Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nurses in Combat Boots

On a recent visit with us, my mom brought a ridiculously heavy green suitcase full of what she told me was family history books. Not having time to cope with it, I set it in the “junk room” and spent a couple of months ignoring it. I know that there’s a reason I opened it up, but now I don’t remember why. But it was like opening up Pandora’s Box, because once it was opened, there was no going back! There were several family history books, but there were also many invaluable family mementos such as Uncle Phil’s medals, their WWII ration books and letters between my Great Uncle Phil and his grandmother during WWI (that's a whole 'nother blog post!). There were also dozens of clipped obituaries from many different newspapers, and someone had taken the time to make sure there was a date written on most of them. One such obituary was for Mary Aloise Canning. Mary’s mother, Ernestine Rose Vautrinot Canning was a younger sister of my great-grandmother, Grace Eugenie Vautrinot Wenz.
Here is the text of the obituary, from the Boston Globe, dated 4 Sep 1987:
          “DEDHAM – A funeral Mass was to be said Sept. 8 at St. Mary’s Church, Dedham, for Mary A. Canning, who died Sept. 4 at the Goddard Home, Jamaica Plain. She was 86.
          Born in Dedham, and a lifelong resident. She was a graduate of Massachusetts General Hospital Nursing School, Class of 1921. Miss Canning was employed at the hospital until 1941, when she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. During World War II, she served in Casablanca, North, Africa, and assisted wounded troops through the Italian campaign, serving troops at Monte Cassino with distinction.
          Upon the conclusion of the war in Europe, she served in the Far East, arriving in Tokyo shortly after the Armistice was signed. She retained the rank of major when she retired. After she returned to Dedham, she worked as a public health nurse for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, retiring in 1967. Miss Canning was a member of the Dedham American Legion Post.
          She was the daughter of the late Thomas and Ernestine (Votreneau [sic]) and the aunt of Richard Canning of Wilmington, Del., Edward X. Canning of Fairfield Conn., Harry Canning of Hudson, Ohio, Thomas Canning of California and Rita Meuer of Hagerstown, Md.
          Arrangements were handled by the George F. Doherty & Sons Wilson-Cannon Funeral Hom, 456 High St., Dedham. Burial will take place at Brookdale Cemetery, Dedham.
Having an interest in military history, I was entranced to think someone with whom I was closely related played a critical part in such important campaigns in WWII. The more I read, the more I was impressed with her contributions and distressed to know that the involvement of these women has been so overlooked by history. I read an excellent work by Evelyn Monahan and Rosemarie Neidel-Greenlee entitled “And if I Perish,” which details their amazing service. When the troops landed in Africa, those nurses, including Mary Canning, were landing right next to them. Between Africa and Italy, they had two hospital ships bombed out from under them. In Italy, the nurses were delayed in landing for three days, but remained trapped with the troops on Anzio Beach, otherwise known as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” for the entire time of the German bombardment. This was the first time in U.S. Military history where nurses in uniform travelled just behind the combat troops, and in many ways, they were making it up as they went along.

Like Uncle Ned, she passed away before I was ever aware of her history. But I have been in correspondence with one of her nephews who graciously shared her photo with me. He told me that “she was a very outgoing person and liked to party. She spent much time keeping in touch with relatives. I don’t think she felt that all her activities were any hardship. She rather enjoyed all her adventures.”

 L-R Jack McLaughlin, Millie Irving Wenz, with her husband Fred Wenz behind her, Emily Wenz Morse, Mary Canning, Marie Wenz McLaughlin and Dot Irving Wenz (my grandmother). The occasion was probably the anniversary of the McLaughlins, taken at their home in Hanson, MA in 1975.

And I’ve just learned that I had actually met her in 1975! Oh, that I had known! Hopefully more research will reveal more details of her life and I’ll be able to update this post with more detail soon. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Aunt Tille and the Wenz Family

Every family has at least one brickwall, and as many methods of climbing over them. One of my strategies was to write a family history of one of our lines that ended at that ancestor’s immigration into the United States.
What an undertaking it became! But it forced me to re-examine thirty years of evidence and helped me to find some clues I’d overlooked.
Twenty-six pages later, my data had congealed into a reasonably decent narrative that I felt I could share with family members, known and unknown. Now, how to distribute it? Since I’m currently out of work, it had to be very budget-friendly. Well, I had plenty of stamps and envelopes and access to online people searches – so I went looking for distant cousins. I started with just one line – the Maitlands. I had been in contact with one of the cousins years ago, and was dismayed to learn that he had since passed away. But his obituary listed the names and towns of his siblings and children, so I wrote six letters. Well, one of them hit paydirt! I heard from the granddaughter of Aunt Tillie, my great-grandfather’s older sister. Tillie had lived with them for a time after her husband passed away.

The cousin shared a few stories with me that contained some important clues, and I’ll share a few of them here:
“During the second WW, my Mom worked several hours a day in a cemetery greenhouse.  My Mom had the greenest thumb you could find.  So....Grandma Maitland took care of us kids, or vice versa many times.  She was funny, because she wanted the neighbors to think that she was earning her keep - she would stand in one place on the sidewalk with a broom in her hand and sweep periodically. That was long before senior residences.  Altho, when she lived with Uncle Bill in Delaware, she told me that to keep busy there, she would take the bus to the Nursing Home to visit the "girls".  She was 10 years older that most of them were, but they were her friends.  I remember visiting at her home when Grandpa was still living.  They had an old pump organ, which my kid brother and I loved.  We could not reach the peddles and the keys at the same time, so we took turns.  He would play while I pumped the peddle and then we would change places.  Didn't bother Grandma doing it that way. Grandma Maitland (Wenz) lived with us about 6 months of the year after Grandpa died.  She had two sons, William and Robert Laurie Maitland, Jr. (my dad).  They took turns caring for her until she died.  She told me, since I was the youngest and would listen, stories about growing up in her family.  She said that they never spoke anything but German until they went to school.  She taught me one little verse in German that they always insisted she learn and it still is with me a lot, and she told me about her brother and his understanding of American idioms.  He was chopping wood and seemed to struggle with it.  They told him he needed more "elbow grease".  The next thing they saw was her brother in the yard greasing his elbows.  I always assumed it was Uncle Ed, who may be your grandfather figure.  I remember him well, because he came once in a while to visit with Matilda.  He was a beautiful person - very large- and very gracious, especially with us a little kids.  He had the biggest hands I ever remember, but he was a farmer in the Boston area and I assumed that was his largest."
What a great peek inside my family history – the real people, not just the names and dates on a page! So, reach out to distant cousins – you’ll never know what you’ll find!
And the book? Here's the link: