by June Spence
Inside a small wooden picture frame I have taken to keeping on my desk lately, there is a charming hand-stitched scene of a sort-of Spanish villa with arched doorways, turrets, and bougainvillea spilling over the walls, the colors muted by time. The stitching was done by my grandmother, Ruth Spence, and on the back of the frame she has written, “1944 sanitorium,” which was when and where she spent her 26th year, recovering from tuberculosis.
The stitching was the kind of makework meant to help keep patients still and while away the idle hours so their lungs could rest – because rest was just about all there was to offer those afflicted with TB before effective drugs were developed. (Streptomycin was just discovered in 1944, and not yet in use.) Those who could afford to might head to Asheville’s more curative climate and mineral waters, perhaps to a private clinic. Ruth was fortunate there was a bed available nearby at the Wake County sanitorium, which filled two oblong buildings next to the county home – the “poorhouse,” which is now the community center – on Whitaker Mill Road.
She lived with her husband and two young sons within walking distance in what is sometimes referred to as the Hi-Mount neighborhood, bounded on the south by Whitaker Mill and on the east by Wake Forest Road. She’d held out as long as she could – first because her mother-in-law accused her of malingering and laziness, and then, once she was coughing blood and the truth of her condition could not be denied, because her youngest, my father, was just a baby, and she wanted to see him through his first year at least. She knew it would be a long stay at best, and some people never returned from the sanitorium.
It wasn’t to be a full-on quarantine; visitors were thought to be good for morale; and anyway, North Carolina lacked the resources to undertake anything approaching real seclusion. Far too many people had TB in the ’40s, and there were far too few beds to accommodate them. A 1944 biennial report by “North Carolina institutes for physical defectives” lauded a drop in the mortality rate from 49 deaths per 100,000 to 40.1, but warned that TB deaths tended to rise during wartime.
Sanitoria were designated not only as places of healing but of public heath education – the small fraction of those who were stricken and admitted were expected to learn good hygiene practices and disseminate that knowledge to others. Here’s a catchy little jingle circa 1921 that may not have saved lives, but perhaps would have made public life a smidge more pleasant:
You can prevent the spread of disease
By shielding your mouth when you cough or sneeze;
By never expectorating on the ground,
About your home or about the town.
All the state sanitoria had long waiting lists, and the counties could do little to fill the gap. The Society for the Wake Sanitorium had been actively campaigning all the way back in 1919 for a $100,000 bond issue to fund a TB hospital – which was defeated by 189 votes. It took some help from the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) nearly two decades later, in 1938, for the Wake County sanitorium to finally open. The State magazine described it as “a modern institution of 50 beds.”
One of those beds
Ruth didn’t feel lucky to have gotten one of those beds, though she knew she was, and luckier still to have walked back out of the place a year later. Plenty who were as young and strong as she was hadn’t. At the time, all she knew was loneliness, boredom, and a deep, abiding grief at the separation from her children.
Her older son stayed home with her husband, likely aided by the mother-in-law, which would have been cold comfort. The baby, my father, went with Ruth’s mother to Angier, only about 20 miles away, but it wouldn’t have been easy for them to come often, and it wouldn’t have been encouraged. Children weren’t sufficiently restful, and rest was most of what “taking the cure” comprised. There was also the prevailing attitude that it would be better for mother and children to detach during this time, to prevent emotional upheaval. Frequent visits might be too upsetting.
One time her mother brought him in, and she’d cut his hair short, cropped the golden curls that Ruth had let grow – perhaps too long, she admitted; perhaps she had wanted a little girl too much. Ruth wept bitterly at the loss of the curls, at the loss of her agency. Another time they had a visit outdoors, and he threw sand in her eyes.
Ruth was always Mother to him; her mother was Mama, and when he got older and quarreled with his father, he went back to Angier to live with her. (Which is where he met my mama.) “I don’t think he ever understood why he had to leave her in the first place,” Ruth told me.
Sometime during her stay, doctors purposefully collapsed the more diseased lung to allow it to more fully rest and heal. The procedure involved an injection of air beneath the shoulder blade, a strange pressure, and even stranger release. Some people had the diseased portion of lung resected, or multiple ribs removed, so she was probably lucky on that count, too. We had to warn her doctors in later years if they ordered an X-ray. The younger ones would have never seen tubercular-scarred lungs. They were alarming to behold – masses! Tumors? Cancer? – if you weren’t expecting it.
She was always quick to catch a cold, of course, and for it to go straight to bronchitis or worse, but she lived to 85, a good 60 of them spent in close quarters with a heavy smoker, and took supplemental oxygen only in her final year. She was tough and resilient, outliving many who initially survived TB, and surviving even more calamity, but she carried those ugly scars inside of her, that young mother’s isolation and pain, for all of her days.
Today I live with my husband and two sons on the other side of Whitaker Mill Road, almost directly opposite from the site of the sanitorium buildings, which still stand and have served as Mayview Convalescent Home since 1957. Many of its inhabitants, if their memories were still intact, might have recalled its earlier incarnation.
Coincidentally, my other grandmother spent the final weeks of her life there, in 2012, after a bad fall, so it was easy to go and see her, but never simple. Like many of the people who got there by accident, she was confused and unhappy and wanted only to go home. It was hard to go, harder still to bring the boys, but worse to imagine her there alone. I didn’t figure out until later that it was the same place Ruth had been all those years before.
I turn Ruth’s picture over in my hands, the quaint stitching on the front, its dour provenance on the back, and think of the hours she had to fill, the children she longed for. She didn’t live to see these fine sons of mine, and toward the end she was getting impatient. “When are you going to give a baby?” she demanded of me once. “I can’t wait much longer.”