Exactly seventy years ago today 160,000 Allied troops stormed German-held western Europe from the bloody beaches of Normandy. France. I was thirteen, living in a rooming house in Seattle with my father and big sister, so I vaguely remember the headlines in the Seattle Times and Post Intelligencer. My sister would soon marry a handsome Ensign in the Navy, who would serve in the Pacific theatre on the heavy cruiser St. Louis. My father, too old for active service, was serving in the Coast Guard Reserve, as well as helping the government in various secret ways regarding radar and underwater communications, his professional expertise with the telephone company. Most all of my male ancestors on both sides served in the military, and my father even served in the US Cavalry. Patriotism was in my blood, one might say, and yet it never enveloped me..
It was some thirty plus years later when I would first meet my father's older sister, the most patriotic person I ever met. Veteran's Day was the most important day of the year to her. Aunt Celia was already retired at this time from her later career as a public health nurse. She was living alone in an apartment in Los Angeles, and soon to move into a US Army domicillary.
I would probably never have met her except Lee guilt-tripped me into it. "Your Aunt Celia is all alone" she commented regularly. "You should make an effort to meet her." And so I did.
From the beginning it was an awkward association. She loved me because I was her little brother's child, and because she needed me, but she never understood me, nor I her. I found her high squeaky voice, judgmental attitudes and Republican mentality off-putting. She found my informality and life values beyond tolerance. Lee and I supported her financially and somewhat lovingly until her death at age 96. At times I suffer guilt that I never truly loved her or got past our differences. Perhaps I could have tried harder.
In the downsizing before I moved up here I eliminated almost all of what was left of her earthly possessions. Yesterday, the anniversary of D day seemed like an appropriate time to go through the one shoe box left: her war records, diaries, and photographs, not of Normandy but of the first Great War. I hold in awe the stories of her service in France, some of which she told me in the years we knew each other. And so for my creative writing group last night I wrote the following. I have written in first person, in the hopes it would bring me closer to understanding her. I've taken some liberties in creating dialogue.
Stand On Your Tiptoes
Even though I knew none of my family would be there to see me, my pious aunt and uncle who raised me the last few years being too poor to make the trip from Northern Maine, I stood on my tiptoes for the photograph of our graduating class of June, 1918, from the Boston School of Nursing. I was nineteen, and it was certainly the proudest day of my whole life, or so I thought.
Shortly thereafter the Great War was declared and I enlisted with the American Red Cross.. With 750 other nurses we were loaded on a troop ship to France.
The crossing was rough, and so it was with surprise that on the 7th day the ship’s captain ordered all of us on deck. “A U boat has been sighted,” he announced over the loud speaker. “The president has ordered all nurses to be inducted into the army.” He continued without a pause: ”Raise your right hand”. After the oath was administered we were once again ordered below deck, this time for our mandatory physical. All four foot eight of me was quaking in my bare feet. When the doctor got to me he frowned. The army required inductees to be five feet minimum. “Stand on your tiptoes” he commanded. I did. “Passed” he said.
What followed was four years in rural France staffing field hospitals, often in the trenches. Without chloroform, which was scarce, I would hold the hand of soldier as his arm or leg was amputated. We were often standing in water, so my tiptoe practice came in handy.
I nursed and fell in love with a Brit. My beau, as I called him. He didn’t make it.
When the armistice was declared we were sent to Paris for mustering out. A giant parade was scheduled and all of us nurses were given an allotment to purchase a new uniform for the parade. Mine, like the rest, was filthy and in tatters. I was not about to spend money for a new uniform that would only be worn for a parade. So I took the money and bought a beautiful French chapeau with lavender and pink silk roses. And yes, I got in trouble on the day of the parade, but it was worth it.