May 3, 1917 New Brunswick ‘The Daily Home News”

‘Mademoiselle Miss” (Norman Derr) Tells Of Work in France

Mrs George Keller, of 24 Park Terrace, Hartford, Conn, has received a very interesting letter from Miss Norman Derr, formely of this city, daughter of Dr and Mrs E Derr of Decatur, Ga, formely of Boston, Mass, who is doing hospital duty in France. Miss Derr came home several months ago and visited her parents and then returned to France. Miss Derr is perhaps better known as “Mademoiselle Miss” the name of a popular book consisting of letters which she wrote concerning her work in France.

The letter was recently published in a Hartford paper and is as follows:

Troyes, Feb, 26, 1917

My Dear Mrs Keller,

When I look at the date I shudder with apprehension of what you must have been thinking all these weeks when ship after ship came in without a word of that royal cargo that went forth with so many blessings last November. At least without a word from my heart to yours, for the newspaper which the description of your festa (of which I enclose a duplicate) and the one letter I had a chance to write to Mrs Perry to be circulated, are altogether too vague and impersonal. Besides in that letter, written painfully at midnight under difficult conditions, while I had much to say of the Christmas of the ‘poilus’, of the dazzling great tree and general jubilation, I said nothing of the Christmas of “Mademoiselle Miss” that she celebrated all alone in her cold little room that New Year’s Eve when the 1440 children were all in bed, each with a happier thought and bright gift tucked under his pillow, I wanted to tell you about myself: but when you think of me all alone with the 1440 and the work that meant and when you know that all through this Siberian winter we have had no coal in the ambulance and that I finally succumbed to a pretty serious attack of bronchitis from which I am just emerging – I think, no, I am certain, that you will forgive me.

“Won’t you please gather together all those dear, loving hearts who have so ingeniously plotted the sweetest surprises that I ever had in all my life, and give them my most affectionate thanks?”

“It was at midnight when I found it, the day before the fete, as I worked in the eerie chapel by lantern- light sorting out my treasures, remarking parcels to eke out my supply for the 1440. When you are equipped to cope with 550 and you find yourself facing nearly three times that number, and you’re not much of a mathematician, it is – well – somewhat strenuous! I was delving down into your magic box, piling up those wonderful socks in rows to be reserved unmolested- all the comfort bags had to be rifled! – for that ‘grande blesses’ – (O’h they never was anything so wonderful as those socks! You see how they struck our most unsentimental of medicine chiefs who was apparently indifferent to the Star of Bethlehem and Santa Claus and even the great flag made out of candy bags which was a masterpiece, I do hope there will be more next year! Suddenly, I came upon a great cluster of holly and drew out my two dainty plump stockings that had lay among the others like a pair of fairy-slippers on a shelf of sturdy sabots). I read the card and I can’t describe to you the emotions it gave me to think of being remembered from so far and so long. (My Christmas was the children’s; it had never occurred to me that I would have one of my own – nor had it to anyone else!).

“With admirable self-restraint I tucked my treasure in a corner, and New Year’s Night when the last oranges had been distributed, and Santa Claus relieved of his pack and Cotton-beard (he was a “blesse” too and glad to get to bed after his arduous labors), I hurried home through the frosty moonshine, hiding my treasure under the cape that had so recently decked Santa Claus, hurried to bed for it was too cold to enjoy anything sitting up, and played I was a little girl again.*** It has always been one of the unreconcillable features of growing up that I couldn’t – or at least didn’t – have a Christmas stocking any more and now here in war-time I do love daintiness, so exquisite in their blue-bird wrappers that I have carefully folded away to keep always among my poilus’ letters – I was especially touched by the little Madonna in the metal case: I used to carry it always in my apron pocket and was most deeply distressed the day I lost it, perhaps in pulling out a bandage hurriedly.

“Altogether my solitary Christmas celebration given me by my unknown Hartford friends, was a very sweet one, and I went to sleep with tears that were not sad, and a better courage to work at dawn, half a world away from home.

I had two filled with – “just what I wanted!” Yes, truly! It was most uncanny. How could you have divined my favourite talcum powder, that my lips would be chapped and that I would have no cold-cream, that my wash-cloth holder would be perforated, that most of my stockings would be in holes, that my laundress would love my handkerchiefs, that it would be impossible to find safety-pins in Troyes etc,etc, etc?

March 10 – Do forgive a penitent who is far more unlucky than indifferent despite appearances! You’ve heard of the ‘crise de charbon’ which has thrown civilians of France into consternation and you will imagine that it isn’t easy to recover from bronchitis in a room like a vault with no means whatsoever of heating it and the thermometer below zero. The first part of this was written beside the coke fire of the good cobbler’s wife opposite who took compassion on my cough and used to give me Tilassel and let me sit and toast among the sabots most of the day – bless her heart! But the cold is getting more intense. I got worse again and for a week or so it was a tough fight; now since I have found a room for a little less sepulchral, things are better and I hope soon to be off to the front – ah, when one thinks of the trenches one is heartily ashamed of being cold in Troyes and if I was miserable in a house with solid walls what must the ‘blesses’ suffer in those frail barracks!

“They never lose their cheer- speaking of them I want you to know that the dearth of everything for their comfort is getting more and more appalling.

Please help me all you can! I can’t tell you yet where I shall be but it will be an important post, and you may be sure and make everything tell to the utmost. The American Clearing House forwards cases with amazing promptness, but, oh we never have enough!

Acknowledgment to:

The New Brunswick Free Public Library

Historical New Brunswick Newspaper, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Funding in part has been provided by the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the New Jersey Historical Commission/Department of State. The project was also made possible with the permission of The Home News Tribune.