Tuesday, January 19, 2010

All Or Nothing

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice,
And everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

While looking through the Bethany section, once called the Garden of Gethsemani, in Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston, Texas yesterday for my great-grandfather, Claude Roy Truitt, I [surprise, surprise] found a tombstone. Actually I found a bunch of them. However, this particular tombstone caught my attention because it was located under a big Oak tree whose roots were pushing the tombstone up and out of the ground. I quickly read it to see if it was my great-grandfather's. It read, "Mary Ellen Riley, Pennsylvania, Nurse Army Nurse Corps..." "Nope," I thought, "definitely not him, " and continued onward to the next tombstone. Then I thought, "Whoa," and retraced my steps all the while mentally doing a family story happy dance. Why? Because, silly, it would've been kinda crazy to actually do a happy dance in the cemetery. Right? Right?

With Valentine's Day around the corner, I thought I'd share two women's stories with you. Two family stories full of "heart." [What do you mean you didn't know that Valentine's Day was around the corner? Have you been to any store since Christmas? How could you have missed St. Valentine? He's everywhere.]

With All My Heart
Ancient Greeks and Egyptians believed all emotion came from the heart. After all, when someone is happy, excited, etc., the heart rate increases. Makes sense. However, with modern day advances, we now know that the heart is told by the brain to speed up or slow down based on how the brain interprets certain stimuli. Although this may be true, it still hasn't stopped poets, writers, and songwriters from lamenting broken hearts, praising courageous hearts, describing hearts bursting with love, and the like.

The heart is a cardiac muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. Unlike other muscles, the heart is considered an "all or nothing" muscle, meaning when it contracts, it does so at full force, or not at all. Here are some common facts about this fascinating muscle:

  • The heart beats approximately 100,000 times per day;
  • The heart pumps 2000 gallons of blood per day;
  • The heart pumps nearly 5 quarts of blood through the body every 60 seconds;
  • The human heart ways less than a pound;
  • For humans, the normal pulse is 70 heartbeats per minute;
  • In an average lifetime, a heart pumps about 1 million barrels of blood [enough to fill 3 super tankers];
  • A woman's heart beats faster than a man's heart; and
  • During a 70-year lifetime, the heart beats about 3 billion times.

Mary Ellen (Coleman) Riley [Yes, another "Mary" ~ *rolling eyes heavenward*]
Mary Ellen Coleman was born to Peter Coleman [an Irish immigrant] and Anne Brown [a British immigrant of Irish descent] 31 Oct 1886 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was one of twelve children. While her younger brother, Vincent Leo Coleman, filled out his World War I Registration Draft Card on 5 Jun 1917, Mary Ellen had already set her sights on doing what she could for the Great War's effort.

The Army Nurse Corps was a non-commissioned group of female nurses, and along with other medical personnel [both male and female], they performed their duties courageously both on the homefront and overseas. The United States government, and most especially, the War Department was not exactly thrilled to allow women in the military. However, it became a "numbers game." They didn't have enough soldiers for combat so they relented. The Army never did officially make these nurses a part of the military until World War II, but the United States Navy did make their nurses official in World War I mostly due to some ambiguous language in their rules. [Hard to believe, I know. An ambiguous beauracracy?]

The United States didn't enter World War I until April 1917, but the United States had already been sending nurses to various places around the world, as well as them going on their own where needed. After entering the war, the first groups of Army Nurse Corp nurses were sent to England then on to France to aid the British Expeditionary Forces [BEF] at the end of April and at the beginning of May in 1917. These ladies set up camp before American soldiers ever arrived there.

Since Mary Ellen's passport [digital copy obtained from Ancestry.com] wasn't issued until August of 1917, she probably wasn't sent over until October of 1917 to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces [AEF] in France. This would've given her base [general] hospital time to get organized, to practice working together, and to acclimate to the idea of being away from family. All of this occurring on [according to her passport] Ellis Island in New York with orders for her base (general) hospital unit #21 [organized by the Red Cross] to be ready to set sail for England and France with the Army Nurse Corps.

Not many of these nurses saw combat, but they certainly saw the effects of combat in their field hospitals, mobile units, etc. Most certainly, they dealt with bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds, and the horrific effects of mustard gas. More often than not, I would imagine, offering comfort to a dying soldier. The nurses, themselves, dealt with exposure to mustard gas. Some of them even dying from it. In addition, these nurses also dealt with the great flu epidemic in 1918-1919, giving up many lives to it.

Mary Ellen lived with her parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1920, but then I found her in 1930 living with a slew of women in Manhattan, New York, all of them nurses. According to her death certificate that I found on FamilySearch.org Record Search, when Mary Ellen died in 1954 in Harris County, Texas of heart failure, she had been a widow, obviously marrying a man with the surname "Riley". The informant on her death certificate was "Blanche Coleman" [possibly a niece?]. I'm not sure whether she had any children or not. However, I am sure that even though I've only "known" Mary Ellen (Coleman) Riley for less than 24 hours and have only done some preliminary research on her, I am quite "wowed" by her story. I can't imagine what courage it took to follow her heart, to become a nurse, to become a part of the Army Nurse Corps, and to be a nurse in France during World War I. She defied all social conventions of her time for women, and did it all for a country that didn't allow women to vote until 1920.

Anne Josephine (Truitt) Etie [No, she wasn't a "Mary," but her sister was...]
Mary Ellen (Coleman) Riley and women like her paved the way for women in the military by the time World War II rolled around. She paved the way for my Gran's sister, Anne Josephine (Truitt) Etie. My Aunt Anne [part of my long line of managing women that I descend from] was a nurse in the United States Navy in World War II. She was one of the very few women who drove an ambulance in France during the war. I cannot fathom the horrors she saw, nor can I fathom the courage she had to risk "life and limb" driving an ambulance in France while trying to save the lives and limbs of soldiers.

The last time I saw my Aunt Anne [actually my Great Aunt Anne, but we just called her Aunt Anne...], she was in a nursing home with her older sister, my Gran, in San Antonio, Texas. She passed away at the age of 85 in 1995 from heart-related causes, and she and her husband, Roney Joseph Etie, are buried in Houston National Cemetery. Whether on purpose or not, she and Joseph never had any children. Because of this, her story is left in the hands of her sister's and brother's descendants.

It's hard for me to reconcile in my head the image of that little old lady in the nursing home talking and laughing with her older sister with all that I've read about what she did for her country in World War II. Like Mary Ellen, Aunt Anne "bucked the system". She, too, defied the social conventions for women of her time by courageously following her heart.

Because of Aunt Anne's story, I've done a little reading on women in the military of both World Wars, which is why Mary Ellen (Coleman) Riley's tombstone caught my attention. While reading about these women, I had thought to myself, "Wow. Wouldn't it be amazing to 'know' one of these women who served in World War I like my Aunt Anne served in World War II?" Yes, it's a bit greedy of me, I know. There are a few books about these wonderfully courageous women, but at the time, I didn't think I'd be running across one in my research. Boy [or maybe I should say "Girl"], I thought wrong.

All Or Nothing
These women of World War I and World War II displayed incredible courage when they did for their country what their country wasn't ready for them to do, but it certainly needed them to do it. At the end, one could certainly say Mary Ellen's and Aunt Anne's hearts physically gave out with the advancement of their ages.

But maybe there's some truth, after all, to what the ancients thought about the human heart and to what poets, writers, and songwriters have written about the human heart throughout the ages. For the courage of these women, like their hearts, was all or nothing.

Courage, sacrifice, determination, 
    commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. 
That's what little girls are made of;
The hell with sugar and spice.

[ http://home.att.net/~quotations/courage.html ]


  1. Outstanding story! I love how you presented it and tied everything together. Well done! :)

  2. Wonderful story!
    Actually, I would love to have seen you do a happy dance in the cemetery. :)

  3. You have been so supportive of my "Genealogy and Me" blog that I wanted to thank you in a special way.
    Thanks to Robin at My Two Blessings (www.mytwoblessings.com/ I discovered the "A Blogger's Best Friend" award created by "Bandit" at the world from down here (http://theworldfromdownhere.blogspot.com/2009/04/drumroll-please.html) According to Bandit, the "A Blogger's Best Friend Award" shall be given to your most loyal blog readers. Thus, the award should be given to a follower of yours who takes the time to comment regularly on many of your posts. In addition his or her blog should be creative, funny and always entertaining. Upon receiving this award, pass it along to two fellow bloggers who fit this criteria.

    Your award can be picked up here:


  4. Wonderful story and two very strong and selfless women. I am thanking them for their service to our country.


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