Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sunshine on the Shed Roof; A Larry and Lizzie Story

Larry opened gritty eyelids, stared into the cool darkness of his unheated bedroom.  His head ached, his body seemed heavy  He swallowed past an annoying tickle in his throat, coughed. Flopping from his side to his back he kicked irritably at the bedcovers, sending them into a tumbled heap.  Another bout of coughing made his head pound and suddenly he was wracked with chills, fumbling for the tangled blankets, wrapping them close around his ears and huddling into his pillow.
Larry dozed, woke again, alternately shivering or burning with fever; he knew that he was sick.

He jolted awake in early daylight confused by a nightmare in which a purple elephant had been sitting on his chest.  Mother's voice came from the foot of the staircase; "Larry!  Get  up or you'll be late for school!"
Larry groaned, rubbed at his burning face, let out a strangled croak and began coughing again.
He heard Mother's light footsteps on the stairs. She paused on the hallway landing, a note of concern coming into her voice, "Larry!  Lizzie!  What ails you two?  Its Monday, a school day."

Larry's younger sister, Lizzie, slept across the hall from his room at the head of the stairs. Lizzie's reply was a hoarse wail of despair, " I can't go to school, I feel awful!"
Mother's voice answering, Lizzie coughing, footsteps coming into his room--Larry heard it all as a muffled hum barely penetrating his misery.

Mother's hand, small, bony,  roughened by housework, stroked Larry's forehead. "You're hotter than a firecracker," she sighed, "and Lizzie too."  He lay hunched as the bedding was smoothed over him, tucked tidily back in place below his feet. Stair treads creaking as Mother went away, muffled sounds from the kitchen at the back of the house, then her presence again beside the bed.  He peered owlishly up at her, coughed. At her urging, he struggled up against the pillow she had plumped against the towering walnut headboard, sipped water from a glass she held for him, then slid dejectedly down into his nest of blankets. A cool cloth was placed on his forehead, covering his burning eyes. He was vaguely aware that in the room across the hall Lizzie was being tended in the same manner.

Larry must have slept again.  He became aware of noon light flooding the room, three people standing around his bed.  Mother; Father--who had brought with him a faint odor of the stable and woodshed;  he recognized with some alarm that the third person was Dr. Thompson.  A fever thermometer, tasting of alcohol, was poked under Larry's tongue, the cold disk of a stethoscope applied at various points beneath his pajama shirt.
Dr. Thompson held the thermometer to the light, declared, "One hundred three point 4--nearly the same as his sister."
The doctor looked thoughtfully from the boy in bed to his parents, waiting anxiously for a verdict.
"There have been four cases of scarlet fever in town in the past ten days.  Its possible that Larry and Lizzie are coming down with that.  On the other hand, this may be a bad flu."

"Flu!" Ill as he was, Larry heard the sudden panic in his mother's voice, saw Father's hand close protectively on her arm.

 " Maria; Stephen, no! Not that kind of flu, hopefully never again." Dr. Thompson's voice was reassuring. "If the children have scarlet fever, we'll know soon enough.  Thus far, I see no signs of a rash or badly inflamed throat.  However, they need to be kept quiet."  From his leather bag, he brought out a jar of tablets, shook some into a white paper packet.  The smell of medicines was sharp in the confines of the bedroom.
"These are for fever. I have cough syrup in my car and will leave some with you."  He looked around him, considering, then added, "Larry and Lizzie will need round the clock nursing for several days and nights. I suggest it will be easier for you if Lizzie's bed is brought in here, along with a comfortable chair for you."

The doctor's voice floated back up the stairs as he went down with father and mother.  Larry caught scattered phrases:  "Tea with honey--soup--rice pudding--keep warm--call me if you are worried."

 Larry was aware next of his sister, blanket-bundled, being placed on the foot of his bed. Thumps and skidding sounds heralded the arrival of Lizzie's narrow white-painted bedstead from across the hall, followed by the twang of springs set in place, the soft shush of sheets and quilts settling over the mattress. Mother's cushioned rocker came upstairs, along with a folding screen that was placed across the far corner of the room to shield a chamber pot.  Larry and Lizzie choked down the white pills, drowsed, lay watching the daylight seep from the room.

Far below there were the usual sounds of the farmhouse: an armload of wood tipped into the bin beside the kitchen stove, the clatter of the enamel washbasin in the pantry sink.  A faint smell of frying onions and potatoes brought no sense of appetite, but sweet hot tea offered by mother was comforting.

When the siege of sickness was finally over, Larry was never sure how long it had lasted. Nights and days ran together, distorted by fever dreams, chills, fits of coughing that left him aching and limp. Mother made endless treks up and down the stairs during the day.  At night whenever Larry awoke, she was there, greying hair in a plait, her thin form swaddled in a heavy Beacon robe. Sometimes she rested in the rocking chair, an oil lamp turned low on the small table close by.  A number of times Larry noted that she was stretched along side Lizzie, not under the covers, but wrapped in an old grey shawl.  If he stirred restlessly or Lizzie whimpered Mother was there.

One long night when he had coughed until his ribs ached and his eyes ran with weary tears, Mother brought a clean  length of muslin toweling, wrapped it snugly around his rib cage and secured it with safety pins.  He still coughed, but at least it didn't feel as though he was breaking apart.

The room reeked of the camphorated oil which Mother smeared on their chests and backs.  Slowly the fevers and chills receded, nights became more restful.

 On the morning of the fifth day [or was it the sixth day?] Larry awoke clear-headed.  He swallowed cautiously and discovered that his throat was no longer sore. "Hello, Larry," he ventured, "How are you today?"  There was a soft giggle from the bed across the room. Lizzie plumped her pillow so that she could lean against it and have a good view of her brother.  "Do you always tell yourself good morning?"  There was a faint hint of mischief in her voice.  "Of course not!" Larry was emphatic. "I'm checking to see if I can talk without coughing.  I think I'm better now.  Are you better?"
Lizzie considered this. "I'm nearly better, " she replied, "Maybe not all better yet!"

Mother's feet were heard on the stairs.  She entered the room carrying a tray which she set carefully on the small table. Steam rose from scrambled eggs, there was a plate of toast sliced into triangles, buttered and with strawberry jam. Mother rocked in her chair while the children ate, propped against pillows.  When they had finished she announced, "Its a beautiful day.  I'm going to air your blankets on the line outside; I'll bring up warm water and you can take turns to wash behind the screen. I have clean night clothes for you both and clean sheets for the beds."

Washed, hair brushed, and clad in worn soft flannel, they sat on Larry's bed, feet swinging over the side while Mother stripped and remade Lizzie's bed, then Larry moved to the rocking chair while his rumpled bed was spread with clean sheets. The window had been opened a few inches and the soft  air of an early spring thaw refreshed the fusty smell of a sickroom.

Father clumped in, a brown paper-wrapped package under one arm.  He brought with him the smell of hay, of cattle, the smell of sunshine and the whole outdoors.
When father had produced his jack knife to cut the string which bound the parcel it proved to be from Uncle Bill. Bill, married to Stephen's sister, Julia, was the foreman at a printing plant in Albany, NY.  He saved the comic sections from spare issues of the local papers, mailed them for Larry and Lizzie to enjoy.  "Good timing, eh?" said Stephen and patted Lizzie's head before disappearing into the hall.

When Mother returned with the freshly aired blankets, the comic papers were spread on the floor, Larry and Lizzie propped on their elbows, intent and absorbed.
Lunch was soup and saltine crackers, eaten with returning appetites. When Mother collected their tray Larry listened quietly as the creaking of the stairs gave way to the distant sounds of washing up--the scrape of the big teakettle onto the front burner of the wood stove, the clatter of dishes being piled on the sink drainboard in the pantry.
Satisfied that she was out of hearing, Larry announced, "Come on, Liz, we're going out.  Its warm outside.  Its spring!  We aren't sick any longer!"  Lizzie sat cross-legged on her bed, dressing a doll.  "You know we can't go out; Mother would never let us."
"Mother won't know--and it won't hurt us!  We've been indoors too long!"

Larry opened the closet door, emerged with a heavy sweater and a pair of overalls. He yanked the sweater over his head, leaving his hair on end and layered the overalls on top of his flannel pajama bottoms.  He strode to the window and although it stuck a bit he managed to push the sash to full height.  He leaned out, took an exaggerated sniff of early March air, and turned to Lizzie.  "Come on, put on heavy socks and your bathrobe."
Lizzie unfolded herself from the bed, slowly pulled on the pair of socks that Larry tossed to her.
" How are we going to get outdoors?"

Larry chuckled.  "The shed roof is just below the window.  I go out there and sit nearly every night in the summer."  He took the top blanket from his bed, folded it and dropped it out the window, handed Lizzie Mother's shawl which lay across the back of her chair.  He swung his legs through the open window, landing lightly on the roof a few feet below.  "Come on, Lizzie, I'll help you.  Its as warm as summer out here!"
It wasn't quite that warm, but the early March thaw had ushered in a balmy afternoon.  The shed faced south-west, catching the sun and the sloping tin roof held a measure of warmth. With the blanket arranged to his satisfaction, Larry leaned back against the wall of the house and shut his eyes for a moment.  He felt Lizzie relax beside him. Rising temperatures had released all manner of smells that had been winter-bound: the earthy odors of the barnyard were predominant, laced with wood smoke from neighboring chimneys. Larry was sure he could smell the lake down below the fields to the west, never mind that it was encased in ice. A cloud of tiny insects whirled at the edge of the roof, a blue jay shrieked from a bare-branched maple.  Crows wheeled against the blue of the sky, shouting raucously; presently they heard the rumble of the train from the tracks across the lake, the sound carrying across still snowy fields.
"Its nice out here." Lizzie murmured. Larry grinned.  "I told you it would be."

The sun slid toward the western mountains, a breeze riffled through the leafless trees. Larry stretched his arms over his head, yawned.  Lizzie bundled the shawl more closely around her shoulders.
I'm getting cold," she announced.

Behind them, too late, they heard footsteps on the stairs.  Before they could stir, Mother was crossing the room; when she reached the window she gave a little cry of horror. "What do you think you're doing out there?"  Not waiting for an answer she leaned out, grasping Lizzie by the shoulders, heaved her through the window and deposited her on the bed. Larry unfolded himself and hastily crawled into the room. Mother darted to the window, brought it down with a slam.  She turned to the children, her usually calm voice shaking.  "You have been so sick! Only last night the fever broke. You will be sick again!" She sat down suddenly in the rocking chair, removed her spectacles, laid them in her aproned lap; her hands held her head as though it ached.

Larry inched across the room toward his bed. His legs suddenly felt oddly shaky.
From below came the sound of the back door opening, shutting, the sound of Father removing his boots, letting them thud to the floor.
He called from the foot of the stairs, "Demarise?" And when she did not answer, "Demarise! Que se passe-t-il?'  Father came slowly up the stairs, padded to the doorway in his heavy wool socks.  He leaned against the door jamb, a short wiry man with a shock of thick greying hair. His eyes swept over them--his wife crumpled in the chair, Lizzie, still in her bathrobe and shawl, curled against her pillow and Larry--Larry! leaning against the foot of his bed in his sweater and overalls, not wanting to meet his father's glare.

Mother replaced her spectacles, clenched her hands in her apron. "They have been outside.  After being so sick--this flu--"  Her words trailed away.
Stephen crossed the room, gripped her shoulder. " Descends; repose-toi."  She stood, looked at him, and when she made no move, he insisted. "Go down, Maintenant; Now. Je vais prendre soin de ce."
Larry and Lizzie did not understand French, but as Mother moved slowly from the room and down the stairs, Father's meaning was clear.

Father sat in mother's chair, the rockers creaked. Larry wished Father would say something. He wondered if he could get out of his clothes and into bed without falling over.
 "Larry! Why did you go outside?  Why did you take Lizzie outside.  The doctor has said you do not go out."
"We are better, not sick, " Larry insisted, but began to cough. Clumsily, he struggled out of the overalls, dropped them on the floor and managed to get into bed.  He stuck his feet under the covers, tried to stifle the coughing that had overtaken him.

"You have had FLU!"  Father's voice, though not loud, was fierce.  He brought his hands to his head as mother had done, glared round the room.
Then his voice softened.  "You do not understand.  Comprendre.  You have frightened your mother. You do not know what flu has done to our family. When you were a baby, Larry, before Lizzie was born, the flu came.  It came with the war. Mother's brothers died, Arthur, Curtis, young men. Her sister in law, Ada, died, all in one week. Next her sister, Lena, and in the spring, when he was tired, old, her father, Gilbert.  You did not know them.  All dead from flu."
Lizzie made a soft sound of distress and Father turned to her.
"Dr Thompson says you do not have that same flu. But it has frightened your mother.  Night and day she has taken care of you, and now before you are strong you have gone outside."

He rose, stumped out of the bedroom, leaving the rocker creaking slowly back and forth.
The thump of Father's feet on the stairs died away, the chair became still. Late afternoon sun spilled across the bedroom floor.
Lizzie spoke into the stillness, " We have made Mother sad.  She is very tired.  I'm tired now and I'm going to sleep." She turned on her side, the shabby grey shawl trailing from her shoulders.

Larry could think of nothing in reply.  He reached for the glass of water on the table near the bed, sipped, breathing shallowly so he wouldn't cough.

He, too, must have slept for awhile, as the room was nearly dark when he heard Mother's tread on the stairs. Moving quickly he switched on the one electric light in the room, reached to take the tray.
Mother looked tired, but her hair had been neatly repinned, she was wearing a fresh apron.
Supper was applesauce and toast; Mother made another trip over the stairs to bring mugs of tea.  She sat again in the rocking chair while they ate.
Larry wished he could make amends for the upset of the afternoon, but words came awkwardly.
At last he ventured, "Lizzie and I are much better now. You could sleep in your bed tonight. We'll be alright."

It was Father who came up to tell them goodnight.  He left the lamp turned low.  Lizzie and Larry talked quietly--the things they would do when they could go right outdoors again, the return to school, the comics sent by Uncle Bill, the relief of being well, the warmth of the sun on the shed roof.  They repeated the names Father had spoken, Arthur, Curtis, Lena, Grandfather Gilbert--Aunt Ada--"That's where my middle name came from," Lizzie murmured.

Sleep came early, but Larry woke once in the night. Mother was in the room. Through half closed lids he saw her lay her hand on Lizzie's forehead, tuck the covers gently around her.  Then Mother's hand was on him. the end of her braid swung lightly against his cheek.  Eyes closed, he reached to squeeze her hand, then was asleep before the sound of her slippers had scuffed to the foot of the stairs.

Photo from my sister Christy.
Larry and Lizzie circa 2006. It was an early birthday celebration for Larry who would be 90 in November.  Lizzie had just turned 88. 

I am indebted to my Aunt Liz for the bones of this story. Her son, my Cousin Thomas Archer, added the following details when I published the story on Face Book.
" This story brought joy to my heart it was just four years ago that mom passed away so I pictured her (Lizzie) in the story with uncle Larry the two little imps. I also could picture the bedrooms in the old Keller Farm house as a young child. I still have memories of the house when my Uncle Donald and Aunt Lillian lived there and I spent the night there a couple of times maybe even in the same bedroom. I’ve been in the shed that was on back of the house just off of the kitchen, last time in the shed it was winter and uncle Don said “Tommy go look in the tub”. So I did it was a big wash tub on the floor and when I looked inside there were huge fish swimming, uncle Don had caught them through the ice on lake Champlain the lake you mentioned in story. Thanks again for the chance to picture my mom as a little girl.
  I’m surprised Grandma Desjadon didn’t make an onion bag for them to wear.  My mom used to make them for me when I was a kid;  she would sew a cloth bag big enough to cover my chest and fill it with Vick’s and onions and tie it around my neck and chest it was horrible. Mom [Lizzie]  said Grandma Desjadon made them for her and Uncle Larry when they were sick and Grandma would put cut onions around the house to trap the flu bugs"


  1. Another brilliant piece of writing and wonderfully connected to your family's past, keeping memories alive. It is hard to imagine how much illness was feared in the past - not that modern medicine would necessarily have helped those folk who died from Spanish Flu. This Australian flu seems a similar really nasty sort too and the riding school lady where Danette's girls have lessons has been in intensive care in hospital on a life support machine for over a month with it.

    1. Jennie; We can't fully imagine the grief and helplessness of families who were victims of the influenza outbreak. Better methods now of treating the symptoms and supporting a flu patient while they [hopefully ]recover, but still a frightening ordeal. I need to edit/update the story to include the details shared by Cousin Tom this morning.

  2. What a beautiful story, is it based on your family?

    1. Janet; Larry was my Dad, two years older than Lizzie. They came at the end of the family--after several stillborn babies, so were younger than their siblings.

  3. Your writing style kept my attention to the end with this story. How fascinating that you have the jewel of oral history in your family to pass down to others. This must have been a scary time for your grandparents (if I read correctly?) My great aunt lost many children to diphtheria almost one hundred years ago and my grandma had scarlet fever that left her with a damaged heart. Thank goodness for modern medicine today. I hope you have some warm sunshine. It's sunny here in SoCal but we have very cold temps. Enjoy your day dear friend. Pat xx

    1. Pat; As I have researched genealogy I have been shocked to discover the many untimely deaths in my own family and in their neighborhoods--diptheria, flu, dysentery; young mothers dying in childbirth. No grief counseling or therapy, just getting on with it.
      Our sunshine is very spasmodic--crazy weather!

  4. A nice story of hardship, but also triumph.

    1. Phil; I had no idea of the loss and tragedy in my Dad's family until I began research a decade ago. Like so many families, they picked up the pieces and kept on.

  5. I so enjoyed this story! It really brought back memories when my brothers and me all had the measles at the same time. It was the coldest time of winter, so, not having heat in the bedrooms, Mom and Dad moved beds into the front room where we had a coal-burning stove. Your writing is brilliant as "Bovey Belle" wrote in her comment.

  6. Chip; My sisters and I had measles just as summer vacation from school began--I remember feeling that I missed the most beautiful part of June--all of us laid out in rooms with the blinds drawn. Its a funny thing how one memory triggers another!

  7. Yes a lovely piece of writing, so heartfelt, I could feel Larry and Lizzies mother's pain as well nursing her two children. I remember the Asian flu, missing the first time I could have gone out riding at the convent where I boarded. Six months later, after marvellous nursing by the nuns I emerged thin as a rake but well enough to go home to my new stepmother....

    1. Thelma; I had a bout with illness labeled 'Asian flu'circa 1961--struggled back to school because it was mid-term exams, felt ill for the rest of the school year. Missing your opportunity to ride was really adding 'insult' to illness!