Mother with Sick Child by Vasily Perov 1878
Mother with Sick Child by Vasily Perov 1878

I hope Jeanne won’t mind if I borrow this pencil sketch by Vasily Perov from her post responding to the last Bite Size prompt of Childhood Illness. Its simplicity elicits much of the distress some of the responses to this particular prompt have conveyed. Thank you to those who have bared their souls with candid accounts evoking much emotion and empathy – We’ve all been reminded just how helpless we sometimes are as parents.

Thank you also to those who clearly got away more lightly, remembering yukky but colourful medicines and managing to find the humour in the topic. We even have our first poetic entry (acrostic too!) from Luccia which should raise a challenge to a few!

A look back in time emphasises the difference immunisation and smaller family sizes mean to the experience of childhood illness, with reminders such as the crippling effects of polio have been largely eliminated by a few drops squirted in the mouths of babes. How lucky we are in the Western world.

Thank you all for waiting patiently while I’ve taken a quiet week off. We’re back on track later today with a new prompt, responding to a plea from Sarah for something to counterpose this week’s upsetting memories.


Sarah Brentyn – USA – Weighing In With Childhood Illness

I remember anger and fear and guilt.

I remember the term “failure to thrive”.

I remember trying to feed my baby and if he got any food in him, it didn’t stay there long.

I remember a tiny body trying to digest something and violently retching, gagging, and throwing up every last bit of it.

I remember the smell of hospitals. (People often say hospitals have a strong, sterilized odor, like ammonia, but children’s hospitals smell damp and sour—like saliva and spit-up and tears.)

I remember my infant screaming and crying while I held him down so they could scan him or place a needle because the doctors and technicians said that this would be more “comforting” for him even though I was falling apart.

I remember wishing my little boy was older so that I could explain all these things to him and that he could understand and maybe be less terrified.

I remember watching my child wail until his face went slack from the anesthesia and they told us to leave so they could perform a procedure.

I remember my intense love of this new person in my life turning to pure hatred of being a parent because I had to make decisions for someone who was too small to make them for himself.

I remember thinking that my son would never forgive me.


Jeanne Lombardo – USA

I remember light like a knife coming through a window.

I remember the pain reverberating behind my closed eyes and screaming over and over for my poor mother, who had left me sleeping on the sofa of the small house we lived in, on the grounds of the nursing home where she worked.

I remember tonsils like lumps of hot coal in my throat.

I remember a piercing whistle in my ears.

I remember the cold, foreign feel of the glass thermometer under my tongue.

I remember chewing on tiny orange-flavored baby aspirin, and wanting more. 

I remember feverish spells in tangled sheets, when time seemed to stop.

I remember hearing everyone leave for the day as I lay in bed, and the glorious, dread sound of an empty house.

I remember my mother coming home in her nurse’s uniform, making me bend over and marking my little ass with a red mercurochrome “X” while saying: “X marks the spot where Jean got shot.” (Followed, of course, by the jab.)

I remember the restorative feeling of a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup on the first day of recovery.


Geoff Le Pard – UK – The duplicity of mothers

I had the gamut of illnesses – measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough. I developed a pretty unshakeable belief in the power of medicine. My potion of choice was a gripe water called Dinnifords. Apparently it was mostly alcohol which may explain the addiction. My mother – never one to baulk at exploiting childhood innocence for her own ends – had had a run in with my father over an unsavoury incident involving a drunken night at the Rugby club, some inaccurate vomit and a freshly repapered but now ruined bathroom. Inevitably my father let his guard down again. The next morning she had me wake him. While he cradled an IED in his cranium, I offered him a runcible spoon full of Dinnifords to help cure him. He took it, probably because Mum was there, giving him the hairy eyeball. History suggests that it was but a temporary cure.


Luccia Gray – UK – Winter Ills

Woolen gloves tied to my coat sleeves with rubber bands,

Itchy swollen fingers trying to play the piano with two hands.

Never-ending runny noses in class,

Thermometers ancient, mercury, and glass.

Ear aches galore in spite of beanie hats,

Running out of hankies and sniffing like bobcats.

Inventing fake tummy aches to stay home from school,

Lowering voices, mother’s migraine rules.

Lozengers for sore throats and pains,

Sneezing and coughing through the night, once again…


Terry Tyler – UK – I remember

Daring to peep into my little brother’s bedroom and being highly amused that he had a huge moon face – mumps!

Daddy not being allowed to go near my brother, because he’d never had mumps – and you know what happens to adult men who get it….!

Mum covering my itchy chicken pox back with calamine lotion.

….. crying because they itched so much!

How the illnesses would always start when you were really looking forward to something you would have to MISS – like going to a pantomime.

That lovely moment when Mummy said “I think you’d better stay off school”

The wonderful dreamy time-out-of-the-real-world bit when I was ill enough not to have to get up/go to school, but well enough to enjoy reading in bed all day.

Minadex.  Bright green, horrible medicine.

Craving ice cream, or tomato soup – and getting it!

Feeling a bit deflated when it was all over…..


Morgan Dragonwillow – USA

I remember worrying about my baby daughter’s bleeding umbilical chord and the nurse saying, “If you’re concerned bring her in.”

I remember being in the doctor’s office, pulling her dress off and noticing one breast looking swollen but not the other.

I remember one doctor after another coming in to take a look with her father’s and my fears mounting.

I remember the doctor saying they were going to have to admit her, my little baby girl, for possible surgery and her father telling me that he would never second guess my concern for her again.

I remember them saying that I couldn’t go in while they connected an IV to my daughter and hearing her screams while I paced the hallway; I insisted on holding her for shots and blood draws after that.

I remember counting over 21 punctures all over her arms and legs and seeing a shaved portion of her full head of hair where they finally found a vein.

I remember my heart breaking when they told me, being on the children’s ward, I couldn’t stay at night with her; only leaving when they insisted and showing up first thing in the morning every day.

I remember tears threatening when the doctor told me that they’d have to cut her open to remove the lump; they didn’t know if it’d grow normally when she grew up.

I remember relief at being able to bring my baby girl home seven days later.

I remember my gratitude and love that she grew into a smart and beautiful woman.


Irene Waters – Australia

  I could not stand without the nausea hitting me. The diagnosis was psychological and it wasn’t until I started vomiting that my parents and doctor believed I was ill. They tried antibiotics to no avail so they admitted me to hospital for observation and tests.

The small town had limited specialist services so we went to a larger town. My family sat on one side of the huge wooden desk staring at the doctor on the other.
After a history taking and an examination the doctor produced a potty which he sat on the floor in full view of my brother, parents and himself. “Do a wee in the pot” he said. No way, I thought, not with everyone watching. They cajoled, turned on taps, offered bribes of ice-cream but I was determined not to pee.
Ten minutes after leaving I demanded a toilet stop resulting in a very angry mother.


Tracey Scott Townsend – UK

My ear swelled up, red and hot inside and I kept bumping it on things. It was painful. Mum took me to the doctor and he named the condition Erysipelas. The school nurse told me it was a disease of pigs, fodder for teasing, of course, as if the firey pain wasn’t enough. We had measles and chicken pox and German measles too. I’ll always remember the thick pink of Calamine Lotion.

My baby girl got Whooping Cough. I kept her beside me at all times and was there when she woke up, clawing for air. My baby boy suffered an intussusception. “Just watch his tongue,” said the doctor; (wet like a dog’s nose.) He got worse and worse and had to be admitted for an emergency operation. The building which housed that practice crumbled and decayed but it’s now been fixed up, new pillars and sparkling paint, a fresh start.


Norah Colvin – Australia

I remember rushing to be first into the bath, but instead slipping and falling into the pot of hot water that had been heated on the stovetop in readiness to add warmth to the cold from the tap. I remember being terribly scalded and that I was rushed to the doctor. I remember being dusted with powder while I lay on his high surgery table. I was three at the time, so while I have some images that I am sure are genuine, others may be family lore.

I remember a girl in my class at school who had suffered from polio. Her name was Christine and she lived not far from me. She had one boot that was built up, about 4 inches high; and she had iron cages around both legs. She walked with difficulty and a sway from side to side. Interestingly enough my husband, who grew up on the other side of the world, also had a friend who suffered from polio and had a built up boot.

I remember reading about ‘the girl in the iron lung’ and being terrified of contracting the dreadful disease polio.

I remember feeling very relieved when we were given a tiny pink droplet of vaccine on a white plastic spoon. Thank you Dr Salk. Polio has not been a cause of fear for my children or grandchildren.

I remember us all having the mumps when I was eight and my Mum was pregnant with my little sister (the seventh of ten children). I remember that our glands were swollen and our throats were sore. We were tired, headachy and miserable. I remember my Mum got Bell’s Palsy too, and the muscles in her face were affected and never fully recovered. I remember her being sick in bed for weeks and a friend kindly came and stayed to look after us and help out.

I remember having measles and being dabbed all over with calamine lotion to help stop the itch. It was difficult to not scratch.

I remember when the rubella vaccination became available, but it was too late for me because I’d already had it as a child. I remember thinking how lucky everyone was to be able to have the vaccine and not suffer the illness.

I remember having chickenpox during the summer holidays when I was about thirteen or fourteen. It was such a scorching hot summer, or it certainly seemed that way; two weeks of the longed for holidays ruined by this horrible illness.

I remember the chickenpox blisters that started small, then grew bigger and finally scabbed. I remember the pink baths in Condy’s crystals and the strong smell which I would still recognise if not describe. I could never associate it with anything pleasant.

I remember waking one night and finding three neat little piles of vomit on my bed beside my pillow. I remember waking my Mum and her coming and cleaning it up.


Suzanne – Canada

On my toes, a clumsy pyjama clad ballerina, neck stretched back, head tilted with mouth wide open trying to catch my balance and the bright light over the bathroom vanity long enough to see the back of my throat. Scratchy and raw for days I had an urgent need to see what was happening back there.

Finally a glimpse; crimson with tiny thickened white splotches scattered about my throat. I was eleven years old; old enough to know it was not good.

“Dad, look in the back of my throat. I think I have an infection.” I blurt out the diagnosis as I throw my head back to open wide in front of my Dad as he makes his breakfast.

“That’s just bread crumbs.”

“No it’s not. It’s infection.”

I convince my Mom to take me to the doctor, get antibiotics for strep throat, and begin my lifelong health vigilance.


Sherri Matthews – UK

When I was six, I needed an operation to have my tonsils removed.

I remember being carried in the arms of a doctor while wearing a backless robe, then placed on a white bed in the brightly lit operating room. I was asked to count to ten and the next thing I knew, I was back in my own bed on the ward. It was dark, I was alone and I felt sick, so I got out of bed to look for the nurse.

She scolded me for getting up and gave me some medicine, which I immediately threw up all over her.

I was there for two weeks and every tea-time we had insipid looking scrambled eggs which tasted of nothing.

I love eating them but even to this day when doing so, and for no apparent reason, a wave of nausea occasionally washes over me.

Must be psychological.


Jude – UK

Aged five I had my tonsils removed. I don’t remember much about the ordeal apart from being weighed wearing only my knickers, and after the operation having to drink white medicine that tasted horrible. I had the measles when I was six and had to stay in my bedroom with the curtains closed as apparently light could damage your eyes. Chicken pox was itchy and my mother constantly told me not to scratch or I’d have scars and the smell of calamine lotion always takes me back there. Having German measles when I was eight wasn’t too bad, and came in useful years later, but mumps at 16 was annoying as well as painful. I missed all the preparations for my mock O level exams. What I remember most about these childhood illnesses is that they always happened during the school holidays! So I never got any time off school.


Lisa Reiter – UK

We weren’t often ill but probably had our fair share of childhood illnesses. Mum was the district nurse and she knew what being properly ill looked like. Many times I would be forced to drag my self to school even when I felt wretched.

Of course, she needed to go to work so us being home was an inconvenience. My complaints were usually met with a suspicious smile..

“Right!” as she drew the thermometer from her blue uniform top pocket, poked it under my tongue whilst she checked her pin-on watch – No temperature, no pass. Sometimes an aspirin and “Go on, You’ll be fine.” My friends seemed to have days off for much less.

Precious rare occasions when I warranted sympathy, scrambled eggs and hot buttered toast sat propped up in bed. I learned to drink tea so I could dip that thermometer in it when she wasn’t looking!


The next prompt for Bite Size Memoir will be out later today.

Will you have a go?!