Saturday, July 5, 2008

FAINTING ON THE FOURTH

Yesterday, July 4th, we set out for our two-mile trek to the Sewanee Post office and met up with the Sisters of St. Mary who were unloading Sister Mary Martha’s walker from their van near a small crowd of people. They invited us to tag along to watch the Cat and Mutt Pet Show on campus, so I tucked my allergy to animal dander into a back pocket and joined them. The Sisters’ mascots, two Chihuahuas on leash, were especially frisky and, on impulse, Sister Miriam entered them in the Mutt Show. Plucky Sister Mary Martha (does that name cover all bases or what?) put one of the Chihuahuas on the seat of her walker and paraded before the judges with grand moxie, as if she had trained dogs “for show” in one of her other lives. She garnered a 3rd Place Award for “The Best Look Alike,” as Annie has a small patch of white on her face that matches Sister Mary Martha’s white hair. Both dogs came away with Third Places and could have won First Place had their owners dressed them for the occasion. Such are the impulses of good Sisters who rank their dogs equally with humans and treat them accordingly. Annie suffered from something similar to a disease called "the green sickness," which I’ll describe below, and had to be held constantly last summer before she overcame her emotional illness.

We followed the Sisters and the leashed dogs to a Cat Show, to an Arts and Crafts Show, to lunch, a carillon concert, and watched the “Sewanee is Green” 4th of July parade, arriving back home at 3 p.m. Such is the nature of a walk to the post office at Sewanee! While standing in the sun, watching the dogs parade around a small circle, I missed Annie’s performance on Sister Mary Martha’s handle bars because I developed a case of “the vapors” as women once called their feeling faint, and began walking away from the crowd, but alert Sister Miriam, who is a nurse by profession, came after me, insisted I sit down on the grass in the midst of the crowd and plunked down beside me. She took my pulse and said flatly, “no heart attack,” then reached into a carry-all and brought out a bottle of water. After I had exhausted her supply of water, I revived and was able to watch her parade around the circle with the other Chihuahua in her arms.

I suppose my attack of “whatever” was related to dehydration (and attendant embarrassment), but I kept thinking about that outdated phrase, “the vapors.” When we returned home, I remembered a book review about “faint of heart” women I had written in a former “Cherchez la femme” column, so here it is in edited form—something to give you women readers pause if you think female illnesses of this century are daunting:

“If you don’t feel that our jet age sisters are healthier, you should search for a copy of a small volume I just finished reading. You’d quickly discover how sickly women really were in the last century. The book, entitled A PHYSICIAN’S COUNSEL TO WOMEN IN HEALTH AND DISEASE (yes, that is the way he positioned the words, “To Women in Health and Disease!”), was written by Dr. Walter C. Taylor in 1875. Women then were like bone china – fragile, mute, of such delicate nature that writing about them was also highly idealized. Dr. Taylor quoted from a Madame Necker-Saussure: ‘When one wishes to write upon woman, he should dip his pen in the colors of the rainbow and throw over the written lines the dust of the butterfly’s wings.’

Pretty imagery, eh? But disease reached a more earthly hue. Women were constantly assaulted by such ugly conditions as improper nervous excitement (ahem, brought on by ‘tasks too long and too difficult; their ambitions aroused by competitive examinations and their powers overstrained under the plaudits of injudicious friends’). These females suffered from ‘poverty of the blood’ and the evil effects of tight lacing. Headaches, which came on shortly after a meal, could be traced to indigestible articles of food, and copious draughts of warm water or warm chamomile tea were used to induce vomiting which removed ‘offending food and pain together’!!

The most colorful disease was a malady known as the ‘green sickness’ (from which Annie may have suffered) which indicated a faulty condition of the nervous system. This sickness moved in, unobserved, upon the system and caused a feeling of languor, a loss of appetite, a dislike for society, and a ‘causeless depression of spirits.’ Women’s complexions lost color, faces became puffed, hearts palpitated, digestions were imperfect, tempers flared, shooting pains tormented body and limbs. And oddly enough, Dr. Taylor offered no cure for this green sickness.

In 1875, a girl wasn’t allowed to dine upon pickles and green apples and she certainly wasn’t permitted to study too long, to be exposed to the excitement of society (like dog shows and parades, I reckon), or to be too closely associated with the cultivation of her musical talents. Clothing for the 1875 female who approached puberty had to be wool or silk, worn next to her skin, as it ‘excited by its contact, the circulation of the surface and absorbed the perspiration.’

The imminent Dr. Taylor advised that a young wife should not habitually sleep by the side of a husband far advanced in years. The bed chamber had to be large, at least 1200 cubic feet, and the air was to be renewed every hour on the hour. The marital bed was ‘not to be too soft or warm as this increased perspiration and enfeebled the system.’”

When I finished reading this review, I felt remarkably healthy and ready to take on another celebration with renewed vigor – provided it isn’t an outdoor summer event, that I’m assured the crowd at the celebration doesn’t carry the “green sickness,” and I can take along alert Sister Miriam and her medical carry-all. Tomorrow, I will serve as deacon at St. Mary’s altar and guess who serves as acolyte? I pray that Sister Miriam doesn’t have to put on her nurse cap again...
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