15, Number 88, December 2012/January 2013 A Christmas To Remember? by Ruth Zavitz
It was going to be a wonderful Christmas. Uncle Ray and Aunt Mable and their children were coming to Grandma’s for the holidays. In 1929 a one hundred and forty mile automobile trip was not undertaken lightly, especially in winter. Uncle Ray had a new baby, three-month-old Frank, not as new as our month-old Bobby but new to us. We would all be at Grandma’s on Christmas Day. It would be a wonderful reunion.
The day before the visitors were due to arrive, the cousins who lived with Grandma came down with chicken pox. Aunt Mable didn’t want to expose the new baby or three-year-old David to that risk but we had all looked forward to the visit. It was so disappointing.
Mother said, “Why don’t we have them here? We’ve got lots of room.”
“Do you think you can manage?” asked Dad.
“Mable will help. It’s not like entertaining strangers. At least part of the family will be together and Ma can come over for part of the day. She says the boys are getting better.”
My three-year-old brother had the sniffles, but all kids had colds in the wintertime and no one paid any attention to that.
Uncle Ray’s family came and we had a joyful couple of days. Unfortunately Jamie’s sniffles turned out to be flu, the real kind. By Christmas day everyone was sick except Dad. Instead of turkey and carrot pudding we had thin soup and medicine - and some only had medicine. Not even the children were interested in Santa Claus or the Christmas tree and its load of presents.
As the mothers were too sick to look after their babies, Dad had to keep track of schedules, one baby on three- hour feedings, the other on four. Both babies had colic because the mothers’ fever affected their milk.
Dr. Quinn came as often as he could. In those days doctors did their own dispensing and he ran out of medicine bottles because the epidemic was so wide spread. In every bedroom in the house two glass tumblers sat on the dresser, one filled with black medicine, one with red, with a spoon beside them. We all had the same illness. What difference did a shared spoon make? I remember the black medicine was flavoured with licorice and went down very well but the red, although pretty, was bitter.
Dad was nursing three adults, three small children and two babies. As well as administering medicine, delivering babies to their mothers for feeding, and diapering and burping them, he had a barn full of livestock to look after. Cows to milk, horses, pigs and chickens to feed, stables to clean and eggs to gather. Dad’s brother came over to help with chores until he, too, contracted the disease.
Dad did what sleeping he could in the rocking chair, a baby in each arm to soothe their crying. He declared afterwards that he could keep the rocker going even in his sleep. No help was available. The neighbours were either nursing their own sick or afraid of becoming victims. Some sent food, but everyone except Dad was too ill to eat it.
Our uninsulated, two-story, frame house was heated by a wood-burning furnace that had to be stoked every few hours. It warmed the main floor more or less adequately but the upstairs bedrooms had no heat except what leaked up the stairwell - and most of that immediately exited through the attic.
Dad distributed all the extra bedding in the house, but the patients were still feeling cold. He refilled the hot water bottle as often as he could for mother. A soapstone, and a couple of bricks he found in the cellar, were heated in the kitchen stove oven and distributed to warm other beds. There weren’t enough heat sources to go around so he plugged in the trouble light, part of our newly installed and largely unfamiliar electricity, and put the light bulb under the covers on Uncle Ray’s bed.
Some time later he frantically searched for the source of a scorching smell, while Uncle Ray lay in his bed, too ill to notice the light bulb was burning a hole in the heavy quilt. Fortunately Dad discovered the source of the odour before flames erupted. The hole in the quilt was never mended as a reminder of that terrible Christmas.
Dad never caught the disease, which was remarkable, as he must have been exhausted the whole time. Thanks to his nursing, everyone recovered and that was the greatest gift of all.