The Poppies are Back

[Alternative text to poppy photo: The California poppy is an ornamental annual plant that flowers in summer, has distinctive cup-shaped blossoms formed by 4 bright orange or yellow petals at the top of green stems of 8 to 12 inches (20-30cm) tall with 2 or more small feathery green branches.  As a wild flower, it can grow widely in huge numbers. Color variations have been cultivated.]

It is a terrible thing to be very young and be facing a family disaster that you barely understand and have no ability to prevent. But this is where I found myself when I was 6 years old and my 4  year old sister was dying of a double bacterial infection that the doctors were failing to defeat.

My parents did not really accept the notion that their kids had to be sheltered from bad news and hard topics.  Thus when my sister, Linda, was essentially catastrophically mugged by two bacterial assassins, one from the streptococcal (of strep throat fame) and the other from  the staphylococcus families, they brought me into the conversation and tried to help me understand how much trouble Linda was in.  Mom helped me recall them with the much easier phrase of “strep and staph”.

Linda’s infection landed her in an isolation ward of Hillcrest Hospital, Petaluma California in 1961 where mom and dad, with protection, could visit her while the doctors tried to find a way to save her life, but oddly, they would not allow her 6 year old brother to come into her room.  I was not pleased.  My sister was dying and I wanted to see her.

My parents understood my plight, but rules were rules; but sometimes, especially in my family, there were ways to comply but get what you wanted another way.  Ah – Mom and Dad, I like the way you think. . .

I need to ask my array of aunts, because I think one of them watched me while mom and dad went in to visit Linda one morning but afterwards, I was distressed at not being able to see my sister so mom and dad gave me another lesson in creative compliance.

California-poppies 2Hillcrest Hospital, shockingly, was build a top a steep hill where West El Rose Drive and Hayes Lane met and Linda’s room provided her with a grand, almost 100 degree, panoramic view of the lower hills of south west Petaluma.  Outside her window was a slope of hillside overlooking Hayes Lane.  At the time of Linda’s stay, this hillside was covered with the rich orange blooms of California poppies.

Mom and Dad decided that I was entitled to see and talk with Linda because we both needed to be cheered up and Linda’s survival was still an open question and this might be a nearly last time for us to see each other.

I don’t recall what she or I said because, the bacterial attack on her face was so monstrous that I was frightened and nothing I could think of to say seemed to have any value.  There was a mass of swollen and infected tissue that covered a vertical half of her face leaving only one eye and her smile uncovered and visible.  Mom and Dad, wisely, did not want us too close, but the window was open and Linda was able to stand in the window and talk with us.  My sister naturally has the strength to smile through almost anything and I well recall thinking, ‘how can she smile with that mess on her face?’

So I got my visit, but Mom and Dad did most of the talking.  I felt powerless to help, useless and weak.  Mom helped by suggesting I pick some wild flowers for Linda and, for this I was beaming with thanks, because it was something I could do that might in some small way, encourage Linda.

Off I went, dashing around that slope, picking long stocks of the bright orange blossoms until I had a big (for my 6 year old hands) handful.  Mom miraculously produced a vase when I returned (I was just beginning to learn how I should never play games like chess with my mother – she was always many moves ahead of me).  Dad received my handful of flowers with a big smile and said something like, “wow, you should be more careful son.  Picking so many might kill all the plants on the hillside.”

I have no idea why Dad’s quick quip stuck with me – but it did and I looked back to the slope and hoped, earnestly hoped, I had not accidentally picked too many.  I did not know that poppies were so fragile and that somehow over picking them would destroy a whole hillside of the parent plants.

You have to recall that, at the time, I had the scientific brain of a curious 6 year old and was given to, shall we say, snap conclusions, and what happened next was both ridiculous and wonderful.

The day of Linda fighting off her infection turned into a few weeks and the seasons relentlessly unfolded. One day, close enough to Linda’s stay at Hillcrest Hospital, mom drove us past that hillside and whenever she did, I glanced up at that hillside to check on the health of that small field of poppies.  On this day, I was shocked and horrified to see that the poppies were all gone.  Not one orange blossom could be found.

Lacking a seat belt (again, it was the early 1960s) I quickly spun around in my seat to look out the back window of the car and my stomach sank as I realized that dad was right and I had accidentally killed off the whole field of poppies.  How could this be possible?  Did poppies somehow share one common root system and if enough of the flowers are picked, it somehow starves the whole system of some nutrient?  What had I done?

It was a demoralizing body blow to a kid who was already distressed over his sister’s illness.  All I wanted was to pick some flowers for my sick sister.  I didn’t know how fragile these stupid flowers were and that this could happen.

Okay, I see some of you snickering already, but this hit me hard when I did not need another hard truth, so I just sunk back into my seat and felt terrible.

But, from this point things got much better – fast.

Penicillin had been around for about 3 decades but for much of that time, it was hard to grow and was not well understood, but the medical researchers knew they were on to something great and so studies in both the UK and US were moving fast to refine both the production and refinement of penicillin and in the early 1960s, Linda was saved by one of the products of this research and progress.  A variant of penicillin became more widely available and was being released for general use and more important, the strains of Linda’s infection, like many today, had not yet developed resistance to this new miracle medication.

syringe old styleWhen Linda received her shots of this wonderful byproduct of bread mold, both of these thug bacteria died off in just a few days and my sister was saved.

As life in our family returned to normal, the statute of limitations forcing me to be nice to a sick sibling finally expired and Linda and I quickly got back to harassing and annoying each other without mercy. Whew!

Then, my own lugging around piles of guilt for past deeds, was also lifted the following spring when someone, most likely mom, drove us past Hillcrest Hospital again, which I hated doing because it always reminded me of my role as the Hitler of poppies, but today, “Wow – look at that!  The poppies are back!”

The whole hillside was again a blaze in orange and the God of young boys had somehow restored the hillside to it’s pre-Gary-assult glory.  I was absolved of my part in the disaster of last summer.

It took a few more year for me to realize – oh – poppies are an annual thing.  So I didn’t really . . .  Never mind me.  I’m going to sit here and feel stupid for a few minutes.

California-poppies 3

Regardless of the useless luggage of feeling like a flower-killer for a while, poppies still remind me of how close we came to losing my sister one year and how thankful I am that a bunch of doctors we’ll never know worked so hard to develop the medication that saved her life.


To select another story, please visit the full index by clicking here.

Gary photo n bio

27 thoughts on “The Poppies are Back”

  1. Wow! I have memories of this Time in my life. But dear brother never have I considered that you would remember it let alone have such a profound experience of it. Until reading this story my only thoughts were what mom and dad must have been going through. Thank you for sharing your part of the story… a part that I didn’t realize existed. I love you

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Oh Linda – the memory of what that infection did to you you is one of my strongest memories of that time. I well recall feeling powerless and useless to do anything meaningful to help. Then dad accidentally tricked me into thinking even my poor attempt to gather flowers for you turned genocidal. . . Now I can laugh at it, but at the time, I was a mess.

      What a different time it was.

      Well – at least now we have this little gem recorded for future family entertainment.

      Like

    2. Yea – you would not have known about this because I carefully didn’t tell anyone about the whole floricidal part of the story. I was way too embarrassed about it for years. Now – it’s just too funny to not share.

      Like

    1. Thanks (youngest) sister. I’m going to have to ask a knowledgeable aunt to verify the exact timing because I’m not sure you were part of our family party when this unfolded. Just as well because, as you suggest, it was no fun for any of us.

      Like

  2. Great story Gary. Can’t say for sure but, because of this story, very strong probability I will think of you and your sister next time I see Poppies! Poppies are one of the things I really miss living here in Ohio.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lump in throat. I was hospitalized with a bad strain of staph about 1960 and got two different shots–penicillin and another, which had to be injected cold and was absolute torture. Wish I knew what it was, as it was probably the one that cured me. California poppies! Bet you think of your sister’s ordeal every time you see some. Very compelling story, Gary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joy. Thanks for spending some time with my story. Your visits are always welcome. Sorry to hear that you too went through something similar to my sister. Those were much more brutal days for hospital visits. I do think of this memory when I see poppies but I find I more often recall my misunderstanding of my father’s quip and then how thankful I am for the timely development of a major improvement in penicillin production that saved Linda’s life. Thank you for your very kind feedback.

      Like

  4. Stop cutting onions on the internet…..
    Wow this is an emotive story it must have been such a burden being flower mass murderer and having to deal with your sister’s illness…
    The things that leave lasting impressions on young minds. I remember once when I was young my parents once took our tiny TV to a hospital rec room for movie night with some of the patients (the hospital one had gone for repairs) I was told it was because a TV presenter had so throat…. The next time the presenter was on TV I turned down the volume because I did not want the lady straining her voice 😂😂

    Glad the story ends up a happy memory, one you can look back and laugh a little about
    Here’s to miracle cures
    ~B

    Liked by 3 people

  5. That is a cracking story so well told Gary. A floricidal six year old… what a burden to carry. And glad the medics came up Trumps. As for the most nuts thing the one I recall is asking dad why he had a moustache to be told it was a weight to stop his top lip rolling up like a rolllerblind and exposing his top teeth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL Geoff – Thanks for the read & feedback. Oh and I need “floricidal” to be a real word. In fact, The UK needs a “word board” like France and you need to be its president. Just think of the impact on culture, on public literacy, on global whining… How do we get this done?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I follwed a link from Beaton’s page and it brought me here. I must say your story really pulls at the heart strings and is a catalyst for tears works. Thanks for sharing.😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shuvai.
      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind feedback. Beaton is a great guy and I’ve found lots of fun stuff by following him. I’ve got lots of similar stories on my home page and hope you come back to try them out.

      Like

      1. feeling better…still under doctor’s care for at least two more months…and I will not start teaching my new classes until next August…but in the meantime…I am having fun preparing for my new adventure.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Autobiographical fun in 10 minutes or less

%d bloggers like this: