She's loony. The woman is out of her mind, and forthat I feel sorry every time I see her. Just a skinny, wrinkly French madame.Sometimes I wonder what I'm missing out on, what kind, loving and normal thingsGrandma Antoinette could have done for me. But she's lost now, lost beyondrecognition. She never calls me by the same name, and sometimes she doesn't evenacknowledge I'm her great granddaughter.
Why do her problems have to be aburden to me? Every second Sunday of the month, at one o'clock on the dot, thewhole family goes to see her after mass. Ursinus Pines Nursing Center: AssistedLiving and Rehabilitation for the Elderly - that place used to bring hope andoptimism, but now all I feel is obligation and discomfort. What was the point ofclouding my weekend hours trying to change the inevitable? When you grow old, youdie. The unfortunate part is that some have an easier time of it thanothers.
It was a crisp September morning and the leaves of upstate NewYork were just starting to turn color. The sidewalks started to fill withchurchgoers as mass let out. Besides Sunday school, I didn't learn much fromchurch. As far as the sermons went, it was all Greek to me. Well, actually, itwas Latin. The aftertaste of Communion had hardly faded from my mouth when my dadsaid, "Well, we should go see Grandma Antoinette today. It's herbirthday."
The road to Ursinus Pines isn't very long. My dad has yetto notice how I seem to get sick on the weekends I know we'll be visiting.Someday he'll probably put two and two together. I thought of this as we pulledinto the parking lot. It wasn't just the five of us. Since it was Grandma'sbirthday, the entire family showed up. Aunt Gabriella couldn't resist kissing mycheeks and announcing to everyone how much I looked like Grandma Antoinette. Howcould I resemble in any way that shriveled up old lady? I hid my disgust and saidnothing, but I was insulted.
"Hello, Lucien!" Grandma cried asDad hugged her.
"Hi there, Grandma Antoinette," my dad turned tome. "Say hello."
"Hi, Grandma!" I put on the biggest"Nice to see you" smile I could muster.
"Oh, Ninette, sogood to see you! I was afraid for you last night! Did Big Bertha wakeyou?"
"Um, no Grandma," I corrected her. "I'mMadeline."
"It doesn't matter, Maddy, just be nice andpretend," my mom whispered as the rest of my family started making smalltalk. By the time we left, Grandma had returned to her monologue about Ninetteand some woman called Big Bertha, and Sunday dinner at Uncle Pete's seemed likethe best place in the world.
Uncle Peter's house is like a family tree;every piece of the LeBreton existence is a leaf dangling on its branches. Sowhenever I'm there I get the whole bit - family stories, family jokes, familyphotos. The coffee table is covered with photo albums and I am always fearful ofgetting snagged by a relative for yet another session of "rememberwhen." I moved one of the albums to make room for my drink and was surprisedwhen a photo fell out. Those books are always immaculate; nothing was ever out ofplace, so I found it curious when I looked for the photo's place, it had none,nor did it have a name on the back. I flipped it over, glanced down, and a girlabout my age, faded and fragile, stared back at me. She waspretty.
"Nope, never seen her. She was in our albums? That'sodd," Aunt Gabby said. Since no one claimed to remember who she was, Itucked the unidentified girl in my pocket and took her home.
A week later,I asked my dad about the picture. He sat down and stared at it for a while."Wow, I can't believe I never saw this one of her. She looks so different!Would ya look at that!" he said.
"So, who isit?"
"Yeah, this is a portraitof her taken in Paris. See that outfit she's got on? It's her uniform, back inWorld War I when she served as a Hello Girl! I think she was only 19 when shewent to Paris." My dad drifted off; I couldn't stand not knowing what he wasthinking.
"She lived in Paris? Wait a minute. What's a HelloGirl?" I only asked these two questions, but many more popped into myhead.
"Actually, I wish I could tell you more, but that's about it. Iremember being in college when she received some kind of recognition for what shehad done; I think she got a medal. But I wasn't there when ithappened."
"Geez, can't you tell me anything more thanthat?"
"Sorry, but you know, you never really showed muchinterest in this stuff."
By "stuff' I assumed he meant mygrandmother's past. He didn't say it maliciously, but it still hurt me. It hurtbecause it was true. I had shown no interest in my grandmother's life, being toopreoccupied with my own.
I went to my favorite search engine and typed inWorld War I Hello Girls, and immediately several sites appeared. I selected oneand got the whole story, one I couldn't believe I had never heardbefore.
My grandma did live in Paris while she was serving as a Hello Girlfor the American Army Signal Corps during World War I. They called them HelloGirls because of the way they answered the phone. Grandma was working as a Belltelephone switchboard operator in New York before she was sent to France. Thetelephone lines in France were awful. Soldiers at the frontlines needed tocommunicate to send each other orders, but they couldn't because of the languageproblem and the frustrating phone system; they were risking losing battles andthe lives of soldiers. Even though these women would not be armed or expected togo into combat, General Pershing was quoted as saying, "The women who gointo service will do as much to help win the war as the men inkhaki."
General Pershing wanted the latest American telephoneequipment sent to France, and he needed English- and French-speaking telephoneoperators. Everyone acknowledged that women were better on a switchboard thanmen, and besides, they needed the Signal Corp guys to keep laying and buryingtelephone cable that was constantly getting blown up. Eventually 233 young womenwere recruited, sworn in, and sent to France. Grandma Antoinette was one ofthem.
I was surprised, to say the least. My grandma's tougher than Ithought. I suppose I assumed she had been feeble and weak all her life, but herpast was colorful. And she was strong. The website said Hello Girls were oftenthe only link between advancing American and French troops. Translations had tobe fast and accurate. Antoinette lived with the fact every day that onemisinterpretation could cost the lives of American and French soldiers. She hadto learn battle tactics and about different weapons. I couldn't even imaginetrying to decipher garbled military jargon while getting bombed by Big Bertha.Big Bertha! I had found the answer to Grandma's confusing conversation. BigBertha was a giant cannon the Germans fired on Paris and the surroundingcountryside. Parisians were pelted by hundreds of bombs during the war.
Inher position, I probably would have been a coward. It's one thing to say youwould defend your country if called upon, but it's entirely another thing to doso. I might even have hid behind being a woman. But in her position, she and theother Hello Girls served with great skill. They were affectionately called"Soldiers of the Switchboards" and received much praise from GeneralPershing. They became the sweethearts of the Army. Yet, for all her work and themany times she risked her life, she wasn't given a Victory Medal. These were onlygiven to the male soldiers and members of the Signal Corp. The women applied forhonorable discharges but were told that U.S. Army regulations stated that"males" were sworn in, and said nothing about "persons." Theywere told instead that they had been "contract employees," though nocontracts could be found.
But she had worn the uniform! She was recruitedand endangered her life! And because of a mere technicality, she wasn'tacknowledged with the Victory Medal, or given veteran's benefits! Perhaps this iswhy I had never read about Hello Girls in my history books; a real mistake hadbeen made. It wasn't corrected until 1977 when a bill was passed. The G.I.Improvement Act finally gave the Hello Girls the recognition they deserved.Before 1977, bills had been introduced more than 50 times over six decades. Whyit didn't pass in Congress until then, I'll never know. Once recognition finallycame, President Carter sent Army generals to distribute Victory Medals, dischargepapers and veteran's status to the surviving Hello Girls. I stared at the screen.The medals only made it to the 70 surviving Hello Girls. My grandma Antoinettewas one of the them.
I started to go see my grandma more often after thatday. I would go by myself, and let her talk. I didn't question her storiesanymore; I realized that all the times I hadn't listened, I lost a piece of herthat I could have enjoyed. She was glad to see me, and the more frequently Ivisited, the more she remembered me. She would tell me about her life, of findinglost kittens, baking French pastries, dancing at parties, her friend Ninette, andabout her service as a Hello Girl.
At Christmas I shared what I'd learnedwith the rest of my family. They were shocked I had taken the time to find outabout Grandma's life, and a little embarrassed that they hadn't paid moreattention. I felt better knowing everyone knew. She was so much more than anobligation. She had become my friend.
"I thought myself anodd choice to speak today at my great grandmother's memorial service, but myfather and others insisted. I believe somehow they saw a change in me. I alsobelieve things happen for a reason. Finding that picture, after all those years,opened up a part of Grandma's life that was almost forgotten. That would havebeen even sadder than her passing away, because she was a great lady. I feelindescribable pride telling you about her life and service as one of GeneralPershing's Hello Girls. I've also enlarged the picture of her I stumbled upon foreveryone to see. Thank you for coming. Please join me and Antoinette LeBreton'sfamily for a reception in the church lobby."
Our family stood in aninformal receiving line, and it was nice to see a few of Grandma's friends wereable to make it to the service. One of her dearest friends, Lucy, made a point totalk to me.
"Oh, hun, your speech was wonderful. Your grandma wouldbe so proud to know you did this for her. And you know, that picture ofAntoinette in her uniform, well, you two look so much alike."
Isimply smiled and said, "Thank you."
Read about the Hello Girls atsugarmoon.com and worldwar1.com
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.