I was in the first grade when my sister, Betty, was born in 1947. I didn’t know my Mother was expecting. Kids didn’t know those things back then. I was told there would be a new baby the day before she was born.
This was the first time my Mother would go to the hospital to have a baby. My older brother and I were born at home. The little house we were born in is still there. We check whenever we are in the area.
Betty didn’t come home with my Mother. She had a weak heart, we were told. She was several months old before the word Mongoloid was used. That’s the old term for Downs Syndrome.
When she did come home I was fascinated by her. Her tiny hand would grasp my finger and I couldn’t leave until she let go. She had lots of dark hair and lay in the bassinet like a tiny doll.
As she grew I’m sure my parents worried about her a lot, I know she was hard to feed and didn’t nurse well. Mom had to give up nursing her. Betty’s lips would get blue sometimes.
One formula had to be cooked and Mom spent a lot of time with a pliers holding a needle heated on the stove adjusting the holes in the rubber nipples.
She didn’t do the things that most babies did, like sit up or crawl at the normal age.
Ten months after her birth my other sister, Linda, was born. DAD! He walked around like a rooster, “said he couldn’t hang his pants on the bedpost anymore”.
Linda was a robust, bald, healthy baby. So when Mom was having trouble taking care of Betty, I got to take care of Linda. What fun.
I can remember the two of them laying on the couch, head to head while I held their bottles so Mom could get supper on the table.
It was years later that I realized my parents felt guilty about Betty being handicapped.
Two babies learned to wiggle around on a blanket on the floor, two babies learned to sit up. Betty’s way was to bring her loose jointed legs around from back to front.
Today they have all kinds of therapy for these children but she did things her own way.
Sometimes Mom would take all of us to town to do shopping and pay bills. She would spread a blanket on the grass at the University campus which was like a park and leave me to watch the girls. Since Betty had lots of hair and Linda had none people assumed that Betty was a girl and Linda was a boy – in a pink ruffled dress at that.
Mom holding Linda and Betty.
That’s me holding Betty and Charles holding Linda. My mouth is closed because I had bad teeth.
About 1950 something called the Asiatic flu came around. I had it first and almost didn’t make it. The doctor came to the house back then. I had an out of body experience and watched from a corner of the ceiling as people came and went in my room. A new antibiotic was given to me and I recovered.
Then, of course, my Mother and sisters got it. They went to the hospital. Betty was taken to Columbus, OH to a children’s hospital, Mom and Linda stayed at the local one. My brother stayed with our grandparents and I stayed with Mom’s sister, Alice’s, family. Somehow Dad and my brother never got it.
When everyone was back home, Betty had a bed sore on her heel, a big deep purple bruise. If she was standing in her crib crying and someone went into the room she would drop down in fear and be quiet. Poor baby. Mom found she couldn’t wear white (like a nurse) as it scared Betty.
Eventually Betty got over her sore heel and her fear. Lots of unconditional love and acceptance were all that was required.
Every year at our school we were asked if we knew of any children who would be six years old and be ready for first grade next year. We were told it was the law.
In the sixth grade I took this to heart, knowing Betty was the right age but not able to go. I talked to my Mother about it. I was afraid the LAW would come and make Betty go to school.
This may have had a part in my parents starting to think about getting Betty some training, along with other handicapped children. My Mother asked our doctor if he knew of other children. He said he could tell them about her request but he couldn’t give her their names.
It turned out there were plenty of children who could benefit. One was the child of a university professor. Somehow that made it more acceptable to have a handicapped child. Even professors had them.
This was the beginning of a long process of getting public help for these children. My parents went to meetings.
Sometimes a newspaper reporter was invited to the meetings. There was even a picture on the front page of the paper showing kids playing on the floor. I was one of the kids in that picture.
The State Mental hospital gave them a room to use and they raised the money to hire a teacher. The children were car pooled to it.
One year the group had a booth at the county fair with some of the children and families in it. We had a machine that had cards with a picture on it, when you put the card in the machine it said the name of what was in the picture.
I got permission to take Betty and a friend of hers for a ride on the merry-go-round. I was a skinny little thing and they were chunky. I just hoped we all kept going in the same direction. It was a huge success, once I got them on the horses.
Eventually a tax was approved to support the school and it is still in operation.
Once Mom and I were picking Betty up and the teacher came out laughing. She said “I know what you take when things get tough. We were learning how to open lids and Betty said “Nervine””. That is an old type of tranquilizer which is no longer for sale.
Betty could say more in two words than most people say in a whole sentence. “Shop it” was one of her favorites. She had a terrific sense of humor. She would lift some of your hair and say “fleas”. Also the one I liked best was “smarty ache” for smart aleck.
We kept chickens and Betty loved them. Once we found pennies scattered in the chicken yard. There was one chicken that she could catch and carry around or just sit in a lawn chair and pet it. We decided the chicken was handicapped also.
She learned to print her name and we found it in a lot of places. Of course, the B often had four to six bumps instead of just two. Betty had a flare for the dramatic.
Our church started a Sunday School class for handicapped children.
All us kids grew up and left home, married and had children. When we came back to visit our children learned to love “Aunt Betty”.
Some of the incidents I remember from those years might not seem funny to other people. Betty had no prejudice against bugs or flies.
Our whole family took up camping and we met at Niagara Falls which was about the same distance for all our families.
One evening Dad was swatting flies that had gotten into their camper. The next morning Mom heard Betty as she woke up saying “Hi, did Dad hit you?”.
Another time when we went to visit a petting zoo Betty had fallen in love with the miniature goat. She kept saying “shop it” and Mom told her there was no way to get it home. Mom should have just said NO. That evening Betty told Mom “get a rope”. Mom didn’t understand but after a little thought I explained that a rope would be a way to get that goat home.
Dad passed away in 1982. My parents and Betty had retired to Florida by then. So it was just Mom and Betty. They visited by flying north each summer and staying for a few weeks with each of us kids.
Betty liked to say Chicago since that was close to where our brother lived.
For years my Mother and I had written letters back and forth every week. I wish I had them now. They didn’t say much except the happenings of the past week but that would be precious stuff now.
Phone calls replaced the letters and us kids began to notice Mom repeating herself and not sounding alert. The decision was made to move her back north to be near me.
We found a small house for them and the move was made. We set about getting Betty into the local workshop for handicapped people. Betty didn’t like it and refused to get on the bus.
Things got more difficult. Betty didn’t sleep well and would get up and empty the refrigerator onto the table and floor in the middle of the night (a hasp and padlock solved that). She would refuse to go to bed at all and Mom would sleep on the floor by the couch where Betty dozed. She would spin the thermostat as she went by (a lockable cover solved that).
Us kids came to the conclusion that Betty needed to be in a place where she could have twenty four hour care. Our Mother needed a rest. We set about finding a place.
We grabbed the first place that was found. It was a converted motel. Half the people there were elderly and half were disabled. A bus took many of the disabled to a workshop every day. If Betty refused to get on the bus, two burly men came and carried her on.
Betty caused quite a stir when she took many of the employees’ time cards and put them into the time stamper machine. It makes a nice kerchunk when it stamps the cards. I thought it was pretty funny myself. They had a whole staff of people to watch her. The staff was very upset about it.
Then other peoples clothes kept appearing in Betty’s closet. I told them her clothes were all marked with her name so they should make her look at the tags and put back the ones that weren’t hers.
They were skeptical about her knowing what her name looked like. I told them to check any page in their visitor book, Betty’s name was on every page.
When an Elvis impersonator came to entertain she was the only one who would get up and dance with him. When a church came to hold services Betty was the only one who stood up front with the choir to sing. (Glad I missed that one.)