Tribute to the aunt in the attic

Harriet Mae Kendall

hmkHarriet Mae Kendall was born in May 1887 in Napoleon, Gallatin County, Kentucky at the foot of the Cumberland Gap where her Kendall ancestors had farmed tobacco since the !7th century trek through the Gap. He father had taken a short break during the Civil War to live in Indiana. It is family lore that he swam the Ohio River to avoid fighting for the Confederacy.  His photo, even late in his life,  holding me as an infant supports the theory that he certainly had the physique for the swim.  After her sister, to be my grandmother, had achieved her teaching degree the family then living in Vevay, Indiana took advantage of the Oklahoma land lottery and moved to Oklahoma hoping for a safer health environment.

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A.E.F. ID Photo, April 1918

In about 1916 Harriet returned “east” and entered the Norton’s Infirmary in Louisville, Kentucky nursing program.  Of course World War I was in full swing and by 1918 the U. S. was in it.  Harriet’s nursing class graduation was pushed forward so they could sail with  the US troops of the A.E.F.  to Europe. Her entire class volunteered for the at that time the relatively small U. S. Army nursing corps (distinct from the Red Cross)   and she received a Lieutenant’s  commission.

She served throughout her time in the Army  as a surgical nurse in a base hospital near Verdun and in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the final push to defeat the Germans, much closer to front lines in a field hospital. She endured through cannon bombardments and air attacks and all the exigencies that war can impose. She came away profoundly changed and a pacifist. Her first work on returning to the U.S. was in the mining hospitals of Lynch and Harlan County. Kentucky.

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ON the Meuse —– Base Hospital Operating Room —– Dress Uniform U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1918

The event she spoke most of was having participated in the 1919 Victory Parade down 5th Avenue as the most thrilling of her life.  After much searching I have found and include on site a video of a newscast that covered the event. Only  a brief mention of the nurses but it has left me feeling I have had one more moment of shared emotion with her.

 

Aunt Harriet was near the end of her nursing career which had spanned quite a spectrum of geography and activities when I was born.  She never married.  She was always my safe place. The only place where there were no commands and the expectations were gently applied.  My strongest memories of our relationship are during my latency and early teens, the five years of World War II.  I had before that become obsessed with the passion for the natural world and desire to become a physician and we spoke of medical things often.

It was during this time I was coming to terms with the human condition and developing  a sense of  things that mattered to me.  Anyone with much familiarity of the times is aware of the five years of jingoism and inflaming ethnic and national hatreds for those we separated off and called “enemy.”  Fresh from a Saturday afternoon double feature of killing I was suddenly struck dumb with her articulating that for those of us in the healing professions  there are no enemies among the suffering.  All humans are due the same care and compassion without judgement.   She had been saying this before in her stories of the men she took care of in the war and all those later.   But this time I realized I as an autonomous person who had to come to this realization through some process more complicated than mimicry.

She was not happy that I chose to pursue the profession as a physician instead of as a nurse.   It wasn’t from self pique but because she had a strong sense of what is feminine and though women belong wherever they desire to go, there are things they should not enable. Somehow she saw something  in the medical profession I  was not seeing, perhaps the violence males are capable of that disturbed her?  Women on the battlefield or in the presence of violence have in our cultural history  represented  a safe place, a sanctuary that the suffering and frightened may be safe.  Florence Nightingale’s appearance in the Crimea and Clara Barton’s appearance on the Civil War battlefields and many natural disasters are examples.  Until recently the appearance of a woman on the battlefield has symbolized succor and peace and safety.It is understandable why feminism following wars becomes commingled with the Peace movements.

When I was practicing medicine I commonly encountered men and women who suffered from feeling so unimportant and useless.  I would point out, “if you want to feel important, love a child.”   Harriet and also her sister, my grandmother, were I think aware, especially as to my medical career.  The two of them dying within days of my graduation surely was the final surrender of the burden of responsibility. They had done their job. The rest was up to me..

Minnie Olive Kendall Watkins & Harriet Mae Kendall. 1920s

So! If you want to be an important feminist, and  woman: Love a Child.

W. Lorraine Watkins, M.D.  March 19, 2017

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1 thought on “Tribute to the aunt in the attic”

  1. Melissa Teague said:

    This is a beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Like

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