Tuesday, July 15, 2014
As the fifth summer of my short time on this earth was winding down, my 90-something year-old paternal great-grandmother Emma died and my six year old sister started school at Williamsburg County Training School in Greeleyville. The passing of the old lady with white hair and the longest fingernails I had ever seen was my first inkling that those close to me were not special after all and could actually die like others in our community. That realization was a shock to me and it marked the beginning of the end of my innocence.
My sister and I were inseparable and it was earth shattering when I realized that she would get to ride a big yellow bus all the way to the school in the town of Greeleyville and I would have to wait until the next year. She was the first child born to our parents in a house on Mr. Leverne Mims’ place on the Manning Highway as the last century approached its midpoint. Her name was Margie Nadine but the family called her “Sister.” I still do not know if she got that name before or after I came along exactly 26 months after she did, but I suppose you would need to have a brother in order to be called “Sister.”
I was finally allowed to go to school in September of 1956. The bus dropped us off at the ancient wooden school and took other students to the new brick school down the road. Mrs. McClary was my first grade teacher. I am still amazed that I survived the educational process long enough for her to be my seventh grade teacher also.
On that first day, during recess, I gathered colorful rocks from the ground near an artesian well in the school yard and put them in the pockets of my new overalls. When a big boy named Curtis ran into me and accidently knocked me to the ground, I deliberately threw the rocks at him. The Rev. Livingston, the principal of the old school, could have justifiably sent me packing my very first day. Several years later Curtis brought barbecue to school and shared it with me. Eighteen years later as a graduate student in another state I needed subjects from back home to interview for a research project, I found Curtis’ father living in the same apartment complex as my grandmother in the shadow of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Our family moved to Route 1 Salters, after I was born and the Wilson family lived on Route 2 in Salters. Their daughter Ethel Mae was my first grade classmate and I called her Eartha Mae. We were the class that was scheduled to graduate in 1968, a year that was then twice as many years into the future as we were old at the time. I loved learning new and interesting things, but I especially loved recess and lunch. My sister, my classmates, and I looked forward to having turkey and dressing for Thanksgiving dinner with our classmates and I recall that the turkey was delicious.
Sister complained of a sore throat shortly after the dinner and her condition got progressively worse as the days went by. As Christmas of 1956 approached, my parents bought her the doll she wanted. I was glad that they did not get dolls for both of us as they had done two years earlier when I was a four and a half year old boy. By the third week in December, Sister was seriously ill. Late one night I heard her pleading for a “parched potato.” Those were the last words that I was to hear her speak. My father took her to the hospital in Kingstree the next day and she died at five o’clock in the evening on Friday, December 21, 1956.
Her brief stay with us was done and she left us at the close of business for the week. The cause of death was listed as “Strep Throat Infection.” Redmond Funeral Home buried her with her doll beside her in the Colored Sam Tisdale Cemetery on Christmas Eve 1956. She was eight years old. My heartbroken parents were convinced that the turkey that we ate at school a month earlier had snuffed out her life. Many years passed before my other sisters and I were allowed to eat school lunch again. Even today stories are told about Sister and the “other little girl from Salters who ate bad turkey at school.”
I returned to school in January 1957 without my dear Sister. I struggled to carry my books and hers as well. On the bus I asked our cousin Christine Woods who was Sister’s classmate to return the books to their teacher Mrs. Hannah. Back at school we soon learned that my classmate, Ethel Mae Wilson, had died also. She was just seven years old at the time of her death on January 2, 1957. Dimery and Rogers Funeral Home buried her at Rocky Ford Cemetery in Salters two days later.
Dr. T.S. Hemingway who did post graduate work at Harvard University Medical School, the same doctor who diagnosed the cause of Sister’s death a week and a half earlier, determined that the Wilson child had died of “Strep. Infection, Throat.” When Dr. Hemingway died 16 years later his gravestone identified him as a country doctor who dedicated his life to his patients.
More than 10,000 Americans are stricken by Strep infections yearly, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Streptococcal, or strep infection, is a condition caused by bacteria that most often affect school age children.
However, it can affect persons of any age. Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at the age of 35 in 1791. His death has been attributed to various ailments. However, recent research suggests that he may have died from complications stemming from strep throat. Nearly two centuries later, Jim Henson, the American puppeteer, entertainment mogul and inventor of Kermit the Frog may have died of the same condition.
Late in 1998 I wrote a story about the Spanish Influenza epidemic that took place eighty years earlier and an abbreviated version of that story appeared in these pages early in 1999. This epidemic killed millions worldwide and hundreds including several members of my family in Williamsburg County.
Yet a recent study suggests that strep infections and not the flu virus itself may have killed most people during the pandemic from 95 years ago. I still wonder if strep infections or bad turkey took my sister and my classmate almost sixty years ago.
Recently I attended the funeral of Leroy McClary who started school with Ethel Mae Wilson and me in 1956. I drove away from Rocky Ford Cemetery in Salters feeling nostalgic with a profound sense of loss. I was leaving Leroy in a place where one of our classmates had been waiting almost sixty years. Ironically, I had to rush back to Columbia for a meeting with other graduates of Williamsburg County Training School.
I am blessed to have three other sisters and an equal number of brothers. My parents are still alive and well. I have children and grandchildren. I am also blessed to have had the opportunity to introduce my first and only grandson to my grandmother before she left us. I have friends and I have seen several members of the class of 1968 recently, but my heart grieved when I learned that Pearlistine Nelson and then Lucille Hilton who started school with us so long ago have left us as well. So long my classmates. I share your loss with your family. My siblings and I have grown old together and become a lot like our parents.
We love each other dearly, but our circle was broken long ago by the loss of our parents’ firstborn. It has been 57 years but we still miss Sister and she will live forever in our hearts and memories.