by Ruth Hammond Barrus
"Sarah! Sarah!" All the longing and love of a mother for an eldest daughter sounded clearly in those two words, as mother kissed those cold fingers that she had so patiently taught to play beautiful melodies on the piano. She gazed at the deep blue eyes, half-veiled by transparent eye lids, hoping for a look of recognition. She touched the fever swollen lips that had been taught to speak the first words by her, and she stroked the golden brown hair which had been lovingly brushed by her each morning. Kind, sympathetic arms raised mother from her kneeling position on the floor and led her from the room; I followed, a small girl of six, extremely frightened and upset. The seeing of so much pain and suffering on a face so dear to me left an impression upon my young heart that has never been erased.
Of the nine children mother had given birth to, three had died - - her first baby, a girl; her fourth baby, a boy; and now her third child - - a beautiful girl just budding into woman-hood - - was taken. The cause of this sudden death was known to no one until afterward. One doctor called it diphtheria, another scarlet fever, and some pneumonia. A report of this mysterious illness was sent East, and word came back immediately saying to use the utmost caution in handling the case as it was identical to the scourge of influenza that was sweeping the East. The seriousness of this contagious malady prevented a public funeral, or a funeral of any kind unless held out-of-doors, where one would be less likely to catch the disease; so this one was held on our front porch.
I can still see mother standing by my sister's coffin out on the porch gazing out past the hills into the deep blue sky; I looked out past the hills and into the sky also, but could see nothing. I wondered why she would be looking so intently into it, but when she turned around and tenderly gathered my younger sister and me into her arms, I knew that what she saw had helped ease her sufferings. I wonder if mother realized the effect that that little impulsive embrace had upon me - - I knew then that mother would look for those same beautiful characters in us that had been so manifest in my sister, and in my childish way I was determined that she would not be disappointed.
Mother's thoughts were not allowed to remain long with my sister, however, but were soon transferred to the sick beds of her four younger children - - Merrill, Floyd, Viola and myself who had the same fatal disease. She was kept busy day and night passing from one sick bed to another, changing hot water bottles, giving medicine, coaxing food down unwilling throats, and administering mother love - - the most powerful tonic of all.
So rapidly had this disease spread over the whole country, that help was impossible to secure; so mother had to remain in the sick room for weeks taking little nourishment herself, and almost no rest. Through this loss of sleep her physical strength was soon substituted by nervous energy. Her nervous system seemed to be the only source of energy, and it was apparent that source would soon be exhausted. This time came sooner than was expected.
Every half hour the hot water bottles on the patients needed to be refilled; during these half hour intervals mother tried to get a few minutes sleep. About eight o'clock one evening she awoke with a start, realizing that the water bottles needed refilling. Upon standing on her feet, she found it necessary to grab hold of a chair near by so dizzy and unsteady was she. Her mind was still in a daze, and she had only one conscious thought in mind - - the water bottles must be changed. With this thought she staggered over to the bed where my sister was lying, secured the bottle and staggered into the kitchen to refill it. She did not realize that the cork in the bottle had only made a half-turn and then stuck until the bottle was placed on my sister's chest. The screams that followed this act soon brought mother out of her dazed condition. She rapidly picked up the bottle from which boiling water was flowing over Viola's arm and side, and looked fearfully at her other sick children, knowing that the least excitement might mean the end of two of them. Upon seeing that they as yet had not been disturbed, she carefully bore Viola in her arms into a room at the other end of the house, called the doctor, and set to work trying to relieve the pain.
All this time she had not uttered a sound except to call the doctor, but after all had been done to relieve the pain by both she and the doctor, she completely broke down. The strain of the last three weeks climaxed by causing her own tiny child so much pain resulted in a break down that only rest and good nourishment could cure. It was impossible to secure a nurse so two of my aunts came in from the country to relieve my mother.
Her cure became final sometime after that when she saw standing before her again four happy children whom she had so patiently helped raise from the sick bed. These four children and two more - - Glen and Ronald, the older children - - were soon set to work at various occupations, because industry was one of mother's greatest living principles. First came the music - - Ronald, was set to work at the Violin and Cello, Glen at the Violin, Merrill at the Cornet, Floyd at the Saxophone, and I at the piano; Viola was too young to start music then. Every day we had to play our pieces six times each, and if we missed one day, we had to make it up the next. Every mistake we made, whether it be in time, note, or pitch, she was there to help correct it. We resented at first this having to practice so much each day; but the result of this practice, which we soon found out, was our greatest asset. Through it we were able to get through school, and come into contact with influences that played a very great part in molding our lives.
As soon as we were released from our practice hours most of us would turn to books, unless there was other work to be done, for we all liked books; but Ronald and Glen - - the two older boys who were in High School - - would rush down to the basement to a little work shop that was fitted up for them. There they were working on a machine which was going to be called "The Hammond Sweeper". The purpose of this machine was to gather, thrash and sack the alfalfa seed that was left on the ground after the first gathering of the seed. This machine would be a great benefit to the farmers who grew that kind of seed, because each year they were loosing thousands of dollars through this waste.
These two boys worked many months over the plans for this machine, before and after school, and way into the morning. The time at last came when they could build; and as the machine progressed it became apparent that the basement was too small, so a little shop was rented down town. There Ronald and Glen, especially Ronald, would work sometimes until three and four o'clock in the morning. As mother never goes to sleep until we are all home and in bed these boys always got a severe lecturing when they got home at that late hour. Mother tried to explain that their health was more important then any invention.
One night, or morning, for it was about 3:00 a.m., Ronald came tiptoeing around the house. He was determined that mother wasn't going to hear him this time. As he neared his bedroom at the back of the house he looked up at his bedroom window, and found that it was open at the top - - it would be necessary for him to get through the top. He cautiously climbed to the sill, swung one leg over the window, pushed his head into the room; then paused a minute to look around. During that short minute Floyd, the youngest boy, suddenly raised up in bed with his eyes almost starting out of his head with fear.
"Sh - -sh - -", quickly came from the lips of the dark figure in the window. That was the final touch; Floyd raised his elbow which found no soft landing place in Merrill's ribs. Merrill's reaction was heard all over the house.
"Ouch! Hey! Cut it out!", were his loud-spoken words as he gave one leap to the floor; and when he too saw the dark figure in the window frantically calling "Sh - -sh- -", he was as frightened as his brother.
By this time the whole household was awake and in the room, and when the lights were turned on there was revealed Ronald in the window sheepishly trying to decide whether to come in the room or not. Mother soon decided this for him.
She said very severely, "Ronald, get down from that window instantly, before you awaken the neighbors as well as the family."
This severity soon changed to merriment, for as soon as Ronald got down from the window she started to laugh, our following in her suit. She laughed until tears came, and was weak from it when she bundled us off to bed. I am sure she must have worn that same merry smile all the rest of the night, because when we got up the next morning she still wore it. Ronald never tried to sneak in without mother's hearing him again.
During my childhood days I seldom knew or saw my father who quit teaching school when I was four and accepted a position in the Chamber of Commerce at Blackfoot. Soon after accepting this position he was transferred temporarily to Salt Lake. This temporary position was extending over a number of years, however; and mother was left home alone to rear and educate a large family. He made only short visits to Blackfoot once or twice a year.
Soon there arrived a new addition to the family - - a little boy. Her youngest boy was then twelve years old, so this new baby was gladly received. He was a frail child with large intelligent black eyes. This frailty remained with him during his short life, and made him very susceptible to colds. These colds soon developed into Sugar Diabetes. So added to her already heavy responsibilities was the heart-rending task of caring for a child who all knew would not get well. The ill-tasting gluten flour bread, the saccharin sweetened fruits and mushes were unpalatable to the little boy who kept calling for "tatoes" and "tandy". He received no nourishment from the little food that he did take, so was gradually starving to death.
All of the family assisted in taking care of "little brother" in order to allow mother as much rest as possible, and to make his life happy. My job was to take him to the doctor each morning, there to be examined and treated. The doctors had little hope for him, and the only consolation they could give mother was that certain experiments were being conducted in California on Sugar Diabetes. The results of these experiments were said to be very fruitful, but not then ready for use. As soon as she heard this she began preparations for a trip to California with "little Roy". But word from the doctors in California was slow in coming, and all the time Roy was becoming weaker and weaker. His only interest was animals. When he was only a little over a year old he could name over fifteen animals and mimic as far as possible each one of them. Each night he would name the animals on his blocks and in his brightly colored picture book for mother, who had him hugged tightly in her arms. After rocking him to sleep she would lovingly look at the little figure in her arms who looked so lifeless without his black eyes gleaming through long dark eye lashes. As mother gazed at Roy, two big tear-drops found its way down her cheeks which were gradually becoming furrowed with wrinkles - - not those ugly wrinkles that one hears so much about, but wrinkles which could easily smile, and easily become grave. They weren't those sour unselfish wrinkles that one so often sees. Slowly she would raise her bowed head and look up as if in supplication to some great power who had control of life and death.
It was plain that his supplication could not be granted for he soon became so weak that it was difficult for him to raise even his tiny hand. Faintly he would call for water which mother tenderly gave to him out of a spoon. Only a very little water could be given him at a time for fear of his choking, yet his lips were continually forming the word, "water", until they were forever closed by a deep sleep of coma. During that period mother never let Roy be taken from her arms, and it lasted over thirty hours. When at last his little spirit which had only two year's stay on this earth was taken from his weakened body, mother gave one large dry sob. That was about the only outward expression of grief that mother showed, but her eyes expressed a sorrow that few have experienced.
Father arrived a day later to go to the funeral of a son whom he had never seen alive. It was plain that he had also come for another purpose which mother sensed at once. A separation from him was now inevitable - - a separation which she had long foreseen yet avoided for the sake of her children.
That night after Roy had been carefully laid away, I awoke from a restless sleep and was surprised to see how light the room was. A full moon was shining through two large windows at the north of the room just over my head. By its light I could just make out the titles of the books in the bookcase at the foot of the bed. From there my glance went across the room to mother who was lying in a bed that was all made up in white. I was not at all surprised to see that she was awake, because I am sure that she does her thinking then. She works so hard during the day time that the only time she could think would be at night. As I watched mother's eyes which were looking out into the night, I noticed their determined look. This time I thought I recognized her thoughts. I am sure she must have been thinking of what she must now do alone. The two older boys would soon be out of High School, and must enter college; the others would soon follow suit - - and then they must all keep on with their music. But I could see by that determined look that she would do it - - alone if necessary. That would not be necessary she soon found out, for God became a true comforter, counselor and guide in all that she did.