My family trooped into church up the right-side aisle, genuflected and filled the entire fourth-from-the-front pew. I reached up to scratch my head, knocking my small curvette hat askew. Mom removed her white gloves and set them down next to her purse before straightening my headgear. I twitched and flounced my short, fluffy, Sunday dress, uncomfortable because my bare legs were sticking to the wooden pew.
A few minutes after the Mass started, I heard someone cough. It was a very strange, wet sound. Somewhere between a gurgle and a bark. From time to time throughout the next hour I heard the sound. Mom didn’t like my turning around to see who was coughing like that. She turned me firmly face-front.
In the car on the way home after church, I asked, “Who was that man in church with the…” I stopped to think what word described it best…“noodley cough?”
All my brothers and sisters laughed. “Noodley?” They questioned in chorus.
In my seven-year-old mind I could picture the cough sounding the way a plate of buttered elbow macaroni looked.
Daddy chuckled as he explained, “That was old Alex Sturm. He’s a bachelor who lives alone on his farm a mile north of our place.
Mom exhaled a sympathetic, “Ah, the poor man has a bad cold.”
The problem with being a young child is that every new experience is scary, mysterious or perplexing. I didn’t have any way to compare one experience to another, no knowledge of why something was happening the way it was or if whatever was happening presented a danger.
I thought of Alex Sturm twelve years later when I started to work at the hospital. Some of the patients had the same noodley cough he had on that long-ago Sunday morning. The nurse I was working with instructed, “That is a productive cough. This patient needs to bring up the sputum causing that sound.”
That explained a lot. Mom had been right. Not only was Alex Sturm sick, he probably had pneumonia.
Another thing that scared me as a child was going outside at night. I liked to play with the cats and calves in the barn while Daddy was doing the evening chores. Unfortunately, during the winter the sun sets very early. Between the house and barn we had a wobbly yard light, one small light bulb with a green metal shade mounted on a pole, casting scary shadows that moved with each gust of wind.
I was convinced if I crossed that snowy, shadowed expanse alone, some huge, hairy beast would jump out to eat me. As long as one of my sisters were with me, I knew I’d be safe. My sisters didn’t always cooperate with my whims to come and go. In hindsight, I probably had more to fear from my reluctant escorts than from any big, hairy monsters!
In the 1950’s, very few cars drove past our farm at night. Deer were seldom seen in our heavily cattle-grazed wood lots. No one could remember when anyone had last seen a bear. Yet, I feared every twig-shadow dancing in the wind, every plop of snow falling from evergreen boughs and the squeak of frozen tree limbs stretching after dropping their snow load.
I’m still not fond of being outside in the dark, however instead of innocent imagination, I now know the real dangers. Unlike the 1950’s, many cars pass my home day and night. Some mysteriously stop to turn around in my driveway. Deer are now plentiful and visit my yard in groups to graze on the lawn. Bears unabashedly wander through my yard whenever they want. When I take the garbage out to the road in the dark, I wonder, “Do bear really sleep. All. Winter. Long?”
It takes a lot of imagination to assign a picture to a sound as I did in church when I was a child of seven years. Imagination created the fear of shadows and bumps in the night. Although I’ve grown up, have had many experiences and learned many why and hows, I’m still that zany little kid.