It was a cold day in February, 1955, when my dad returned home from the hospital.
“Did I get a sister,” Audry, almost seven, skipped around the room as she clapped her hands together in a prayer-like stance.
“It’s a boy,” Dad replied with a twinkle in his eyes. Audry burst into tears and Dad’s playful words came to a halt. “Audie,” he used his pet name for his young daughter, “I’m not serious. You have a baby sister. Her name is Ramona Mary.” The waterworks dried quickly and Audry began to skip and sing. She had a sister to join her five brothers, Bobby, Tommy, Pete, Larry and Victor.
Ramona, that’s me, was named for one of Mom’s favorite songs. ‘Ramona’ whose romantic lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilberts and music by Mabel Wayne was a 1928 song she had always loved to sing. I was tiny at birth, weighing a mere five pounds and five ounces. I was also referred to as “the naughty lady of Shady Lane,” after another popular song. The long days of winter passed quickly as my family went about the daily routine of running a farm and a home. The following is a story I heard many times growing up. Since I was only three months old, with no recollection, this is how I imagined it must have been.
Dad was gone from the house long hours milking cows, feeding pigs and chickens, and performing other farm chores. This left Mom, not yet thirty years of age, with enough work each day for several women. Each day brought three meals to prepare, eggs to gather and wash, laundry to be done using a wringer washing machine, ironing, cleaning and milk to strain. In addition she had seven children who needed continual attention. And Whooping Cough had invaded the county. My older siblings were sick. It wasn’t long before the virus spread through the household, attacking even the littlest, me.
Mom cradled me, three months old in her arms for a late night feeding. She could barely keep her eyes open as she rocked slowly in the faded maroon velvet rocking chair. The wool rug, thread bare from years of wear, softened the squeaking sound from the curved wooden rungs in the quiet of the night. Sitting close to the oil burner, the sole source of heat for the home, kept the two of us warm and toasty. Mom’s head nodded as the rhythm relaxed her. Her eyes slowly slid shut and her hand slipped away from the bottle.
I began to cough and Mom jerked awake. She picked up the half empty bottle and set it on the coffee table. As she lifted me to her right shoulder she gently patted my back. I continued to cough, each time with more and more force. Mom was frightened as I continued to cough and gasped for air. After what seemed like hours, but was mere minutes, the coughing slowly subsided. Mom sat in the chair for the remainder of the night, too worried to lay me in the crib. Morning came too quickly for both of us.
“Gerry, can you please bring the portable crib down from upstairs,” Mom asked Dad.
“Whatcha need it down here for,” he spoke quickly, in a hurry to get morning milking chores started.
“I want to keep Ramona by me today while I work. She coughed so hard last night she almost choked. I’m afraid to have her too far away from me,” she replied.
Dad slipped off his work boots and hurried to the second floor of the small farm house. He quietly grabbed the wooden bassinet, so not to wake the sleeping children, and carried it to the kitchen. He placed it on the table.
“Thanks so much, Gerry,” Mom flashed a drained smile. “I hope this cough of hers goes away quickly.”
By noon, I had endured five or six coughing spells. Each time Mom rushed over, scooped me up and quelled my cough. The small baby bed was transported to each room Mom went during the day. That night, with no rest during the day, she kept watch over me, repeating her actions of the day.
The following day, my Grandma Kies, came to give Mom some relief. Dad had stopped by and told her of the situation. Grandma stayed for most of the day and Mom was able to grab a brief afternoon nap while the rest of the young household slept. That night, I had several spells of coughing that troubled all.
Drinking my bottle was almost impossible for me. Each swallow of milk would initiate a bout of coughing that racked my elfin body. Gasping for air usually followed. I began losing weight and became lethargic. Prayers were never far from Mom and Dad’s exhausted lips.
Word spread throughout the church and farming community: the Kies family had a very sick baby. Prayers were offered by family and friends for my recovery. My Grandma Kremer, Grandma Kies, Great Aunt Mary, and neighbor, Eva Rose took turns staying with our resource strapped family. Eva stayed most nights to allow Mom a few precious hours of sleep. Twenty-four hours, seven days a week, someone stood guard over me willing me to shake this virus, Whooping Cough.
“Rita, come quick,” Eva’s shrill voice woke Mom with a start. Mom nudged Dad awake. Dad, most of his hearing destroyed during battle at Okinowa, Japan during World War Two, hadn’t heard the cry. Both rushed to my bedside. They found Eva holding me. My chocolate colored eyes were rolled back into my head; I had quit breathing and was turning blue. My limp body was embraced by Mom as the three tried desperately to revive me. Finally, holding me by my feet, they began thumping my back. A few tense moments passed until I took a breath and whimpered a softly. No louder than the mew of a kitten, it was a beautiful sound to the trio. And I lived through another night. I am told this happened multiple times during the time of my illness.
At last the Whooping Cough virus ran its course and it was no longer necessary to have adults guard my crib night and day. I began to thrive. Milk was ble to be consumed, digested and utilized. I quickly put on the needed pounds and was finally healthy again.
Mrs. Gerald Kies, my mother, was so grateful she wrote and published the following poem in 1955. It appeared in the St. Athanasius church cookbook to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the parish. I grew up flipping open the pages to find a favorite recipe to bake, or cook for our large family. Often times I paused to read this poem on last page in the cake section. I admired my mother’s words.
NOW I COUNT MY BLESSINGS
After nine years of marriage
And our children numbered seven,
I began to feel as though
I’d had my share from heaven.
I was groaning about my work
I had so much to do
And envied those about me
With just their one or two.
And so much leisure time
They always seemed to have,
While I just never could get done
And thought myself enslaved.
But then it seemed that God wanted me
To realize our wealth,
And put a cross upon us
And took our baby’s health.
And through those long and weary days,
And endless nights we spent
With watchful hearts, our heads in prayer we bent.
And slowly I began to see
How precious each life is,
And if we have a dozen more,
God meant them to be His.
And gives them to us to have and love
And enjoy a while on earth;
So now I count my blessings,
And realize my worth. Mrs. Gerald Kies, 1955
As I grew, I became aware of the fact, this poem was written about me. As a child, adults in my life often commented about that time in my life. As an adult, I began to ask questions of them and pieced together the story.
I grew up listening to the accounts of my elders, ‘You were so sick!”; “You almost died on us several times,” and my mother’s words, “God spared you for a specific reason.” I was left with a sense of awe for my family, the feeling I was worth the act of sacrificial love, and a desire to have my life count for something. I know that no matter what happens to me, it has been ordained by God and I am part of His larger plan. After all, according to mom, God kept me on this earth for a reason. I must honor and love Him all of my days.