Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas 1940

What makes this season between Thanksgiving and Christmas distinctive one year as opposed to all the other years is when the unexpected happens, when plans and traditions have to be scrapped. In the end that Christmas is often special and, yes, memorable. With two broken legs, it is expected that this Christmas will be one of those unpredictable ones. And it brings to my memory another unpredictable Christmas.

In September of 1940 my father hemorrhaged from his lungs.. I was four and my sister was six. The country was still in a depression, and money was tight. Dad was an intense young man who had spent long hours making his way in the corporate world.

The hemorrhage changed everything in an instant. The diagnosis was tuberculosis which had attacked my father in a vulnerable spot, causing the hemorrhage. The doctor felt this was fortunate, inasmuch as it led to the discovery of the disease at a relatively early stage. However, tuberculosis was tuberculosis and at that time there were no cures. This was before there were drugs to treat the disease. The treatment then was food, bed-rest, sun, often relegation to a sanatorium. For many people TB was a death sentence.

Later in the day after the hemorrhage the family gathered its resources. George and Marjorie, Mother's brother and his wife, arrived, and my grandmother, whom we called Minna. Uncle Don and Aunt Jane, not relatives but friends, came. I have no idea who else came, but there was a lot of activity which I recall as being confusing.

There were decisions made in those first few days, and I have no idea how they were made or what went into them, but my parents established a pattern. They were not going to be defeated. They were going to make this altered situation work. The family would remain intact. And, where they could, they would enjoy the process.

First, Dad would get to stay home. He would be confined to his room. His dishes would be boiled. We were not allowed beyond the door to his room – but we could go that far. During the months of his recuperation, he was still very much an involved father.

The doctor came frequently and checked up on us. Ann and I were repeatedly tested (the scratch test). I would hide when Dr. Bartlett came, but he managed to find me in whatever closet I was secreted, and administer the test.

Minna came to stay. I think for a while there were nurses, and other help, but if there were, I don't think they were there long. Minna was Mother's support and confidante. She was convinced Dad would recover. Her optimism was catching. The trays that went up to my father were elegant – little touches, cloth napkins, covers over the plates.

The owner of my father's company offered to keep him on half salary during his recovery. What my parents didn't know at the time is my father would have to pay that half salary back by working at half salary another year when he returned to work. Money during the year of my father's TB was tight, and I'm sure it was a worry. My parents were survivors, and what fear they had that year they did not transmit to us. Cutting back became almost a game.

Mother and Dad played board games and cards, and listened to the radio together. Dad listened to football games, and charted them using a red and blue pencil. Their friends and neighbors gathered around. There were visits and gifts, often in forms of food. Someone brought Dad a “Dutch wife”, a pillow to place under his knees. I hid it. Dad did not need another wife, even a cloth one. Sometimes friends and neighbors took Ann or me for an outing. Uncle Don, who worked with Dad, came every day on his way from work.

Ann and I were part of the recovery plan. We were expected to behave, and I think Ann did. We both had birthdays that fall. I think we both had birthday parties. I don't remember mine, but I do remember Ann's. That was when I found that if you chew a sterling silver spoon, you can actually change its shape. When the crime was discovered, I blamed Nancy Renkinberger, because I knew my mother didn't like her much anyway. It took years before the Statute of Limitations would allow me to confess. Nancy wasn't invited back.

With the approach of Christmas, Dad was given permission to come downstairs for the first time. He had his choice of coming down for dinner or earlier, for the opening of gifts. He chose to be there for the gifts.

Friends who probably would not have given us Christmas presents in ordinary circumstances did that year. Ella Hume, across the street, gave us each hand painted soldiers that she had painted herself. She also gave us hand painted wooden ornaments, some of which I still have and treasure.

The picture I have carried of that Christmas is the family listening to a recording of Peter and the Wolf. I can see my father in his chair, listening with us. He is wearing his Christmas robe. Mother is beside him. Ann and I were acting out the parts. We circled the dining room table, being hunters, carrying the wolf, with the duck inside, to the zoo.

Then Dad went back upstairs, and his dinner, as usual, was served to him on a tray. We knew he would be down again. It would not be long.