With the world constantly changing, growing smaller as negativity becomes commonplace, Marge LaBelle Bashant is refreshingly modest. With a lifetime of simple acts of kindness, supported by an unwavering faith, she shows that a person doesn't have to win the Nobel Prize to be able to make a difference.
Bashant opens up to me by saying her husband Floyd would have been a better person to talk to.
She smiles and says, "He was in the Navy Air Force during World War II. I don't know of anyone else asked on their first date in a letter from the Guadalcanal." (Guadalcanal is an island in the Pacific Ocean and a province of the Solomon Islands.)
(Photo —Diane Chase)
She brings from upstairs a framed photo of a handsome man with slicked back dark hair, dressed in a 1940s movie star flair of white ascot and a leather bomber jacket.
They had been next-door neighbors growing up in Tupper Lake in the 1920s and then maturing during the Depression.
"My father worked as a car inspector for the New York Central Railroad," Bashant said. "He would always be bringing hobos into the kitchen and feeding them a meal. In those times, some people lost everything and would end up on the boxcars." (The word hobo is attributed to a shortened phrase from a variety of sources such as "homeless body hopping boxcars," a common practice during the Depression.)
Watching the generosity of her parents, she learned that it was the small acts that made a difference.
"We never wanted for anything. We did not have an abundance of money, but we (she and her five siblings) always had food and shelter. My mother was a role model to me. She canned, cooked, knit, sewed our clothes while my father grew a huge garden, and raised chickens," Bashant reminisced. They would share what they had with others as well. It was a small community pulling together and supporting each other in dire times.
Because of those influences, Bashant utilizes the skills her mother taught her how to knit handmade sweaters for children in need as part of the Guideposts Knit for Kids program.
After graduating from high school in 1940, she headed to Schenectady and worked as a secretary, a profession she continued throughout her career.
She started writing to her next-door neighbor as friends, with their correspondence sparking her subsequent return to her Tupper Lake roots and marriage to returning war veteran Floyd Bashant. She brings up the strength of small town living.
"I knew my husband all my life," she said. "That is what marriage should be, best friends."
Asked to draw similarities with what is happening now in the economy and the war, she states, "Now, just a fragment of the community is affected by the war. Then (after coming through the Great Depression), the war emptied communities of their men." It is unfathomable at times to have a generation of men shipped out to leave the rest to continue on. Bashant and others created care packages and wrapped bandages for servicemen, and would "pray, pray, pray" for the safe return of everyone.
She relays how communication has changed.
"We wouldn't even get the original letters from our loved ones, just photocopies," she said.
"V-mail," or "Victory Mail," was written on special forms, photographed, put on microfilm, flown overseas and reproduced at a mail center, reducing bulk weight and time by up to six weeks. She and the other people stateside would wait months for news of loved ones where now e-mails and videos instantaneously relieve some of the tension.
Bashant shows a bound copy of a weekly flyer her town mailed out to Tupper Lake servicemen, called "The Moaner." In the late 1990s, copies had been discovered in the town's school basement. The issues dated from 1943 to 1945. During that timeframe, the flyer had been mailed to people serving during the war. It was a homey collection of engagements and town news when contact was scarce. It was sometimes the only way the town kept in touch with its sons.
Compassionately, she talks of members of her extended family continuing to serve, and her grandson-in-law, who recently came home safely from his fourth tour in Iraq.
Her best moment she sums up simply, "The miracle of motherhood."
Both sons, Floyd "Kicky" Jr. and Keith, now live away from Tupper Lake. Kicky is a Colorado rancher and Keith is retired from the Air Force. She also enjoys the company of her numerous grandchildren. Though this part of her family is not near in miles, they are close in spirit. She proudly shows off a photo album of one son walking his daughter down the aisle and touches the picture frames of her grandchildren that flank the couch, relaying some current stories.
Now 86, Bashant continues doing the little things that make a difference. Her local support system consists of a 90-year-old sister, friends and her church.
"My roots are here in Tupper Lake," Bashant said. "I can't imagine being anywhere else. The bonds and support all go with being in a small town."
She talks fondly of her hometown, referring to its generous nature. For her part, her many roles include eucharistic minister, past president of the St. Anne's Society and past president of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, which promoted spirituality, family life and education. She also assisted by helping the needy and visiting the sick and homebound. She has made food baskets through her parish and completed a two-year program with the Christian Formation for Ministry, where she specialized in the aged and homebound. She continues this work by bringing communion to the homebound that are unable to attend Mass.
Throughout all, she still finds time to walk, play golf and stay active. In addition, she teaches bridge once a week, as well as plays the game with friends biweekly. She wryly states how playing bridge keeps you sharp, though sometimes they do forget who dealt the hand.
When her husband suddenly passed on seven years ago, she found solace in her unwavering belief.
"It is my strength," she said. "It is who I am."
She shifts attention toward the positive by bringing up a project that she participated in. She fondly recalls the first day she met the Rev. John Branche, a priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, who later went to Peru, South America as a missionary and ended up adopting 16 Inca Indian orphans, eventually returning to the U.S.
Since his passing in 2003, the Tupper Lake community raised funds to erect a house in Mozambique, Africa (for an orphaned teenaged girl caring for her siblings) and aptly named in his honor, "The House that Jack built."
Bashant claims her part as one of her proudest moments, but quickly shares any credit attributed to this thoughtful act with her community. That is how she is, willing to help others through small deeds with steadfast generosity.
"I am just grateful for all that I have," she remarked.