Carol A. Hand
When I compiled these memories and photos for my mother, she was in an assisted living facility just outside of the reservation boundaries of the community where she spent her childhood and final years. I was living far away and wanted to do what I could to help her remember who she was. I was teaching at a university more than a thousand miles away and wasn’t able to visit her often.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to search for details about the contexts she encountered during her life. As I prepared this post, I found myself wondering about these important influences and decided to see what I could find. The following chapter interweaves some of the information I discovered.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
Off to Nursing School and the “Big City”
Norma’s life took a fortuitous turn. The Bear Lodge where Anna had worked during Norma’s childhood was sold. During summer vacations, Norma had worked there, too. They were both hired by the new owner from Chicago. His wife, only known to me as “Mrs. Paterson,” liked Norma. Mrs. Paterson told Norma that she had also grown up poor and would like to do something to help Norma. She offered to send Norma to nursing school, and promised to pay all costs (tuition, books, lodging) as well as provide an allowance if Norma agreed to study nursing at Loyola University in Chicago. Norma agreed.
Loyola was established as St. Ignatius College in 1870 by a Jesuit priest and educator and renamed Loyola University in 1909. “Loyola established professional schools in law (1908), medicine (1909), business (1922), and nursing (1935)… A downtown campus was founded in 1914, and with it the School of Sociology. As the predecessor to the School of Social Work, it enrolled Loyola’s first female students, though the school would not become fully coeducational until 1966” (Wikipedia, 2020, March 02).
Chicago was a bustling city during the 1940s. It’s featured in an old vintage video, produced and narrated by James A. Fitzpatrick, that highlights the city’s attractions.
The film fails to mention the fact that the United States was at war for half of the decade (WW II – December 1941 to August 1945).
While Norma waited for her fiance, Edward, to return from the war, she devoted herself to her studies, new friends, and new adventures.
Although these pictures portray a happy life, Norma carried hidden burdens. Anna wrote of her pain and poverty, tragic events in the community, and her reasons for only paying back part of the money she borrowed from Norma. These were difficult letters for me to read, yet a crucial foundation for understanding the challenges my mother had to face.
(I have typed out the above letter and portions of two others below without editorial changes.)
February 23rd 1941
Just a line to let you know that I am enclosing you the three dollars. She gave me 4 but I gave Eileen 1 dollar but will send it to you pay day if I have any money left. I still have wash bill & oil bill. Well I feel pretty good if I only could use my old legs, but my arms still bother me quite a bit at night. Ester still owes you three more. I would not let it go for that but on account of the legs I don’t think they are broke just loose are they not. Today was a lovely day but it was quite cold all last week…
March 19, 1941
Dear Daughter, …
I am enclosing your two dollars for that wardrobe. I owe you a dollar will give it to you when I have it. Because I don’t think you ever go broke. Mrs. Patterson said she will see that you are well taken care of and not to worry about you. I told her I knew it because you sure did look lovely when you came home. I guess I have told you every thing. So must close with love.
Will send you two dollars next pay day, if I can.
On April 16, 1941
Dear Daughter Norma, …
A week before Mrs. Paterson came, I was just beginning to feel like myself when they came. And I was glad of it. I wish Hazel home just while I get the house clean. But I know Al won’t let her so I won’t ask her. Well Norma I sure am glad that you are not here in this tuff place. [A young girl] was raped last Saturday and [three young girls]. The boys got them so drunk and layed out at the ballpark. All young kids. It’s awful all of the scantle. I think I told you enough. Don’t want to tell you too much…
The last letter Anna wrote was dated May 1, 1941. She died on May 16, 1941, at the age of 52.
During nursing school, Norma’s clinical practice was at Cook County Hospital, the hospital that served the poorest populations in Chicago.
Cook County Hospital opened in 1857. During the Civil War, it served as an army hospital and continued afterwards as center for medical education. “By the 1900s, the hospital was overseen by surgeons and physicians in Chicago who volunteered their services at the hospital… Regarded as one of the world’s greatest teaching hospitals, many interns, residents, and graduate physicians came to see the medical and surgical advances. Innovations included the world’s first blood bank and surgical fixation of fractures” (Wikipedia, 2019, September 08).
Norma contracted measles while she worked there and became desperately ill. She eventually lost many of her teeth as a result.
Like many Indigenous people around the world, she had no immunity to infectious diseases that were unknown before Europeans arrived. Jared Diamond (1997) highlights the importance of this history which many U.S. citizens don’t learn about in school.
“When I was young, American schoolchildren were taught that North America had originally been occupied by only one million Indians. That low number was useful in justifying the white conquest of what would be viewed as an almost empty continent. However, archaeological excavations, and scrutiny of descriptions left by the very first European explorers on our coasts, now suggest an initial number of around 20 million Indians. For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.
“The main killers were Old World germs to which Indians had never been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor genetic resistance. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for top rank among the killers. As if these had not been enough, diphtheria, malaria, mumps, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, and yellow fever came up close behind” (Diamond, 1997, pp. 211-212).
Despite serious illness and Anna’s death, Norma finished school, graduating on June 9, 1943. Sadly, neither the mother who raised her, Anna, nor her fiance, Edward, were there with her to celebrate.
Thanks to the generosity and kindness of Mrs. Paterson, Anna was able to earn a salary despite a sometimes debilitating chronic illness, and Norma’s life was transformed. Ultimately, Norma would return to use her gifts to help the community, too, but that is a later chapter.
Diamond, Jared (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.