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Friday, 24 January 2014

"A Lovely Day for the Funeral"

     Nowadays, if someone dies in his prime, or in childhood, everybody asks, "What went wrong?" But for most of human history, the reverse was the case; if anyone survived to ripe old age, everyone knew he had beaten the odds. Life was precarious in the Bad Old Days, and never more precarious than when it had just begun. You don't need to read much of early literature before you come to the death of a child. Or history, for that matter, for early death was no respecter of rank. Neither Henry VIII nor Charles I, for example, were ever meant to be king. They attained that rank over the grave of an elder brother - and I don't suppose being royal made the family tragedy any less distressing.
     You have already read about Grandpa's feelings on the death of his own little sister. The same occurred in my own father's family. Of eight children, two passed away in their first few months, and another in early adulthood. It was a good rule of thumb, that if you had a lot of children, on the balance of probabilities, you would lose one or two.
     So you may be surprised to learn that all of Alf and Clarinda Dennis' nine children grew up to full maturity. But it wasn't as if they didn't flirt with death. My mother laughed when talking about how she, and others, strolled around barefooted in the building where a sheep had died of tetanus. And, of course, it scarcely needs to be mentioned that a vaccine for the disease was not available in those deficient days.
The three eldest children, approximately 1912:
Margaret, Jack (centre), and Alf
     Alf Jr, son number two, initially suffered from prolonged and severe diarrhoea. He was "three years in nappies", according to repute. Indeed, so emaciated did he become, that his intestines could be seen through his skin. (I am only repeating what I was told.) Just the same, his mother was quite horrified to overhear her own mother say, "Well, at least Clarrie will have a lovely day for the funeral."
     But Alf came of sturdy stock, and he lasted till the age of 83, when he ran his car off the road one evening while returning home from a sister's birthday party.
     Next it was my mother's turn, when she was taken to Wagga Wagga Hospital suffering from pneumonia. This was soon after she started school, when she was only six years of age. Alone, scared, her life hanging by a thread, with only a pencil for company, and too young even to count properly, she drew a dot on the wall for each day of her exile: one, then another beside it, then two below them, then "one in the middle" - five in all. Then it started again: four dots, and one in the middle. It had been ten days before she was well enough to go home.
     Remember: this was 1925: three years before the first antibiotic, penicillin was discovered, and fifteen years before anyone worked out how to produce it in quantity.
Up to 1935, the physicians were merely witch doctors. . . . In the early thirties, over 50 per cent of the drugs in current use had been employed by Arab-speaking physicians in the Middle Ages, and two-thirds of those had been known to the later Greeks.(Medicine and Man, by Ritchie Calder, 1958)
     So you should not be surprised that the treatment my mother received in hospital would have had the sole result of making her stay more miserable. Those were the days of the hot bread poultice, although her own mother insisted it be allowed to cool a bit before being applied to the chest. By some means or other, it was expected to draw out the inflammation in the lungs down below; one can't imagine how. When her own father visited her, he himself went home with "an enormous plaster" with him. She also referred to a special white paste which used to be applied in wads of lint. It was very strong, and was supposed to "draw" the inflammation. And this was in the nursing textbooks she studied in 1931! I tell you, it was the Dark Ages back then.
     She was not completely bereft of visitors during that ordeal but, realistically, home was a long way off, and parents cannot be around all day. Her teacher visited her. So did her father. By doing so, he lost a whole setting of chickens almost ready to hatch in an incubator. But, as my Aunt Hilda put it: "What value chickens when your child is seriously ill?"
     How it affected the older children can only be left to the imagination. Brother Alf, older by 13 months, never mentioned that incident explicitly. However, I did hear him say to Mum in my presence, "I never expected you would live to be fully grown." She was to outlive him by 15 years.

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