When sickness struck, down came the tray

March 03, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

It was a sure sign that someone in the house was sick if the metal tray had been taken off the kitchen wall where it hung.

For years that tray, with its reproduction scene of 1850s Baltimore as viewed from the Washington Monument, brought tea and sympathy to sick beds.

It seemed that all sorts of childhood diseases rolled around come the late winter and early spring. Measles, chicken pox, the flu, a bad cold or some other malady made annual visits. The house had a routine for illness. If the malady were real, you were pampered. If you were faking it, massive ridicule propelled you into instant recuperation.

Great Aunt Cora was the house nurse. She had a son who was a physician but never paid attention to anything he had to say about medicine. She had her own cures.

Her sister, Lily Rose, hated to be sick and therefore was rarely so. Despite the fact she forked over some of the money for her nephew's medical schooling, she had no faith whatsoever in doctors. At the time of her confinement at then-Mercy Hospital to bear a child, she had the baby, then afterward escaped down a fire stair tower on the Pleasant Street side of the building. She was not going to stay in that institution one minute more than she had to.

If she caught the flu, she holed up in her room and stayed quiet, then emerged to say nothing was wrong.

When she died at home at age 84, she was not attended by a doctor. My mother had to summon the police and have an autopsy. The whole family was amused that grandmother Lily's body was going to the city morgue for her first-ever full medical examination. But I think that the state just pronounced her dead and that we never did find out the real cause of death. Lily had the last laugh on us.

The family -- there were 12 of us in that Guilford Avenue row house -- had differing beliefs about medicinal cures. My father liked Coca-Cola syrup. My grandfather advocated Victorian remedies that terrified me. I always believed they were based in narcotics or laxatives or probably both.

Aunt Cora believed in boiled egg custard flavored with vanilla and thickened with a little corn starch. Her idea of a cure was a tray with weak tea with milk or lemon, chicken broth, light toast and custard. Sometimes she administered a milk shake made with an egg white, which she also felt was a worthy medicine.

Cora made sure her sick trays were attractive and inviting, especially with the use of a set of china salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like little birds. But the minute the patient started to make requests for delicacies such as chocolate caramels, Nurse Cora pronounced you recuperated. Beside, it was a good idea to return to the dinner table. The rest of the household was probably talking about you behind your back.

One winter I got scarlet fever. I had to take -- or rather chew -- bitter tasting penicillin pills. Cora would tackle me, then drop the pill down my throat with a glass of sugared water. When she plotted the ambush just right, you didn't know what hit you. Nearly 40 years later I experienced the same ambush, but then I was being tackled and mugged by three assailants on the grounds outside Johns Hopkins University.

The doctors I knew as a child all made house calls. Our family pediatrician, Dr. Joseph Cordi, made his peace with my doctor-distrusting grandmother early on.

The first time he stopped by, he asked to wash his hands before conducting an examination on some sick child. I think he walked into the kitchen and happened to pick up a cake of my grandmother's homemade lye-based soap. He washed up and praised the soap to the heavens for its power to massacre germs. This soap was strong stuff (no perfumes or cleansing creams here) and Lily knew it. From that point on, she trusted this doctor a little more.

Whenever Dr. Cordi visited, he always made a ritual of washing up with Lily's disinfectant soap.

His visits to the home were not always as peaceful as his diplomatic gesture of washing his hands.

My mother would sometimes have the good doctor administer shots to those who were not sick as a way around gathering her brood of six and hauling us to his office. Before long, we figured out her ploy and realized that you did not have to be sick to be given a needle by the visiting doctor. As a result, we tried not to be sick.

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