Stories from the Depression


All week I carefully hoard new tidbits to tell him.  Then on Thursday nights I call, and my reward is listening to his voice brighten when he hears me on the phone.

“Hello, Marla, how’s medical school?”

I have to shout for him to hear my reply; he’s been going deaf for years.

“Fine, Grandpa!  This week we saw slides of miliary tuberculosis!”

“Miliary TB? I lost a patient once to miliary TB.  It was before we had antibiotics.  She was just a little girl!”

My grandfather graduated from McGill University Medical chool in 1928.  He practiced medicine in Milwaukee during the Depression.  The stories he tells about those days are wonderful to hear.  Once a patient paid him for a house call with a cow!  My grandmother, with visions of 6 a.m. milkings in her imminent future, made him return it.  On another occasion a family paid his one-dollar fee in all pennies.  My grandmother made him return this too, saying that she absolutely refused to take anyone’s last cent.  And once a young couple who had no means of payment whatsoever offered my grandfather dance lessons instead.  Grandma decided that this was all right, and that night all of her brothers and sisters dropped in to learn the Box Step.

My grandfather’s favorite story, however, is about an evening spent in the pathology laboratory when he was still a student.  It was extremely late and he was alone in the lab.  As he hunched over his microscope, intently studying the slides, his professor walked in and saw him.  The professor walked over to my grandfather, patted him on the back, and said, “Good boy.”

Now these may sound like simple words of praise to you and me, but to my grandfather their value is immeasurable.  One hundred payments collected, an entire barn filled with cows, and even dance lessons from Fred Astaire himself could not compare in worth to my grandfather’s pride at these two words!  In fact, my grandfather is so moved when he tells this story that his eyes fill with tears.

“Grandpa, I got the pamphlet on ovarian cancer you sent me.  It looks interesting!  I’ll use it when we study urogenital pathology next week.”

“Good girl!”


Marla Friend, Chicago, Class of 1990

Originally published in Vol. IV: 1988