Thursday, December 20, 2012
Christmas Past: Grandma's Christmas Tree
When Grandpa came home from the factory that night, he found Grandma tucking Buddy into bed, having finished sponging him down to lower the fever.
“Is the boy sick?” he asked.
Grandma put a gnarled finger to her lips and pushed Grandpa out the bedroom door.
“Scarlet Fever,” she said in a low voice. “Dr. Tate stopped by earlier and said the boy’s throat is fire red. I knew I shouldn’t have let him play with those children from down the block, but how was I to know what they had was still catching?”
“Now Emma, you can’t blame yourself.” Grandpa hitched up his overalls as they went downstairs. “It’s in the air. The boy would probably have gotten it anyway. Did the doctor seem concerned?”
“Well, he said the fever is often the hardest on young children, and you know how every illness seems to hit Buddy. I certainly wish we’d never agreed to take care of him. He should be with his parents.”
“Don’t fret so.” Grandpa patted her arm. “With your good care, I’m sure Buddy will be better soon. How about some supper, Em?”
Grandma started for the kitchen while Grandpa sat down to read his evening newspaper. She fixed supper for him but didn’t feel much like eating herself. Instead, she prepared a small tray of tea and toast and told Grandpa she was going back upstairs.
“I want to see if I can get Buddy to eat some of this toast. He needs it if he’s going to fight this fever. I’d hate for him to be sick on Christmas.”
Grandpa didn’t argue with her. By now he knew that Grandma was always right about these things.
Before leaving the kitchen, Grandma stopped in the doorway.
“William?” she said to Grandpa. “Have you ever had Scarlet Fever?”
Grandpa looked up from his supper, surprised.
“Why, I imagine so.” He shrugged. “Couldn’t say for sure, though. What about you, Emma?”
“I don’t know either,” she admitted and went upstairs.
All that night, Grandma sat by Buddy’s side, putting cool clothes on his hot forehead and offering him sips of water. By morning his fever was not so high, but his throat still hurt and his face was flushed bright red. To keep him where she could watch him, Grandma allowed Buddy to come downstairs with her and lay on the couch, wrapped in two thick quilts. From here Buddy could see out the big front room window. He saw the milk wagon stop and the milkman leave two bottles on the front step. He watched the other children walking home from school and he waved to them, but then Grandma said the light wasn’t good for his eyes while he had the fever and she pulled the curtains shut.
Buddy lay back on his pillows, his hand dropping to rest on Susie’s head. She had taken her place curled on the rag rug next to the couch, and she licked Buddy’s hand with her soft warm tongue. Too tired to even lift his hand again, Buddy drifted off to sleep.
Dr. Tate stopped to look at Buddy’s throat that afternoon. When he was done checking the boy, he turned to Grandma. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles over the bump on his nose.
“Now Emma, I want to see your throat. Open up, please.”
“For heaven’s sake!” Grandma sputtered. “Whatever for?”
“You know what for.” The doctor tapped his foot impatiently. “Your cheeks are pink and I’ll bet your hands are ice cold. Come on, be a good patient like your grandson and open up.”
Grandma obeyed. The doctor shook his head much as he had the day before when he’d looked at Buddy’s throat.
“I believe you’re coming down with it, too,” he said. “I’m going to have to place you and Buddy under quarantine.”
“But what about William?” Grandma was a bit alarmed. “Does this mean….?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it does, Emma. We don’t want this to spread any farther than it already has. William can stay at my place, if need be.”
“That won’t be necessary. He’ll probably sleep at the factory.” Already Grandma was trying to figure out how they would manage without Grandpa, especially if she became sicker. Quarantine meant no one could enter or leave this house except the doctor, Grandpa included. Knowing William, he would no doubt want to stay here and care for them, but there was no way Grandma would permit it. He had said himself he didn’t know if he’d ever had the fever, so there should be no taking any chances. Grandpa had to work at the factory. Should he become ill, they would all be worse off. They just couldn’t afford for him to get the fever, too. Besides, it would be bad for him at his age. Grandma never stopped to think it was bad for her.
That evening, Grandpa was met at the door by the quarantine sign and the firm shake of Grandma’s steely gray head.
“It seems I’ve got it, too,” she said through the door. “The doctor has put us under quarantine so you’ll have to stay at the factory for a few days.”
Grandpa scratched his head and looked confused.
“But who’s going to care for you and the boy?”
“Don’t worry,” Grandma assured him. “I don’t really feel so terrible, and Buddy’s fever has gone down some. If we need anything, I’ll ring you at work.” The overall factory had a small room with a cot where Grandpa could spend the next few nights.
Grandpa gazed at his wife’s small face, white except for the bright flush of fever on her cheeks. He hated to leave her alone with the boy, but what could he do? Certainly it would be worse if he got sick and couldn’t work. Slowly he turned to go, then stopped and said through the door.
“Promise you’ll call me if you feel any worse?”
Grandma nodded and watched him go down the porch steps and across the dried winter lawn. He paused at the sidewalk to wave to her and then toward the front room where Buddy sat staring out the window, his little-boy face lonely, his arm encircling the small black spaniel.