Friday, September 19, 2008

Cheaper by the Dozen - Mary Gilbreth

Mary Gilbreth got me into trouble with my sixth grade teacher. When we had to list the Dozen in order, I said "Anne, Ernestine, Mary, Martha..." because the book never mentioned Mary again, after her birth.

There was a diphtheria epidemic in 1912 that all the girls contracted. Three of the girls recovered. Mary was dead in two weeks.

Frank Sr. and Lillian never mentioned Mary again. In Time Out for Happiness, Frank Jr. says

...if one of the younger children asked Mother about Mary, she'd do her best to answer calmly, then retire hastily to her room, with her shoulders shaking in sobs.

Later in Time Out for Happiness, Frank comes back to the topic, after Frank Senior's death:

Taking Lillie aside after the Family Council meeting, Anne pointed out that neither Lillie nor Frank had wanted to mention Mary's name after her death, and instead had kept their grief inside of them, to themselves.

"Let's not do that about Dad," Anne urged. "Some of the younger children won't remember him, and they won't even know what he was like, if we do that. Instead of not talking about him at all, we ought to do just the opposite."

Lillie thought it over and agreed.
I think we forget how prevalent and devastating childhood diseases were before childhood vaccinations became required in the United States.

Diphtheria
Polio
Influenza (far more fatal than it generally is now)
Measles
Mumps
Rubella
Chickenpox
Tetanus

These diseases all killed children by the thousands before the vaccines were developed. That was one reason for large families - when a disease hit, it was more likely that some of the children would survive.

There was another series of books written about the same time period as Cheaper - the All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. It that book or one of the sequels, the large family is struck with one of the epidemic childhood diseases, and they're quarantined in their house entirely, to prevent the ilness from spreading. Their adult neighbor contracted polio and walked with extreme difficulty for the rest of her life.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had polio.

Do you think Frank and Lillie should have kept their grief for Mary locked inside?

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