March 1991

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Life and Death

around Bluff Point


Shirley McNulty

Life and death, when I was a child, were both accepted as inevitables, so neither brought extremes of joy or sorrow.

There were nine children in my mother's family, and she had eight children. Disease took a dreadful toll in our family. My mother combated childhood sickness with home remedies. Every spring she made a horrible-tasting concoction of six ill-tasting herbs, each worse than the one before, by boiling them into a black liquid. Tablespoons were administered every morning to as many as she could corner, for a cure to winter doldrums. Mother and Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly were kindred spirits!

Blessed Dr. Costello, middle-aged when I was a child, came to school twice a year to give the required vaccinations. It was he who first recognized my extreme nearsightedness and recommended spectacles. I hated him for years for the taunts and title of "four eyes" which I was immediately nicknamed by my schoolmates.

When I returned thirty years later to teach District 4 for three years, he was still diagnosing head lice, impetigo, and colds and treating them with the same remedies. Why not? These twice-a-year visits were the basis of his financial income. The rest consisted of grateful donations of potatoes, peas, and garden vegetables, and an occasional treat of home-slaughtered beef or pork.

His most famous, or infamous, patient lived two miles up the road. Every spring he was greeted by an increase to his family. When he was questioned, he answered, "Why not? All she has to do is grunt and roll over!" When the number of children was rumored to be in the low twenties, the father would grin sheepishly and say, "Wai, there ain't never enough chairs or beds to have them all together, so it's hard to count."

There was an acceptance of death, too. Among the saddest were the "second summer" deaths frequent among year-old babies. Mother-nursed babies came out of their first year blooming and bouncy. During their second summer, too many faded away. Many causes were voiced—the green corn fed to milk cows, heat of summer, polluted water. Few sought the real reason: lack of sanitation, flies, and unsterilized nursing bottles. All contributed but did not answer an agonized mother's cry of "Why? Why?"

We had a summer of polio fear. Young cousin Warren died over the weekend. His teenage brother lived, but walked the rest of his life with a heavy cane on each side. We remaining children were forbidden the lake for the summer, because of fear of infected water. We were threatened that we would "catch it." It was not made plain whether the phrase meant punishment or the disease, but it was threat enough to bring compliance.

Rheumatic fever was considered a phase in teenage development. Weeks of rest in bed was unknown; it would have been considered as pampering. Cousin Phillip never recovered fully. As a grown man, he was looked upon as slightly lazy, not one to pull his full weight. The end came when his wife came in from their vineyards to find him prone on the kitchen floor. "Now I've done it!" was his cry. His explanation was that in assisting hired help to plant a new vineyard, he had been swinging a heavy crowbar to make holes for young vines. When questioned as to why, he answered because for once he wanted to do a man's work. Two weeks in the hospital and he was home to die in his own bed, a victim of forgivable ignorance.

So-called "inflammation of the bowels" was an agonizing but speedy death. Cousin Alonzo, faced with a decision whether to see Doc about a night-long intestinal pain or to get a cut field of hay into the barn before rain, chose to save the hay and died in agony within twenty-four hours. It would be years before a ruptured appendix would be blamed.

"Shaking palsy" was not too uncommon though the cause and cure were to be unknown for many years. Brother Charley was twice rendered unconscious for hours. Once was from a runaway in a hay field when he was thrown over the horses' heads from the top of a load of hay. The second fall was caused by a bobsled skidding around the end of a vineyard row and striking the heavy end post. He was thrown heavily onto thick ice. Each time the brothers brought him home, I set him on the living room couch, covered him with blankets, and left him to regain consciousness. A few years later a tremor began in a thumb. At first he could stop the tremor when he was aware of it, but it finally became uncontrollable and grew into utter immobility. Mother gave her waning strength to his constant care. She confided to me once in her despair that if she could have five minutes warning of her own death, she would kill him first and then herself.

Insanity was largely cared for by the immediate family, often under unbelievable cruelty. Poor Edwin, twenty years old, growing dangerous even to his loving mother, was imprisoned in his own room, with planks nailed across the door, leaving room at the bottom to slide food and chamber pots underneath as each was needed.

I was eight years old when my grandfather died. The winter of 1913-14 hadn't been colder, nor longer than usual, but it had taken a toll from Granddad. My brothers sensed what I, still a child, did not They did more of the chores, put in longer hours in the vineyards, and spared him as much as possible.

That day in March, I came home from school, whistling as usual, swinging my tin dinner pail, and wondering what treat mother would have waiting for me. I was not too surprised to see a neighbor chopping wood in the backyard until he, glad to be the bearer of bad news, said harshly, "Stop your whistling, your grandfather's dead!" I ran into the kitchen, calling for mother, only to be seized by the neighbor woman who officiated at all neighborhood weddings, births, and funerals. She was insisting that I go directly into the parlor where Granddad lay. I broke loose and ran down to the cellar. My mother heard the commotion and followed me down. She promised that if I did not wish it, I need not see him in death, but could remember the Granddad I had loved in life.

The undertaker, as he was called, was also the only butcher for miles around. His meat market was closed the two days his services were required. There was no preparation of the body other than bathing, shaving, haircutting, and changing into best clothes. Services were always held at home, where crowding often necessitated the men to stand outside. The minister's remarks were usually short.

The etiquette of a funeral procession was exact. The butcher-undertaker owned a black hearse with a pair of beautiful black horses with black harnesses and black plumes nodding over their heads. There was a solemnity about country funerals. If you were traveling and met a funeral procession coming toward you, respect demanded that you pull as far off the road as possible and sit motionless, looking not to the left nor the right, not acknowledging anyone in the procession, even though he be your next door neighbor. If you came upon a procession going slower than you, you neither passed nor joined. The rule was to wait a few minutes or take a convenient crossroad to get around.

Grandfather was buried two days after he died, the time allotted for country funerals. He lies beside Grandmother Betsy and his son Frederick. The cemetery is on a gentle slope in Branchport, overlooking the lake and reached by driving between two houses.

Death was accepted with solemnity and reverence. There were sad incidents that broke this orderly procedure. One was the death of a three-month-old boy, born a "blue baby." Every room in the house was crowded for the brief ceremony. The distraught mother suddenly rose and lifted her son, carried him back to her rocking chair, cradled him in her arms, and crooned a lullaby. Grown men sat unashamedly with tears trickling down their faces. It was several minutes before the heart-broken mother could be persuaded to wrap her son in his blanket and replace him in his tiny casket.

Every neighborhood had a middle-aged woman who was totally accepted as both mid-wife and comforter in death. She came as her right, the minute the news was out. She assigned men to chores and wood chopping, women to finishing unbaked bread. She recruited chairs and assigned food preparation to neighbors so that there would be ample meals plus coffee or tea, cookies and cakes, that she knew to be favorites of the family. She never went to the cemetery, but when the family returned home, the extra chairs were gone, the parlor restored to its usual order, and a generous meal was roasting in the oven.

Poor Mrs. Ingraham, who acted both in birth and death, died alone. She tripped going down to her cellar and fell heavily on the stone floor. When she was found hours later, in a welter of blood and broken bones, she was half way up the stairs where she had dragged herself in a vain effort to find the help and comfort she had shown to so many.

(c)1991, Shirley McNulty
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