My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the
only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.
We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.
But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me. “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”
I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.
But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.
Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies. We finished high school and went away to college.
During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.
At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.
Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.
We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left behind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.
In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”
Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.
After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.
When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence
Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.
Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.