By: Mary Jo Martin
Merle sat on the stoop of her brownstone in the bright Spring sunshine, her elbows propped on her knees, and daydreamed about the future. The constant roar of car engines, smells of exhaust fumes, yells of kids playing stickball, or even an occasional fire truck didn’t break her fantasizing. She had acquired an expertise for concentration, honed over years of practice. It helped her in doing school work, while her brother was practicing his trumpet, but was especially focused when she was working to plot out her future.
During her childhood, like the rest of the country, the Lower East Side of New York was still suffering from a stock market that had taken a significant nosedive, while job losses kept mounting. In desperation, people had thrown themselves out of windows, and even those who didn’t go that far were struggling just to put food on the table. But, Merle, with the eternal optimism of youth, knew it wouldn’t last forever. She planned to be ready when things turned around.
Growing up was pretty sweet for a girl born in 1920 into a loving, multi-generational Jewish family. Her grandparents, her mother, and her uncles had emigrated from Russia in the late 1800s to avoid the harsh living conditions there. Although her grandfather was trained as an engineer, he couldn’t find a job in Moscow because of discrimination against Jews. Without any other choices, they moved to the country and became farmers to survive. Then, with the assassination of Czar Alexander II, their peasant neighbors became violent. Gangs of them killed their cows and destroyed their crops, blaming the Jews for their problems. Her grandparents, like many others in the same situation, fled Russia to eventually arrive in Holland, a much safer and accepting country. But, this wasn’t their ultimate destination. They viewed America and Ellis Island as their last sanctuary and a ticket to a new life.
Her mother, as beautiful as Merle grew to be, soon found a nice Jewish boy during their journey who had come from the same area of Moscow where she’d lived. They hit it off immediately, and once they were settled in their new homes, regularly went to dances and socials held by their synagogue. By the turn of the new century, they were married. Children followed. First a boy, Abe, then their baby girl, Merle, whose bright eyes, smiles, and gurgles delighted her family and everyone in the neighborhood.
Family life for Merle was close, but not suffocating. Her parents let her have a pretty long leash, and she rewarded them by being the good girl they knew she was. She flirted and had her flings, but always used her head to avoid any situations that could get her into trouble. With the family and neighbors she had, she couldn’t get into too much trouble. Everyone was watching.
She was just about to start the part of her musings that involved a handsome man on a tropical beach. They were swimming and enjoying the warm sun, brushed by the cool breezes coming off the Gulf of Mexico. A deafeningly loud backfire from a truck made her jump and interrupted her reveries. Just then, one of her many friends – the dark-haired, suave Tony – came around the corner.
“Hey, Merle! Watcha doin’? Wanna go to the dance tonight?”
“Thanks, Tony, but I already told Mick I’d go with him.”
“Mick’s good luck is my bad luck. Save one for me, will ya?”
Merle replied with a smile that would melt the hardest steel, “Sure, Tony. I’m always happy to dance with my favorite Italian boy.”
At sixteen, Merle was a stunner, with long, dark brown, wavy hair and sparkling hazel eyes that always contemplated the next fun thing to do. Merle’s fun things invariably included boys. The trick was to be able to discreetly chase the ones she liked without her parents finding out. Those boys were sometimes nice Jewish ones that her parents liked, but others were Italian or Irish. Merle didn’t discriminate. As long as they were cute and fun, she liked them. She had to be careful, though, because the neighbors, who constantly leaned out their windows, didn’t miss much. And they never kept things to themselves.
Merle had to balance her fun activities with the boys. She did have a serious, studious side, but very few people got to see it. As she was easing back into her daydream, her best friend, Helen, came along. While Merle was stunning and vivacious, Helen was pretty in an everyday kind of way, with dirty-blond hair that would have looked really good if she’d spent more time on it. But, Helen didn’t care. She was happy in her own skin and spent most of her time studying or reading. She was an old soul in a young body.
Helen said, “You look very thoughtful. What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to live in the Lower East Side the rest of my life. I need to go away to some tropical beach, where I can meet a handsome man who will spoil me. But, to do that, I’ll probably have to get a good education beyond high school. What about you?”
“So, what’s the problem with that? You’re a smart girl. Me, I’ll probably stay here. I’m not adventurous like you.”
They were lucky to live in New York, where their school had a good library. And the famous New York Public Library in Manhattan was a subway ride away. They devoted one Saturday and headed there to search for schools. They knew they would find more resources than their school had. They’d been there many times, enjoyed passing by the enormous lions at the entrance, always rubbing their manes for good luck, so they knew their way around. Their goal was to settle into the Rose Main Reading Room, which held volumes of reference materials.
They started at the reference desk and were soon overwhelmed. Merle noted, “Who would have thought there’d be so many schools here in New York?’ Aren’t we lucky to have so many choices?”
“Yes, but how do we possibly narrow them down?” said the practical Helen, her hands deep in the card catalog, her mind spinning.
“Well, we both enjoy school, especially biology classes, and we get pretty good grades, although I know they could be better. We love dissecting frogs and any other animal our teacher puts in front of us. You know how we can’t wait to open them up to see where everything is? It’s fascinating how all of the organs fit so neatly inside their skins.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we can do with our lives. I don’t know about you, but being a teacher probably wouldn’t get me out of New York, and I don’t think either of us has any interest in being an engineer like my grandfather, or an accountant like my father. What do you think of nursing as a career? We could go to school together.”
Helen, always up for a shared experience with her pal, said, “Sure, I think we could do that in a heartbeat. Get it? Heartbeat? But here’s the catch – where will we get the money?”
“Very funny, but if we start planning now, I’m sure we can figure out the money part. My counselor at school says there are lots of scholarships for smart kids if their grades are good. So, we need to knuckle down.”
With this shared direction, Merle started searching for nursing schools. “Helen, look what I found! There’s an article that says there’s a nursing shortage, so maybe we made a good decision!”
“Merle, I just discovered that there are a lot of hospitals in New York that offer nursing programs. Maybe one of them could be a fit for us.”
“Well, aside from finding the school that’s best for us, we have to figure out how to pay for it. But here’s some good news. Nursing doesn’t require a four-year degree, and some programs include what they call a paid practicum. We can observe nurses doing their jobs and get paid for doing it!”
One of the programs they found was run by Bellevue Hospital. Before it became known for caring for patients with mental disorders, it had a distinguished history as a teaching hospital and was the first nursing school in the United States to adhere to Florence Nightingale’s principles.
Merle told Helen, “I read about Florence Nightingale in my history class. She took care of wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, even making her rounds at night with a lamp. The soldiers called her ‘The Lady with the Lamp.’”
Merle’s jewelry collection was far from extensive, but that didn’t mean she failed to appreciate the shiny baubles of life. She told Helen, “Did you know that Bellevue’s nursing school pin was designed by Tiffany? Doesn’t that beat all?”
The length of Bellevue’s curriculum seemed perfect. They offered a three-year diploma program. But, yearly tuition and fees were $500. This was something neither girl could afford, but the school awarded scholarships. If they could get their grades up, it might be manageable.
Merle and Helen swung into high gear. They both got jobs after school so they could save up to pay for expenses beyond tuition. Merle, Miss Personality, worked at a soda fountain, where she made more in tips than her small salary. Helen, the more studious of the pair, started by tutoring fellow students struggling with math and science. They studied harder in school to increase their chances for scholarships. Their grades rose to high A’s. The savings accounts they started began to grow steadily.
Of course, Merle, the party girl, still saw the boys, going to dances and the movies, but her primary goal was to get out of school and get a scholarship. Helen, although pretty in her own way, with eyes like blue cornflowers, didn’t attract the boys like Merle did. And, that was fine with her. She wasn’t the social butterfly of the team and wasn’t that interested in boys anyway. Helen’s motto was, “there will be plenty of time for boys after I graduate.”
Merle planned to finish nursing school and take off for the adventure she long craved. Florida was her dream destination, with a fantastic climate, beautiful beaches, a great Naval Hospital in Pensacola, and of course, lots of handsome sailors. Helen knew she’d be happy just sharing her nursing education with her friend. She’d probably stay in New York.
At their high school commencement, Merle and Helen were delighted to graduate summa cum laude, proud to wear the honor cords they received. Even better, both girls were awarded scholarships from Bellevue. The future was bright, and they were excited to be able to share it together.
They were on their way to Merle’s house for a party when they heard a loud squeal of tires and the screams of nearby pedestrians. Out of nowhere, a delivery van swerved directly into their path. Merle was able to dodge it and reach the sidewalk. Not so Helen. Merle never forgot the sickening thud. Her best friend lay on the street, blood coming out of her mouth and ears.
Merle went to Helen, cradling her in her arms, saying, “You’ll be OK. The ambulance is on the way. I can’t lose you now when we’ve come so far. Stay with me, we still have lots of adventures ahead.”
The ambulance arrived, too late. Helen’s eyes were closed, and she wasn’t breathing. Merle tried to find a pulse but couldn’t. She was gone.
They had completed the first part of the plan she and Helen had plotted. But Merle would be on her own for the next step. There was a hole in her heart that would take years to heal, even with the best nursing care.
Bio: Mary Jo Martin
Mary Jo Martin is a retired market researcher who lives in Houston, Texas. She is a member of the Houston Writer’s Guild. Her short story, Flowers for Lewis, was published in December 2015 in the Houston Writer’s Guild Press short story mystery anthology, Waves of Suspense.
Mary Jo started her professional life as a chemist. Along the way, she sold out to the dark side and earned her Master’s degree in Business Administration. After years of successfully producing concise business text as a marketer and market researcher, she is now free to do “real” writing.
Check out Mary Jo on Facebook
Her memoir: Sibling Revelries: Sibling Revelries: Finding Family After 62 Years started with a neurological disease that Mary Jo was told was hereditary, but she didn’t inherit it from her mother. That left her never-discussed father.
Looking for medical answers, Mary Jo learned she was not the only child she thought she was, but one of six, with three half-brothers and two half-sisters from four different mothers and one common father.
Another post by Mary Jo: Don’t Be Scared, Just Do It
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