Merrien Josephine Cushman-Vail. It’s not a name most people would easily recognize. She lived not too far from my hometown of Lansing, Michigan, USA. Merrien passed away on July 18, 2013 at the age of 100. That, in itself, ought to be somewhat newsworthy. To reach the century mark is quite an accomplishment. But Merrien’s story went way beyond triple-digit birthdays.
In any good story there is that jumping-off point, that one big moment that sets the stage for what’s to come. For Merrien Josephine Cushman, that big moment came a few weeks before her 14th birthday way back in 1927. The young girl had achieved such good grades, she didn’t need to attend class on a fateful May day. She offered to walk her 7-year-old brother, Ralph, to school that morning, the way she normally did. But the boy declined his big sister’s gesture, not wanting the other kids to tease him.
Merrien had busied herself picking flowers when she heard the explosion that ended her little brother’s life.
On May 18, 1927, a disgruntled 55-year-old school board treasurer, angry over his defeat in the spring 1926 election for township clerk, rained mayhem upon the tiny community of Bath, Michigan. Andrew Kehoe had spent the better part of a year quietly hiding dynamite and incendiary pyrotol in the basement of the Bath Consolidated School. A timing device ignited the horror that quiet May morning, killing 45 people, 38 of which were children, and injuring 58.
Merrien wondered afterward what would have happened had she gone to school that day with her little brother.
In today’s world, such acts of inhumanity seem almost commonplace. Grief counselors are often on call to help children deal with the unimaginable. But way back in 1927, there existed no such occupation as grief counselor. Survivors like Merrien were left to deal with the wounds and scars on their own. But deal with it, Merrien did. She went on to enjoy a full and happy life, marrying Clare Vail and raising a family of five daughters and two sons.
“You just have to make up your mind to get through it, if you want to go on,” she told her children whenever they’d experienced tough times. “There’s no other choice.”
Her obituary came first, mentioning the fact that she had survived this devastating horror that is well-known in my home state–even after 86 years. The newspaper article appeared a couple of weeks later, when somebody decided it merited mention.
Merrien truly was a survivor, having overcome tragedy and loss, to see her 100th birthday.
I read the obituaries every day, often looking to see if somebody I know has passed. And I read them all, too. Why? Because everybody has a story. You’ll find some extraordinary lives lived in those few final words some family member or friend thought important enough to share with those who still read their local newspaper.
A hundred years is an awful long time to be present on planet Earth. The advances Merrien Josephine Cushman witnessed would make for amazing stories. But even 7-year-old Ralph had a story to tell. What was he doing just before his life ended? Who were his pals? Did he have a favorite teacher? It seems so unfair to read of one soul making it to a hundred while another soul, a baby, had yet to take those first steps parents are always so eager to record with home video. But nobody can say life is fair. We do the best with what we’re given. Just as Merrien Josephine Cushman-Vail has done.
If you’d like to learn more about the Bath School bombing, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_School_disaster