes produced rugged Western men, most at home in the saddle. All were born before 1900, poor children of the Rocky Mountains, their father eking out a living at whatever presented itself; cattle, sheep, or horse trading, mostly, near Trinidad, Colorado. From stories I’ve heard, there was gambling and womanizing thrown in, also. Often shuttled from relative to relative, mother deceased, its a wonder that any of the children survived. In their teens they were taken in by a distant aunt and uncle in Maine, a strict religious household, which troubled all three. Sandy was placed in a boarding school for delinquents. Gus ran away, and rode the rails back to Colorado. Celia, however, persevered, and made it to the Boston School of Nursing, from which she graduated a year later at 19. The year was 1918.

Concurrent with her graduation, the Red Cross was actively recruiting nurses. Celia enlisted. Two weeks later she found herself on a troop ship crossing the Atlantic to France. Half way across the loud speaker on the ship ordered all Red Cross nurses above deck. There the captain reported a sub had been sighted, and the president had ordered all Red Cross nurses be sworn in as Army nurses. On pitched decks they raised their right hands and took the oath.
Back below, they were given physicals. The requirements were that a nurse must be 5'2". Celia, at 4'11", was instructed to stand on her toes.
Soon followed three years nursing the wounded in France, often in field hospitals set up in trenches. Celia told me that often all she could do was hold a soldier's hand while an arm or leg was amputated without anesthetic. At one point she had a "beau" as she called it, a wounded soldier. Alas, he died. She never married, and returned following the armistice to become a public health nurse.
She lived to age 94 in spite of a bad heart, macular degeneration, and a trying life.

Though I tried hard to be a good niece, it was a struggle for me. I found her rigid and judgemental, and her religiosity over bearing, nothing like my gentle, loving father. I suppose I carried resentment that he died so young, and that in my later years I was burdened with her care. She found me liberal, immodest, and irreverent. Its a loss to both of us that we struggled unsuccessfully to understand each other. I really don't know how she found the courage and wits to survive. She was so brave.

All that aside, when I saw today the American Legion table at the local Safeway, I felt a potato sized lump in my throat.

Women veterans are so seldom truly honored, I feel. I salute you on this Veteran’s Day, Celia M Crosse, RN. A true veteran of the First World War.

1 comment:

Sheila said...

wonderful story, beautifully was not easy in the "good old days." My Dad was a veteran of WWII...He and my Mom were greatly affected by the war...and since they were, so was I.