Physicals Aren’t Physical Any More?

As a child, our entire family saw the same doctor for decades.  Dr. Repasky was what was then called a GP, General Practitioner.  He was an older man when I was little.  He delivered everyone of us.  My oldest brother was named after him:  John.  I suspect this was more due to the fact that the bill was not going to get paid quickly than out of respect, but he was a fixture in our lives and we did, indeed, respect him.  He seemed to remain the same age the entire time I was growing up.  He was a nice man, but serious when it came to your health. He did it all, most of it right there in his office.  Not that it was primitive like going to see Doc Baker on Little House on the Prairie but a more modern version of a similar setup.

There was a long dark stairway leading up to his second floor office.  It was cool and dark in the narrow hall. You knew everything was highly polished from the way the sunlight snuck in with you when you opened the door at the bottom to meet the dim light from a single bulb at the top of the stairs.  The stairs were shiny where the light hit them.  You could see as well as feel the way they were worn into smooth depressions on each side from the many footsteps going up and down over decades before you.

At the top of the stairs there were a number of doors with glazed and yellowed windows to the right.  The first one was the entrance to his waiting room.  His name was etched on it in gold and black letters. When you entered, the nurse would pop out to see who was there.  No glass partitions.  No complicated insurance forms and cards required.  It was utilitarian – simple and plain, nothing fancy, no special children’s area, no big screen tv spewing ads, just a few plants by the window and a few old Reader’s Digest and Highlights Magazines on a table. It was efficient.

The Doctor’s exam room was a steampunk, vintage version of today’s doctor’s exam rooms.  Much of the furnishings in it were probably antiques then. It included his large roll-top desk with a million cubby holes, several glass fronted cabinets filled with medicines, some in mysterious dark amber bottles, and all of his implements of medical torture.  It had a very high, it seemed to me as a child, examination table in the middle of the room.  It could raise up at the head end for gynecological exams or delivering a baby or lay flat.  It was a dark colored leather, worn on the edges from all the patients who’d clutched at it.

As a child I knew he was someone to look up to, respect and be somewhat afraid of – after all he had all those sharp needles and things.  The exam you got was very thorough.  If you were going for a physical, you made sure you bathed and washed every possible orifice and crack that the doctor might want to peer into.  You could expect to be fully thumped and poked and squeezed and hammered – by the reflex hammer on your knees and elbows.  (Get your mind out of the gutter people, this isn’t that kind of story.)  You were exhausted by the time you were done standing on one foot, then the other, bending over to touch your toes.  It was thorough.  But as a little one he might tap your knees with the reflex hammer a couple extra times to make you giggle and you got a lollipop after.

I like the doctor I have found presently, a PCP – Primary Care Physician.  I don’t know him well.  I start any association like this with a certain level of respect for their position, which generally erodes when I witness the inefficiencies of the office and the office staff.  Still it is early in this relationship. He is a warm, friendly man that always shakes my hand when he greets me, sometimes holding on to it a little too long.  His accent is pretty thick so I listen carefully when he is trying to tell me something.

I went for an annual physical recently at his very new age-y doctor’s office.  The office is located in an old antique home rather than an office building.  The waiting room is similar to any doctor’s office, chairs, artwork, certificates, big screen television with medical programming and a sliding glass partition to the girls behind.  They are the ones you know you need to be nice to if things are going to go well.  The exam room is completely different from the waiting area.  It is in what was the old dining room of the house complete with the original natural woodwork and deep tray ceiling.  Much of it was left as the original space.  The bay window seat has been turned into storage for the johnnies – those fabulously stylish one size does not fit all “it ties in the back” gowns.  They’ve added an examination table that looks more like massage table, a few antique glass fronted cabinets containing boxes of latex gloves and other supplies are offset by large plants and dried decorative arrangements.

It has been a while since I’ve had an annual physical, so I was ready for anything and anxious about all of it.  I expected the full boat of prodding and thumping and frowny faced warnings about my weight and other things a “woman of my age” should be aware of.  I expected a bigger frowny face when I knew I would be declining a mammogram and refusing any other invasive testing.  Well, this was not the physical of my past.  It was not remotely physical at all.

The sweet little girl from the front that ushered me in weighed me, took my temperature and attempted my blood pressure.

“Does 128 over 80 sound right?” She asked.

“Sound right?”  I asked her back, “Yes….”

“It was really faint and hard to hear,” she explained. “I’m pretty sure that is what it is.”

She went over the history she had in the laptop patient record.  Dr. Repasky kept his records in his head.  I prefer paper.  “It ties in the back,”  she said, handing me a Johnnie from the window seat when she was done.  As she left she said,  “The Doctor will be in shortly.”

As I was struggling with the ties on the Johnnie, it half off, half on and providing no coverage at all, the doctor opened the door.  I clutched it to my chest.  Before I could say anything, he backed out and shut the door.  Damn, I thought, what if he gets distracted with someone else and I have to sit in here for a half hour in this thing that does not tie in the back unless you are a size two?

He didn’t,  he must have done a quick count to twenty or something and returned.  He shook my hand and took his place in the chair behind the laptop.  Ah modern medicine!  He then went over the information in the laptop record with me for the second time in ten minutes.  He asked about the medicine I was taking for acne, told me a story about another patient with acne, but never examined my face.  He was too far away.  When he did come to the table, he listened to my heart – front and back, looked at my legs, approached the topic of a mammogram and a colonoscopy, said he respected my wishes and that was it.

No eyes, no ears, no throat, no open and say ahhhhh, no bend over and say oooooh, no nothing.  He said, “I would like to order some blood work.  They will print out the paperwork at the front window.”   Poof! he shook my hand and was gone. I am pretty sure a timer went off on that laptop saying my fifteen minutes was up and he was on his way.  Why was I even needed in the office for this physical if no one needed to really look at me and hardly touched me?  I could have taken my blood pressure, temperature and weight at home and emailed it to them.

I should be relieved actually that it was less stressful than the physical I expected.  This makes it easier for next time.  My expectations have been lowered. Thank goodness there wasn’t really anything wrong with me….he’d never have found it.  Nice man, nice demeanor.  I would say he spent maybe two minutes longer with me than the laptop, this time.

It is just my opinion, but if I can’t bring my laptop, to which I am very attached, he should not be allowed to bring his.  It is in the way.  He seems to care, but I am not sure that “Care” should be included in the title: Primary Care Physician if the doctor is hardly going to interact with your body at all.  The systems in place seem to prevent him from showing traditional medical care.  I wonder if I could locate Doctor Who’s Tardis, travel back in time and visit with Dr. Repasky for next year’s physical?  The only other option I see as equally valid is finding a child with a Playskool doctor’s kit and asking them to do the exam.

Church on Sunday

A few weeks ago my cousin sent me a message through Facebook:  “HI Kim! Remembering your Mom’s 82nd birthday today…I offer mass this afternoon for her and will offer my rosary tonight as well. Hope you are well and enjoying the nice fall weather! Hugs!”

That particular day would not have been my mother’s birthday but I thanked her just the same.  I know nothing about offering a mass or a rosary.  I have my mala beads and meditation and they serve a similar purpose I am sure.  It was kind of her and that I was grateful for her remembrance was all she needed to know.

Until I was about eleven, my family went to church every Sunday at a small catholic church in the relatively rural town where we lived in Ohio.  When I say “my family went” I mean, my father took us to church for the eight a.m. service, dropped us off in front at seven-fifteen or seven-thirty and picked us up after it was over.  I have no idea what he did while we were there because very little was open on Sunday mornings. He always had a used paperback western from the used bookstore we went to once a week called The Book Nook.  He was probably reading in the car parked nearby but not in the church parking lot.

We were always the first one’s there, waiting outside for the front doors to open.  It must have either looked like we had a lot to pray for or a lot to ask forgiveness for.  We were always painfully early for everything.  This constant hurry up to get somewhere and then wait was a normal pattern for us.  It took me years as an adult to break that habit and start arriving places on time or even fashionably late.  Still I have a highly developed ability to occupy myself during unexpected delays. That is my time to organize – to catalog the world around me and put it together in a way that makes sense.

My favorite part of church was the singing.  I thought my mother had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard.  I would gaze up at her as he sang in absolute adoration. To me she had a high, sweet sounding  voice that carried the words along the music like water in a brook.   I told her this once.  And she laughed and shook her head.

“My voice?!”  she asked, shocked.  “I don’t think you were listening to me.”

I was.

Religion was a sticky subject in our family.  My father’s family was not Catholic.  His divorced and remarried sister was born again and went to an exciting, large evangelical church in Akron that televised their Sunday services.  This was not really acceptable to my mother’s family which was Catholic with a really big C.  They never accepted my father.

Though we went year round, my recollections of those Sunday mornings were that they were always very crisp and chilly.  This was probably because I had to wear a dress so my legs were generally bare. I had to put on my whitest anklet socks and hard shoes – somewhat shiny, somewhat scuffed, completely uncomfortable.  I would have preferred sneakers and jeans, but who wouldn’t.

I always stuck close to my mother after we were dropped off. My brothers had each other and friends who went to the same church so they would very quickly disappear around the side of the building.  All of my friends who were Catholic went to St. Augustine’s in a small city nearby.  As a somewhat invisible child, I spent a lot of time observing adults in their natural habitats.  Early on I was perplexed by the fact that as others arrived, the adults would stand outside the church in cliquish groups just like kids in school and gossip in hushed tones and then go inside and pretend they hadn’t just made some disparaging comments about their neighbors or friends?  God wasn’t just inside the building, I thought.  How did they not know they were seen and heard wherever they were?  I wondered. It actually made me worry for them.

Inside the church, I generally passed the time either counting the number of bald men’s heads or hats on ladies.  If the service seemed to be running long, I would classify the hats by style and color keeping track on my stubby fingers.  If you are familiar with Catholic church services there are a lot of commands to sit, stand and kneel at various times.  It all seemed very random to me.  I am convinced to this day that only the people in the front row actually know when to do which action correctly and all the rows behind them follow suit.  We never sat in the first row until my mother’s funeral service where we completely threw off the flow of the sit/stand/kneel ballet.

I never really felt the presence of God inside that church.  I always felt a presence outside, in the woods, in the garden and late at night when I watched the fireflies through my window until I fell asleep.  For me God was in nature and the outdoors was my church even then. It wasn’t anything I ever put into words at the time.  It just was what I understood without question and I understood it would not be a concept to verbalize to my mother’s family.  Church and religion was not a topic open for discussion. Church was a pretty solid concept that people depended upon in the Midwest.

I was more than overjoyed when we stopped going to church regularly because as I got older it made less and less sense to me.  Firstly, it was a social gathering which was extremely uncomfortable to me.  Secondly it was an unfair opportunity to add a school session afterwards on a weekend. It also seemed to me that religion divided people.  Not just our church, in dividing my father from our family, but all churches seemed to divide people from each other.  I didn’t get it.  We all lived in the same town, we shopped at the same grocery store, we went to the same school, we cheered on the same sports teams.  But for some reason on Sundays people from different churches seemed to look at each other differently.  There were always glances with a look of superiority at the people at the Baptist church on the opposite corner from our church, that left a bad taste in my mind.  Pretty sure the same glances were being thrown our way. I didn’t get it.  We are all focused on the same subject but with different interpretations.  Interpretations that bring together some, but separate others.

Every night I recite to myself the opening line of a poem that I first read in high school, “I thank you God for most this amazing day.”  And then as I move a mala bead along the thread in my hands, I list things for which I am grateful.  I fall asleep that way every night considering things.  I often fall asleep near the beginning of the list and don’t get very far.  Sometimes my mind wanders off and I have to bring it back to the beads.  It isn’t always a recap of the day and it certainly doesn’t represent the religion of my parents.  But it creates a place where I am not left standing outside looking in and I get it.

The Bowls

“Where are mom’s bowls?” I asked.

“What Bowls?” he grunted.

“Her mixing bowls, I don’t see them in the cupboard.”  What bowls, my ass, I thought.

“Oh your brother took those,”  Dad said.  “Can you clear your mom’s things out of the closet?  I want to make more room for my clothes.”

“The Bowls” had become a trigger point since my mother passed. They were as present as any member of the family my entire life and for me, at the end, became the symbol of my place or lack of one in the family.

The Bowls were my mother – how hard she had to work, how creative she was, how she persevered.  Except for the little blue bowl that disappeared while we were on vacation – that one did not persevere. And no one ever owned up to breaking it and hiding the evidence.  It was as mysterious as an alien abduction.  I wanted those bowls. Somewhere inside my raised not to be entitled little heart, I felt I deserved those bowls.  I was her only daughter after all. But I had been raised to not feel I deserved anything.

My mother cooked and baked everything from scratch every day of our lives.  It was rare for her to consider using a mix and when she did, we all agreed whatever the outcome was, it was not as good as what she would have made from scratch. We could tell the difference between a cake made from a box mix and one from scratch by sight. There was no need or desire to taste it.  No pre-made cookie dough ever entered our home.  No frozen dinners or fast food for us.  Except of course for the things considered healthy – Wonder Bread and Campbell’s soups – which I now know weren’t at all healthy.  In doing so, she inadvertently gave us the best start nutritionally as far away from preservatives and processed salt anyone could have hoped for.

Most of her cooking involved “The Bowls”, a set of primary colored Pyrex mixing bowls that she received as a wedding present in 1955.  It is a fairly common set you’ve probably seen if you did not have one in your home. They began to manufacture them in the 1940’s and there are entire websites devoted to them – click here for one called Pyrex Love.  They are in nearly every antique store I’ve ever been in and well-represented on eBay.  You can get a set for between $65 and $100.

They are cheery, bright colored bowls that nested one in the other and were stored high on a shelf in our cupboards where little hands could not reach them for fear of breaking one.  They were a sign of something good to come.  A sign that soon there would be scents wafting through the house signaling a get-together, event, a normal meal or better yet – cookies!

The largest, the yellow bowl, always meant something big was being made, usually a double batch and in a family of seven, everything was likely a double batch.  The best was a double batch of chocolate chip cookies – the Tollhouse recipe from the back of the bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate morsels (gee that is a mouthful to say and one to look forward to!).  It was also used for Christmas cookies, pie dough and even at times, something savory, like meatloaf.

The next size down was the green bowl.  It did not get used very much.  Every other bowl had to be dirty before it got selected.  It was like the last kid left standing when getting picked for kickball.  Poor bowl.  It just wasn’t big enough for most things my mother needed to make and too big for others.  It was most often used for mixing icing.  Now that I watch the Great British Baking Show like an obsessed dieter, I understand there are many many types of icings and coatings for cakes.  In our house it was fairly simple.  There was the “hard” white icing and the “soft” white icing and, of course, the chocolate fudge icing.  Both of the white icings were soft but one was a soft meringue (a word my fairly simple mother never used – and I don’t mean simple stupid, I mean simple, plain and clear) The other, more often used, was a sugar packed royal icing made with milk, powdered sugar and a teaspoon of almond flavoring. The almond flavoring was Mom’s signature flavor. It was that little something extra people couldn’t quite put their finger on when they ate her baked goods but they knew it was hers.

Next came the bright red bowl.  I recall it as the smallest bowl (but I hadn’t been told about the missing blue one – much like that uncle that we didn’t talk about).   It usually held something until it was poured into the larger bowl, melting butter and cocoa, for instance.  Melting butter with cocoa in it meant mom was making chocolate fudge icing usually for banana cake.  Mom would put the butter and cocoa in the bowl and set it at the back of the stove while the cake was baking so that it could naturally and slowly soften and melt in the heat that rose off the stove.  This was pre-microwaves. The smell that came from these two basic ingredients was amazing and called out to us like sirens luring sailors to the shore.  And much like a sailor might crash into the rocky coast, we were unable to resist dipping in a finger and were always disappointed.  It was so bitter at this stage without sugar, all you could do was grimace.  How could something that smelled so tantalizingly good, taste so horrid?  And how could we keep trying it in hopes for it to change? There was no enjoyment there except to just keep inhaling and hoping for one of the beaters from the mixer later after the sugar and milk had been added.

It was tough in a house of seven to share two beaters equally.  To be one of the lucky one’s to get to lick a beater or the bowl meant being painfully well behaved during the entire mixing and baking process.

I stood next to my mother doing my best not to be in the way, but to be near enough to get her something, if I could reach it, whenever she was cooking. I learned how to gather everything together before you start so that you aren’t caught off guard by a missing ingredient.  We couldn’t just pop out to get it in those days.  It went on the list and could be a week before the next trip to the grocery store. We did not have much counter space so everything was done on a small area between the sink and stove that was just a bit larger than a checker board.  Really big projects, like Christmas cookies and rolling out pie dough would mean taking over the kitchen table – that multipurpose surface on which homework was done, projects were planned and created, newspapers were read, card games and visitors socialized and meals were taken.

I stood next to my mother and watched.  I watched and learned without really knowing the words, the difference between stirring, mixing, folding, creaming and beating.  She wasn’t explaining what she was doing as she went along, she wasn’t intentionally teaching me. There wasn’t time for that. I stood there and observed and absorbed it.  I knew how to level a measure, noticed the differences in the way the old wooden mixing spoon was held and the speed with which she turned it and when to use a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom.

These were “The Bowls” I have been obsessed with since my mother died.  These were “The Bowls” that before I made it home the day after her death disappeared from that high shelf in the cupboard into the possession of my younger brother. My younger brother?  A boy?  Who made that decision?  How did that come to happen?  I knew it was the wrong time to question it, what with funeral plans being made.  Objects weren’t important.  Objects are just things. But I have allowed objects have haunted me.

I recently got a chance to ask him.  I didn’t need to see him to know he was back-peddling to come up with some answer over the phone. He insisted he did not take them.  That he was given them many months later.  And that they were now no longer three, but two as his second ex-wife had made the poorly thought out decision to cook something on a stove top using one. It was a mixing bowl, not a casserole dish….apparently she hadn’t spent much time at her mother’s side learning anything.  He offered to get the surviving two from his adopted daughters.  I said no, they had a new place now. It was enough for me to finally get to ask out loud, “Did no one think of me?”  and finally learn that no one had.

I have my own set now from an antique store, a full set of four, yellow, green, red and blue.  I cook her recipes and my own in them.  They are no longer “the bowls” they are “my bowls”.



The Dominant Hand

Families are like hands-either right or left handed in dominance.  You tend to see one side of the family more often, spend more time focused on that side.  Not even really knowing the potential that might exist in the other side as a gain or a loss to your lives.  My mother’s side of the family was the dominant side of our family.

The elders of my mother’s side were her Father, my Grandfather who lived several hours away and his Sisters’ in law, who I refer to as  “The Aunts”, and a brother in law – all unmarried who shared a house in the next town near us. I didn’t know my grandfather all that well, since he did not live nearby. On the way to visit him, I got carsick every single trip so most of my memories of him surround that.  As a child I did not realize that my grandfather was an outsider to the family.  I didn’t realize it until I inherited the family genealogy when I was much older.  I knew my own father was an outsider, I could tell that very young.  When I realized my grandfather too had that brand, it made sense that he moved so far away.

I didn’t know him when he was married, my grandmother had died the decade before I was born. He had worked many years at the Church as a janitor.  By the time I knew him, he had retired to a farm in Southern Ohio of several hundred acres where he planted corn and beans and lived in a fairly primitive farm house with little indoor plumbing, working all the daylight hours and reading science fiction paperbacks at night in the company of two very short, very chubby dachshunds.

You know the expression, The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing?  Well in my mother’s family, the right hand knew damn well what the left hand was doing and ruled the left hand with an iron fist hidden in a little white lace trimmed glove perfect for church on Sunday – Catholic Church where you wore gloves and a hat.  Anything that wasn’t something you could share in church was hidden or driven away. Even if those things that weren’t things people could control – like death or mental illness (of which both sides of my family seem to have their fair share though no one wants to admit it).

My Grandfather’s marriage to my maternal grandmother was his second.  He lost his wife and their second child in the Flu epidemic in 1918.  As was done at the time, he gave his surviving son, just four years old, to this sister to take care of for him, presumably until he could remarry and rebuild a family. When my grandfather met and married into this rather severely strict catholic family in Ohio – that son was not welcome.  He was a reminder of another woman.  We were told for many years, that young boy, then a man by the time I was old enough and asking, was a cousin, when he was in fact my Mother’s half brother.  We never met him.  I have a very old black and white photo taken when he was in the army in World War II.  He’s handsome and smiling – I would say dashing.  And we never met him because the right hand wouldn’t allow it.

Apparently also not allowed was any sort of perceived physical or mental defect.  At some point someone mistakenly mentioned a Great Uncle named John.  Who’s that we all wanted to know?  Why have we never seen him or hear of him before?  “Oh he’s a traveler. He likes to travel.”  Even to a child that seemed a bit lame, but adults don’t lie, right?  So off I went, into my head, making up romantic tales of his travels and wondering where on the globe in our living room he might be, what adventures he might be having, what was his life like?  I don’t believe my young self ever asked “why didn’t he come back to visit”.   I used to practice packing my little orange suitcase, given the opportunity at 8 or 9, I think I would have left too and not returned.

Fast forward a couple decades and my mother hands over the genealogy and I start asking more questions.  “Where did he travel to?”  “Oh he wasn’t traveling,” my mother admitted, “ That’s just want the Aunts like to say.  He wasn’t well and he was in a hospital.”  My mother told me that Great Uncle Phillip was brought to visit once for an afternoon and she met him when she came home from school as a young teen.  “Why couldn’t he stay?” I wanted to know.  Certainly he was family and if he could visit, he was well enough to stay.  Family took care of family, right?  “He wasn’t well enough to stay.”

Years later I pressed her for more. The Aunts were dead by then and I wanted to know.  He’d been taken to an asylum in Michigan, where my internet research showed there were three popularly used asylums during the early to mid 1900’s.   That was all my mother and even her sister, the family busybody knew.  He’d died but no one could tell me when or where he was buried.  I found his World War I draft card, a copy online.  There was his name, his signature and information. He was twenty years old, His eyes were brown, his hair was black, he was of medium height and build.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it was more than I’d ever had.  Then I saw under employer, it said “Unemployed, patient at Massillon State Hospital.”  He’d been hospitalized nearly his whole life.

The Aunts were constant fixtures during my childhood. We visited them every week.  They read a newsletter that came in the mail weekly from the Pope – not directly from the pope though they acted as though it was personally from him.  It indicated what movies were okay to see, how people should behave, what politicians to follow and more.  I didn’t know the word hypocrisy as a child, but the concept was always looming in my foreground. I was a keen observer, taking in the details and filing them away in my head.  I was often stymied by the inability to ask questions when opposing concepts crashed together right before my eyes.  For one, I never understood how these three prim, overly powdered, church going ladies could smoke, drink and gamble so much?  In college I was at a bar with some friends and we were experimenting with various mixed drinks.  Someone passed me a Manhattan. I sniffed it and said, “Wow, that smells like my Great Aunt Mary!”  To this day, Liquor and cigarette smoke – powerful memory triggers.

I had no idea that there was so much dishonesty being spread around between hands of euchre and pinochle.  As a young child, I was closest to the older of the Aunts, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink as much as the others. She was the oldest of a family of 8 children and at sixteen had to become the mom when her own mother died.  She cooked and cleaned and carried on being the mom until she was unable to and faded away in a hospital bed that took up a large part of the living room at the age of 87.  I was eleven, not quite a teen by then.  I remember visiting her weekly.  She would sit up on the edge of the bed. I would sit next to her and hold her bony, powdered right hand in my left hand and tell her whatever useless news a pre-teenager could have.  I was her favorite.  One day she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”

That was the beginning of the end of the dominant side of the family.  Dominance dies out.  The truth sometimes dies out with them even in the internet age.


Note:  Names in this and all blogs will not be the actual names of the persons being described.