I come from a family with a long history of military service. My maternal grandfather enlisted in World War II and served in Italy. My father, faced with a low draft number, enlisted during the Vietnam War. My oldest brother was in the Army during the first Gulf War. My other brother joined the National Guard after 9-11 and served 12 years, just leaving this past October.
But the story of service I’ve always liked best is my paternal grandmother, Ethel Papai, pictured above on the left. Born to Swedish immigrants in the small town of Escanaba on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she graduated high school at the beginning of World War II and was faced with a dilemma – all the men were gone to war and there were no jobs in Escanaba. As she said to me once, “What were we supposed to do – take in each other’s laundry for money?”
So, she did the bravest, coolest thing I can think of. She enlisted in the Navy. She was part of the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It was a special division of the Navy, created to allow women to enlist during World War II. The best part? They were supervised by commissioned female officers for the first time in the history of the Navy.
Ethel left Escanaba and traveled to Brooklyn, New York, where she served as an aviation machinist’s mate, second class, during the war at Floyd Bennet Naval Air Station. While there, she met my great-aunt Julia, who introduced her to my grandfather. They corresponded throughout the war and were married in 1946.
By the time I knew my grandmother, she was, well, a grandmother. She lived on a farm in rural Ohio. Like the good Catholic she became when she married my grandfather, she had eight children. She didn’t have a driver’s license – my aunts or uncles or my grandfather had to drive her wherever she needed to go. But hanging over the mantle in her farmhouse was a picture of her in her Navy uniform. I loved to look at that picture when I was a little girl, imagining the adventures my grandmother must have had. And looking back now, I have to believe she was so very proud of that time in her life, because it was the only photo of her alone on display.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that her service and her willingness to strike out and have an adventure has echoed through the generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren she had. Ethel had five daughters, raised in rural Ohio during the fifties and sixties – a time and place when women pretty much became housewives. Not her girls. They all went to college, going on to become, in order, a teacher, a pharmacist, a neo-natal intensive care nurse, an engineer and a dairy farmer working on the cutting edge of bovine IVF. Strong, smart, independent women making their own way in the world, defying expectations, just like Ethel. Their daughters are going on to do the same – a generation of chefs, writers, marketers and, well, me.
Ethel passed away in 2009, and was given a burial with full military honors.
So on this Veteran’s Day, I choose to remember Ethel Papai. A woman who, from the outside, could easily be dismissed as another farmer’s wife in Ohio, but who had the courage and the curiosity to go beyond what she knew and serve her country in a time of great need. May she (and all the other women who served) be remembered with pride today.
To learn more about the WAVES, go to http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/prs-tpic/females/wave-ww2.htm.