By Pamela Schoenewaldt
My image of the Red Cross is very bound up in the summer I was nine and working steadily through the children’s biographies in the Westfield, New Jersey Public Library. I was partial to famous women and picked Clara Barton, along with Joan of Arc and Helen Keller.
Searching for role models, I was distressed to hear that she’d nursed her younger brother for three years, “never leaving his side.” I loved my little brother, but three years? A little boring. Her work in the Civil War was more adventurous, like taking over a fine house and filling it with wounded men. My geometry skills were rudimentary, but when I told my mother how many wounded, bloody men we could house if war came to Westfield, she was suitably impressed – or distressed since the living room was newly carpeted.
My most vivid memory was a scene in Armenia. Clara Barton is leading a convoy of medical supplies across the rugged mountain roads. Her guides warn that she’ll be turned back at the border. She could be shot. Her supplies could be stolen. It’s hopeless. “They’ll let me pass,” Clara Barton insists, rummaging through her sewing basket. Stopped by armed guards, she leans from the carriage window and shows a rough red cross she has fashioned from ribbons and sewn on her white sleeve. Clara Barton passes with her moving hospital. I was stunned by her calm confidence and the author’s description of the guns lowered as they recognized the already-famous symbol.
The urge to be a nurse like Clara Barton came and went as I moved through my summer of biographies, but that image of a brave woman facing down armed guards with two bits of red ribbon has stayed with me always.
Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a medical physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.