Growing up, I loved my grandmother more than words. But, there were two things she used to do that always bothered me. The first thing was to insist, as sure as the sun would rise, that my shy nature was something I could “get over.” She swore up and down that with enough practice it would get easier and easier for me to be around people; and, one day, she promised, I wouldn’t be shy at all. I always rolled my eyes at the thought. It would be nice, I used to say to myself, but I didn’t believe she understood how I felt at all. My teenage surliness told me that I obviously knew more about the matter than she did. From my view, she was just a natural “people person” who didn’t know what it felt like to be left out. Regardless of where she went or who she was around, she wore a big friendly smile on her face and was able to catch the adoration of others easily. I, on the other hand, never felt so lucky.
After spending the day at her house, there would undoubtedly come a time when I would stumble across the other thing about her that bothered me. Her spitting. Not to concoct a disgusting picture of an otherwise gentile lady, but she could hock a loogie just as big as any man on a pitcher’s mound. She was civilized about it, though. She never spit on the floor of the house or on the dirt outside. Instead, she always carried around half a dozen handkerchiefs in her purse or pockets so she could wrangle and contain these moist delights. But, usually out of nowhere, an abrupt gathering of phlegm in her throat would always lead to the reviled act. And then came my disgust.
No matter how I would tease her or what I would say to try to get her to stop, she would take it in stride and simply laugh. Her grace allowed her to find humor in ridicule and smiles in disdain. She was a master at this, but I never knew why. Occasionally, in her best effort to defend herself to me, she would just sweetly say that she couldn’t help it. But I didn’t understand what she meant. Not until years later.
As her story went, when she finally revealed it to me much later, in 1933, when my grandmother was only thirteen years old, her family received some heartbreaking news from their family doctor. It seemed that she, little Ella Mae, had somehow contracted tuberculosis. No one else in the family got it. She was the only one. But, the diagnosis was as clear-cut as it was devastating.
In those days, before the aid of antibiotics and modern medicine, having tuberculosis was almost akin to a death sentence. Roughly 11,000 people died from it each year and it was an absolutely terrifying plague that seemed to tatter an already bruised America. For my grandmother’s family, who were dumbstruck over this ill fortune, there were no channels to go through, no bureaucracy to fight. There was only one option for a patient – to be sent away to a sanatorium. And that was exactly what happened to her.
For an entire year, she was sent away from everyone she knew to a small and distant Oklahoma town to languish among the dying and try to regain strength in the midst of overwhelming homesickness. She never filled in the gaps as to how that year was spent, used up with card games or fresh air naps. Such details she omitted, as well as the fact that her parents had to pay the entire sum of the charges up front along with the fee for a return home ticket. All documents they signed stated in clear terms that, should their child die, this fee would instead be used to transport her body to its place of burial.
What she did impart about that time – the utter loneliness, how displaced she felt, how she longed to be with her loved ones – became the very thing that shaped her. For the better. It was lucky that she pulled through. Unlike so many others, she recovered quite well and was discharged by the age of fourteen. Her family had missed her birthday and a Christmas while she was away, but they made up for it heartily later on.
The rest of her town, however, did not welcome her back with open arms. Almost all of the parents of her friends had misgivings about her return. They all forbade their children to play or converse with her, treating her as though she were still contagious. Sadly, this treatment was common for the time, as people were reluctant to believe that some maladies were ever completely cured. Without much scientific education in the time, there was little anyone could do to sway their unfounded beliefs.
As she had once been fighting for her life, she then had to shift and learn what it meant to fight for acceptance, friendship and happiness. Somehow the second battle seemed harder than the first. Her family wanted to shield her from such cruelty, however they were powerless to change the minds of the merciless. Only one family was kind-hearted enough to allow their children to play with her, but the rest continued to treat her like a leper. All she wanted was for things to return to the way they had been before, but she knew it would never be the same.
This was the point in the story where most would have given up and figured it was of no use to try to win over the closed hearts of the ones who had made her feel unloved. But for Ella Mae, who at her tallest stood just shy of five feet, she had a power in her that even the biggest and bravest of men would have envied.
She understood that people were sometimes cruel. Her family couldn’t hide that fact from her. But, rather than give up and cower in the shadows from which she had risen, she fought back in the best way she knew how – kindness. She decided she would smile at them, though she got nothing in return. She would say a kind word, though they would not repeat it back to her. She would do a good deed, even though it wouldn’t be repaid. It all may have seemed in vain except that, eventually, with enough practice, the people in her town removed the tarnish from her name and started to see Ella Mae as the sweet, kind and gentle person that she was instead of the harbinger of tuberculosis that they had once dismissed.
Even when her status among townsfolk had finally resumed, her lungs unfortunately were never the same after the disease. The scar tissue inside of them caused her to suffer with emphysema for the rest of her life. And, yes, coughing productive phlegm was a perpetual side effect, one that she tried to cover with a smile. But, her wisdom - the idea that, with enough practice, things would get better – became a sort of hallmark of her character. It’s interesting how sometimes the things that bother us about a person are truly some of their most wonderful traits; battle wounds and mended wings, symbols of courage and signs of strength. And now that I know, though it is much too late to tell her, I admire her so much more because of these two things.