Much of my adult life I've been harshly critical of my mother because of her alcoholism. I'm sad and angry that it removed her from active participation as a grandmother in the lives of my children. Today I put that aside and remember the selfless, tireless, beautiful young mother I had as a child.
She was just twenty when I was born, two years after her high school graduation from Oakland High School in 1937. She and a group of her girlfriends had formed a sorority they called the Maddi Kappi; they hung out together and met a bunch of architectural students from Cal (UC Berkeley) and that's how I came to be.
She was a student at Heald's Business College, but she didn't finish the program. She worked one Christmas season wrapping gifts at Hale's Department Store in Oakland, the only job she ever held. According to Social Security, her lifetime earnings were just over $200. And then, she became a mom.
I always thought she looked kind of like Lauren Bacall. She was fun, flirty, loved to dance, and loved to sing, always humming under her breath as she went about the housework. I was proud of the way my young mother looked and felt sorry for the kids with fat frumpy older moms.
My father was a student when my parents married and he worked part time for Standard Oil as a draftsman. He graduated from Cal a year after I was born. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Owens-Illinois as a draftsman and then later as an architectural engineer. He remained in that position until his retirement. His salary was always just a little short of what we needed to get by, so he supplemented it by spending hours at the drafting table he set up in our dining room, drawing house plans for all the executives at the glass factory. He designed several homes which are still standing in Piedmont, the Montclair district, Orinda, and Oakland. He further supplemented his income with a series of loans from his mother, drawing down on any future inheritance.
In those days, the only inoculations available for kids were DPT and they weren't mandatory, so we didn't get them. These were also the days before health insurance, so any doctor's visit was an unplanned expense and our household had no room in the budget for unplanned expenses. Only maternity care was allowed in our household.
I don't remember my mother ever being sick, or even slowed down by her pregnancies -- five of them (although today I'm writing about a time before the youngest two were born). I have vivid memories of the times we were sick and the wonderful loving care she bestowed on us.
Measles, we called them the red measles, the two-week kind, were epidemic among kids from about five to eight years old. And we caught them serially, so for six weeks a fevered child lay in my mother's bed. The shades were drawn because of the risk of eye damage, I don't know if darkness really did anything to prevent damage, but we also weren't allowed to read for the same reason. I remember running a fever of 105 degrees and my mother getting almost. but not quite, worried enough to call the doctor. In lieu of a doctor's house call, my father called Dr. Bensinger, the plant doctor. He became our de facto family physician.
When we were sick we slept in our beds by night, but in the daytime, we rested in our parents downstairs bed and we were treated royally. Mom read to us, sang to us, brought meals in on a tray, and bought treats like comic books or ice cream bars. When she left to walk down to the corner store, we got out from under the covers and jumped on the bed. Being sick had lots of perks.
In addition to the measles, chickenpox and mumps won us time in our mother's bed. For some reason, we never caught rubella, known to us as the German measles, the black measles or the three-day measles.
Brother Rick (the little guy in the pictures), and I had the whooping cough. I had what was probably the world's lightest case, I barely coughed with a slight whoop for six weeks and felt fine most of the time, but I had to stay out of school. They said whooping cough was two weeks coming, two weeks there, and two weeks leaving, comprising the six week quarantine period. Rick had a terrible case. Every time he coughed, he vomited. He coughed until the blood vessels in his eyes broke. He became very thin and we were all very worried about him. He was given special drinks to keep him hydrated and fed lots of Popsicles. I think Popsicles were a universal cure, at least in our household.
But the worst, the very worst, was the ringworm. My father had taken in a stray kitten. We loved it and cuddled it and fought over who would get to hold it next. And then I began to itch on my chest, right where I snuggled the kitten. Soon both my brothers were itching in the same spot. This time my parents took us to the doctor. The first diagnosis was impetigo. When we returned to the doctor in even worse shape with the condition spreading to our arms and legs, the diagnosis became scabies. Finally when the eruptions settled into the characteristic round shape of ringworm, the accurate diagnosis was made, and the kitten was identified as the source of our malady. Sadly, by that time our other household pets, my beloved cat, Dingle, and our sweet cocker spaniel, Duchess, had to be put down.
Not only did we lose our household pets, but all our stuffed animals were burned. By this time our entire bodies were covered including the scalps of my brothers. Their heads were shaved, but my scalp was spared and I had to wear my hair tightly braided and pinned to the top of my head. Ours were the worst cases of ringworm the doctor had ever seen. He referred us to the dermatology clinic at the University of California Medical School. There, a half dozen dermatologists peered at us and photographed us for medical journals.
The outbreak began in June just as school was letting out for the summer. The treatment called for rigorous cleanliness and isolation from any other kids. Our parents were absolute saints during this time. I'm sure they felt enormous guilt for bringing this plague into the house, but the effort they put forth in caring for us and entertaining us was superhuman.
Like every household in 1949, we had only a wringer washer, Our mother washed and line-dried our bed sheets every day. We bathed morning and night and had a salve called Salinadol smeared over all our lesions. My hair was shampooed daily, greased with the gooey salve, braided, and pinned up out of contact with the eruptions on my neck and forehead. Gallons of Hexol were used in cleaning every surface of the house. My mother worked to keep the bugs at bay from dawn till she fell in bed at night.
The picture below was taken two months before ringworm turned our beautiful skin into a repulsive mass of sores. It sat on my mother's dresser where she would look at it and weep, wondering if her children would ever be beautiful again.
Our mother sang to us and our father told us stories. He made up a stories about the Whiffenpoofs, a family who had ringworm, but were able to put them to good use. They would scrape them off and use them as tires on their cars and take wonderful trips. And we did take wonderful day trips. We explored the entire bay area, took the ferry to San Francisco, or had picnics in many of the wonderful East Bay Regional Parks, and went for walks in the woods.
By the time summer was over and school was ready to start, we were cured. We didn't miss a day of school and our exhausted mother had a chance to rest.