She didn’t really seem the type, so I am really surprised that my sister Beth has begun haunting me. She was always a quiet, fairly unassuming person. Yes, she could be a pain in the ass, but hey, we’re related — what would you expect? But haunting? Isn’t that beyond the pale?
Saturday is the 3rd anniversary of my eldest sister Beth’s passing. And it took her that long to start rattling her chains. Yes, it started today. And I’m the one she’s rattling them at.
It started today because today I attended a funeral. And the funeral was at Arlington National Cemetery. That woke Beth up. It made her realize that I failed her. It rattled her.
You see, Beth was a nurse. She switched back and forth between working in the neo-natal intensive care unit and the psychiatric unit of hospitals across the country. Two specialties and a variety of hospitals helped her keep fresh. But nursing was her identity. Ever since she was a little girl, well, she was going to be a nurse. There was never a doubt in anybody’s mind. And that is because she wanted to be like her hero, Tantelise, my namesake.
Tantelise (pronounced Tant-a-lease) was our great aunt on Dad’s side. And from the stories I’ve heard, she was a seriously cool woman. She lived near us when I was really small, but died when I was only three, so all I really know are a few second-hand stories. Beth heard them first hand, and modeled her life on them.
Of course, Tantelise was a nurse. She was, in fact, one of the founding nurses of the International Red Cross, which, at least according to family lore, came into being in the early 1900s. Tantelise had incredible stories about nursing the wounded, the soldiers from the trenches, the victims of the gas, the amputees. None of the stories I heard (second-hand) made me want to become a nurse. But they captured Beth’s imagination.
In about 2004, Beth called me up and asked for my help. The idea had been brewing in her mind for years. Since I was in the DC area, well, it was pretty much up to me.
“Lease,” she said, “we need to get a memorial to the WWI nurses in Arlington National Cemetery. We need to get Tantelise in there.”
I immediately thought it was a stupid idea. And of course I was right. But it was so important to Beth that I agreed to help. I chatted with our cousin Betsey, keeper of the family junk; Betsey was equally unenthusiastic. But I told Beth I would do what I could. After all, I work right next to Arlington Cemetery. How hard would it be for me to make some calls, go and talk to folks and be told by non-relatives that it was a stupid idea? I figured it would be pretty easy to shut Beth up with strangers on my side.
But of course making phone calls, well, it ain’t what it used to be. Because in the olden days, you know, 15 or so years ago, someone answered the phone when you called. Yeah! Imagine that! Humans! Sadly, that doesn’t happen so much any more.
So when I made my calls, I got to run around the phone circuits. I found no live people in Arlington National Cemetery. At least none that could help get me what Beth wanted. I gave up fairly easily, actually. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere. And I tried and failed to convince Beth that it was a stupid idea to try to get Tantelise memorialized in Arlington.
Why didn’t I work harder? Why did I give up so easily? Why was it a stupid idea to begin with?
After all, Tantelise and her fellow nurses were truly heroes. They crossed the Atlantic to Europe to nurse European troops hurt in battle. They went at their own cost. They risked their lives. They did it in long, hot, itchy wool skirts. They helped an unknown number of men, many of whom would have died had those nurses not been there to help. Many more died somewhat more easily because there was someone to hold their hand, to wipe their brow, to say “I’m here. You’re not alone.” They helped the soldiers in the way nurses throughout the years have helped their patients, by being there with them.
The work of this group of nurses was so deeply appreciated that, when it came time for them to return home to the U.S., Kaiser Wilhelm himself suspended U-boat traffic to allow these nurses safe passage. Imagine that. He suspended a vital part of the war for them. Out of respect and appreciation for the work they had done, he ensured that they would survive.
So why is it so unlikely that Tantelise and her compatriots would have their names in Arlington National Cemetery? Why shouldn’t their service and sacrifice be recognized? Why shouldn’t Beth’s idea come to pass?
Ummmmmm … They were working for the wrong side. Oops. Yes, Tantelise was nursing the German soldiers. She was a first-generation German-American, and she went to Germany in the years before the U.S. entered the war. She went when it wasn’t at all clear that the U.S. would enter the war, and if so, on which side. When the U.S. did enter the war, well, that’s when Tantelise and her fellow nurses were given safe passage home to their country, America.
It is a story of heroism, of sacrifice, of nobility. And of course, a story of choices.
Sigh. I may make a few more calls, but, you know, I’m still pretty sure I will be still unable to get Tantelise and her colleagues recognized.
But there is an upside. At least I’ll have my sister around again. And I’ve missed her. Go ahead, Beth. Rattle away!