Before World War II plunged countless American women into factory jobs and vacancies left by men who had gone to fight, the two careers most open to women were teaching and nursing. They required professional training, and women who underwent it were looked up to in their communities.
Today, author Anna Castle shares the story of her grandmother Saima (pronounced like “sigh”), a Greatest Generation woman who enjoyed a long career as a county nurse. Other photos of Saima and two nursing student friends appear on the Share Stories page.
by Anna Castle
Saima Lydia Johnson was born on the farm in 1907, the newest member of a small Finnish farming community near Brocket, North Dakota. Her father had homesteaded there along with some dozen villagers from northern Sweden. His name was Johanni Perälä, changed to Johnson at Ellis Island. (That explains why my great-grandfathers on both sides had the same name. The Norwegian ‘Johnson’ never told anyone his original name.) Her mother was also a Finnish immigrant named Hana Uusitalo.
Saima taught grade school in Brocket for several years after she finished high school. Then she applied for a scholarship to the nursing school at St. Michaels Catholic Hospital in Grand Forks and was accepted. She worked in the ‘cook shack' all summer cooking for the men in the fields and saved money to buy a new coat and shoes and a ticket to Grand Forks on the train.
“I think she must have been a wonderful nurse,” my mother, Carmen, said. “I would often meet one of the nuns or people she had taken care of and they would praise her. My dad meanwhile, considered it a disgrace that his wife would leave the home to work. At first he expected meals on time and everything to be the same. Later he sort of ignored her career but at least didn't criticize.”
Saima was appointed public health nurse of Grand Forks County and worked for some years there before retirement. She kept the county clean, visited the schools to inspect for lice, worked with the doctors at the end of the TB struggle before penicillin.
She married Emilio Acosta, originally of Puerto Rico. Emilio served in both world wars and went to the University of Missouri on a VA scholarship. He earned a Ph.D. in Spanish and got a job as a professor of Spanish at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He and Saima had three children.
The couple are buried in the Finnish cemetery near Brocket, where Acosta is the only non-Finnish name. His headstone is distinguished by the tiny flag of a veteran. We don’t have flags to commemorate county nurses, although their service was every bit as important to the health of this great country.
Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas, mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees — BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and PhD Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.
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