The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Typhoid Fever

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: October, 1989

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

I can't remember which day that week that it happened - when I suddenly came down with typhoid fever. We had gone to meeting that morning as usual, and on the way back Irma and Frank joined our grandparents in their wagon. Mama and Papa occupied the riding board in our wagon, and the two youngest daughters sat on the footboard, facing them. Carl and I had a wagon-bed of room to improvise a tent from a quilt Mama had thrown in for a sleepy child, and it made a good shelter from the hot, burning August sun.

Somehow everything we did, and said, caused us to laugh hysterically. At least, I was hysterical, if we had known it at the time. I had never been a mischievous child, such as Carl. I remember Mama keeping an eye on us, looking back and smiling at what she believed was the usual laughter of children at play.

Whether the play continued uninterrupted till we arrived at the white farm house we were renting that year from Grandpa Cash, I have no way of knowing. It seems there was a black-out interval, and then we got home, I awakened vaguely, and knew that Papa picked me up and rushed me into the front room, and laid me on the bed. I know now that he went rapidly to Hoschton to get Dr. Freeman, who came in his Model-T Ford, probably getting there before Papa could drive his mule-team back the ten-mile journey.

Typhoid was rapidly taking its toll on my memory. While they waited for the doctor, Mama and my grandmother changed me into a fresh cotton gown. The next I remember Dr. Freeman was gone, and Frank was bending over my bedside, asking, "What did he say was wrong with you?" That was the moment I first knew that I had suddenly come into an attention-getting situation.

Not once during my summer-long illness did I worry about having typhoid fever, but I knew a great deal about the deadly disease. Mama had typhoid back in 1913, at the time Carl was born, and both of them had almost died, although the baby didn't have the fever. A farmer and his son - a pretty blond boy - died of typhoid, and I went to the boy's funeral, less than two years before my own illness. They lived a short walk up the road from us. Typhoid had robbed my schoolmate Herbert of his vibrant health. Mama's hair came out when she had the devastating fever, and I was told by one after another that my hair would come out as Mama's had done.

I enjoyed the children coming to my room, although it was confined mostly to Mama's children. Dr. Freeman gave our entire family typhoid vaccination, and offered to give shots to the neighbors and kinfolks, but they refused the offer. Some mothers sprinkled their children, and themselves, with turpentine to ward off "typhoid germs." Nobody caught typhoid from me that summer, although I knew all about the turpentine-protection. Mama would let Ruth sit on the bed, near my pillow, and we talked childish gibberish, and laughed a lot. In spite of the contagion, there was a constant flow of adult visitors at our house. One day I saw three young men stop their horse and buggy at the twin oak trees in our front yard and ask Papa, "How's your little girl?" and I heard Papa reply, "She's not any better."

A neighbor woman from Macedonia brought a quart jar of blackberry juice. Lelia Hanes made of herself a constant nurse. She bent over my bed, smiling and talking with me.

During the most critical time, my uncle and aunt drove their wagon team six miles to spend the night. They slept in a room adjoining the "parlor" where I had been transferred after my diagnosis. Mama made down a pallet for them on the floor, and Uncle Joe entertained my long wakeful hours with his snoring, which sounded like a farmer sawing logs. I remember the day Uncle Turner, another of Mama's brothers, gave me a nickel. Other kinsmen and neighbors came, hoping their presence and gifts would help draw me back from what the doctor believed was impending death. One of the most delightful gifts was a single-stone ring which Aunt Lou bought at the Ten Cent Store in Gainesville, where she lived. When I got better, Dr. Freeman started bringing me a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum when he made clinical visits to our house. I think he did so to watch my notch-toothed grin as I looked up worshipfully at the tall, handsome doctor, equally entranced by the gold chain dangling from his watch fob.

A dark-skinned woman named Hester came to do the washing. Mama was needed in the house. She had five other children, and a constant company of visitors, and she needed help. She had stood on her feet from the beginning, hardly allowing herself to lay down and sleep at night. The veins in her legs bulged, which she knew later on was the onset of varicose veins.

There couldn't have been a better house to stay all summer in bed. The front door to the parlor-room had been placed directly across from the back door, facing the wash-place and the orchard. A breeze gently swept the room from door-to-door, and exited out onto the front porch, shaded by the wide-girdled twin oaks. The bossy old dominecker roosters and the speckled hens, clucking to their newly-hatched chickens, made frequent rounds over the wide-spread yard.

It was like everybody and every creature was trying to entertain me. Yet nobody but Mama would have thought to hang an old black cook-pot of moss on a nail driven to the overhang of the front porch. Moss grew in velvety carpets at the walnut tree, where Lillian and I had our playhouse, and in the shady backyard, and on around to the lilac and English dogwood trees that flanked the east side of the house. But Mama brought generous sprigs of moss to the porch, where I could see it, and watch it grow, inching down the pot-sides and finally covering the tarnished iron pot, as though it was racing me to get well by the time its green, damp tendrils reached the banisters.

Every day I watched the moss grow, clustering closer and closer as time passed. The cooling moss and the healing affect of Hester's wash-water in the big tubs and washpots hastened my recovery. By the time the moss reached the banister rail, the fever had receded and I quite suddenly got back my speaking voice, so that I made a lively show, proving to parents, grandparents and brothers and sisters that I could talk again, since nobody staring wonderingly at me seemed to believe it.

All my hair came out, and I wore a red woolen stocking cap to school, keeping it on even "in time of books." One day Frank brought his friends, three or four boys of his own age, back into the schoolhouse from their play outside. He wanted them to see me without my cap, evidently having to prove to them that all my hair had come out.

I attended school only ten days that Fall and Winter. Mama was my "home teacher" and Miss Ida was my school teacher. She sent my assignments every day by Carl, who was in the same grade. I think Mama enjoyed having me at home while all the other children, except the youngest daughter, was at school. She didn't talk about the typhoid fever now, but one day she told me, that during my illness, she had asked herself, "Am I going to have to give up another child?"

That Christmas I got the promised doll which everybody knew about who visited my sick-room that summer. The doll had a china head, barren of hair, except that which had been embossed on the pink head. I thought the doll looked like me, although in time my own hair would grow back, coming out curly and in its former dark-brown color, and straightening out again in a few months. I named my doll Edna - had indeed named her that when the typhoid fever was raging at its utmost. Edna seemed like a real live "child," and I had no further interest in dolls of any kind, so that Edna was my last doll.