Death can be a very frightening thing to a child. I suppose that people died in and around our community, but there were three experiences that are still very vivid in my mind, perhaps because all of them were children who died dramatically.
It was the accepted practice for mothers to give their children “spring tonics” as the first signs of spring approached. These “doses” usually consisted of blackstrap molasses with sulphur and some broth from local medicinal plants mixed into it. You held your nose as you swallowed it. Or, if necessary, someone held your nose for you while a second person forced your mouth open and a third one poured it in or over (as the case might be), depending on the degree of your resistance. In another day or two a good sized dose of castor oil or epsom salts would be administered. These were regular dosages, but in case some child did not “perk-up” properly, other methods would be tried.
The country store carried a supply of accepted patent medicines, and folks bought and used them when the case was too stubborn for home-made methods. The one most likely to be administered to a child was “worm” medicine. I can’t remember the name of it, perhaps because I was really not anxious to make its acquaintance. Personally, I can’t remember having to take any patent medicines regularly as some of the children did. Perhiaps my mother was a little more adroit with the home-made kind, or it might be due to the fact that my folks were never great hands to give or take remedies.
We were six or seven years old that spring, my little friend, Opal, and I. She lived with her grandmother on the back side of the village near- the mill. She did not properly respond to the spring remedies given her, and it was decided she had worms. The medicine was purchased, but there was some indecision about what was best to give her. To satisfy the thinking of all of them, they gave her two kinds the patent medicine according to the directions on the bottle, and an elixir of the home-made variety.
Soon after the administration of these chosen remedies, Opal began to turn black in the face and seemed to be choking. It was soon apparent that she had choked to death. The old folks said that the combination of medicines had driven the stomach worms up and they had choked her. There was no such thing as an autopsy to learn the real cause of death, so that was the considered opinion of the people.
That seemed such a horrible death and a useless one. I never overcame my horror of it to this day. I cannot bear to think that children do have worms. By the way, I never had to take any more worm medicine and I never gave any to my children! The irony of that situatio is that they never understood what they were spared!
At Opal’s funeral, the little girls, dressed in white, sang “Gathering Jewels.” That was my first appearance as a special singer and I think it was my last. I can still seem to hear that old “pump organ” wheeze as Orphie Fox played it. We practiced for hours to be able to sing that song as our last token of friendship to Opal.
A young boy of our community, some miles up the river, died as a result of eating mulberries, so they said. There were not so many mulberry trees in our area, but they were considered to produce good fruit which was always eaten as it ripened. The berries appeared much like blackberries and they stained your hands as you picked them, and your mouth as you ate them.
The boy who died became violently ill, as if he were poisoned. They said that the mulberries ran out his nose and his mouth as he went in-to spasms. The conclusion about this death was that he must have eaten some poison bug or worm on one of the berries. This strange death put another fear within all of us. Eating anything that grew wild was taboo in the whole community. The mulberry trees continued to produce fruit which dried up and fell to the ground because it no longer appealed to the passersby.
Through the years I have heard many sad stories that have brought tears to my eyes and sadness to my heart; stories that have brought unreasonable fear and dread of some perfectly harmless things, but never have I heard of an event that caused as many sleepless hours and brought such fearful nightmares as did the experiences of the lad who died of hydrophobia. I cannot remember the beginning of the story, how or in what circumstances he was bitten by the dog, but very vividly do I recall the later developments. They feared the dog was “mad” when it bit the boy; but there was nothing they could do but wait for developments. They did not know about sending the dog’s head away to learn if it was “mad” or not, perhaps there was no such knowledge in the early part of this century. They had no knowledge of any “shots” or other source of help the boy was doomed. And the family must make preparations to care for him.
My father and the other men sat around with sad faces and discussed what was the best method of caring for him when the “madness” came. They seemed not to know exactly what would happen, but they knew it would be most unpleasant and that neighbors must assist the family.
An old log house was prepared to keep the boy in. Heavy bars were placed over the window openings and the door was to be nailed and barricaded. Food and water could be pushed in through the bars. It was thought that he would not live long after he became violent. If he scratched or bit anyone after the disease developed, they would also die; so he must be confined for the safety of the entire family. They said he ran wildly around the room tearing at the walls and foaming at the mouth. If they had known of a “straight jacket,” it would have made it easier to care for him.
The only brightness in this story is that now no one need suffer such agony. Rabid dogs, or other animals, are very few because of the serum that has been developed and the laws that require animals to be vaccinated. I have heard people complain because the vaccine that must be given to one who has been bitten by a rabid animal. Is very painful, but in view of the terrible suffering that must be borne without its use, there is no alternative but to take the injection and to be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
I am not sure how much of this next story I remember from my own experience and how much is from what I have heard from Mom and Dad. I think I was four years old and my baby brother, Randal, was about a year old. One morning in the early fall, or late spring (I can’t be sure which), Dad and Brady, the oldest boy, were away from home. Ashby, twenty months older than I, Randall and I were at home with Mama. We lived in a three-room house that had a back porch the full length of the house. The back door was open and Ashby and I were running in and out and playing on the porch. Randal was eating a piece of bread, and all at once we noticed something was wrong. Mama grabbed him up and saw that he was choking. She pounded his back, but it did not help. She sent Ashby on the run to the nearest neighbors about three-fourths of a mile away. When she realized there was nothing more she could do for him, she took him in her arms and began to run towards where Dad was working. I followed, too scared to stay behind and too afraid of the lifeless form my mother carried to keep close to her.
We ran through fields and under fences. I am sure my mother had the extra strength of desperation to carry her through this heartbreak experience. When she gave Randal into another’s arms, she fell from exhaustion. As I remember it, she was not able to be up again for many days. She did not attend the funeral.
Mama could never seem to regain her health after this traumatic experience, and Dad bought a house in Berea and moved there. Gradually she overcame the shock and sadness, but her health was never good. I cannot remember when her hair was not perfectly white. In contrast to her white hair was Dad’s black hair. He died at 81 and he still had never turned gray. She also lost another son, Harold, who died when he was two years old, from whooping cough. He died the day Ashby was born.