Tooth for a Tooth

I didn’t bounce into the kitchen talking a mile a minute as would be usual. I quietly took my place at the family supper table, slipping between my sisters, Mary and Betty. Mom had made one of my favorite suppers; a Spanish rice and hamburger casserole we called, ‘hungry man’s delight’.

Handing me a slice of buttered homemade bread, Mom questioned, “Is that loose tooth bothering you?” I nodded. The tooth was very loose. It didn’t take much to make the tooth wobble. Every time it wobbled, it hurt. Sometimes it even bled.

My brother Billy suggested, “You should pull it out so it stops hurting.”

I gave him a reproachful look. Pulling out a tooth hurt. This tooth already hurt, so the idea of pulling it out horrified me.

Mom stewed half to herself, “I’m worried that she’ll accidently swallow it here at supper, or during the night while asleep!” Sucking on a small chunk of buttered bread, I nearly choked. I was already a worry-wart, so I didn’t need Mom’s vision of terrible things to add to my fear! Continue reading


The Last Joke

Casper called out our brother’s name, “Billy!” I turned to look at him. He’d been drifting between reality and hallucinations since I sat down at his bedside half an hour earlier. His eyes looked dreamy, but his raised hands showed intent and concern.

I asked, “Casper, why do you need Billy?”

“The cows are out!” my brother responded. His dream shifted then, to field-dressing a deer. He asked for help lifting it and marveled, “This is a big animal”.

After quietly sleeping for several minutes Casper woke and once again called, “Billy!”

I leaned towards him and asked, “Are the cows out again?”

Casper shook his head and waved a hand, saying, “They’re in pieces.”

I flippantly teased, “Casper, when cows are in pieces, that’s called hamburger.” To my surprise, despite his mind being clouded by illness, my brother laughed! Remembering the great stories he liked to tell through the years showing the funny side of his life, I joined him in laughter. Casper had a funny, sweet sense of humor. He especially loved original one-liners, his own and others. Continue reading

Art of Sacrifice

Agnes smiled as she recalled, “When we were kids, we gave up candy during Lent.” She explained, “If we were given candy, we put in a jar to be saved as a treat on Sunday afternoons or after Lent was over.”

I’ve never been very good at sacrificing the things I like and want. I tell my family, “I’m a spoiled pussy cat.” I chuckle to myself because as a child I had wanted to be a human cat. I imagined myself having fun playing, being petted, and being idle, stretched out on the sofa. The sacrifice I didn’t want to make to be a cat, was the human ability to talk.

Parents make sacrifices every day without thinking about it. Some sacrifices are huge and heroic, while others are small, humble, unnoticed ones. I remember my Mom serving dessert at Sunday dinner. She made sure she got the cracked or chipped dish. Her serving was very small if there wasn’t enough to go around, usually the first serving that crumbled and didn’t look as nice. She tried to give the family slices of pies and cakes as pretty as those featured on the covers of her woman’s magazines. Continue reading

Mad Hatter

I loved Sundays. Everyone in our farm house bustled around getting ready to attend Mass. Those of us who didn’t do barn chores had to be out of the bathroom by the time Daddy and my brother Billy were ready to use it. Mom had me dress first. It felt nice to be wearing my best clothing and have my usually tangled hair neatly combed.

Sitting quietly on the davenport, I waited, watched and listened. My sisters were bickering over something. The shirt one of my brothers planning to wear was in the laundry basket, so Mom quickly ironed his other nice shirt.

When Daddy came out of the bathroom he had a bit of toilet paper stuck to his chin where he’d nicked himself while shaving. Betty flounced into the room with her full skirt and sat down. Mary rummaged in the hall closet for shoe polish. Daddy, Billy and Casper were the first ones ready to go.

Instead of taking care of herself, Mom spent most of the morning doing last minute things for Daddy and her seven children. Most Sunday mornings she was the last person to be ready.

There was one final preparation for attending Mass. Women had to wear something on their heads in church. For the weekday school Masses, girls wore scarves tied under our chins, but on Sundays we wore hats to church. I put on a small, ruffled curvette. Mary donned a big flower trimmed bucket style. Mom put on the new black hat she’d bought a few days before. Daddy glanced at her and witlessly commented, “Where’re the hounds and horses?” Continue reading

Small Words Big Impact

Swallowing hurt. I felt sorry for myself. Tears formed in my eyes as I opened wide for Dr. Kroeplein to look down my throat.

He warned Mom, “Mrs. Altmann, your daughter has a strep infection again. As I told you the last time, strep is nasty. It can damage a person’s heart, if you don’t treat it with penicillin. My advice to you is to have Kathy’s tonsils removed after school lets out this spring. If you don’t, the infection will return repeatedly.”

In a state of shock, I followed Mom out of the doctor’s office. Being unable to properly swallow pills and having to take more penicillin was like signing up for torture. I was convinced that penicillin was the worst-tasting substance in this entire world! Just thinking about it made me gag, which sent off new waves of pain. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was going to need surgery. Surely this was the end of my life!

Already tearful that evening, a huge flood began to flow when Mom told Daddy the doctor had recommended surgery. I dramatically sobbed, “Why did this have to happen to me?”

Ten years older than me, my brother Billy quietly answered, “Why shouldn’t it happen to you? It happens to a lot of people.”

Startled, I turned to stare at him. His statement hadn’t been said in anger or scorn. My brother’s face showed nothing but sympathetic concern. Feeling stunned, I knew he was right. Like everyone else in this world, I would experience pain, fear and disappointment. Continue reading

Keeping Vigil

I pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. My brother was deeply asleep. He didn’t murmur or acknowledge my presence, even when I leaned over, touched his hand and said softly, “Billy, this is Kathy. I’m going to spend some time with you.” I suspected that on some level my brother knew I was there.

From where I sat in his room, I could see part of the dayroom. Other residents of the home were coming and going. The television next to the Christmas tree was on, although no one was watching it. The sound gave the room a normal, homey atmosphere.

As I quietly sat watching my brother slumber, I remembered how I had taken care of Mom as she aged. I had paid bills, given baths and filled her pill box each week. Billy and Casper, my bachelor brothers who lived with her, made meals and kept her company.

A few years after Mom died, my weekly visits to the farm resumed. Both of my brothers had developed Parkinson’s disease. Now my visits were to fill their pill boxes, pay bills and keep them company.

Two years ago, my brother’s needs began to exceed my ability to keep them safe, so I moved both into assisted living homes. Their health decline accelerated. On Christmas Eve the nurse taking care of Billy called and said, “Your brother is no longer able to swallow. He’s having pain, so we’re giving him morphine. If you want to say good-bye, now would be a good time to come to visit.” Continue reading

An Old Maid

Two of my sisters sat on the davenport with piles of Mom’s favorite magazines on their laps. I sat on the floor next to them going through a mound of Dell comic books. They had been read to me so often, I nearly knew them by heart. Familiarity made them all the dearer.

Outside the living room window was a boring winter Saturday afternoon. Snow hadn’t fallen for over a week and the temperatures were frigid. None of us wanted to go out to play.

This year at school I had learned how to read. Despite all the praise I’d received, I was unhappy. Reading was harder than listening. I missed having my sisters read to me. Holding out one of the best comic books, I appealed to my sister, “Mary, please read this to me!”

Mary lowered the Woman’s Day magazine and said, “No. You know how to read. Read it yourself.”

I looked over at my sister, Betty, who was reading a Red Book Magazine. She didn’t bother to look up. I suspected that she was purposely ignoring me. Continue reading