Lyndon Women, Warrior Blood

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In Love Through the Shadows, Sarge is a balance of gentle and fierce, of practical and philosophical. It's how her granny raised her.

The sky was a matte, gun-metal grey and as I stared out the hospital window, the snow began to swirl in the wind. Now falling faster than when I’d arrived a half hour before. The air outside was colder than an average Maryland November. In fact, I couldn’t recall snow coming this early in the season in many years. Perhaps a harbinger of the disruption in the universe. That was the only way to describe what brought me here.

Turning away from the window, I stared at the hospital bed and my gentle angel that lay in its folds. Studying her still form, it was hard to make out that it was my grandbaby laying there. I softly touched a small spot on her cheek between the bandages where there was undamaged skin, trying to comfort her somehow. But got no response. Shaking my head, I dropped heavily into the chair beside the bed, closed my eyes, and let my mind drift. Soon I was over thirty-five years in the past, perched on the steps with my angel as we sipped sweet tea and watched the breeze moving the branches of the willows that lined Rutledge Creek.

“Granny, I want to be a boy,” Sherry’d said that day, the summer after fifth grade. The statement had puzzled me. “Why would you go and say that, young’in?” The expression on her face was intensely focused. “Because boys do all of the cool things. None much care what girls do, but boys? People make statues of them. Ain’t no statues of girls.” I nodded my head slowly, taking time to gather my thoughts. “It sure does seem like that. That’s not so true in our family though, little one. Lyndon women are born with warrior blood inside o’ them. And I can see it inside of you.” Her eyes sparked with interest, but she said nothing. Quiet as always. Just waiting for me to continue. “Do you know that some of your female kin were in the Civil War?”

At a soft moan from the bed, I opened my eyes. My angel was restless but showed no signs of waking. The machines continued their steady whirs, beeps, and pulses, no changes and no nurses rushing to her side. Leaning forward, I gently kissed her hand, afraid to move anything and inflict more pain. The moaning stopped and I settled back again with my eyes closed, surrounded by the memories of that afternoon so long ago.

“Tell me about the warrior blood Granny.” I took a slow sip of tea and wiped a bead of sweat from my face. “Well, our family was living in a little place called Amherst just outside Lynchburg Virginia. Not far from here in fact. It wasn’t much more than a few farms then, but our people worked a patch of land there. Our kin were some of the few free blacks that lived in those parts. Even though we were in the south, most folk round there believed in the Union, the northerners.

“During the Battle of Lynchburg in 1864, the Union troops were gettin’ beat pretty bad and they needed to get word up north to Pennsylvania. There were no boys to take the message. Sarah and Marj, they’d be your great, great, great gramma and aunt, volunteered. They were just about the age you are now. Dressed themselves up like boys and went north with the message. Took more than a week and they almost got caught but they got through to General Meade who sent more men to Lynchburg to help. Sarah and Marj ran more messages for the generals, stayin’ dressed like boys. Some say those two were a part of the reason the Union won the war. Those girls got in an’ out places without anyone noticing. They had Lyndon warrior blood.” Sherry’d smiled, looking out at the horizon, saying nothing.

Coming back to the present, I gazed down at her, a warrior who looked so small among the white bed sheets. Not sure how much she could hear or understand, I was suddenly aware of how important it was to summon all of the Lyndon warriors to her bedside. To remind her of her lineage and her strength. I leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek, reminding her that I loved her. Checking in with the ICU nurse, I walked to the exit and headed to my hotel room close to the hospital. The family had agreed that I was the one for this task. Her mama was too fragile, so I was all that she had.

The next morning, I arrived before seven, bringing coffee and snacks, hoping I’d find my angel sitting up in bed, but that was not to be. I could see that they had moved her a little bit and her face seemed troubled. As though the reminders of what had happened were replaying in her mind, causing her stress. Yeah, the Lyndon warriors were needed here.

Settling in beside her, I spoke softly. “Angel girl, I know you can hear me. I want you to know that me and all the Lyndon warriors are here with you. You already know about Sarah and Marj, during the Civil war. Next came Sherlyn, that’s kinda who you’re named for. Sherlyn was Sarah’s daughter, and she was filled with warrior blood just like her mama. Ran away from home when she was just a little more than twenty. Wasn’t married--maybe she was more like you than we know. Anyway, worried her mama something awful ‘cause no one knew where she went.

“They finally got a letter from her sayin’ she was shipping out on the USS Maine and they were headed to Havana. That was the Spanish American War. Weren’t many blacks on ships in those days and certainly no women. But that didn’t stop Sherlyn. She was a cook on the ship, living as a man. In the winter, a messenger came through town and told folk that the USS Maine got blow’d up in Havana harbor. That most of the sailors were dead. Sarah was devastated. Took to her bed for days, wouldn’t eat or talk to anyone but God. When she finally got up, she told her husband that she knew Sherlyn was alive. Months later, Sarah got another letter sayin’ that Sherlyn was fine and would be home soon. She’d saved some o’ those other soldiers when they were in the water. They never even know’d she wasn’t a man. She was a warrior and a hero. Just like you angel.

“Sherlyn never got married and never had any children. But her sisters and brothers had enough kids for all of them. One of those children, Marjorie, wanted to be a nurse. She started her training when she was barely fifteen, in town with the black doctor. Back then, blacks had their doctors and whites had theirs. No one thought much of it. Anyway, Marjorie helped a lot of people in town. When the boys left to fight in World War I, she wanted to go too but they didn’t take but a few women. And even fewer black women. She took care of the boys who came home. Some of them missing arms, legs, or even worse. Finally, she decided to go to France to help with the soldiers. Women couldn’t join the military and serve overseas so she signed up with the Young Men’s Christian Association to support the soldiers fighting in France. Weren’t no whites taking care of black men over there. She got on with a group of women, even a few blacks, and left for France on a ship.

“Her family got word many months later that she died of influenza before the ship docked in France. A lot of folks were lost from that pandemic in 1918. The letter said that she insisted on taking care of people on the ship who were sick no matter the color of skin, sitting with them, even though it meant that she would probably get sick too. Your great aunt worked shoulder to shoulder with Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson until she died. Those women went on to France and helped the black soldiers who were there. Marjorie was a hero, she was filled with our warrior blood.”

I stood to stretch as the nurses and doctors came in to check on my angel. Her face was more peaceful now, as though hearing about the adventures of her kin brought her strength and calm. The doctors said little but they didn’t seem as worried about how she was doing, even though she wasn’t awake yet. Before she left, one of the doctors turned and spoke softly to me. “Whatever it is that you are telling her, keep doing it. She is getting stronger and she needs to hear your voice, your stories. She’ll be back before you know it.” She patted me on the shoulder and left the room.

I stroked her cheek and settled back in the chair again. “That doctor said that hearing about your warrior blood is good for you, so I’ll keep telling you our story. So let’s see, I guess your Granny here is next in the Lyndon line. I was born after the first world war and things were starting to change for women by then. When I finished high school at sixteen, mother and father sent me to Howard University in Washington D.C. That was one of the few schools where a black woman could go to college. I got my degree in engineering as the US was entering World War II. Because I had a degree, I joined the Women’s Army Corp and shipped out to be trained as an officer at Fort Des Moines. Problem was, they trained us all, but no one wanted women officers, and especially black women officers. Weren’t no soldiers black or white who were going to listen to us. One day the ranking officer called me in and asked if I could run computing machines. I said that I could. He told me I was being loaned to the British and to pack my clothes to leave the next morning. I wrote home but couldn’t tell my family what I was doing or even that I was leaving the US.

“The next morning, I got on a plane with about twenty other young women and they took us to London, to Bletchley Park. British Armed Forces trained us to use, and even to build, the code breaking machines that Turing had developed. For many months, we listened in. Intercepting messages then decoding them for the Allied powers. It was all very exciting to be in the middle of it. I believe it was the first time that women truly were acknowledged for their intellectual contributions to the war effort. I am not sure that I have warrior blood child, but I know that what I did made a difference over there in London. I’d like to think it saved some of our boys.”

I took her hand in mine and held it for a bit, imagining the human touch to be even more powerful in healing than the spoken word. As I stroked her fingers, I noticed that she was moving a bit on her own, turning her head from side to side. Holding my breath, I waited to see if this meant my angel was waking up. “Squeeze my fingers, warrior girl,” I whispered softly. “You come back to me when you’re ready. Granny is right here for you.” I felt the light squeeze in my hand, and my tears began to fall. My angel was comin’ back.

It was mid-afternoon when I was allowed back at my angel’s bedside. Sherry’s awakening meant she was whisked away for tests and a steady stream of doctors and nurses were at her bedside. She’d been partially awake through most of it, but she spoke little and didn’t focus on much of anything. I wasn’t sure if it was the effect of the medication, the weeks she’d spent in the coma, or the overwhelming reality of what came both before and after today. I took my place again at her side, holding her hand and softly humming while she napped. “Granny, tell me more about the warriors,” she mumbled without opening her eyes. I smiled, knowing that through all that was going on in her mind and body, she heard my words. She felt my touch. I spoke calmly, keeping my voice even.

“Master Sergeant Sherry Lyndon, you are filled with warrior blood. Welcome to the club, angel. The marines told your mama and I that you protected your men, made sure they were kept safe until help arrived, and wouldn’t leave until everyone else was extracted. You sent men to check on the civilians in the nearby village, to make sure no one was injured or killed. You even requested to return to base for the next mission. That’s the blood of a warrior.”

She gave a little smile. “Is mama here with you? I can’t hear her voice.”

“Little one, your mama isn’t here. She sent me to watch over you. Your mama loves you very much, but her heart is weak, too weak to make the trip from home. She brought too much back from her time in Vietnam, too many burdens. It is hard for her to be around people, to hear loud noises, to listen to the sounds of the hospital. I believe in her mind, she is still in the MASH unit near the fighting, listening for helos and triaging the boys who were brought from the front, sometimes in pieces. What she brought back with her is so overwhelming she can’t take in anymore. Warriors sometimes come home with burdens, and sometimes they are just too much to bear.

“You came home with burdens too, angel. I can see them carved on your face and in the embers that burn behind your eyes. Remember that it was your body that was injured, and your body will heal. You will move on from this, the doctors will make sure of that. Your job now is to help your soul to heal. To draw on the Lyndon warrior blood within you to strengthen and help you take the next steps. Sarah, Marj, Sherlyn, Marjorie, your mama—they’re all looking out for you and are ready to help you heal.” Sherry opened her eyes wide, shifting in the bed to more of a sitting position, and her dark eyes locked on mine.

“What about you? You’re a warrior too, Granny. It doesn’t take a knife or a gun to be a warrior. You don’t have to dress like a man or be around death and dying. What you did for the Allied Forces in England was amazing and it was your warrior blood that helped make it happen. Hell, most never would have even gone to officer training. I never knew that’s what you did after the university.

“But what do I do now, Granny? I’m a marine. All I know is the corps--and they don’t want a one-legged soldier with holes poked through her. They’ll give me a damn medal then throw me away for a shiny, new recruit. What am I supposed to do?” Her voice broke as she asked the question and I saw the loss in her eyes. She’d come home from Afghanistan with a broken body, a broken soul, and a broken heart.

Warrior blood, flow through her veins and show her the way, I prayed silently. Show her the way.