Thursday, December 31, 2015

Afterword: Mudder's World War I diary

Florence Green (a.k.a Mudder) celebrated her 26th birthday in France in 1918.

Normally, being in your twenties in France and celebrating a birthday would be cause for joy. And perhaps it was. But there was a war on, which complicated things. She was a nurse on the front lines of one of the most destructive wars in history.

Have you ever been young and in a war zone far away from home? I haven't, but I have been young and far away from home, missing my parents and siblings and yearning for a lost love. That's all you need to know, really, about Florence Green's nine months overseas in 1918-1919. She was young and lonely -- but also engaged in a great adventure that was part of a larger misadventure.

I am no historian. But I am a blogger and, as such, I have no shortage of opinions. However, the more I learn about World War I, the more I know -- and don't know. That pretty much sums up the aging process. The more I learn, the more I find that I don't know.

This is as true of world events as it is of family history. I first knew Florence Green Shay in the 1950s growing up in Denver. We called her Mudder because that was my toddler-style mispronouncing of Grandmother or Grandma or whatever other name I was trying to spit out of my young mouth. She was stuck with it the rest of her life. Mudder was a bridge-playing Denver matron She drove around town in an Edsel. She and my grandfather, Raymond Shay, lived in the Park Hill neighborhood which, over the years, has become one of Denver's swankier addresses. Grandpa was known as Big Danny, another one of my inventions, giving him the title of Danny Senior because my brother was little Danny. It all begins to make sense if you look at it through the imagination of a young child with delusions of becoming a writer.

It wasn't until later that I knew about my grandparents' war experiences. Both products of The Great War, or the First World War. Much was made of Big Danny's experience. He was a cavalry officer with the Iowa National Guard, mobilized to fight Pancho Villa on the Mexican border and then sent to France with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F). His basement held many trophies of the war. Guns and bayonets, battle flags and medals.

Mudder was a nurse in the same war. But it was decades before we knew of her experiences. She spoke little of her time in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She spoke in general terms of her shipboard trip to England and then to France. She dated a slew of officers, as American women were in short supply, and made fudge during her downtime as evacuation hospitals near the front. Nothing as exciting as my grandfather riding a horse into battle, flag waving, bullets zipping over his head. As far as I know, he actually never rode a horse into battle due to German machine guns, a new invention that made cavalry charges extinct.

Mudder had a diary. When I first read passages from it decades ago, I was disappointed. No chronicles of treating the dead and dying. A few notes about air raids, but no pyrotechnics, no sights and sounds and details. As a writer, I looked for those details. I was raised on World War II novels and memoirs. First-hand chronicles of the Vietnam War were appearing in bookstores. Mudder's calm chronicles paled in comparison.

Now that I'm 65, I can look back at her diary in wonder. I've kept a journal since I was 21. It's no mean feat to write daily, even a bigger challenge in a war zone, I suspect. Mudder worked long shifts in the hospital wards. Artillery fire lit up the nights. German planes dropped bombs. The wounded arrived with regularity. Over in the trenches, a horseless Big Danny fought the Huns. The two hadn't met yet but both were in the war zone. It would be the cavalry man's experiences we knew best.

Until now. My sister Eileen Shay Casey got her hands on our grandmother's lone surviving diary. Eileen has always loved history, which is why she got a nursing degree from University of Central Florida (LOL). She was urged into nursing by our mother, the nurse. After working a few years in hospitals and the death of our mother from cancer at 59, Eileen quit the medical field for a career in the non-profit world of foundations and grant-writing and fund-raising.

That love of history never deserted her. She transcribed Mudder's diary. She put out the word about her work and heard from an historian at the University of Maryland, Dr, Marian Moser Jones. Dr. Jones was intrigued by Mudder's diary since she was working on a book about WWI nurses trained in the University of Maryland system. With Microsoft Word versions of the diary and Dr. Jones' research notes, I posted Mudder's diary entries on this blog from Nov. 25 to Dec. 20, 2015. I now am working on a print version of the diary for family members and other interested parties. Once it's formatted, I will share the link on these pages.

Mudder's fudge recipe survives. As does her beat-up old diary which we hope will find a permanent home in the University of Maryland archives. Her memories will live forever that way, much as her DNA lives on in us.

We all make our tiny footprints on this big world.

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