Kids get sick. Young immune systems cannot ward off everything that comes its way. Although kids take it in stride, it is the adults who are terrorized by the possible aftermath when facing life threatening illness. We live in a time when viruses and infections can be tackled with great success. The devastation polio, measles, mumps, and rubella incurred is a far away memory for many Americans. But I recall the classmates who returned to school after an almost one-year absence. They walked with braces and wore special shoes. There were a few children who did not return.
When I was a child, vaccines were miraculous. I remember sucking on the sugar cube laced with the Salk vaccine. Polio now had a nemesis. The huge blister the smallpox vaccine left on my arm eventually healed and morphed into a badge proving my immunities from that deadly disease.
But the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine was not invented by the late summer before my sixth birthday. I caught the measles. Measles caused dangerous fevers, rattled young lungs, and damaged hearts. Encephalitis was possible. It also put pregnant women at risk for miscarriage or stillbirth. My mother was pregnant with her fifth baby that summer.
I had to be sequestered in the attic bedroom. Normally this was the bedroom I shared with my younger sisters. While I roasted, my sisters camped in the baby’s room (back then there was always a baby in the baby’s room). It was bad enough to be quarantined from my sisters, but my mother could not take care of me without jeopardizing the health of my unborn sibling. Great Grandma was summoned.
She arrived from Brooklyn to our Long Island suburban home within hours of learning my diagnosis. Great Grndma was a lean old woman with strong bony hands. She was a force no one dared challenge. Great Grandma had her way of doing everything from boiling a soft-boiled egg to crocheting intricate tablecloth patterns. She nurtured fig trees, tomatoes and a variety of medicinal herbs in her 6 by 8 backyard plot. She had quick and ready remedies for an upset stomach, a pounding headache or leg cramps. But a feverish child with measles required tried-and-true superstitions—err—cures.
Great Grandma was not a warm-hearted Nona. She greeted her charges with vise-grip squeezes to the face or shoulders and a kiss on the head. She prattled on in Sicilian. Although my parents caught every word, my siblings and I had a minimal vocabulary and were reduced to nodding in agreement. She ordered all of the beds stripped and re-made with freshly washed and ironed sheets. Water was boiled, floors mopped, and windows cleaned. The house reeked of Pine-Sol and ammonia cleanliness. Mom scurried about with a toddler balancing on her hip and two little girls underfoot.
Great Grandma dressed me in long-sleeved feet-y flannel pajamas—red pajamas. She rubbed oil infused with herbs on my chest and neck. I breathed scents I still cannot recognize. It must have been an Old World Strega concoction.
It was summer, and that little attic bedroom was hot and stuffy. The one window was pulled down and the door shut from the rest of the house. Great Grandma aimed to sweat out the fever, measles, and whatever else that that dared plague me. She chanted. Maybe she was singing, but I knew she wasn’t praying. There were no blessed metals, no signs of the cross, no familiar cadence of the Lord’s Prayer. God had taken too many of her loved ones, and pleading to the Saints proved to be a waste of time. Great Grandma relied on her know how and insisted to the universe that her firstborn great-grandchild will survive this terror, unscathed.
Great Grandma and I stayed in that stifling attic bedroom for two maybe three days. I sweated. She sweated. I don’t remember much, but I do remember falling out of bed, probably delirious. Great Grandmas picked me up and lay me on her sturdy lap to rub more of that oil through my tangled curls and up and down my arms. She fed me a lemony brew.
“Hun, Hun,” she called (I realize now I do not remember her ever saying my name. My sisters and I were all called “Hun”- short for Honey).
When I calmed down, I looked up at her. She always looked old with deep wrinkles and gray-white hair tied in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her nose was long, her eyes dark and deep-set, and her neck muscles twitch as if ready to pounce. Unlike my other great grandma and grandma’s, there was nothing fleshy or soft about her. I reached to pat her cheek. She looked down at me with this big pumpkin smile (something she did not often do).
“Great Grandma,” I said, “You got no teeth!”
Her smile broadened as she wrapped me in her protective arms.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.