Measles, Mumps, and Isolation Memories

While Boomers did not experience quarantines on this current worldwide scale, we endured the mini confinements of pre-vaccine times. Waves of measles, mumps, and chicken pox would spread through neighborhoods and keep us indoors. We had no online social networks, so any contact with friends was reduced to waving from behind doors or windows.

My bout with chicken pox was during a beautiful spring week, I think it was about 1961. I held handwritten notes pressed against the window for Linda and Ellen to read. Some days, I was permitted to sit on the front stoop to allow the sun to shine on my scabby chicken pox sores because sunlight and fresh air killed all sorts of germs. Watching Ellen and Linda ride their bikes up and down Lees Avenue on a warm spring afternoon was excruciating, but I didn’t dare break quarantine. 

Some people did, though. Once, a family friend brought her son to our house when my brother Jimmy had chicken pox. She figured that her son would be infected at some point, and I suppose she also figured that his getting the pox sooner than later was best.  

I was not scared of those childhood diseases. I thought the rashes and fevers were simply rites of childhood, with the added benefit that I would be immune forever. I thought my brother Jimmy looked hilarious with the puffy face and neck caused by mumps. I remember my days with measles because I was quarantined at my Aunt Katherine’s shore house in North Wildwood (remember, the sun and salt air killed all germs). I’m not sure that most people in the 1950’s and 1960’s understood the danger posed by measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and chicken pox–hearing loss, infertility, neurological and coronory damage, shingles–since much of their lasting damage was not apparent for years. 

We were all terrified of polio, however, no one opted for voluntary exposure to that disease. The Life Magazine photos of children inside those huge iron lungs made us eager to line up for the sugar-cube vaccine given out at Collingswood’s Zane-North School’s all-purpose room. The 1960’s brought us the miracle of vaccines. We expected that most viral diseases would soon be eradicated, eventually including the common cold, with cancer’s demise not too far in the vaccine-dominated future. 

 We were so hopeful that science and medicine would create a pandemic-free world for our children, perhaps that is why we find this current crisis to be so disheartening.***I hope and pray that my readers, friends, and family stay well through this current pandemic. Don’t take any chances with your exposure or health so that these times, too, become only tales of perseverance. ***

That’s what Deb said.


     “Child, what are you drinking?”

     Usually, we could hear a nun approaching behind us. Those clacking rosaries and heavy footsteps gave children advance warning before the wrath of heaven descended upon their misdeeds. I must have been extra tired that day because I heard nothing, not even the rustling of the voluminous black habit Sister Wilhelmina wore. I was in the last seat near the back door of the classroom. Sister must have slipped into the hall and attacked from behind.

     Sister Wilhelmena was the oldest nun at St. John School, and the most petite. She was not my regular second grade teacher, but was the room monitor for First Friday breakfast period. Every first Friday of the month, the students attended Mass before classes began and were allowed a small breakfast afterwards at their desks. I brought my usual breakfast that morning, coffee and a Tastycake treat.

     Yes, I was a seven-year-old sugar and caffeine addict. 

     I remember drinking coffee as a toddler. By elementary school, I had a two cup a day habit. I drank the strong stuff, percolated, with a splash of milk. I’ve often wondered if I was self-medicating with the caffeine because coffee often averted my cluster migraine attacks when I was young. I’ve also wondered why my mother allowed me to drink coffee at such a young age, but times were different then, I suppose. 

     I had to admit it to Sister. She was looming behind me and staring at the open thermos. Our corner of the classroom was beginning to smell like a coffee shop.

     “Coffee, sister,” I whispered with my head down.

     No ruler descended. No ear was grabbed. 

     “My mother allows me to drink it,” I said, daring a glance at the nun.

     Sister Wilhelmena instructed me to wait a minute before I took another sip, then she slipped away. I sat frozen for an eternity. I didn’t look up, just sat staring at my cursed thermos. As if summoned by magic, a tiny porcelain teacup with pink roses appeared on my desk.  

     “Would you share just a cup, child?” Sister Wilhelmena whispered.

     My shaky hand poured the coffee into her teacup. Sister Wilhelmina savored each sip with her eyes closed, surely sending a prayer of gratitude to heaven. 

First School Dance: Crossing the Generational Divide

Collingswood Junior High School

NOTE: “Linda” is a composite of my friends. In 1954, the most common names for baby girls were Mary, Linda, and Deborah.

As my father pulled the car, full of giggling seventh-grade girls, alongside the Collingswood Junior High School gym on that cool September evening in 1966, I could hear the Supremes’ new hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love” ringing out of the old, red brick building. I could feel the bass notes thumping through the car. As the students opened the doors to enter, the music became loud, then muffled again, as if I put my hands on and off over my ears. In my mind’s eye, the bricks themselves vibrated with the beat. 

            My parents had debated about allowing me to attend the dance. I was now in the seventh grade, and my mother had ideas about my growing up too fast. I already knew the ground rules of my teenage years: no dating until I was sixteen, no drive-in movie theaters with boys, no hanging out in front of Mom’s Pizza Shop on Haddon Avenue. I could attend school dances, but only once a month. The other Saturday nights, I had to visit my Babcia in Camden. Babcia loved to watch The Lawrence Welk Show with me. So, three Saturdays a month, I listened to big band music; the fourth, Motown. 

            The pulsating gymnasium both beckoned and frightened me. What could it contain, I thought, that made my mother fearful? How would dancing transform me into one of those teens my mother was always talking about–the ones she called “fast” or “hard?” Boys were involved, I knew, and there were boys at the dance. There were chaperones at the dance too, parents and teachers, but it was a public school, who knows what they overlooked that the priests and nuns would not have tolerated at my former parochial school, Saint John’s.

            As I crossed the threshold of the gym with my girlfriends, I was petrified. What would I do if a boy asked me to dance? Would my mother find out? I was still young enough to suspect that she had mind-reading powers.

            Linda had already jumped out of the car and was talking to a boy on the gym steps. My mother frowned. I hopped out of the car and slammed the door before she could decide to take me back home.

            The door to the gym opened. My coming-of-age ceremony had begun. My first step inside would cross the dividing line between my new teenaged world and that of my parents. The music hit my ears. I could feel the beat in my bones. The gym was so dark I could hardly make out the faces. In the middle, classmates, mostly girls, bounced and gyrated. Other shapes, mostly boys holding bottles of Coke, lined the walls. To get to the locker room (where we combed our hair and applied way more makeup than was allowed at home), my friends and I had to walk the gauntlet of eighth and ninth graders. Faces peered out at us in the dark.  I felt claustrophobic and free at the same time. I tried to focus on following Linda, who sashayed confidently through the dancers, causing a ripple of heads along the wall to turn as we passed. More than anything, I wanted to be Linda at that moment, but following in the wake of that reflected attention was sweet enough for that night.

            As the night went on, the claustrophobia was replaced with exhilaration. In the darkness, drenched with the music of my generation, I danced with my peers, my tribe, away from my living room, away from my mother’s approbation. I danced over the generational divide and finally understood why my mother feared this rite of passage.