Social Life and a Vocation
Aunt Jana was one of those rare individuals who humbly accepts whatever life brings without complaint and then sets about making the best of it.
The example of Aunt Jana dispensing devoted care upon the crippled, the sick, and the old among the people of Svensksund first put into my head the idea of becoming a nurse. She taught me to roll bandages and dress wounds. It pleased her to find I was not s queamish about blood and injuries. The challenge of an emergency a ppealed to me. I began to dream of romantic adventures in a great spirit. But I could not apply for admittance to the Red Cross of Nursing until I was twenty-one—three years hence.
The great opening event of the winter social season was at hand, ball at the royal palace to present the year's debutantes at court. Exc ited and nervous, I stood before the looking glass in Mother's. In the brilliant light of many lamps, Mother, Ebba, and the hovered around me, critically inspecting every detail of my attire.
I felt stiff and breathless in my new stays. The deep decolletage of my trainless white satin gown was edged with paillettes of mother-of-pearl. The silk of my puffed sleeves, obligatory for all ladies ling formal court functions and passed from mother to daughter was yellowed with age. The long white gloves refused to slip on easily. I was flushed and hot.
The doorbell rang. My escort for the occasion, the son of one of our former neighbors, stood before me boyishly round-faced and tall in his resplendent dress uniform, tasseled sword at his side, be-plumed hat under his arm. His manners were impeccable; all former teasing was now forgotten. Followed by the fond gaze of three pairs of eyes from the open window, we drove off in a landau hired for the occasion.
The function took place in the enormous ballroom of the royal palace known as the White Sea, and the gathering spread into the adjacent festival apartments. There was continuous measured move ment to the softly murmurous sound of many voices. A glimpse of tall, bearded King Gustav in gold-braided uniform opening the ball with the crown princess was followed by waves of resplendent dancers swinging onto the soon crowded dance floor. Thanks to my dutiful escort's attention, my dance program with the royal crest and the small pink pencil dangling from a tassel was quickly scribbled full. Soon word came for the debutantes to assemble in a certain anteroom, where I was handed over to the lady who was to present me.
All this was entirely Mother's idea. "I'm arranging this for you as part of your education and training, not for fun." Her tone was firm. "It's an experience you ought to have."
Experience! I had not seen it in that light before, and my protests evaporated.
For reasons of economy, Mother decided to forgo the rather costly exercise of taking me to court herself. She entrusted me to her good friend Dagmar Swartz, whose husband was the finance minister. And now, here we were in the foremost section of the long line of presenting ladies and debutantes.
The door opened and the queue began to move. Suddenly I found myself on the threshold of a large reception room. Before me a vision of gold, a shiny parquet floor, gilded chairs along the walls not intended for anyone to sit on, mirrors reflecting the occupants of the room. Diagonally across the room, so that we who were to make our bows could pass from one to the other and out through the double doors at the other end without turning our backs on any of them, the three receiving royal ladies stood at a certain distance from each other. High court officials and ladies-in-waiting provided them with a dis creetly withdrawn background.
My own name smote my ears with intimidating force. Before the extended hand of the crown princess I performed my first deep c urtsy. I saw a round smiling full face, extremely blue eyes, luscious dark wavy hair. The former Margaret of Connaught, crown princess of Sweden, had on this occasion taken over the duties of the ailing Queen Victoria. Her sweet temperament, her warm concern about people, especially the young ones, her women's field hockey teams had made her famous.
The slight frou-frou of Tante Dagmar's train sweeping upon the floor urged me on. I found myself before a vision in opalescence. Much had already been written and rumored about the rand Duchess Marie of Russia, whom Wilhelm, the talented Bernado tte poet and writer, the brother of Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, married not long ago. One thought of the nunlike strictness wi th which she had been brought up at the St. Petersburg court. One whispered of the playful, irresponsible escapades in which she had indulged after her marriage, a bird let out of a cage, of her boredom with her new, somewhat stilted entourage, of her impetuosity. One jealo usly remarked about her priceless gems and her remarkable beauty. For a brief instant I stood face to face with her, a dazzling crea ture as if just escaped out of the pages of a colorful fairy tale, diadem shaped in the Russian style crowned her small regal head, its magnificent opals enhanced the luster of her black hair and i ivory of her skin. Her train of rich lame fell from her shoulders, clu ng briefly to her slender waist, and then descended in shimmering fol ds to the floor. Her face, surrounded by all this stiff splendor, was of a child, rounded, pouting, eager to have all this fuss and protoc ol over with soon so that she could escape, have fun, dance.
"Glad to see you here with us today!"
The informal pronoun with which I was addressed, the friendly, slightly familiar voice jolted me away from the fascinating exotic Princess Ingeborg's smiling eyes met mine. The sister of godmother Louise, the wife of Prince Carl, Father's friend, she was not a stranger. Suddenly relaxed, I basked in the royal sunshine my last curtsy went off smoothly. Known for an occasional display of airs even toward her close friends, today the princess, slend er and elegant in a clinging sheath of silver brocade, was pure affa bility toward Hillevid's daughter. Her words and the expression of her face radiated spontaneous warmth, rare in these exalted circle s. And I left her to mingle once again with the resplendent throngs, moving, swirling to the rhythms of the orchestras in the great ballroom with an agreeable feeling of belonging.
The night was chilly and dark when, three days after New Year 1914, I arrived at Egeskov in Denmark for the first time for an extended visit with my second godmother, Tante Jessy Ahlefeldt- Laurvig-Bille. I had never met her before. The liveried footman, carrying my suitcase and the carriage plaid, ushered me into the spacious hall. A warm smell of wood smoke greeted me, mingled with the faint odor of burning candles in massive candelabra, flickering lightly in the air from the opened oak doors. Out of the blue drawing room Tante Jessy came stepping quickly, her arms spread wide to embrace me. I dropped her a respectful curtsy. I had to bend to return her welcoming kiss, for she was short.
"So this is Hillevid's daughter!" she exclaimed, holding me at arms' length. "Yes, you do look like her—but you also look like your father."
Tante Jessy must have been over sixty at this time. Her plump figure was bound by Parisian stays that effectively prevented any bending at the waist. Upon her ample bosom nestled several rows of Oriental pearls. Innocent of cosmetics, her smooth face framed by soft brown curls looked almost girlish. Any suspicion that her wonderful coiffure was in fact a wig was based on no evidence other than the youthful color.
Tante Jessy ruled her vast estates with the softest of kid gloves. Characteristically, she affected a shy pose at total variance with her authority. With swimming eyes, softly batting lids, girlish blushes, and fluttering hands she gave orders that were obeyed, expressed opinions that were not disputed. Demurely she prevailed.
Having kissed me once again, Tante Jessy turned and with a small gesture dismissed the servants standing around. She preceded me into a cozy room comfortably overfurnished in Victorian style. By the love seat a low tea wagon stood with the silver teakettle whispering over a spirit-burning lamp. An Irish terrier, stiff-legged and irate, leaped from the basket in the corner, yapping until she hushed him. By the heavily draped window a canary in a gilded cage flitted anxiously from perch to perch. Tante Jessy covered the cage with a green cloth.
A few days later, wrapped warmly in buffalo robes, Tante Jessy and I started out in her brass-fitted Daimler town car, chauffeur and butler in front, on our way to Copenhagen.
Life with Tante Jessy in the capital turned out to be an interlude of extravagant opulence. The atmosphere of the house was one of softe ned footfalls upon carpets of luxurious thickness. My room was on the top floor under the roof, deep and low-ceilinged. Late mornings, sumptuous meals, drives in the afternoon with Tante Jessy to air the terrier or call on hawk-nosed ladies of distinction alternated w ith receptions and balls in the evenings.
To find that Mother was still well remembered in Copenhagen, so many years since her departure to Sweden was an agreeable di scovery. When Prince Gustav, the portly brother of Godmother Louise, led me onto the dance floor, he spoke of my mother as the charm ing young girl he had known in his youth. The blue eyes in his still young-looking face lit up with pleasant memories. "Hillevid 's daughter" became a designation I bore with much pride and gra titude. And, like a charm, it opened all doors.
I regret to say that Tante Jessy never got her money's worth of pleasure and companionship out of me. But she never complained, nor did she demand the impossible. When I finally asked to be fre ed of the obligation to be a drawing room entertainer, she acqui esced readily and happily. I felt uncomfortably ungrateful and to explain the reasons, my inadequacies. Tante Jessy only waved her hands airily, smiled sweetly, and batted her eyelids.
Life in glamorous idleness began to pall. The eternal striving to fill each hour with purposeless preoccupations, with talk only to prod uce sounds to fill the silence, dancing, flitting from ball to ball, day and night the same, soon created feelings of futility and
boredom. In this world of soft carpets and cultivated gaiety there was too much of everything—too much service, too much food, too many people concentrating on doing nothing. The artificiality gorged and progressively destroyed the appetite. I left the table of opulence Went back to Sweden hungry for something I could not identify or name, an opportunity to feel passion, a chance to spend energy and heart recklessly.
July 1914. Who among those of us living at a safe distance from holocaust could talk of sacrifice? Inconvenience, rationing of goods and food, yes. But these were no sacrifices to be compared with those demanded of the people whose lives were in danger every day, every hour. Nation set against nation, families torn apart, the mental and physical abuse of individuals, and the effects of all this on their sensitivities and their outlook—we only heard about these things. Yet the tremors of the violent explosion spread like the tremors of an earthquake, and no one alive at that time could escape its influence, devastating to most, stimulating to some. In my case, it was like a clarion call.
Now, suddenly, where confusion had befogged the wits before, purpose emerged. In a flash the meandering path I had pursued changed into a wide open road leading toward a specific goal. One point was particularly clear in my mind: There was to be no head long rush to reach the goal now being formulated as a result of the outbreak of the war, no playing at learning first aid, rolling bandages, and helping out in a hospital as a nurse's aide. I wanted to get thorough training in the professional skills of nursing, no matter how long it took.
Of the available nursing schools, the one operated by the Red Cross was of especially high repute. The requirements emphasized dedication. The applicant paid, in fact, a sizable sum for the privi lege of training there. If the student was found unsuited for the work, she was asked to leave. If she survived the two-year course, she was required to remain for a year and a half after graduation at the disposal of the registry for private or other duties. Previous experience in the care of the sick was desirable before admission. For this reason I entered the General Hospital of Norrkoping, the city close to Svensksund, as a probationer. The hospital was run by deaconesses in caps edged with frilly lace and angelic smiles on their faces. The physician in charge, a wonderful man with thick gray hair, whom I had known all my life, opened the doors for me. Thus occupied, I awaited my twenty-first birthday.
To describe exactly the traumatic effect of my first year in nursing is not a matter of great pride. I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical exertion. I never dreamed anyone could be expected to work so hard and for such long hours. And it was somewhat disconcerting to find that it was actually within one's capacity. In those days, day duty began at 6:00 A.M. and ended at 8:00 P.M. If the work on the ward permitted, a break of two hours was allowed at the discretion of the head nurse. Every fourth night, sometimes every third, the student went on night duty. At eight the next morning she was relieved and thereafter remained off duty for the next twenty-four hours.
I yearned for the day when at last, dressed in the gray uniform of the Red Cross and with the white cap on my head, I would be called Sister Louise. But where was the glamour so easily surmised, the glory so fondly imagined? Certainly not in these exhausting daily and nightly chores, running with bedpans, scrubbing, polishing, bedmaking, rushing through the wards upon aching feet and never getting enough sleep. And those dark, hateful, lonely nights! Often I caught myself weeping from sheer fatigue, soft bitter tears, wishing for a miracle to take me out of this misery, even to become ill, to lie down and rest forever.
Then with dramatic impact came the awareness of the smells, of the awful pathological abnormalities, the pitiful morbidity in nearly every hospital scene. A fierce unreasoning fear of death, an abhorrence of decay overwhelmed me. Disease seemed to blight the world. It gripped, distorted, inexorably poisoned people's bodies in untold invidious ways. No one could escape.
By degrees time dispelled this sense of overwhelming disaster. Slowly, partly from habituation and partly from increasing absorption in the work, another mood replaced it. Recognition came of the masterly skills and organization required to care for sick people in a large general hospital, and with it a sneaking exultation. I grew increasingly aware of the remarkable refinement of the techniques being taught me, remarkable indeed in their absolute economy of movement and purposive execution. Skill became my fetish. My hands grew adept in the administration of treatments, in the dressing of a wound, in the art of making a bed under a gravely ill patient. The approach to excellence was a stimulating experience. Without ado, without any great effort, the starched, soft-spoken head nurse subdued the rebellious, immature girl that I was and extracted from her efficiency of performance. And when for the first time a patient's eyes took on a look of relief at my approach, of confidence that he could entrust his aching body to my ministrations, then the realiza tion dawned that the strict discipline and the meticulous teaching were imparting to me not only a vocation but an art.
The emergency department of one of the great city hospitals was the place above all others where I achieved a complete sense of per sonal fulfillment. Here, in competition with fellow students, I learned presence of mind, how to handle the mangled body of a woman run down by a car, how to cut the charred clothes from a badly burned child, how to deal with an attempted suicide coughing up parts of his insides seared by sulphuric acid.
Every night when my turn came to be on duty, the shrill ringing of the bell brought me out of bed and down the stairs eagerly, tense and prepared to deal with whatever awaited me on the stretcher. Night after night the bell rang into my body renewed energy and developing skill. Shortness of staff often forced a sharing of respon sibility between the doctor and the nurse. This called on all the competence of both of them and enhanced the nurse's contribution to the saving of lives. As case followed case, the work of helping them became a privilege demanding no reward beyond that of being allowed to remain there undisturbed to continue the work.
When graduation day came, so eagerly anticipated, so long awaited, I felt no great elation. Neither the uplifting speeches, the bouquets of flowers, nor even the pin and the diploma seemed any longer of such immense significance. One thing only appeared important: to be placed in the kind of work entirely suited to one's temperament and ability, challenging work that compelled the giving of oneself wholly.