Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mercy Percy!

When I was growing up, one of my favorite grown-ups was my Aunt Snow.

She wasn't really my aunt, she was my Dad's aunt. She was his mother's sister. His parents divorced, and he was raised by his mother, the youngest of six children of a prominent Texas clergyman. Aunt Snow was unmarried and helped my grandmother raise my Dad.

My grandmother died before I was born, but my three great-aunts filled the grandmother role for me and my brothers. They lived in Houston, Texas, and we received birthday cards and Christmas presents from them. Every winter they sent a case of Ruby-Red Texas Grapefruit to us - the fruit was wrapped in red and green cellophane we loved to play with. And although she was an old lady, Aunt Snow would fly up north to visit us - which seemed very adventurous of her.

In the 1960s, old ladies still dressed the way old ladies dress in Bugs Bunny cartoons today. They wore frocks or suits, carried handbags, and wore hats when they went out; little hats with veils.

Aunt Snow was great with kids, and we loved her Texas accent and her use of phrases like "you-all," so exotic to us in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Aunt Snow was eleven years older than my grandmother. Here's a picture of her as a young girl. In 1896, around the time this photo was taken, the family moved from Houston to Dallas, where their father was hired as the editor of the Texas Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper.

By the first decade of the 20th Century, things were changing, and women had more opportunities. Baylor University's School of Nursing began its degree program in 1909 in Dallas. Aunt Snow enrolled, and graduated in 1912 with her degree. Her father, who was important enough to publish his autobiography, included her portrait and noted her accomplishment in his book.

In 1915, Aunt Snow's father suffered a sudden bout of indigestion, which later proved to be a fatal heart attack. He died in the family home with his wife and Aunt Snow in attendance. She was 30 years old.

In the spring of 1918, America had joined the Allied Forces in the First World War in France. The Germans had mounted an offensive in March, and the American Expeditionary Force was taking high casualties. The Army Nurses Corps began recruiting nurses for duty in the war.

Aunt Snow signed up in August of 1918. She was 33 years old. She was first shipped out to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training. At Camp Shelby hospital, the nurses treated soldiers with measles, mumps, and meningitis.

At the beginning of November, she reported in at the Hotel Albert, at 11th Street and University Place in lower Manhattan. Though Armistice was signed on November 11th, there was still a great need for medical personnel in France. On the 22nd of November, she embarked from Hoboken, New Jersey for France.

Upon arriving in France, she was sent to U.S. Base Hospital Number 6. It was located in Bordeaux, and had been established by staffers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1917. Now that the war had ended, the Massachusetts staff was rotated out for home, relieved by new recruits like Aunt Snow.

Unlike the field hospitals, which were only 3 or 4 miles from the front lines, the base hospitals were large, and far enough from the battle to be safe. Base Hospital No. 6 was in Talence, and had been established in an old school.

Conditions between March 1918 and November had been horrendous for medical personnel, but arriving after Armistice meant that Aunt Snow missed the worst of the war. The field hospitals were disbanding. The horrible casualties were no longer coming in; the danger of shells and gas to nurses serving in the hospitals was no more.

Still, it was daunting. The Army's call for recruits during the tough times of summer had gone unfulfilled - snafus with transportation kept nurses like Aunt Snow stateside during the time they were needed most in the field. It was cold, damp, and living conditions were harsh. A lack of resources had strained the system. When she arrived, the hospitals were dealing with illness, shell-shocked patients, patients stricken by mustard gas, and the new Spanish flu epidemic. Even though the war had ended, the months of November and October saw many deaths from influenza, among both patients and medical staff.

Aunt Snow's paperwork shows she reported to Base Hospital No. 6 until mid-December; then transferred to Base Hospital No. 208. However, the history of the Army Nurse Corps indicates that the staff of Base Hospital No. 6 disbanded, and the staff of No. 208 relieved them in the same location. So Aunt Snow probably stayed on in Talence, working with the new staff after the Massachusetts General folks went back home. Her new colleagues had served in Autun, just behind the front, and had seen heavier casualties.

In April of 1919, she was granted a seven-day leave. She returned to base, and then shipped out to Kerhoun, in Brittany, embarking for New York. She left the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in July of 1919, returning home to Dallas, to the family home on Swiss Avenue, to live with her mother and her older sister Hattie, and her younger sister Ruth.

My dad was born in 1924. Aunt Snow helped his mother care for him. Aunt Snow had a job at a Dallas department store, Titche-Goettinger's, as the store nurse. After school Dad remembered taking the street-car down to stay with her in the afternoon.

Throughout the 1930s, the family's fortunes rose and fell. The sisters lived together and supported one another. Dad grew up, went to college, met my mother, and they moved to Atlanta and then Pennsylvania for graduate school and his career.

Aunt Snow's nursing skills were put to the test. In 1952, her sister Hattie died of cancer. Family letters from the time describe her suffering and how hard Snow worked to care for her. Less than a year later, my grandmother died.

By the early '60's when I remember Aunt Snow and her visits to us, she and her sister Louie Boyd lived together in a little brick house in Houston.

When my parents started their family, far away from Texas in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Aunt Snow was not a young woman, but she was still active, and came up to visit us regularly. I suppose if you were the kind of person to ship off to France in 1918, flying Delta up to Pittsburgh to see your nephew's new baby girl wasn't that big a challenge.

That's my brother, S. with Aunt Snow.

I am my Aunt Snow's namesake, so she is special to me. But even if I weren't, she would still have made an impression. She was a single woman, who had her own life, and it was different from what '60s stereotypes promoted. She was both proper - with her day-dresses and veiled hats - and brave enough to travel on her own. She was funny, too - my brothers and I used to giggle and squeal with delight whenever, surprised or thrilled with our antics, she would throw up her hands and exclaim, "Mercy percy!!!"

Here is Aunt Snow in an undated photo. She is holding a picture of herself and her older sister Laura, who died in 1961 at the age of 85.

When she grew older, Aunt Snow suffered two hip fractures, which hastened her decline. Still, she was a tough old bird. I wonder if her training as a nurse helped her survive. She died in 1980, at the age of 96.


Woman in a Window said...

Wow, those are some formidable genes that have been passed onto you! And amazing documentation.

JCK said...

I love these family stories that you've been sharing. You'll have quite a collection!

Mercy Percy! What a great expression.

Mojo said...

Sounds like my great-grandmother. She was about the same age, probably came up about the same time and could still knock the wind out of you right up until she got sick for the last time. Different part of the country -- central PA instead of central TX -- but same kind of people.

Gilly said...

What a wonderful woman! Indomitable is the word that comes to mind! Will our children/nieces/nephews/grandchildren regard us and our achievements in the same light? I do wonder. Respect for the older men and women seems to have deteriorated so much today. I feel invisible when I go out!

So pleased I found your blog, through Awareness's blog. I shall be back!

Gary's third pottery blog said...

I love this story. She was tough alright! What a great woman.

KBeau said...

Thanks for sharing. Aunt Snow had an interesting life.

Tristan Robin said...

wonderful story!

we should all have an Aunt Snow!

CaShThoMa said...

I agree! Wonderful story complete with photographs. She's a lady I would have liked to know!

cactus petunia said...

Love those family stories...keep 'em coming!

alphawoman said...

Wow what a wonderful woman! What a life and you were lucky enough to share it with her!

maryt/theteach said...

g, this was a wonderful and inspiring story about a beloved Aunt! Thank you for sharing! :)

Kathy Rogers said...

Aunt Snow looks like a pistol.

I had a great aunt that we all called "Aunt Hetty." She was my maternal grandmother's sister.

HiHo said...

what a wonderful tribute to a "Mercy Percy!" of a woman. I loved viewing all her photos. thanks for sharing.

lll said...

Great story, I know Bordeaux and in particular Talence well. I lived there from 1975 to 1990 going to medical school. Your Aunt Snoiw would not recognize the Talence, but the wine chateaux have not changed a bit!

lll said...

Great story, I know Bordeaux and in particular Talence well. I lived there from 1975 to 1990 going to medical school. Your Aunt Snoiw would not recognize the Talence, but the wine chateaux have not changed a bit!

Woman in a Window said...

Oh god, i've got shivers reading this again. I liked it even better the second time through. That war documentation is gorgeous, as is that last picture of her. Tough old bird is understatement.


Jennifer said...

What a great history and a great story.

I had a Great Aunt Hattie and Ruth, but no Aunt Snow. Mine would have been my beloved Auntie Olga... single, strong, very loving, very independent.

giorno26 ¸¸.•*¨*•. said...

Hi G.
queste storie di famiglia mi piacciono molto !!!
Tua zia รจ stata una donna fantastica !