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Girl Scouts, Girl Power

Activist Marlo Thomas has been writing about Girl Power for a long time, and now she's blogging about women's roles for The Huffington Post. But before that phrase decorated tee shirts and tote bags, there were Girl Scouts. We did more than wear those green uniforms and sell  thin mint cookies. In Girl Scouts, we learned that girls could be strong and proud, which was not the culture's message in the 50's and 60's.

And we learned this from Mrs. Martin, our Scout Leader. She was only twenty-eight when I met her, as a new kid who just moved down South from up North. In my Junior High, cliques had long ago formed, and girls had hushed locker room conversations about who was in and who was out. With my Ohio accent and my wool plaid skirts, which were scratchy and hot in the oven of an Alabama sun, I was out.

Tired of my moping around after school, my mother signed me up for Girl Scouts, which I complained was "not cool." But Mrs. Martin was.

Movie star pretty with the calm and efficient manner of the hospital nurse she was, Mrs. Martin led a pack of twelve year olds, all knees and elbows and pre-teen self-consciousness.

Even in her Girl Scout Leader uniform, she exuded style. Green was her color, as it turned out. We stood in a small circle in the school cafeteria, reciting the Girl Scout Pledge: we were to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, courageous and strong, and to make the world a better place. We did not know yet that these would be good words to live by.

And Mrs. Martin lived the words.

Not old enough to be corny and out of touch as parents were, she was like the stylish older sister who could change a tire, tie a knot, and hold a lizard on her palm without getting hysterical.

From her, we learned to chop a trail through the dense Alabama piney woods, to build lean-to shelters and sleep in them, and to cook hamburgers in stoves made of tin cans with fire in the bottom. We knew how to tie ten kinds of knots, just in case we needed to swing from trees or climb down from burning buildings.

When we moved out of the troop and into high school and then college, Girl Scout Pledges were drowned out by raucous rock 'n' roll lyrics and the strident voices of the 1960's. Still, in our heads and hearts there was the mantra that stuck with us: be strong, be prepared, and do a good turn daily.

Over the long years of our friendship, Mrs. Martin became Mary Helen to me. Still prepared for anything, she once brought her toolbox to my windowed mother's house to fix a broken fuse box and nail some loose boards on the porch.

She kept her garden brilliant with flowers to take to hospital rooms and cheer her aging friends. After my own father's passing, she organized the casserole brigades, the comings and goings of mourners, and wrote notes of encouragement. She was still a good scout.
And she still is. At the age of eighty-one, she is making a transition of her own. Now a widow herself, she is unpacking her belongings in a retirement home and planting some bulbs in her new garden. By the time I see her again, she'll be taking food to her new neighbors, and hanging up new bird-feeders.

She will have figured out the best place for the sun to find her hot pink Knock Out Roses, and they will grow sure and strong in her tiny backyard garden under her watchful eye.