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Cymric Strain

By Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)

Chapter 29 - Health


Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010

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 CHAPTER 29

      “Health”

The word prophylaxis was uncoined in Father’s day but he certainly practiced it.  Physical culture was a hobby with him and now that we had more space, he installed, in Mother’s and his room, a ‘Dowd’s Home Exerciser’ and each day we children were lined up for physical education.  We pulled weights to strengthen and straighten our backs and balanced bags of shot or Webster’s unabridged dictionary on our heads as we walked about, to improve our postures.  It’s a wonder our necks didn’t crack under the strain.  Every time Father looked at me critically he would say,

          “Straighten your shoulders, Una, and pull in your stomach.”

          The common reproof to Mary was,

          “Close your mouth, Mary.”

          Father was a fanatic about good health and I’ve blessed him many a time since I’ve been grown; though I certainly did not as a child.  I thought he was slightly balmy on the subject and I was ashamed of being so healthy.  People, looking at me, would smile and say to Father,

          “Well, you certainly don’t need to worry over Una’s health,”

          and then they’d laugh – the implication to me that good health was vulgar.  Certainly something, Father’s hobby or a rabbit’s foot, kept the germs away, for sickness found no room in our house.  I can remember wearing a compress around my neck, and sucking the glass stopper of our glycerin bottle when I was hoarse.  That just about constitutes my case history.  I even waited to have mumps until I was grown up and teaching.  Whooping cough was handed me by my own children and when I gave a premonitory warning that I was about to whoop, my nine month old baby slid from my lap with the haste of Goldilocks when the three bears were after her.

          When we were small Mother watched us like a hawk.  She was a fine police officer and she knew where we were every minute of the day.  We knew better too than break parole.  School and Sunday school practically bounded our worldly wanderings.  All of us were rosy, hungry-all-the-time youngsters, and that condition lasted into adolescence.

          Father had very definite ideas about training for health, and deep breathing was one of his peccadilloes.  He would thump our chests. Make us say ‘ah’ from our diaphragms, and lecture oratorically on the benefits to be derived from good lungs and a sound body.

          For some reason (probably because on occasion I acted like a scared rabbit) he suspected that my pumping station was defective.  I couldn’t hold a breath long enough to suit him.  Cornet-blowing he decided might turn the trick.  He discussed the matter with numerous people about town, and he and I visited music stores and held blowing orgies.  Most of the salesmen after looking me over decided I was too inconsequential to attack the brasses and suggested a melodious harmonica as a substitute.  I accepted their mediation with alacrity.  I was violently opposed to blowing blasts on a trumpet.  I would as soon have cried for the firebell, and though Father smiled at my timidity he didn’t press the matter. 

Then almost without warning, a wave of gymnastics swept our community.  We hadn’t a gymnasium in town, yet wands, dumbbells and Indian clubs were suddenly imported and drills became fashionable overnight. Along with the public manifestations of such hygienic weapons, glamorous cheesecloth costumes were indispensable and these rainbow-hued garments I adored.  Mary swung a wicked Indian club and was fascinated with the exercise.  She attempted complicated figures and rhythms and was so successful that Father finally weighted a pair for her.  I supplied musical accompaniment and we vaudevilled at church soirees.

As we reached higher grades in school where achievements commanded the respect and admiration of our fellows our next step was on the block of oratory.  Father was an oratory enthusiast.  Possibly because he had to do public speaking, he determined that we should also plead our cases either on the boards or in society, in studied nuances.  Those were the days of ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight,’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’  We were required to memorize long readings, and Father drilled us in their rendition including gesture.

Lilly had real dramatic talent and represented the peak of elocutionary achievement in the family.  She acted in literary plays, had the title role in ‘Jane Eyre’ and emoted like a genuine Duse in borrowed gowns.  Mary rated next and in her sophomore year in High School pulled down a second grade gold medal.  After that when the High School didn’t furnish enough business, she went over to the Temperance cause and expounded on the evils of drink.  With a Delsartian sword she assailed the saloon in a Demarest medal contest, and begged that the ‘lips of victory might be pressed against the cheek of prohibition.’

I would have gladly retired from the stage altogether but my family didn’t see the matter in that light.  They thought if I were molded from infancy, I might take on the family pattern without straining family ties.

Mary’s and my primary efforts centered about the barnyard.  Mary’s concerned a turkey and opened dramatically with his obituary.  Memorizing the text was the first test and as she walked to school she repeated in a deadened voice:

“The white turkey is dead.
The white turkey is dead.

How the news through the barnyard went flying.”

About the time she had it tucked away in her memory and was ready for drilling, Father was called out of town and Mother took over.

Now Mother was dramatic by nature, and when Mary broke the news of the turkey’s demise in an anemic sing-song, the former Sally Rees rose to her feet and pulled out the histrionic stops of her vocal organ.

“Why Mary, if you were telling me that our turkey was dead, you wouldn’t sat it in that lifeless way.  You know you wouldn’t.  You’d say:

‘The white turkey is dead!

‘The white turkey is dead!’

‘How the news through the barnyard went flying!’”

and Mother paused to witness the effect of her announcement.  Gesture was out of Mother’s line but she could make our backs go all ‘spiny’ with her electrical inflections.  We were good Chinese imitators too, when we had a pattern to go by, and Mary with a little polishing delivered her farm saga with distinction.

My first selection had poultry seasoning also.  It concerned a batch of chickens that found a container full of whiskey, and imbibed so freely that their prostrate forms with claws in the air were thought to be clutched in death.  Their feathers were picked off before it was discovered that they were under the spell of a potion.  The tale was worded in very ordinary prose.  My selections we never on as high a plane as Mary’s.  Neither was my delivery.  Humor was chosen for me because it was supposed to represent the lowest level.  The chickens and I began from scratch.

One day Mr. Hamill, a well-known teacher and writer of textbooks on dramatics, came to town with his daughter.  They were invited into the schools to conduct classes, and discover histrionic lights hidden under bushels of talent.  Miss Hamill was young and pretty and I was very attracted to her.  Her showpiece was Poe’s, The Bells.  She did a liptrick combined with singing that suggested the bell sound and I thought it was just too wonderful.  I tried to imitate her but I couldn’t make a sound and I was too shy to watch her very closely.  Each student was asked to read certain passages of prose or poetry for Mr. Hamill.  When my turn arrived I was in a coma of fear.  I hated so to let my family down when they were all good readers.  I was sure that I knew the least of anyone present in the schoolroom and I did the best I could under the circumstances and Mr. Hamill remarked to his daughter in a voice that I heard,

“Her voice is clear as a bell.”

I was so relieved that I almost cried.  I paid dearly for that statement, however, for after its utterance the teachers and my family insisted that I try out for the contest preliminaries.  I did, wholly because I was obliged to, and the whole process was a series of nightmares.  Each day I hoped I would suddenly be taken sick, and that on the final night I would be too ill to appear.  I even considered dying before the awful test in front of the floodlights arrived.  Unfortunately I lived.

Mother had a dainty dotted Swiss gown made for me for the occasion.  It had a girdle of ribbons that fell in strands from the belt like maypole streamers.  Under ordinary circumstances such a feature would have thrilled me, but the deadening effect on the contest nullified all my joys.  Not an organ seemed in its normal niche and my temperature was running races when we were shoved on stage to sit through the entire contest.  Lilly fixed my hair at the last moment and as we parted in the wings, with a look of apprehension she said,

“You look very nice, dear and I know you will do splendidly.”

She spoke however, in a color-less manner and I had the feeling that she voiced a confidence she was far from feeling.

Perkin’s Opera House was full to overflowing that night as I faced imaginary scenes that never happened.  I pictured myself tripping over my ribbons as I rose to walk forward; falling and disgracing my family.  Agonies of not remembering a line of my reading went through my mind as I sat and looked into the terrifying gloom beyond the blazing footlights.  I heard only a fraction of the oration that preceded mine.  I was too absorbed in my own approaching impalement.

When my turn came I walked forward.  The click in my throat seemed audible.  The first words came automatically.  I have a good memory.  Father and Lilly had selected the poem, ‘Flying Jim’s Last Leap.’  It was the story of a little rich girl who was idolized by her father.  Jim was an acrobat just out of prison.  He had sought employment on the estate of the child’s father and had been charmed with the golden-haired little girl.  Then the enraged father had appeared and struck the man with his riding crop for addressing his daughter.  You can guess the rest; the house afire at night; the ex-convict leaping through the flames and carrying the child to safety at the cost of his own life.  The denouement was more moral than literary.  Jim was laid on the grass and servants and the father gathered to weep with sorrow and remorse.

“A mark of whip on white cheek stirred
 To gleaming scarlet at his words.
‘ Forgive them all who use you ill,’
 She taught me that and I fulfill.
I would her hand might touch my face
Though she’s so pure and I so base.’

Lo, Flossy knelt and kissed the brow

With smiles of bliss transfigured now.
Death, the angel, sealed it there.
‘Twas sent to God with Mother’s prayer.”

With eyes and right hand directed toward heaven I finished.  The lovely sob story, Jim’s ordeal and mine were over.  As I walked back to my seat I felt like a prisoner released from confinement.  I was wholly indifferent to the award that went to one whom I have forgotten.  Lilly told me afterward that the judges told her that they were pleased at my reading but were at a loss to understand my pauses.

Dear people, they should have asked me.

That was the end of my dramatic career though years later when my singing teacher, Karleton Hackett, insisted that if I had been born in Italy I would have been on the stage at five, ghosts of that contest crept forth to cavort in my dreams.  I awoke to “God Bless America.”

Father’s belief in the healthfulness of horseback riding led him to teach us to ride.  For years we had owned Puss, a stubborn little beast that we learned to harness at a dollar a head.  Then we were taught to saddle her (without remuneration).  A probationary period followed during which time we learned the rudiments of riding in our pasture, finally emerging on the travelled highways.

Lilly achieved in equine fields the superior level she had acquired in other skills, and very early graduated from the family riding horse.  She had a way with horses and loved the fiery, untamed steeds that tried the tempers of their riders.  The moment a livery stable mount staged a sensational runaway, she never rested until Father arranged for her to match wits with him.  Stablemen had orders to let her take her choice of animals.  She had fine form; sat her horse with grace and in a black broadcloth habit with silk hat and flowing scarf, looked like an English woman riding to the hunt.

Mary and I were distinctly second or third class.  We had only one riding costume between us and took turns wearing it.  It was Lilly’s discarded one but we were not proud and most of our friends had none.  It was made of Kelly green broadcloth with bellhop buttons streamlining the front and was topped off with a visored cap of matching hue.  It had more color and verve than our nags.  Puss our best looker was unamiable and we were not fond of her.  Mary especially disliked her because one day when she was harnessing her, Puss in a resentful mood reached round and took a good nip at Mary’s plump back.  Her popularity died on that day and finally Father took old Dock on a debt.  Dock was clumsy and rural looking but at least he was agreeable and that gave us a choice.

When Mary and I rode together before the advent of Dock we had to get a second mount at the stables, and that was bad for me.  I was the antithesis of Lilly.  All a horse had to do was to get in my proximity to know I was afraid.  Sometimes (at the horse’s pleasure) he would buck while I hung on terrorized.  If I had a strange beast, I could and did expect the worst.  Riding was not one of my easy accomplishments.  I managed to stick on when one ran away with me but I rode solely for the purpose of preserving my self-respect and the good opinion of my family.

In spite of our excursions in the realm of prophylaxis, sickness sometimes overrode us and the spring following our removal to the new house, Mary fell ill with typhoid fever.  The doctor in my mind’s eye was second in power only to God and so great was my belief in his healing powers that I believed all one had to do in sickness was call a physician and behold the patient would arise from his bed.

During the spring, Mary had been languid.  She had fallen asleep immoderately without attracting critical attention, when one day she dozed at the noon dinner table.

“Mary, it’s time to go to school,”

 

I said poking her vigorously in the ribs.  Mary paid no attention.

“She’s asleep, Mama, and we’ll be late,”

 

I added turning to Mother.  Being tardy held terrors even if we did carry signed and notarized excuses.  Mother and Father had lapsed into Welsh, which meant an unusual situation.  Finally Mother told me to,

“Hurry along.  Mary can stay home for the afternoon and sleep,”

and I scampered off to school.

I fully expected Mary would be at the suppertable that night but weeks slipped by before she took her place in the family circle.  Mother cut her hair (even typhoid paid dividends).  Anxious days and nights followed and my first genuine prayers with promises, attached as brides, rose to convince the Almighty that it would be His loss as well as ours if Mary were taken away.  Evidently He agreed with me.  At any rate after she had passed the crisis, in due time, Mary sat up, ate her small quota of food and cried for more, like other typhoid patients I have known.  What hair she had had after her braid was cut, had fallen out and a soft curly fuzz replaced her old straight locks.  Her bursting energy was tempered and slow to return. 

Doing without Mary was hard on me.  There was no one else to fly to, for Lilly was growing more adult every day.  She wore formal hats and gloves and nose-veils and seemed forever dressed up.  But her red cheeks were fading and Mother made her lie down often.  When Mother marshaled us to the attic to sew carpet rags, before we were fairly started Lilly would develop a pain in her side.  We children called it her carpet-rag pain and she would be sent to rest.  Lilly’s waist measure was twenty-two inches and didn’t seem to leave enough room for the industrial processes that went on inside her.  I had seen Mother give her hot toddies, too, and occasionally she fainted about school time and on those days Mother kept her home.  I’ve heard of nine o’clock school sickness that is cured by staying home.  I’ve even had it myself, not at school times but when I was going to a party.  That wasn’t the case with Lilly, however for Lilly loved school.  Once or twice in class she had fallen to the floor in a faint after doing quick sums.  The doctor would give her a tonic or send her to the springs to drink the water and rest.  Doctors seemed to reach their limitations quickly in those days and too many deaths were ascribed to ‘God’s Will.’

Father was more clever that most people in keeping well.  He was inclined to have nervous indigestion and at such times seemed to use good judgment.  He would have his steak broiled on the coals in the fireplace; eat charred baked potatoes and forego the heavier foods he liked.

If he had known more about mental hygiene, I am sure he would have exercised more wisdom in shielding us from unnecessary and disturbing emotional experiences.  Worry was poison to us all and when it hovered about our hearthstone, the health of the family sank in correspondence.  Unfortunately the importance of a balanced emotional life came too late to be of use to us children, and we were unwittingly pitchforked by circumstance into a field of experience both new and devastating – the field of crime.

Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)

Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father

Chapter 3 - Dartmouth

Chapter 4 - Killolog

Chapter 5 - America

Chapter 6 - Arrival

Chapter 7 - Gracious Living

Chapter 8 - I Am Born

Chapter 9 - My Name

Chapter 10 - Neighbors

Chapter 11 - The Cyclone

Chapter 12 - The Old cemetery

Chapter 13 - Music

Chapter 14 - Religion

Chapter 15 - The Circuit

Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1

Chapter 17 - Pageantry

Chapter 18 - Mommy

Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks

Chapter 20 - Decoration

Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals

Chapter 22 - Episode

Chapter 23 - Barn Life

Chapter 24 - Vanities

Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow

Chapter 26 - New Horizons

Chapter 27 - Disciplines

Chapter 28 - An Experimenter

Chapter 29 - Health

Chapter 30 - Murder

Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings

Chapter 32 - Charm

Chapter 33 - Problems

Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.

Chapter 35 - The Wedding

Chapter 36 - At Home

Chapter 37 - Cross Currents

Chapter 38 - A Baby

Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston

Chapter 40 - The Visitor

Chapter 41 - Buffetings

Chapter 42 - Agenda

Chapter 43 - David

Chapter 44 - Exit