All the news regarding COVID-19 has brought back memories of my childhood illnesses, contagious diseases that were cared for and confined at home. Chickenpox, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, ear and throat infections, “the grippe” and seasonal fevers. Yes, I’ve suffered them all and survived, in no small part thanks to my mother’s nursing skills.
At the first sign of emerging illness, the victim would be comfortably confined to the living room couch, which had been dressed with fresh sheets and a blanket. From this central vantage point, Ma would monitor the patient as she went about her other household duties. Cool compressions and fresh glasses of water were always at the ready with a heavy dose of “Don’t move!” She believed in full body rest.
Stationed beside the water glass and thermometer would be a stack of coloring books and crayons and picture books to keep a young mind engaged and tamp down whining outbursts of, “I’m bored!”
If whatever ailed her child wasn’t responding to oceans of clear fluids, aspirin tablets and/or a diet restricted to mashed bananas and toast, the family doctor would be called in for a second opinion.
In the afternoon the doctor would make his rounds visiting homes with sick children. “What do we have here,” he’d say with a cheery tone meant to inspire trust. That didn’t always work, however. He’d check our temperature, feel our neck glands, confirm Ma’s diagnosis and basically tell her to keep up the good work. “Give it a couple more days,” and he’d hasten to the next patient in his district.
Occasionally the doctor would have to return due to a secondary infection, something that seemed to happen to me throughout my early years. Ear and throat infections were roaring problems. The use of antibiotics had only recently been advanced as a possible cure. When those were administered, via injection, the relief a mere 24 hours later was amazing.
All the while, Ma kept up her nursing routines. I wonder now when she slept.
Bed baths including oral hygiene were strictly adhered to. She’d gently comb my hair, “That will make you feel better,” she’d murmur. With a clean face and hands, back rub with cooling alcohol and combed hair I did feel better. Ma was determined to return her children to health. It was both physical and spiritual healing.
The tragedy my parents lived through with the passing of a baby boy two years before I was born never really left them. Dad never spoke of it until decades later when his mind began to recall only past events. Ma spoke about it often when I was a child.
Ma talked about the horror of watching her infant slowly creep towards the end of what would be a very short stay in her arms. In 1948 surgery for congenital heart defects was unheard of. Her baby was removed from the home to die in a hospital room far from its mother’s screams. Ma really never stopped screaming for that baby or hearing its plaintive yelps. She’d tell me as she sat in her wheelchair after being admitted into nursing home care, “I hear a baby crying at night.”
When I came along, a somewhat weak little infant born during a snowstorm, Ma’s maternal instincts kicked into high gear. This baby would live. Though my struggles were all minimal compared to those the baby boy had faced, Ma treated each event like a life-or-death struggle.
My crib was placed next to the bed my parents shared. I know this because I was still sleeping beside them when I was about three or four years of age. Ma was taking no chances. I clearly remember standing up in the cot and looking at my sleeping parents. I must have made a sound because the next thing I remember was Ma nestling me between her and Dad. Her sweetly smelling, talcum-powdered skin and Dad’s earthy arms are forever imprinted in my memory.
As the years went by, Ma made sure I didn’t scratch my body when chickenpox made my skin crawl. She chased away the high fever associated with measles with ice packs and aspirins. She made gallons of hot tea, trays of dry toast, mugs of bullion, cooling cubes of frozen orange juice. Ma watched with anxious expressions and nursed with conviction.
When the crisis had passed, the war against disease once again a victory to be celebrated, she resumed her normal routines. The couch became just a couch, no longer ground zero on Ma’s war against illnesses.
Years later when my own child would need the care and comfort only available from a diligent parent, I knew what to do. I had learned at the elbow of a master of practical nursing – Priscilla Lorraine Billard Newell.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell