Lent, Hearing Loss, and Semper Fi

I met Manell on Ash Wednesday 1986. We were both in town for a funeral the following day. In a noisy room full of people, she was sitting alone reading a newspaper when I noticed the ashes on her forehead and the hearing aids behind her ears. I was instantly drawn to her. Manell lost her hearing gradually later in life until she was profoundly deaf using powerful hearing aids and reading lips. Struggling through our conversation, we hit it off — maybe because she was also a journalist or maybe because in a room full of people, we needed each other. This began our 25-year friendship until she died in 2011.

Do you have time for a story? It’s a good one, I promise.

Manell Patricia Brice was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Flag Day, June 14, 1924. Her parents emigrated from Lebanon through Ellis Island and ended up in Wheeling. Manell earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism, English, and education from Mount St Joseph’s College in Ohio. She taught school for a while but like many from that part of the country, she came to Washington, D.C. during World War II in search of a government job.

She eventually landed what was to be a dream job. She worked directly for the Marine Corps Commandant as a civilian public information officer.

Gen. P. X. [Paul Xavier] Kelley, Commandant of the Marine Corps, was her boss. She wrote his speeches and he made sure anything he wrote or spoke passed by her editorial eye. However, there was one stumbling block; she began to lose her hearing. Even with hearing aids, she was having a hard time in meetings, on the phone, and the usual problems faced by those who lose their hearing mid-career. Back then, there was no Americans with Disabilities Act, no support from others, no assistive listening devices, no awareness that people other than older folks could have hearing loss, and nothing to assure her that her life wasn’t over. She thought the only thing to do was take an early retirement.

She approached Gen. Kelley and told him she had to retire because she couldn’t hear well anymore and couldn’t do her job.

Gen. P.X. Kelley refused to accept her resignation and told her “even if you have no hearing, you are worth more to me than five people who have all their hearing.”

It was settled, no retirement for Manell. She continued working with the support of the general and her colleagues, albeit with a lot of stress and frustration, but always loyal to the Marines and the task at hand. Manell was a perfectionist and her work showed it.

The Bombing of the Marine Corps Barracks

In 1983, the Marine Corps Barracks in Lebanon was bombed during the Lebanese Civil War. Suicide bombers killed 221 U.S. Marines and other servicemen. It was the deadliest single attack to date since World War II on Americans overseas. Manell’s heart was broken, not only for the country from which her parents emigrated, but for the U.S. Marines who died. Their families called her office and Manell answered the phone. She couldn’t hear well enough to console them, to get their names right, or to get back to them with information. She couldn’t give comfort. She felt she had failed the families of the men who gave their lives. Not only were Marines killed but so was her spirit. She retired early from her 30-year career in defeat.

Gen. Kelley reluctantly accepted her resignation. She was made an “Honorary Marine” at the conclusion of her career – an honor bestowed to a chosen few.

When I met her on that Ash Wednesday she was enjoying retirement and volunteering for the Hearing Loss Association of America. She said if she knew then what she finally learned about hearing loss, she would not have retired so soon.

Traditional Lenten Dish

Manell was my journalistic (and all-things-life) mentor. I owe my career and much of who I am, to her. She also taught me how to cook Lebanese food and gave me the book Lebanese Cuisine by Madelain Farah, Ph.D. Her home was open to everyone – there was always delicious food, strong coffee, relatives, and engaging conversation. You never called ahead, you just showed up and you always got a big welcome!

She taught me a lot — how to make a traditional Lenten dish, Mjadra, how to be hospitable, how to be the best editor, writer and journalist, and more. Most of all, she showed me how to trust myself and my gut feelings. She brought out the best in me and everyone she met. She made her indelible red-pen mark on my soul.

Thank you, Manell, and Semper Fi!

Mjadra (Lentils and Rice)
A traditional Lenten dish. Make it on Good Friday and serve with plain yogurt, green salad and pita bread.

  • 1 large onion, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup uncooked lentils, rinsed
  • 4-1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup uncooked rice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The secret is in the onions.

Slice onion thinly and sauté in olive oil until browned. This will take a while because the secret to the flavor is to caramelize the onions. Toward the end of their browning this will require constant stirring. Just before the onions are brown and ready to burn, pull them off the heat and put them directly into the boiling lentils.

While the onions begin to brown, put rinsed lentils in 4-1/2 cups of water and boil for 20 minutes.

When onions are ready, put them and their residue in the boiling lentils.

Add the rice and cover and cook for 20 minutes.

Season to taste and stir occasionally.

Dish can be eaten hot or cold.

Manell’s annotations in the cookbook she gave me.

Serves 4-6. You can easily double or triple this recipe. 

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4 thoughts on “Lent, Hearing Loss, and Semper Fi

  1. What a wonderful post! Manell was a very sweet, warm hearted, and amazing person. Your words perfectly captured her personality and brought a flood of memories back to me. Her spirit lives on. Thank you for sharing.

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