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Advice from the Greatest Generation

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Susie Stuart MDCurious, I asked a WWII veteran, “When did you know that you were going to win the war?” His smile faded and his eyes darkened, he looked back into his memory and after a few moments he answered, “It was a long time.”

I suppose 911 was the closest modern experience — lasting a few months before the feeling of direct danger became memory. What would it like to live under threat for years? to bend every day toward helping with an effort that meant liberty or enslavement; that risked loved ones; put life plans on hold, perhaps forever; that affected everything from socks to weddings?

The Greatest Generation looked to our Founders for inspiration and love of country. And they bent themselves to living lives of accomplishment.

Presented below is an excerpt from “Susie Stuart: Home Front Doctor.” It is the 1943 sequel to “Susie Stuart, M.D.,” whose cover I’m using because no photo of the dust jacket for “Home Front” is available. Stuart is a “hen medic,” meaning female doctor, and she is doing research on rheumatic fever in children as the war takes over the nation. In this excerpt, Susie scolds herself into courage.

“Susie’s thoughts were anything but cheerful. To be sure, she was terribly relieved and grateful that Peter had come through Pearl Harbor with only minor wounds. but whereas Susie was a person who had always believed firmly in the old adage, “Variety is the spice of life,” fundamentally she loathed change … So now, although she hadn’t the slightest notion of the kinds of change which war might bring, she was gloomily certain that they would not be pleasant. Right on the verge of a fit of depression, Susie suddenly came to herself.”

“… So you’re upset about the war and the future and what it will do to you … Swell way to win a war or stop wards or do a job or anything! You know perfectly well from past experience the only way you’ve ever been able to lick a crisis — remember? Face it, say ‘So what?’, forget it and knuckle down to the job of the moment. So come on, Stuart, pull yourself together and start concentrating on the job of the next moment, which is to get yourself home, bathed, and unpacked. After that, back to the grindstone and into the groove, my girl!”

That’s advice from the Greatest Generation.

Christmas and December Board: The Women at Jesus’ Manger

Mary gives birthI look at my nativity scene and I wonder, where are the women at the manger? I am certain they were there. Surely Mary was in labor when she and Joseph arrived at the inn; otherwise they would have searched farther for lodgings.

Does anyone think that the news of a young girl giving birth to her first babe, with only her husband to help, would not be shared among the women at the inn? Women rich and poor, young and old, childless or experienced in childbirth must have talked it over and pitied a young girl so alone.

Certainly they came to help with water, clean cloths, encouragement, and tender care. When after many hours they summoned Joseph to see his son, the women slipped back to their rooms to care for their own families. So it is for women in history – they were there, they acted, but what they did often goes unmentioned.

This Christmas take time to imagine the women by the manger, sisters in the joyous moment, gathered smiling around the holy babe.

Lillian Gish: The Transparent Artist

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The Transparent Artist

In the photo, Lillian Gish stumbles through a real winter storm. She wears a simple dress, her hands hang limp, her eyes are rolled upward. She is not thinking of her beauty.

For the sake of artlessness, she and her sister and members of D. W. Griffith’s company studied the world. A walk, a gesture of despair, any movement that conveyed character would be noted for its power to bring an element of real life into “moving pictures.”

The realness of photography intensified with motion. The winter storm in Way Down East was real snow, real ice, real risk of death for the actors, and this is what gives the old melodrama its power through decades of changing fashion and burgeoning sophistication in audiences.

In its center is Lillian Gish, a transparent artist, with the brilliance to work at her roles until she could make every moment appear real and the performance spontaneous.

A transparent artist puts herself on the line, apparently hiding nothing, allowing us to see her unadorned and unprotected.

No wonder there are so few.

April, Easter in 2012 Board: The Housecat and the Resurrection

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My parent’s cat, 11-year-old Freddy Astaire went missing. He walked out onto the front porch and never returned.

Day by day, we lost hope. We offered a hundred dollar reward and scouted the neighborhood for him — or his body. Gradually it sank in that never again would we stroke his handsome coat or hear his ruffled baby meow, so sweet and endearing in such a dignified cat.

Two weeks after he disappeared we agreed he was dead.

Early the next morning my mother phoned, “Do you believe in miracles?” Freddy Astaire had slipped into the house through the cat door.

Phone in hand, I became dizzy. Freddy was dead! I had walked the neighborhood searching. I had felt the emptiness in my parents’ house. As I talked to my mother, a need rose within me to see the cat before the day was over, a need so shaking and primitive that it must have been pure instinct, a magic belief that to see him would gather him into the world and make his return secure. The joy came later when I saw him and held his thin and hungry body in my arms and smelled the woods deep in his fur.

And yes, a house cat’s return showed me something about the Resurrection.

For you see, a little later I thought that my sense of dislocation and shock at facts violated – my stunned reluctance to allow myself to grasp joy because the grief had been so severe – these might have been the feelings of people who heard that Jesus was risen. They, like me, may have thought it too great a piece of good news to accept. Perhaps they, too, were overwhelmed by what seemed impossible.

 For us Easter is pure joy because we know the story.

This year I will think of the feelings of those who lived it – how it must have been to experience it without a script. The breaking of expectation, of natural law, of all that had come before — to hear without preparation the great news – that Jesus was risen – alive and among his people — teaching the new truth.

1920s Board: A Girl and Her Car

Here she is, the bearcat of the 1920s. No, not the car – it’s the stripped-down doll lounging on the running board of the era’s sharpest accessory, the convertible, a “breezer.” Sure, the wheels had spokes like a wagon; the starter crank could snap back and break bones, a mishap called “Ford arm”; and if it rained, one got wet until the leather roof could be raised by hand and hooked into place.

But there was that rumble seat in back – privacy – portable privacy and a lot of romantic rumbling no doubt took place there. If a Jane had the berries to buy gasoline, a baby vamp could go wherever there was a paved road and choose her destination without reference to Papa and Mama who, after all, weren’t hip to the jive. The revolution that began when a woman could wheel a bicycle from a shed and slip away without anyone knowing had reached a triumphant liberation.

And the doll herself – freed from corset and long skirts and put into paint and skin-tight clothes. Dieting became a big issue for women in the 1920s and any sheba who didn’t want to be a bug-eyed betty learned that the face nature made was no longer enough.

How happy this young woman is in her bathing togs. It’s a sunny day and she’s parked by the curb at oceanside. The photograph made, she’ll hop up, grab her hope chest of ciggies, then ankle down to look at the waves and spy out a handsome sheik. Maybe they’ll share some hooch from a flask and spoon in that rumble seat. Maybe in time he’ll get a crush and turn goofy over this choice bit of calico — and put a handcuff on the third finger of her left hand. It’s good to be young; wonderful to be happy; great to be bouncy and full of vim and confidence. Perhaps that’s why we who watch from nearly one hundred years later still love the Roaring Twenties.

Christmas and December Board: Mistletoe Hairpin

A hairpin, a few pearls, and a gathered knot of green felt – what can they tell us about Christmas? A woman gets dressed and in her hair she perches this tiny ornament, guaranteeing an evening of appreciative laughter and maybe kisses!

Christmas is a holiday in which we become absorbed. All through December it works magic in every corner of life. There develops a perfect need for greenery on fireplace mantels and at the base of candlesticks and the smell of pine trees indoors is what we want. Bells jingle on doorknobs; gleams of gold and silver brighten everything, everywhere. Santa’s jolly face adorns our clothing, our gift bags, our houses, and more.

We change how we say hello and good-bye, for “Merry Christmas” means, “I am thinking of your Christmas Day and hoping your home will be a bower of good feeling and warmth.” We change what we eat in honor of Christmas. Family receipts come out to lengthen tradition with one more celebration. Cookie sheets are slid from lower cupboards so that reindeer, gingerbread men, stars, wreaths, bells, and symbols of Christmas will be sprinkled with red and green sugar and eaten with more pleasure than mere “ordinary time” cookies.

And, of course, there appears — small or large, highly colored or marble white, outdoors on the lawn or inside in a place of honor — the reason for the season, a scene of a woman and man rejoicing over a modest event, the birth of yet another baby, but this child surrounded by signs of the miraculous.

Its encompassing, energetic joy may be why Christmas is so resented. We become immersed in Christmas. It is a large holiday and properly celebrated it is everywhere. From store windows and spreads in national magazines to lawn crèches, neighborly charity, and hometown parades, Christmas creates a kindness and joy, a sharing that opens hearts and binds close those who love it.

What a powerful holiday it must when even lowly hairpins take on Christmas garb.