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Not Just a Nurse
It was way too early in the morning to be up and crammed into a small carriage. I could feel the bony elbows of my two brothers Charlie and Will poking into my ribs. In front of me, I could see my sister Rose, my mother, and my father. I was mostly staring at the back of Papa’s head, because I was directly behind him. Even though we were all shivering and itchy from the wool blanket, we were excited because we were on the way to Auntie Flor’s house for Christmas.
Yes, my auntie was Florence Nightingale, the woman who became a nurse against all odds and gender roles. Yes, the mother of modern nursing. To us, she was just Auntie Flor. We’ve been going to her house for almost eight years now, since she got sick with the Crimean flu. I kept having to explain to my little brother Will that Auntie Flor does not have the “Cry mean Flu.” Instead, she became sick with the Crimean Flu.
Charles the Annoying and I were currently arguing about whether “Ami” or “Mimi” was a better nickname. This was shortly after everybody in the family had suddenly started calling me Ami, which I hate. Ever since I can remember, everyone has always called me by nicknames, never just Amelia, which I think is a perfectly nice name. When I ask, people always say it’s a beautiful name, but no one ever explains why they continue to call me anything but Amelia. I’ve tried to insist, but Mother says I shouldn’t be so cantankerous, whatever that means. That was when Will, the baby of the family, a mere seven next to my eleven, leaned forward and squeaked, “What about Mel?”
This comment was enough to pull our oldest sister Rose out of her private, 14-year-old musings. She slammed her diary shut and declared, “Ami is the best one out of all of them. Mimi makes you sound like an old woman, and Mel is just plain silly.” She rolled her eyes at the last line. Charley opened his mouth to retort, but Mama had clearly had enough of this. She whipped her head around from the front row of the carriage and said pointedly, “Who wants to hear the story about the man in the hat?” It was possible she was just annoyed because she was squished to the side of the seat with both Papa and Rose sharing the row.
Immediately, all of us in the back row chimed in with, “What about Auntie Flor’s war story? Pleeease?”
“But you’ve heard that story so many times, you’ve practically memorized it,” Mama said, sighing.
Charley replied, “Yeah, but that’s because it’s such a good story.” Will and I agreed rapidly, leaning forward imploringly.
“Alright,” Mama said in resignation and she settled in and began.
“Florence was only 14 when she told Grandma that she wanted to be a nurse. Grandma was okay with the idea as long as Flor also married a rich man and had children. Flor, being a contrary person,” said Mama as she looked back at us with a slight smirk and wink, “only wanted to be a nurse. She told Grandma that it was her calling, and all she wanted to do. So shortly thereafter she started working at the…”
“...Harley Street Hospital,” we all said very excitedly.
“Good! She worked there from…”
“1850 to 1853”
“Good!” Mama repeated, “That’s when the War of Crimea started.”
Just then, the wagon went over a tree root in the road, sending us all flying out of our seats. As my butt slammed back down on the hard wood bench, Mama grabbed her hat and exclaimed, “Ooh!” Rose grunted and grabbed another book from the satchel between her feet. I took hold of Will by the shoulder to steady him. Charley did the same with me. I shook him off roughly. After all, he was only a year older than me; I didn’t need that kind of help any more. Charley elbowed me back and exclaimed, way too loudly in my ear, “I’m hungry Papa, are we almost there?” That reminded me just how hungry I was, and I shifted uncomfortably.
From the front, Papa called out, “Just a bit further to the stream and we’ll stop for food. The horses need some water as well. And Charley, don’t yell.” Papa had been quiet on this trip. He usually was when he was driving. Generally, though, Papa wasn’t one to be disagreed with. He was quick to laugh and equally quick to scold. Charley knew better than to push his luck. Instead, he mumbled, “Sorry, Papa. Mama continue the story, please. The war - that part’s exciting!”
“It may seem exciting now, but back then it was really quite awful. Now, where was I? Oh, right…just short of a year later, Auntie Flor received a letter from Mr. Sidney Herbert. Auntie Flor always said he had noticed her work at…”
“The Harley Street Hospital!” The three of us chimed over the end of Mama's sentence.
She gave us a look and continued, “He requested that she gather a team of nurses and bring them to war. Extraordinary, right? Well, you know Auntie Flor. This challenge was her calling. Of course, your grandmother was completely horrified at the idea of an unmarried woman going off to a war! Honestly, I thought she was brave and foolhardy.
“She brought over three dozen women to volunteer at the Scutari Barracks Hospital in Crimea. All the doctors went off their heads… they practically lost their minds…”
“There's the stream!” Will said excitedly. I shivered and scratched at my dress.
Mama turned back to us, “Alright children, put your toys down. Ami stop fidgeting with your dress.” I stopped, just as the carriage rolled to a stop alongside the road. I looked around. On one side there was the river and on the other side there was a long stretching field. All of the plants in the field were brown. The ground was probably frozen; after all, winters in England can get cold. We all stood up. I stepped out after Charley and shivered. I wanted to warm up, so I decided to walk around a little to scout the muddy scenery and Rose joined me. As we wandered back up the path, Rose told me all about her plans to be a nurse. Every time we’ve visited Auntie Flor, Rose has brought her books and they would talk over the newest things she has learned. She had wanted to be a nurse since she was seven, and it's amazing how interesting her plans get the thirtieth time you've heard them. My sister could be annoying at times, but I did still admire her determination.
After we got back and had all eaten our sandwiches with the bread Mama had packed, I decided that I wanted to be on the side of the carriage near the forest this time instead of squished in the middle. Now we decided that Will would be in the middle. Once Papa hooked up the horses we were off again.
We had only been on the road for a few minutes when Charley said “Ami stop stealing the blanket!” This interruption broke me out of my thoughts of the doctor's reactions when Auntie Flor showed up at Crimea.
“What do you mean? I barely have any over here,” I held up my end. We both looked down at Will, who had a mischievous grin on his face.
“Will!” Charley exclaimed, giving the blanket a tug, which only took more of the blanket away from me! The damp weather already made the blanket smell like a wet dog, but at least it had been warm. Now I was freezing again! “Now I’m cold!” I jerked my end back.
Mama turned in her seat, the look on her face quieted us all down. “William, do you need to sit in the front seat?” she asked pointedly.
“No Mama,” he mumbled as hung his head and gave us more of the blanket, which he had been hiding crumpled up between his hands.
“Thank you,” both Will and I said.
“Good,” Mama said sternly, then continued, “So all the doctors at the hospital were unreasonably angry. It was understandable that they would be confused. Certainly, it is unheard of for women to be in a wartime hospital, but from what Florence told me, they needed all the help they could get. The hospital was a crumbling old mess. Termites feasted on its wooden support beams, and the wind whipped through the old windows, causing discomfort for soldiers and nurses alike. Florence also said that the place was absolutely filthy.”
Charley added, “There was blood everywhere!”
Then I interjected, “And rats!”
Will, not to be outdone, said, “And muck and mud,” as he pretended to faint.
“Yes, that's quite enough of that, children! There were barely enough supplies for each soldier to lay on a piece of fabric. Some didn’t even have clothes on! From what your aunt has told me, that is the inspiration for the book she is writing. I can only imagine the nurses waking up there day after day, and having to be strong lest they be thought of as weak by the doctors.
“Of course, the soldiers – and there were about 3,000 of them – appreciated it. That's when those boys started calling her the Lady with the Lamp, because she would carry a lamp around the dark wards, comfort them, and bandage their wounds. Her letters home were heartbreaking. She worked so hard. We worried it would be too much…” Mama paused, taking a worried breath, “...and it was. Because after she returned home to England she came down with the Crimean flu.”
That's why we go to Auntie Flor’s house instead of grandma and grandpa’s for Christmas, I thought. The wheels of our wagon gave off a rapport like a shot, startling the horses as well as all of us in the carriage. As the horses started to bolt, Papa pulled back hard on the reins and said something under his breath that made Mama’s ears turn pink. Will didn’t seem to notice, and asked, “But she has already been sick for eight years! Shouldn’t she be okay by now?”
“I don’t entirely know.” Mama said, turning around to look at us. “But after she got back, she did get the large sum of 50,000 pounds from Queen Victoria herself! With the money, she could help the brave men in the army to get taken care of better after getting wounded. We can only imagine how that made grandma feel!” Mama chuckled, sounding happier. “Now she told me she's writing her own book of nursing!”
“We’re here!” Papa said as the carriage jolted to a stop.
Finally! Rose, Will, Charley, and I immediately jumped out of the carriage. We sprinted all around the damp yard. We also ran in the woods though not far in because it was already dusk. By the time Papa called us back we were all wriggling from excitement and nerves. The last of the sun's light trickled out of the sky as we went to Auntie Flor’s giant house to share holiday cheer.
I had no way of knowing it then, but in the following years Auntie Flor would recover. She then would inspire the first nursing school, have her books still be used hundreds of years later, and become the first woman to receive the Order of Merit by the Queen! My Auntie Flor broke out of her expected gender roll and led many more women to do the same.