A sick, and tired, drive

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

   My cousin, Doug, was one of those children who refused to thrive. He got strep throat, ear infections and horrible bronchial coughs. No matter how much his mother, my aunt Miss Hosford, fed him—the cream on his oatmeal, pancakes floating in butter and molasses—at 12, his ribs stood out like barrel staves.

    So one day we all got in the woody, the hotel station wagon, and took Doug to the Preventorium. Nobody remembers these places anymore, but they were popular from the l930-s to the l950’s. Adults infected with tuberculosis were sent to the TB sanatoriums. Children like Doug, who seemed likely candidates for TB, were shunted to the Preventorium for rigorous doses of fresh air and plain food.
    I don’t know how far it was. We drove south and it seemed to take all day, but the atmosphere in the back seat grew glummer with each mile. Usually Doug entertained himself by tormenting me. He was four years older and, in spite of his skinny frame, big enough to win any battle. He like to give me twisting pinches, contact burns and tickling that turned to torture, all punctuated with a high, insane laugh. But today, he stared out his window. He wouldn’t play car games or I Spy. When I poked him, he moved further away. Up front, Mother and Miss Hosford were just as quiet. Mother rolled down the window to smoke. Miss Hosford frowned and made motions toward the back seat, reminding her of Doug’s weak lungs. Mother smashed the cigarette out in the tiny car ashtray and drove faster.
    We pulled up to a large, austere, two-story building. Children ran around the lawn dressed in nothing but their underwear. It was the strangest and most awful place I’d even seen. We signed Doug in. He looked like a prisoner being led to the noose. We said goodbye. Another boy led him away. Doug gave us one backward glance, a look that said: how could you? And disappeared behind a closing door.
    In the car, we turned north. Miss Hosford did not cry, I never saw her cry, but she looked beaten. She found nothing to be cheerful about, the way she pretended to at the crumbling summer hotel when things broke down in front of the guests. She owned the place, and we lived there because of the war. Everything was not going to be just fine. Doug was her youngest, her baby, and she had abandoned him to that place.
    I’m sure it’s for the best,” she said.
    “Of course.” Mother had visibly brightened once Doug’s lungs were out of the car and she could smoke in peace.
    “The place has an excellent reputation,” Miss Hosford said.
    “I’ve heard that,” Mother said.
    “But it seems cruel not to let the parents visit.”
    Mother nodded, touching her tongue with a ring finger to remove a speck of tobacco.
    “And that underwear. I know the place is modeled on sanatoriums in Europe, but running around in cotton underwear through a Mississippi winter seems unreasonably harsh.”
    “They give the girls two bobby pins, did you notice?” Mother said.
    Miss Hosford ignored her. “They say the fresh air and exercise, combined with good nutrition…it’s supposed to work wonders.”
    Mother made a noncommittal noise. The sun was getting low. She was ready for her drink, and we were a long way from home.
    As dusk moved down around us, I thought about Doug in that place. I felt pitiless. Looking down at my plump, healthy body, I was just glad it wasn’t me. With him gone from the hotel, come summer, I’d be boss over all the kids.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.