My family called Rebecca Self, Auntie Billie. She was not a blood relative but she was such a close friend to my parents, it seemed too formal to call her “Mrs. Self.” Becky Self was an army nurse. During World War II, she and her husband, Leonard, were imprisoned with us in Cebu and Manila (Santo Tomas Internment Camp). I mentioned her in my memoir as making my brothers and me, as a baptismal gift, small pillows we could take to Mass to kneel on. Auntie Billie told us that she was part Cherokee. When she let her dark hair grow, and twisted it into a braid, she did look Cherokee.
The following is a letter Auntie Billie wrote to me dated July 10, 1956, from Bono, Arkansas. Apparently, I had written to her dithering over what I should do with my life: enter the convent, wait for ‘Mr. Right’ to come along and get married, or go on for graduate education. The date of the letter reminds me that I had just graduated from school and was living on my own in my first apartment with my first graduate nursing job. I was a head nurse on the evening shift on a surgical ward at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, California. This letter is autobiographical. She was demonstrating to me that life is a series of choices. It is a remarkable story of a strong woman who persisted in following her dream despite all the obstacles. I am sharing her letter to introduce her to you. I left in her words of advice to me at the end of the letter. Only personal messages to me are deleted.
The reason I am writing you now is mostly because I want to tell you something of my own experience and about my life, and give you some un-asked for advice. First, I am glad you are alone for awhile, but I was very glad too to be with older and experienced nurses when I first graduated. I also had the lost feeling when I left the Sisters petticoats and the shelter of my home hospital – also that striped uniform, to go to a strange place among what I considered foreigners, I shall never forget the first time I was on night duty at an army hospital in Fort Sills, Okla and a woman came in to have a baby and we didn’t get her any farther than from the car to the litter and she had it on the front porch. I had to deliver it with my bare hands all by myself. I left it there with her and we got her to the delivery room and I called the O.D. [Officer of the Day] and also an older nurse that was on night duty and she came over and made me tie the cord and finish up the job. When the O.D. arrived he asked me why I had called him? I had many such experiences in my career. It doesn’t take long till you feel at home.
When I was about 9 years old a horse threw my Mother and broke her hip. My youngest sister was 6 mos. old at the time, from then on, I was as grown up as I’ll ever be. I knew that someday, if it took me the rest of my life, I would be a nurse. My mother used to take us to Mass once a year. We lived so far away only 25 miles, but it might as well have been 500. We had no car only 2 old mules & a wagon, and we were very poor, so we could only go to church once or twice a year at the most. Every time I went I couldn’t take my eyes off the Student Nurses or the Sisters. I wanted to be a nun at the time but my practical mind got the better of me. I wanted to get myself and my family out of the poverty we had gotten in since we had left Kentucky & moved to Arkansas in 1918.
Pam, I struggled on going to school in the country 2 or 3 days a week until I finally finished the 8th grade. I was 14 years old and had no hope of going any further, but I never did give up. One day a missionary priest came along and talked to me. He got me a job at the hospital washing dishes and I could go to school to the sisters in my spare time. I washed dishes 3 times a day for 2 years. They paid me $20.00 a month and my room and board and schooling. I worked until my father had to go to Florida to get a job and my older brother and my mother were trying to keep the rest of the family from starving to death. There were 3 others besides my brother and myself and all younger. My mother got sick and I finally quit and went home. I was very unhappy about it but I was needed at home to take care of my Mother, so I packed up my little tin trunk and back home I went. Cooked and kept house and hired out by day to Chap Calton for a $1.50 a day. My brother and I could make $3 a day. That was in 1925. We lived in a small town in one of my uncle’s houses and didn’t pay rent so we could eat on $3 a day. I stayed home 6 months that time and helped my brother while my father was away. Then the priest came back again to say Mass at our house and see what I was going to do. Now that my family was sorta on their feet they still needed me but they could make out now without me.
I told the priest I was not going back to dish washing. I had the amount of education necessary to enter nurses training and that’s what I always aimed to be and the quicker I got started on it the quicker I could help my family. And if I wasn’t old enough in years, I sure felt like it. He told me to pack my tin trunk again and come on back to the hosp. he would talk to the Supt. of Nurses and also the Rev. Mother. He had a royal battle I heard later, years after, but we both won out. I had to promise him I would not go anywhere without his permission and he had to promise the nuns he would be responsible for me. On Dec. 23, 1925, I entered Nurses Training and on May 12, 1927, I walked out of the chapel with a diploma in my hand and a white uniform on. That was one goal I had successfully reached. I knew from there on what I was going to do. I was only 19 and I had no desire to get married. In fact, I hadn’t yet had my first real date with a boy. I got me a job and started from there helping my family. It was a long slow struggle up, but it kept me going. When my baby brother was 6 yrs. old a mule kicked him & ruptured his spleen. I had only been in the Army 2 weeks. It took me almost 2 years to pay for his operation and Hosp. bill and live on $70 a month. My father and I bought their first 40 acres of land when I finished that debt. Then I went in for $500 more. The year of 1935 I left the States to come to the P.I. I still owed 40 dollars for a mule I bought my Father. I paid that off after I got to Manila. I was 26 years old the August after I got to Manila. I felt for the first time in my life I was free and that I could live a little and that I had paid off a debt I had promised myself to do if God would be so good as to give me the chance. When I left the States my family was definitely on their feet and on the way up. My sister Shirley, 5 years younger than I, was already married and owned her own farm, even had a baby. My baby sister was about to get married and my youngest brother seemed to want an education so he was going to high school. My Brother Glenn, older by 23 months than I, was still at home helping my Father farm and didn’t seem interested in getting married. In fact, he was the last one to get married in 1942 just before he went to war in Asia.
Well, Pam, nothing that happened to me was planned, nothing except I wanted to be a nurse and after I became one I wanted to help my family and did. When I felt I had done that I just kept on nursing and let God and fate do the rest. I was 27 years old when I met Leonard and I knew the minute I laid eyes on him he was the man I would marry. And it will happen that way to you if it’s to be. Maybe you have a vocation to be a Nun, but unless you desire that more than anything else in the world you don’t have one, my dear. Don’t be in a hurry to decide. After you have nursed awhile and seen some of the sordid side of life you may want to become a Nun yet on the other hand you may fall in love and marry. Whatever you do, you still have plenty of time. Just don’t rush life, it has a way of passing by on its own. I was 28 years old when I married and soon will be married 20 years so you see you have time. And if marriage is your lot, you don’t have to find a husband, one will just come along, or you will stumble up on one, don’t just hunt one but just keep your eyes open. Ha!
I will give you the last piece of advice and then I will shut up: Pam, stop thinking about what you are going to do and just live day to day and let happen what will for a while and see if something doesn’t happen sooner than you expect. Get down to living, have fun, save a little money, and come see us. And anything can happen in Arkansas. Just let yourself go. You don’t have to think about anyone but yourself now do you? Bob, Bill and your Mother seem to be doing all right for themselves so I don’t see why you are doing all this serious thinking. Pray – yes.
Do you remember Curt and Elizabeth Hogan from San Carlos Sugar Central in the P.I.? They were here to see us the latter part of May.
P.S. That little brother is now an M.D. in Hazard, Kentucky.
Pamela J. Brink, Robert A. Brink, and John W. Brink. 2016. Only by the Grace of God: One family’s story of survival during World War II as prisoners of war in the Philippines. Archway.