Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century

Free Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century by John Paul Godges

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Authors: John Paul Godges
The Di Gregorio children relied on homemade remedies, starting with the wine that Serafino had made with the wild grapes growing on the porch. When the kids came down with colds or flues, Maria gave them the wine boiled with lemon wedges or with a whole grapefruit. The citrus peels, when boiled with the wine, seemed to ward off the illnesses.
    The remedy worked so well that Maria convinced Serafino to make his wine in volume rather than relying on the wild grapes and store-bought raisins. Thus began another annual production. Once a year, Maria purchased 48 crates of grapes and crushed them in the kitchen. Serafino then made enough wine to last a year. He filled two 50-gallon whiskey barrels in the basement, amounting to about a quart a day for the family and guests, with enough to spare for illnesses.
    But the homemade remedy did little to alleviate the earaches, nausea, and vomiting that tormented Elsie for two years, from 1930 to 1932. She became sicker and sicker from age seven to age nine. She had difficulty swallowing and breathing, and she couldn’t hold down solid food. She became so dizzy that she kept losing her balance and couldn’t walk straight. Sometimes, she tipped over while just sitting in a chair.
    “ A small wind would’ve blown me over,” she remembers.
    “ She was just like a limp dish rag,” Ida remembers.
    By 1932, Serafino was taking Elsie to the doctor once a week, paying cash each time.
    The doctor kept sending Elsie home. “She only needs a good night’s sleep.”
    Serafino kept returning her to the doctor.
    The doctor kept sending her home, and he also kept charging Serafino $5 a week—half his salary—month after month after month. Between 1930 and 1932, Elsie was so sick so consistently that she missed nearly two years of school.
    The savings in the cigar box were being steadily depleted. There were not only doctor bills for Elsie but also hospital bills for the other kids. Leola had her tonsils removed. Ralph had his spleen removed because of a football injury. At least the bills for Leola and Ralph were one-time expenses, but the bills for Elsie seemed endless.
    She kept getting sicker. Finally, on Christmas Eve of 1932, Serafino walked to the grocery store on Lehigh Row and called for a taxi. He rode with Elsie downtown to Park Hospital.
    The doctor at the hospital delivered alarming news. “It should have been diagnosed long before this,” he leveled with Serafino. “Your daughter is suffering from an acute case of tonsillitis. The poison from her tonsils has spread throughout her body. Either we take them out right now, or she won’t live till tomorrow!”
    “ Okay!” said Serafino. “Do it!”
    But Serafino wasn’t sure how he’d pay for the surgery—because suddenly, he wasn’t sure of many things. Based on the cost of the tonsillectomy he’d recently paid for Leola, he knew he could afford the bill for Elsie as well. However, he couldn’t avoid a nagging suspicion about the belated diagnosis of such an ordinary illness. He added up the money he’d already spent on two years of pointless doctor visits. All told, it was a lot more than the cost of a tonsillectomy. “This is not right,” an inner voice spoke to him as he stepped out of the front door of the hospital.
    On the hour-long walk home—half way across town and then along the lonely railroad tracks that led through the barren cornfields to Lehigh Row—the 46-year-old Serafino thought long and hard about his responsibilities. For two years, Elsie had needlessly languished to the point of nearly dying. For two years, he had dipped into Maria’s cigar box way too much for no good reason. He berated himself for having been duped into squandering so much of the family’s savings. The cigar box still contained a respectable stash of cash, but the sting of the undue losses prompted him to feel more protective about the dwindling reserve. He worried about how much longer it would take Elsie to recuperate from

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