WASHINGTON -- Until recently, Memorial Day has been a time for men's wartime sacrifices to be commemorated. Men fought the wars, said "I do" to Uncle Sam posters pointing at YOU, while women "kept the home fires burning."
But, ahhh, things do change. Slowly at first, over the last two generations, American women began "going to war" in Pentagon offices. Today, they are sharing most jobs except combat with the men. The three prominent women I am going to commemorate in my own little way today were not exactly IN the armed forces. But all three were in high or key diplomatic and political positions, and all three have given me some deeply moving ideas about Memorial Day -- and about how to dignify your own death.
It was just before Christmas last year, as I was opening my Christmas cards, when I happened upon a lovely card from Ambassador Patricia Lawrence Gates Lynch Ewell, a respected friend I often saw at a local club where we both were early women members. For some reason, friends called her "Pat." For some other reason, she became known for marrying top generals. They all died natural deaths.
I wondered what she would have to say this year, because Pat was a fascinating woman. She had spent her professional life in international American radio, broadcasting to the closed worlds overseas. She was especially known for her popular programming on the Voice of America -- she almost WAS the "voice" of America. Petite and pretty, she had a wondrous smile and a sonorous voice.
I began to read the poem inside:
"Out my window lies the bay,
"My beautiful lake is not far away.
"The time has come for me to say
"'Thanks for this wondrous on-earth-stay.'"
(I began to get itchy. What in the world was she saying?)
"I'll see you all another day
"From amidst the evening stars,
"Or perhaps from Planet Mars,
"Go well, dear friends and family, too,
"Remembering my love for you."
Then it was signed with her full, long name and the dates April 20, 1926-December 4, 2011, and the name and dates of her last general.
By chance, I had received an oddly similar Easter card a year or more ago from another woman who had inspired my generation, the former ambassador to London, Anne Armstrong of Armstrong Ranch in (not surprisingly) Armstrong, Texas. A beautiful woman with English-fresh skin and black hair and a charming manner, Anne and I had met once at an embassy party in London when she looked absolutely stunning in a long, silvery gown. But I didn't know her well, so the note both gratified and surprised me.
"To Georgie Anne," she wrote, "Happy Easter ... I miss you -- you, your insights and your writing. Here's to a reunion soon. Best always, Anne." Then there was a nice P.S.: "Hope you know how much Tobin (her late husband) admired you (and THEN some!)."
With Pat Gates' poem and Christmas card, it took me only a few minutes to realize that this was her announcement of her own death. She had died on Dec. 4. Being a methodical and creative woman, she had obviously created her own holiday card and death notice.
Some might find this chilling. I found it warming. I realized that Pat, who had done so much with her life, could not have been too afraid of this last challenge. She had sat down (one assumes), wrote a poem and duly sent out the cards with her ultimate best wishes. I was thrilled with the sheer gutsiness of it.
It took me longer to decipher the mystery of Anne's kind and welcome note. In fact, at that moment, I didn't have to decipher it at all. But a week later, when I opened the papers and found the death notice of beautiful Anne Armstrong, of Armstrong Ranch, of Armstrong, Texas, I understood.
Anne had done much the same thing that Pat had done. I can picture her at her beautiful ranch, her husband gone, she the consummate lady, thinking of people she should have thanked, or applauded, or simply greeted. Me? I shall treasure her words and her unexpected missive the remainder of my life.
I have one more example of wonderful ladies before I close for Memorial Day. I had been diagnosed with cancer only a couple of years after Maggie Daley, the wife of the ex-mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, was diagnosed. We had met and immediately liked each other. She was another beautiful woman with a glorious smile, a large presence in every way, and very intelligent and kind.
After my cancer treatment (now in remission), she sent me her favorite prayer:
"Oh God, full of surprises,
"Deepen our wisdom that we accept life when it
"Comes in paradoxes, like ...
"Sun and rain,
"Storm and calm,
"Pain and joy,
"Defeat and victory,
"And life and death.
"So, keep us able when life wears many faces. Amen."
Maggie died last Thanksgiving. The Chicago Tribune headlined its first page: "BELOVED MAGGIE." That was the way everybody thought of her, including me.