My sister Eileen is transcribing the World War I diaries of our grandmother, Florence Green Shay. The entries begin in July 1918 and end in February 1919. If you're counting (or even if you're not), that's almost 100 years ago. Grandma -- or "Mudder" as we called her -- was a 25-year-old Army nurse from Baltimore when the good ship Baltic took her and the personnel of Base Hospital 42 American Expeditionary Force to Liverpool.
During the crossing, she's in high spirits. She dances with a major named Pinky – “the major is some dancer.” She worries about rumors of German submarines – “we are in the real war zone now.” She marvels at the clunky rubber floatation suits they were supposed to wear in the event of a sinking – “they are supposed to keep us up in water for three days.” One evening, she attends “ a dandy entertainment” conducted by the 62nd Coast Artillery.
It's a young woman’s voice – flirtatious, weary, funny and peeved. I never heard this voice in person -- it would be several decades before me and my eight brothers and sisters would hear her speak. By then, she was a Denver matron in her fifties, a woman who enjoyed her evening highballs, bridge with friends, and cheering from afar for her hometown Baltimore Orioles.She wasn't old exactly, just Grandma, the woman who shrieked with joy when the grandkids came to call and squeezed us into her mighty bosom.
At Eileen's request, I'm writing the intro for the book. I'm her big brother, after all, and a writer. I thought that I'd read the entries and dash off a jaunty introduction to a book geared mainly for family. But a strange thing happened. By the third entry, I could hear my grandmother's voice. It's a treat to hear her youthful voice. One of her favorite terms is "dandy." She wraps up a long shift at a frontline hospital and makes fudge with other nurses or gets ready for a date with a major or a captain of maybe even the mysterious Lieutenant Colonel S.
We are only 18 and 21 and 25 once. Our voices reveal our hopes and dreams and fears. Grandma didn't seem especially concerned about the future -- the present was plenty interesting.
There is very little about the suffering of the men under her care. She goes to the Front in August and is the thick of it through Nov. 11. She mentions “those poor boys” and her many shifts in the pneumonia and mumps and surgical wards. In one entry, she talks about working for 42 hours straight. She works through numerous air raids and shellings. ”If we have many more air raids, I am afraid my hair will turn white. No bombs struck our place but oh my."
"Oh my!" An air raid might bring other words to my lips. But that "oh my" says a lot about Grandma. I can hear her say it. It is as fresh as if she were whispering in my ear. And she is, in a way. Diaries are secret things. It's as if she's talked into the pages and the words are now lifting into the air to tell us what Florence was like on a September day near Verdun or Chateau Thierry. People were dying, yes, and there was plenty of suffering, but Florence was alive and bored and hungry and ready for a night out with a fella from Pittsburgh or Charleston who wasn't going to be her boyfriend or husband but was also young and alive and far away from home.
She speaks. I listen. It's more than a dandy entertainment. Thanks to my Sis for transcribing the diary. Now, Eileen, about that intro...