Some family members are only known through stories partially told, hidden by forgetfulness and secrets unshared.
I thought of my great-grandmother yesterday. She is one of those people for me.
My grandmother grew up on a farm in northern Texas during the Great Depression. It was a large family, with 10+ children born and only 7 surviving. It was a tough life only made worse by illness.
For the longest, I only knew one thing about my great-grandmother. My grandmother didn’t talk about her childhood much, with very little being said about her own mother. The one thing she did tell me was that her mother had been ill.
Apparently at some time during my great-grandmother’s life, her breast began to “harden,” and this sickness traveled down her arm. “Some sort of cancer,” the doctors told them. As the illness progressed, my great-grandmother would sit in her rocking chair at night and scream from the pain. She eventually begged the doctors to amputate her arm, which they did.
At this point in the story, my grandmother stopped and said, “She nursed the rest of the kids with one breast.” I don’t know if the breast was removed as well, but it apparently was completely taken over by this cancer.
That’s really all I knew until both of my grandparents had died. As I sat with an older relative–the daughter of one of my grandmother’s brothers–she began to tell me one of our family secrets.
Her father, Raymond, was the oldest of the seven children who survived. He was also evidently a bit wild. Raymond was a “Jellybean” and refused to follow the rules. And one of those rules that he broke involved my great-grandmother.
According to my relative, my great-grandmother was a well-known faith healer. She didn’t just cure anything, though. Just thrush. But she was effective, I suppose, as one family drove from New York to seek treatment for their child.
When my great-grandmother’s “clients” would arrive, she would take them behind the barn for some privacy. The kids–including Raymond–were supposed to stay away from the area while they were there. Raymond decided to see what was happening one day and was disappointed to find that his mother simply put her hand on the person’s head and uttered prayers.
Honestly, I found the story a bit incredible but found similar tales of healings when I read them in the Foxfire books.
I also wondered about the family driving to Texas from New York. That seemed a bit much to me.
Until yesterday when I realized that my burning mouth and lips, cracked tongue, etc were thrush. Unable to eat anything other than yogurt, I totally understood the family’s desperation for treatment during a time when anti-fungal remedies weren’t simply obtained by a call to a doctor.
As I waited for my own prescription to be filled, I thought about my great-grandmother and her cancer. And honestly, I wished I could have talked with her right then and there. Because sometimes even family members we only know through stories seem to have more in common with us than those who are near.
Although I know the chemo caused my thrush infection, I am thankful that I have access to both. Because the pain of cancer (and thrush) is indescribable. And those who think that “going natural,” “eating x diet,” and “living right” will solve every health problem didn’t grow up with stories of cancer during the Great Depression and one family’s willingness to travel across America to treat a common infection.