It was a dark and stormy night on the Adjala moors. Scudding clouds and the late harvest moon played shadows across faded paper on my bedroom wall. Branches from the dying horse chestnut outside my window strained to scribe their message on the rain-streaked panes. Was a spirit rising to the west?
Earlier that day Stanley had walked to the mailbox at the end of the lane, and noticed the recent sawdust remnants of the old elm tree. And he recalled the fears that once plagued his childhood dreams...decades earlier, a neighbor woke in the grey dawn to the sound of sleigh bells. It was his brother Ned's horses dragging home a driverless sleigh.
Only the old elm at the foot of our lane knew the whole truth. Because beneath it, Ned had been found...neck broken...death ruled to misadventure. So for many years, Stanley whose bedroom was closest to the road hesitated to let his feet point directly down the lane lest he rouse the spirit of the departed.
But on this dark night, the departed was only a passing thought because of a persistent pain, though it was already eleven days since my discharge from hospital. But no way would I admit discomfort—real men never complain so long as that after an appendectomy. And especially not a teenager with an older brother...
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How's that for turgid prose? Does it qualify for entry into the Bulwer-Lytton contest by the English department at San Jose State University that awarded the best (worst?) examples of "dark and stormy night" opening paragraphs. It does concern me since hyperbole and I can hang out a lot here and I do get flack from editors. To them I quote Hemingway, "All first drafts are shit".
We'll revisit dark and stormy later. Now let's go back ten years earlier and it's Sunday dinner on the farm—dinner's the noon meal, supper's at night. We've attended morning service at St. Albans Anglican church in Palgrave, the smallest congregation of the three in our parish. Our minister has joined us...a parishioner always took turns inviting him to lunch before he drove to the next town to hold afternoon service. Today's our day.
Mom would have asked Dad to pick up a brick of ice cream for dessert. As a very special treat, if our guest declined the extra helping, I was always a sure bet for seconds. But not this day...and that's when Mom knew something was seriously amiss. She promptly put me to bed in the tiny bedroom adjacent to the dining room. I woke three days later.
But when my temperature shot up and I couldn't be roused, my parents feared pneumonia and contacted Dr. Scott. This was decades before penicillin and antibiotics and young children were especially vulnerable. Compounding their worry would be the tragedy a decade earlier when pneumonia had taken Dad's younger brother Leonard just two weeks prior to his wedding.
Doctors still made emergency house calls to farms in the 30's, often bringing a few medicines based on symptoms. Dr. Scott confirmed pneumonia and luckily for me...and for FDR's son...a family of new drugs, sulfonamides, had just come on the market. But even with them, the doctor was very concerned for my survival.
But I had Annie in my corner. In the photo above, Annie's mother Anna Morton is seated to the left of my mother who's the child with parasol. Born in County Wicklow in 1876 and a younger sister to my grandfather William, she was always known as my Aunt Nancy and had seen me into the world at her nursing clinic in New Lowell.
Her daughter Annie Mather was also a trained nurse and arrived promptly at our house with white cap and uniform—for three days I muttered in my fever that there was a white bear in my room! It was a room Annie seldom left because hot mustard plasters (poultices) applied around the chest were prescribed every four hours while I was comatose and for the next seven days. It was not pleasant—they were only a little below scalding temperature.
In an earlier chapter, you'll also recall an anecdote of the doctor telling my father he could begin to make my coffin. It was a story that was always a big hit with my NYC clients...tales from our outback played well in Manhattan. Time to confess...it was pure invention.
The man in the photo is Aunt Nancy's younger brother George Morton who was born in Canada in the early 1880's. After surviving the trenches of WWI he was later appointed as Bradford's postmaster, a position he held until retirement. He and his wife Marjory were ever present at our family Christmas dinners and at one of them Aunt Marjory spawned a family legend.
She had noticed thirteen guests at the table...an Irish omen of bad luck ...and had the poor taste to wonder aloud who'd be absent the next year. Marjory died the following summer.
* * *
Aunt Nancy merits special mention. As a nurse, she had cared for the dying wife of John (Jack) Mather of the town of New Lowell and some years later they were wed. And if you my suspicious readers suspect evil intent afloat...it had been a hospice care situation. After marriage they then modified their large home to serve for decades as a nursing hub...the nearest doctor and hospital were at least twenty miles distant.
Ursula and I visited the town decades later and discovered that the new owners with a love of local history had researched and then accurately replicated and restored Aunt Nancy's 1920's era clinic. The second floor was complete with a dispensary, nurse's station, and two treatment rooms, one of which could be isolated for infectious disease such as diphtheria. And of course it included the birthing room where I'd made my entrance.
Two of her children moved to Vancouver and well into her ninth decade Aunt Nancy flew back and forth across the country to visit until her death age 96. Her younger brother Edward Morton, Uncle Ned, was equally competent and survived mentally acute and agile well into his nineties. He's the uncle that Mom thought I most resembled...here's hoping in all respects.
Aunt Nancy's daughter Annie...the nurse you met above...later married George Morrison, a farmer in the Creemore area. They suffered their own quota of grief when a toddler son was kicked by a horse and permanently handicapped.
Annie's older brother James Mather graduated from the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, then spent several years in Ontario public health service. Later recruited by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he pioneered establishment of their Faculty of Medicine. There you can visit the James M. Mather Building erected and dedicated in 1973 after his early death from multiple sclerosis.
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To my knowledge, diphtheria vaccine was the first public health inoculation in the area. Ours was held in a large hall near the little town of Loretta. There were no anti-vaxxers parading with placards...everyone had personal knowledge of how this pestilence had decimated families over the centuries. But needle inoculation was new.
In the center of the large hall, the needle station was being set up with a doctor and two nurses. At age six and with my mother, I was one of very few children near the front...most others were huddled along the walls. Eventually the doctor looked up and asked, "OK, who will be first?" Ever know me to pass up a chance to show off? I dash out only to be beaten to the table, by a girl no less. I'm still ticked.
Seven years later and now in high school, it's Mom who's ticked. I'm not sure who was the bigger culprit, me or the doctor. We're in his office where he's concluded I have viral pneumonia and recommends ten days of bed rest. So immediately I'm primed for big time sympathy on the home front. C'mon Mom, it's my second bout with the bug that almost nailed me the first time. Tears, meals in bed, prayers for my recovery...
No such luck. The pity killer was my confession of an occasional cigarette...maybe a little understatement there. But why admit it? For some unknown reason, I could never pull off even the whitest lie to my parents. Luckily my habitual stressing out over homework and exams did win me some reprieve—Mom always encouraged scholastic effort and was aware of the viciously competitive gal in my class. My personal definition of vicious? Smarter and works harder. She transferred out the next year. There really is a God.
Certainly my parents' greatest fear for all of us at that time would be polio; like HIV in the eighties, it could have irrevocable consequences—Salk vaccine didn't arrive until the mid-fifties. As for then taboo issues, antibiotics and birth control pills were decades in the future. So fear of venereal disease discouraged random coupling and the stigma of unwed pregnancy made premarital sex a risky undertaking. Occasionally a young woman would have to take an extended visit to a distant aunt but it was rare. But if she did, whispers were not (rare).
So pneumonia (twice) plus chicken pox, whooping cough, German measles, red measles, and scarlet fever wrap up my medical traumas until I was sixteen. Whooping cough when a wee guy remains memorable because I recall Mom finding me feverishly searching under the bed for my breath. True story. Also unforgettable was red measles....potentially injurious to the eyes, I was confined to a dark room for a week. Not allowed to read was the real bummer.
* * *
Now it's the summer between my Grades 12 and 13. I'm tanned and a bit buff after working a month or so in the fields. Woodshed long forgotten, first-date ambitions settle on a tall gal in town who I'd watched compete in freshman basketball. Legs to sigh for. Luckily my parents had just sprung for a party-line telephone so with no experience and less finesse, I make my first cold call. A possible foreshadowing of my future career as a salesman?
An awkward silence ensued—Shirley Thompson didn't have a clue who Stan Stych was. But she hesitantly agreed to a movie, maybe in shock that a senior had asked out a sophomore in the middle of the summer and out of the blue. When I showed up at the door her dad had already checked me out...he was downright hospitable and a really nice guy. Would've been a great father-in-law...
The highlight of our first date was sitting in the car after the movie watching volunteers try to control a grass fire at the fairgrounds. All in all, an auspicious beginning. Holding hands might soon be in store. But regrettably my affections were soon steered elsewhere...fate dealt me appendicitis.
So one afternoon it was off to the doctor and in the evening to the hospital and the following morning to my date with ether. Those of a certain age will recall ether and can describe what I did later that afternoon. Also, you can Google laparoscopic appendectomy; it describes the tiny incisions required today. In the late forties, large were the norm, at least with my doctor. Maybe he had big hands...
The average hospital stay without complications was five to six days and for the very best of reasons I didn't sleep all that much. Because there was a particular nurse on the midnight shift who chose to linger and chat with me between rounds. On the second night, I could hardly wait until midnight. By the third night, I was hopelessly infatuated.
Her first name was Tanya, originally from a displaced person's camp in an eastern European country. Probably in her mid-twenties...attractive and charming and intelligent...and also someone who'd probably survived more challenges than many of us might experience in a lifetime. In fact she was very similar to a young woman I met and married thirty years later.
So came the fourth night. Until my grave I'll remember word for word what I overheard from the hall. Tanya was whispering to the other nurse that she really liked the guy in my room. A bit too audibly. Was it deliberate? I still hope so. Anyhow, came the reply, "My God, Tanya, you didn't check his age on the chart, did you? He's only sixteen!".
Damn it, I was almost seventeen! And I was no dummy...I had never hinted my age. With a heavy beard and quiet demeanor, most strangers guessed me at twenty-five or so. But I knew my dream was over. Tanya continued to be friendly but was more often busy with other duties and two days later I was discharged.
Which brings us back to the old elm tree in the introduction, the bedroom closest to the road, and the night in question...when for the first time since leaving the hospital, I slept for a solid nine hours. And woke up gloriously free of pain...with a soaked mattress and an interesting view into my lower abdomen. The incision had opened—so I yelled for Mom to come bring a flashlight so we could view my innards.
She was not amused. The doctor arrived later that day and appeared more bemused than alarmed. He merely advised us to cover the opening with loose gauze, keep it clean, and avoid heavy lifts for at least two weeks after it closes. Which it did eventually. So all ended very satisfactorily, particularly since Dad and my brother had suspected malingering...
* * *
My best friend Clare in public school suffered a similar complication but his appendectomy infection burst into the abdominal cavity...as a result he was near death for weeks and was hospitalized for months. When I reveal below what his parents had already suffered, you can only imagine their new fear and anxiety...
We will pick up the story eighteen years earlier when there was an older brother to Clare. It's July and his father is cutting wheat in a field beside the house with a binder (reaper) that shears the grain stalks a few inches above the ground with an oscillating blade . It then ties and spits out sheaves. This older brother then an active two or three year old has escaped the yard and runs to see Daddy...and is now hidden by the tall wheat. Need I say more? I will not, because because it's unimaginable.
So when a narrative suggests a marriage may not withstand the traumatic loss of a child, I always recall this. Because his parents not only somehow survived that horror and grief and the inevitable guilt but went on to give the world another son who at eighty-two remained a constructive contributor to his community.
How do you measure strength?
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