There were lots of things we didn’t talk about in our house: sex, politics, the alcoholism of family members, and potentially fatal diseases. I didn’t discover what had been wrong with my mother in the late 1920s until I finished college. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “We didn’t want to worry you.” Maybe I would have worried and maybe not. I was a pretty optimistic kid. But I resented being kept in the dark. I decided if they weren’t going to tell me anything, I wouldn’t tell them anything, and we began going our separate ways.
Gram lived with my parents from 1927, the year they were married, until shortly after my sister was born in 1934, when she moved back to her mother’s house. Old animosities were set aside because Hannah was sick, and Nettie needed help caring for her. Hannah died in 1937. A year later, my mother gave birth to my brother. But she didn’t, as my father put it, “snap back.” She was unable, as he said, “to resume her household duties.” So Gram moved back in with us. She prepared our meals, got my sister and me off to school, attended to my infant brother, and cleaned the house. Mother stayed in bed.
One day when I was seven years old, two strange men came to our house. My father led them to the front bedroom. Gram tried to keep me in the living room, but I told her I had to go to the bathroom. To get there I had to walk past the door to the front bedroom, which wasn’t quite closed. I could see Mother sitting on the bench in front of her white wicker vanity with her back to the three mirrors. Her legs were crossed, and she was leaning forward, resting her arms on her knee. My father was sitting on the bed. The two visitors were standing. As I passed the bedroom on my way back to the living room from my fake trip to the bathroom, Mother screamed. Then she shouted, “My children!”
Gram came charging after me. She stuffed me into a coat, buttoned me up, and bustled me outside. “Little pitchers has big ears,” she explained.
People didn’t talk about dread diseases in those days. So we children were never told our mother had tuberculosis (“consumption,” “the white plague,” “the wasting disease”). But Mary Ellen wasn’t just protecting us by not talking about “her problem.” She was protecting herself. If she had TB, maybe her mother and grandmother were right about her. She’d always been afraid they might be.
Bathtubs became common in America between 1921 and 1923, and people of modest means were able to be as clean as the rich. It was the cleanliness of the middle and upper classes as much as their money that set them off from the lower class, which remained dirty and infectious. Mary Ellen was acutely aware of this, and so she kept herself, her children, and her house scrupulously clean. But in spite of this effort, she had caught “the wasting disease.”
She knew the kind of people who caught tuberculosis: immigrants and the shiftless poor—people who lived six to a room, coughed in each other’s faces, and spit on the floor. So naturally she got it, because no matter how successful she was or how clean she was, she was still “a poor girl,” a dirty, little poor girl—“Frank’s idea.”
In the nineteenth century “tuberculosis” fascinated literary types. They wrote poems, novels, and an opera about people dying of the disease. The characters in books who had TB became more sensitive and perceptive as they grew weaker. This romantic attitude towards TB persisted in some quarters into the first part of the twentieth century, but Mary Ellen was not a literary type. Having TB made her furious—as furious as she could be in her weakened condition.
One of her doctors suggested breezily to Herb that he take her to Arizona.
“The dry air out there might help.”
“And what are we supposed to live on?” she cried.
The doctor looked at his shoes.
Silently hysterical, Mother damned them all. Specialists! Johnny one notes!
Herb consulted other doctors. He finally found one who thought he could help her.
The day she was taken to the hospital, Gram kept my sister and me busy, so we didn’t know our mother had been taken from the house and bundled into a strange car that was parked in front of our house. But before the car pulled away, Gram stood me (but not my sister) at the front door, parted the lace curtains stretched over the center glass so I could see the car leave, and said, “Wave goodbye t’ yer Mother.”
I wasn’t told where she was going or why, and, since I was obviously not supposed to know these things, I didn’t ask, and, without being consciously aware of what I was deciding, I decided I didn’t care. It was none of my business. To this day I don’t know what kind of treatment she received, though I understand that a common treatment at that time was to puncture one lung in order “to rest it,” and when it healed, to puncture the other one. Mother stayed at the hospital for months. I wasn’t taken to see her nor did I receive any messages from her. When she came home, she went to bed and pretty much stayed there for a year. Decades later at her funeral, a friend of hers told me she referred to this period as her “time in the attic.”
Her doctor gave her a box of small, folded glassine papers to take home with her. “Powders,” he explained, showing her the pinkish stuff inside one of them. It was sulfanilamide, a new drug. He thought it might work against TB. It didn’t, but Mother took “her powders” three times a day for years, and gave them to her children, too, for sniffles and headaches. (What was good for tuberculosis ought to be good for anything, right?) There was always a bowl of “powders” for us in the bathroom.
Even after her “year in the attic,” Mary Ellen took a nap every afternoon, and when she napped, she saw to it that her children did, too.
“I don’t care if you sleep, but you have to stay on that bed until 3:30.”
She had no “go” and was sure she was going to be an invalid. Her expenses would drag Herb down. He would be ashamed of her. How could he not be? She was ashamed of herself. She would ruin his life. She’d already ruined her children’s lives. The doctors wanted to examine them. They probably had tuberculosis, too.
Shortly before she was diagnosed, Mark and Elva Miles, the couple who taught the adult Sunday school classes at the Covenant Presbyterian Church, bought a new house across town and joined a wealthier, more liberal Presbyterian church in their new neighborhood. In some ways they had been surrogate parents for Herb and Mary Ellen, and by this time they had become close friends. So it was only natural that my parents chose to follow the Mileses to their new church.
Their new minister, hearing that Mary Ellen was ill, came to see her. He was just the man she wanted to see. She had never been particularly interested in religion. She had gone to Sunday school for “the social part.” Now she wanted to know more about “the religion part.” She asked him for some books she could read.
“Oh, you’re too sick to worry about theology, dear. You let us worry about that.”
Smiling weakly, she said she was tired now. When he was gone, she got out her Bible. She wanted to read “the contract” for herself.
A friend mentioned Unity to her—not to be confused with Unitarianism. Unity is a Kansas City version of Christian Science. It calls itself a school not a church—a school of “practical Christianity.” The word “practical” appealed to Mary Ellen. So she went to Unity’s school of practical Christianity by mail, while continuing to attend her Presbyterian church on Sunday. Unity encouraged her to have a personal miraculous relationship to God. Her liberal Presbyterian minister encouraged her to adopt virtuous political ideas. She didn’t pay much attention to him.
She subscribed to Unity publications and self-reliantly began to create a new self-image. She was going to “make herself over” into something more serious, and in the process, she created her own custom-made theology. She became a sect of one.
For her, the Bible was a resource not a revelation. She had no use for any of that anxiety-producing “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” stuff. She didn’t need any more anxiety. What she needed was reassurance. So she read “the good stuff”—stories that helped make her healthy, harmonious, and joyous—and skipped the rest. (Pollyanna redux.)
I doubt if Mother ever saw or heard the word “pragmatist,” but she was a “pragmatist” in the sense that for her “the truth” was “whatever worked” and what worked for her was what she made work. If other people failed to see “the truth” as she saw it, that was their hard luck. She could either permit them to impose their truth on her (as her mother and grandmother had tried to do) or she could impose her truth on them. Therefore, she was always fighting—in a polite, persistent, subversive way against all comers, which included both persons and personifications—like Mr. Tuberculosis.
“What did the doctor say?” asked Herb one evening when he got home from work.
“Who cares?” she replied, smiling.
He shifted his weight and cleared his throat, afraid that maybe she’d “gone ’round the bend.”
But she fixed him with her big, steady, pale blue eyes and explained that she was going to will herself well—with God’s help, of course. But she was sure God would be happy to provide all the help she needed because he loved her (even if her mother didn’t). Herb wondered at her confidence.
It rested on her record. Hadn’t she been making more money than anyone in their crowd, including him, before they were married? Yes, and that gave her the confidence and strength to go on. She was a quality product. She had proven her worth.
She became relentlessly cheerful, softly repeating the mantras from her unity pamphlets and newsletters: “I am a child of God and therefore I do not inherit sickness,” and “Life of God, so strong so sure, / Makes me whole and keeps me pure.” When I was upset, Mary Ellen would tell me, “Just don’t think about it,” or, “It’s all in your mind.” I’m sure she told herself the same thing. This put her in very bad company. She didn’t know it but she was echoing John Milton’s version of Satan who, in Paradise Lost, proclaims: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
But unlike Milton’s Satan, Mary Ellen did not presume to defy God. She thought of herself as self-reliant only up to a point. She knew she couldn’t “whip TB” all by herself. She needed God’s help. Fortunately, they got along just fine. Her god was not a god whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. She couldn’t cope with that kind of god any more than she could cope with children whose thoughts were not her thoughts and whose ways were not her ways. The god she believed in was one who could be counted on to cure her TB, to help her find things she’d lost, to remove the anger from her children’s voices, and to see to it she won lots of prizes at the Garden Club’s rose show. She kept a list of the miracles he had performed for her in a little book. She put short poems and sayings in there, too, including, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right,” which is attributed to Henry Ford, and “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better,” the mantra of the French psychologist, Émile Coué.
As Mary Ellen was recovering, she developed the habit of talking to herself and to her children at the same time—incorporating us into her stream of consciousness, expecting us to know what she was talking about, and chastising us for forgetting if we asked for an explanation.
Sometimes after talking to her I wondered if I was crazy. One of us was. I didn’t think it was me. But she was my Mother so it couldn’t be her. This was too much for a little boy to figure out, so I started ignoring her.
She never used the word “tuberculosis,” not even when she told me I would be leaving my neighborhood elementary school and attending another more distant school. I would have to leave for school early and ride the trolley bus. Nor did she prepare me for the regimen that awaited me. Every morning after attendance was taken, the boys were marched to the boys’ gym, the girls to the girls’, and one at a time, we were sent into an ice-cold shower where we had to turn around three times. If a boy only turned around twice, Miss Burkhead sent him back. At ten o’clock, we were all marched to the cafeteria for a bowl of tapioca; and after lunch, we marched outside to a long, spacious veranda beside our second-floor classroom where we napped on iron cots while wearing our caps and coats. Much later I learned this was an “open air” school for children with latent or inactive tuberculosis, but at the time, I had no idea why I was going to that “funny” school, and I wasn’t even curious. I’d given up trying to figure out why adults did the things they did.
Mother’s chief concern was her health. Every day at dinner, she laid several vitamin pills beside her plate—and beside her children’s plates. She also marked her plate, her coffee cup and her drinking glass with dots of red enamel and warned us not to use them.
“They’re my specials.”
I didn’t understand. But that was all she would say. Having TB humiliated her, but it also gave her a crooked kind of satisfaction. It made her special. She’d always thought she was.