Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chapter 2 - An Abortifacient

March 1943

Ma Patsy had been running around all morning like a chicken with its head cut off. It wasn’t quite noon yet and already six patients had been in to see her. Doc Wall had called and said that he had her package from the drug company. He’d ordered Patsy’s quinine when he ordered his monthly supplies of medicine. He didn’t have much need for quinine. It was an anti-malarial medicine, and he didn’t see much malaria in Rooster Cove since TVA had waged war on mosquitoes.

He knew what Patsy intended to do with the quinine. She’d mix it up with some cocoa butter and make vaginal suppositories for her patients. It was an abortifacient. If one of Patsy’s patients missed her period, she’d come in for her to take care of it. Patsy would slip one of her quinine suppositories into her, and she’d be bleeding again in a few days.

That’s what Clara Cash had come in for this morning.

“Clara,” Ma Patsy said looking up from what she was doing, “don’t Henry have any condoms left? These quinine suppositories don’t always work, ye know.” She unwound the wax paper she’d wrapped around the suppository. She kept them in the icebox so the cocoa butter wouldn’t lose its bullet shape.

“Yeah, he’s got a plenty left,” Clara said. “He don’t like rubbers.”

Ma Patsy looked exasperated. “Why in God’s name is Henry so pigheaded? Ye’ve had five babies already and three miscarriages. Ask him if he’d cotton to raisin’ five young’uns by hisself. This is gonna be cold, hon.” Ma Patsy said as she slid the suppository into Clara’s vagina. She pushed a tampon in after it so the quinine wouldn’t leak out. “Be sure and take this tampon out in the morning, Clara,” she said pulling off her rubber gloves, “and let me know if you don’t start bleeding in a few days.”

Clara sat up and swung her legs off the side of the examining table. Pa Shiver had made the table before he died. It was just a narrow table with some quilt batting under a red and white checkered oilcloth. He’d nailed the oilcloth to the underside of the table. The batting made it almost comfortable, and the red and white tablecloth was waterproof. Ma Patsy kept a white rubber sheet on top of that so she could keep things clean. At the end of the table Pa Shiver had drilled two holes. They were for the dowels that held two wooden contraptions where Patsy’s patients could rest their feet during a pelvic examination or during delivery.

Clara stood up still holding her panties in her hand. She stepped into them and straightened up smoothing her calico dress over her hips. Clara was only thirty-one years old, and she already had a potbelly from too many pregnancies. Her stringy hair was dull. It looked like last year’s straw. Her gray eyes were tired and bloodshot from not enough sleep. Clara worked hard to keep herself, her house, and her five kids clean. She was a good mother. She was just caught in a situation like a lot of other women in the cove.

She loved Henry, her husband, and she loved to sing and play the guitar that he’d bought her out of a catalog. Every night she’d croon sweet lullabies to her kids with a voice like a nightingale. You could hear her Irish roots when she sang.

Ma Patsy straightened up her instrument tray and wiped down the white rubber sheet on the exam table with chlorine water. She looked over at Clara and asked, “When have ye been to see Doc Wall? Ye look pale.”

“I hain’t never seen him fer myself,” Clara said. “I taken Henry Junior to him when he broke his arm. Ye remember that?”

“Yes, I remember,” Ma Patsy said. “Well, ye need to go see him. He should check yer blood. Ye look anemic.” She pulled down Clara’s lower eyelid and looked at the pale mucosa. She pinched Clara’s fingernail. It blanched and slowly turned pale pink. “Until ye get over there to see the Doc, put a rusty nail in an apple and leave it overnight,” Patsy said. “Come morning, take the nail out an’ eat the apple. Do that everyday ‘til ye get to see Doc Wall. Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that.” Clara replied.

Solomon left school at noon and trotted the mile across the cove to his house on Rooster Cove’s main drag. He’d lived there with his grandmother since he was two years old. He hit the front steps taking them three at a time. The screen door banged against the door jam when he let it go. The commotion announced to Ma that Solomon was home from school.

He only went to school in the mornings now. Not many kids stayed at the high school in the afternoon. The ones that did were the few that were going on to college. Solomon planned to go to college, but he needed to work in the afternoons to save money for the University in Knoxville. Ma had been paying him to help her with patients and with things that had to be done around the office like sterilizing instruments. Solomon wrapped each item in butcher’s brown wrapping paper and put it in the oven for an hour or so according to how many things needed sterilizing.

Delivering a baby like he did this morning at school was nothing out of the ordinary for Solomon. He’d hung around Ma’s office for as long as he could remember. He’d seen or heard of most female complaints and conditions. He was like a sponge. He remembered everything, and he wanted to help with everything that Ma did.

When he helped her with the herb garden, he wanted to know the name of every plant and what it was for. Of course that led to more questions like, “What’s asthma?” and “What’s a poultice do?” The herbs looked different when Ma brought them in the house and dried them. She’d hang them in little bundles from the ceiling. Some she’d hang in the kitchen where they’d stay moist. And some she’d hang in a cool storage room that she kept closed off. Solomon would ask, “What’s this one for? And what does that one smell like?” He stayed by Ma’s side as she chopped, shredded, or mashed the stems, leaves, and flowers. Some of them she’d boil on the stove, some she’d mix with alcohol for a tincture, and some were just dried and put in jars to make tea.

With plants like the dandelions nothing went to waste. She’d collect the milky white liquid that oozed out when the stem was cut and save it in a jar to use for warts, corns, and eczema. The leaves she dried to make a tea for patients that needed a diuretic. Of course, Solomon’s next question was “What’s a diuretic?” He cackled like a hen when Ma called it “piss-a-bed tea.” Finally, she gave the flower heads to Pa Shiver so he could make dandelion wine. Sometimes he’d even let Solomon try a sip after supper.

For the past four years, Ma had been officially instructing Solomon in the art of midwifery. He’d delivered his first baby all by himself when he was fourteen years old. The mother that he’d delivered was his same age—fourteen. Her name was Missy Hawkins. He’d been in grammar school with Missy, but she’d dropped out after the fifth grade to help her ma around the house with the little’uns. Now she was having little’uns of her own. Ma had watched the delivery from the sidelines, but she didn’t need to say a word. Solomon’s labor and delivery skills were perfect … something that the folks at school could attest to after this morning.

By the time Solomon was fifteen years old, he could do anything Ma Patsy could do from setting broken bones and sewing up cuts to delivering babies and, if need be, executing a perfect mediolateral episiotomy to prevent tearing of the vaginal opening, which he then expertly sutured.

Ma’s womenfolk patients didn’t mind the teenaged boy’s presence at their most intimate moments. They knew that he would be taking over Ma Patsy’s work and probably Doc Wall’s too. They didn’t think of him as a teenaged observer. They thought of themselves as helping to train the man who would take care of their families for decades to come.

He had decided a long time ago that he wanted to be a doctor for Rooster Cove. Now that he was sixteen years old, he planned to ask Doc Wall if he could help out around his clinic. That way he could save the money for college and medical school faster. Solomon was a good saver. He hardly ever spent any money on foolishness.

Ma Patsy heard him coming into the house, and she hollered, “Solomon, come in here, please.”

He could heard Clara Cash’s voice in there with Ma, so he slowly opened the door to the exam room and peeked in. He didn’t want to embarrass Clara. There was no telling what Ma might be doing to her. The coast was clear. Clara was dressed and just standing there with her arms crossed in front of her breasts. She looks awful tired, he thought. “Afternoon, Miz Cash, how are you?” he said.

“Fair to middlin’ thank ye, Solomon.” Clara couldn’t have cared less what Solomon saw. He’d helped Ma Patsy deliver her last baby, and he’d been the one to slip the quinine suppository into her more than once in the past. Solomon was just overly sensitive about the way people felt. It was as if he walked around with his psychic radar up. Sometimes people would say they didn’t mind the things that he did to them, but he sensed it when they were afraid or embarrassed. Whatever they might say didn’t fool Solomon.

“Sounds like ye had a tad of excitement at school this morning,” Ma said.

Solomon grinned, “Yeah, a little bit.”

“Would ye run over to Doc Wall’s?” she asked. “He says my quinine’s here. I need ye to fetch it.”

Copyright © 2008 by Robbin Renee Bridges
Coping with Grief through Afterlife Communication

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