My father’s parents were strangers to me, so absent from our family life and lore that I was unaware of the void. For reasons he kept close, Bob Underhill never spoke about his parents back in New York. Ever. I grew up without knowing a single thing about them, even their names, and did not once stop to consider the oddity of that.
After my parents passed away, I found hidden among their private things an old photo album, a packet of letters posted in 1945 from Mamaroneck, NY, and brief family histories.
In the fading photos, I glimpsed my grandmother for the first time. I opened one of the letters, traced a finger along lines she wrote with pen and ink, and learned her name, Alice Larrivee Underhill. Within the hour, I had discovered a great deal about her, including this:
When frequent ear aches and bouts of strep throat threatened the health of her only child, whom she called Bobbie, Alice left Mamaroneck and took her little boy north to a convalescent area where the air was thought to be more wholesome. She rented a bed-sit room for the winter, spooned broth and cod liver oil into Bobbie, and tutored him in spelling, history, and arithmetic. On sunny afternoons, she indulged him with a walk to an ice cream parlor and helped him strap on skates for a twirl around a frozen pond. They stayed until spring, a decision that kept Alice far from her home, her husband, relatives and friends, all that was familiar. But it meant Bobbie was safely distanced from his classmates and neighborhood pals, with their runny noses and sore throats… their contagions.
What prompted Alice to take such drastic action? From what I could tell, Bobbie was merely working his way through some rather typical childhood ailments. Neither the letters nor the photo album held a clue, but other sources did.
Searching ancestry web sites, I learned that Alice was born in 1895 in Pomfret, CT. Her father, Louis, was a railroad station agent. Her mother, Fannie, kept the house. Her younger sister, Hazel Marianna, was born in 1902. Her birth certificate is on file in the Pomfret town clerk’s office. Near the end of the family history my dad put together, he mentions his aunt died as a child, of diphtheria. By then the family was living in Rye, NY.
In every household back then, be it a mountain cabin, glutted tenement, or mansion with sweeping lawns, diphtheria was among the most dreaded of afflictions, for good reason: the disease killed so easily, and was so contagious.
I have no way of knowing exactly how and when tragedy struck the Larrivee family. But this is how I imagine it:
It is late July, 1904, a typical summer evening in the village of Rye. Up and down a street lined with modest homes, parents put children to bed. Alice is nine that summer. Hazel is two and a half.
After supper, Louis, the father, reads The Courant in the parlor. Out on the front porch, Alice helps her younger sister cut out paper dolls. When Fannie has the last of the dishes back in the cupboard, she calls Hazel indoors to wash up for bed. Alice goes in, too, anxious to finish reading her library book.
All morning, Fannie had washed sheets, guiding wet, heavy swathes of cloth through a wringer, carrying the big wicker basket to the yard, lifting and stretching to pin the fabric to a line. It was late afternoon by the time she smoothed the last of the sun-dried linens onto the girls’ beds. At nightfall, she is bone-tired. Slowly, she makes her way up to the girls’ bedrooms, under the eaves.
The first indication something is wrong comes by way of a mother’s kiss. The light upstairs is dim. Until her lips graze Hazel’s forehead, Fannie had not realized the child was hot. She draws back, startled. Looks closer. Sees Hazel’s skin is marbled and clammy. Feels the cotton undershirt, damp with perspiration.
Fannie calls to Louis and sends Alice downstairs to sleep on the couch, out of danger. Through the long night, Alice listens from below as her parents dip strips of cloth in a metal pail filled with water and drape them over Hazel’s burning forehead, her limp arms, her legs. At first light, Louis rushes to an ice house and returns with a block packed in sawdust. In the kitchen, he hammers off chips which Fannie rubs across Hazel’s parched lips. To no avail. By then, bacteria are killing millions of cells on the child’s larynx, tonsils, and nasal passages. The slough-off is forming a milky-gray “faux” membrane all down her throat.
Hours pass. Still the fever rages. By morning Hazel can barely swallow. She tries to speak, but the words are slurred, their meaning gibberish. Her eyes lose focus, grow dull, and close.
Louis goes out to search for a doctor. The man who rings the bell an hour later is tall and ropy, his beard precisely trimmed over features creased by concern. He goes straight to the sickroom and pauses at the child’s bedside, observing, diagnosing with the sorrowful gaze of a healer who can offer no hope. Louis and Fannie watch him feel the swollen lymph glands in Hazel’s neck and gently pull down her chin to peer in her mouth. Finished, he glances at the mother, at the father, then shakes his head and looks away. In the foyer, Louis offers money, which the doctor declines.
Hour after hour, Hazel labors to push air through the ever-thickening membrane coating her throat. Her breathing grows husky and intermittent.
Twilight. Up and down the street, gas lamps flicker atop iron poles. In fulsome night, toxins race to spread the disease. A kidney shuts down. Nerve endings inflame. Heart valves infect. After weeks of illness, the diaphragm would seize. But Hazel has hours, not weeks.
Perhaps it will be during the pitiless hour before dawn. Or come morning, when neighbor children dash out to play in grassy yards and wary parents sweep them indoors again. Or noon, when the postman slides mail through a slot in the door, unaware of the crisis within, and continues on to the next house, as always.
Sunset. The desperation of Louis and Fannie Larrivee gives way to exhaustion. Despair seeps into the sickroom.
Nightfall. Hazel’s heart goes into arrhythmia. Its chambers beat their last. Her body stills.
Fannie wilts over the lifeless child. Louis, unable to bear the sight, plucks at the bedclothes, straightening sheets come all undone, as if somehow it matters.
All this Alice would have witnessed at an impressionable age, standing forgotten at the doorway… witnessed and forever understood that children are fragile things, meant to be loved beyond scope or measure, for they can be taken.
A century later, in the waning light of a winter afternoon, in a house being emptied of every trace of family, I studied the pictures of Alice, my grandmother, and searched the old photo album in vain for Hazel. I took up the letters Alice wrote during World War II, letters saved but never mentioned. In so doing, in small measure, I came to know her.
Catherine is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, a former metro daily feature writer, and the author of two previously published novels: A Matter of Happenstance (Plain View Press, 2010) and Going on Nine (Familius, 2014).
Her book-length account of the award-winning dispatches she filed from Lower Manhattan on 9/11 has been accessioned into the State Historical Society of Missouri archives. Descriptions of her reportage are included with accounts of other media people in Running Toward Danger (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). “Sounds and Fury,” an essay describing her experiences during the week of the attacks, appeared in the September, 2010, edition of Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2016, Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick