Idaho native Judith Litchfield was always curious about her Aunt Bernice, who lived in a little Washington town called Ridgefield. Litchfield’s family visited for two weeks every summer, she said, and she developed a deep connection and fascination with her mother’s sister.
“I knew she had been a nurse and loved being a nurse, but I also knew that didn’t last,” Litchfield said.
Litchfield grew interested in exploring her family’s genealogy and history after her mother died about a decade ago, and she started amassing what became “quite the stack of interesting facts about Bernice,” she said. Such a big stack that she realized she either had to throw it all away, or do something serious with it.
“I realized this would be a good way to connect with Bernice,” who still lives in Ridgefield today, she said. So Litchfield, now living in Southeast Portland, started driving up here to interview her aunt.
“I figured I’d write up a few pages,” she said.
Bernice Lorang Bartel inadvertently kicked the project up several notches. Did her curious niece want to read the diary she kept while a nursing student at St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, and then while working briefly for the Cadet Nursing Corps? Litchfield jumped at the chance.
If You Go
What: Reading and discussion with Judith Jacobs Litchfield, author of “Providence White Caps: The Memoir of a St. Joseph’s Nurse.”
When: 7 p.m. March 7. Doors open at 5 p.m.
Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver.
Admission: $5; $4 for seniors and students; free for under 18.
The diary is pretty dry and factual, she found, with every page answering basic questions while raising deeper ones. Litchfield kept interviewing her aunt and delving into additional research that took her to libraries and archives from Portland to Seattle — as well as the Clark County Historical Museum.
That’s where she’ll read, at 7 tonight, from the resulting volume, “Providence White Caps: The Diary of Bernice Lorang, RN,” which was published in 2017.
“Before I knew it, it turned into a book. I was so shocked. I took a thick computer printout with her whole story” to her aunt, Litchfield said. “She said, ‘I didn’t know I was that interesting.’ ”
Litchfield sensed it all along. Rich with historical and family photographs, “Providence White Caps” is mostly her aunt’s own diary entries from 1942 through 1946, but the book also includes historical facts and background research by Litchfield. It includes everything from “what was happening in the nation and abroad at war,” she said, all the way down to Lorang’s daily experiences as a nursing student and working nurse. Lorang moved from the Portland home of her grocer parents and into a Vancouver apartment: riding streetcars, attending classes, studying hard and working through some routinely painful and gory nursing situations, which she recorded in straightforward language.
“I had to give one man my age a post-surgery therapeutic enema as he was bloated and nauseated due to impacted stool,” Lorang wrote on Jan. 8, 1944. “He was just as embarrassed as I was but too miserable to care.”
She recorded her pursuits of good times, too.
“We like to take the long walk over to the world famous Jantzen Beach Amusement Park,” she wrote on Oct. 12, 1942. “The park offers a gigantic wooden roller coaster, a midway and carnival rides, four large outdoor pools and bathhouses, a picnic area, a magnificent carousel and a dance pavilion hosting name bands and dance competitions.”
On the night of July 2, 1944, she noted: “There were no fellows around, so we gals went out after them. We ended up at the USO … swell time.” But other diary entries make clear that Lorang was always ready to fight off improper advances. She was just a wallflower who wanted to dance, she wrote. Fortunately, she noted, “I am a strong jitterbugger.”
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Litchfield said. “But my passion was to hear her story and bring it out.”
It’s a story that might have been different, she added. Litchfield said her aunt, now 95 years old and homebound, felt she had no choice but to follow the standard path for women in the 1940s. She graduated from nursing school and worked for one happy year at Providence Medical Center in Portland, where she loved assisting with surgery, Litchfield said. Then she sacrificed her career in order to become a wife and mother.
The diary includes little introspection about that, but it makes the situation clear enough. “His unexpected proposal sure surprised me. He was blunt in saying either take the ring today or I’m done,” Lorang wrote on Dec. 31, 1945. “I never intended to get married this soon; we hadn’t even talked about it. … I took the ring but without much enthusiasm over the proposal.”
“In those days, the view was that a woman needed a husband,” Litchfield said. “She went 100 percent into being a farm wife. She was kind of afraid not to.”
The diary ends with Lorang’s wedding to Bill Bartel. Litchfield can’t help wondering what might have happened if her aunt had been able to work a few more years before a marriage proposal came along, she said.
“A lot of women sacrificed a lot,” Litchfield said. “I wanted her to be able to have her say, as best as I could present it. I sure uncovered a lot of surprises.”