Quarantined with Scarlet Fever: My mother’s love 60 years ago carries me through today’s quarantine

By Rifka Nissel

The odor of camphor and bleach fills my nostrils as I sit propped up against the headboard of my bed, with numerous pillows behind me to keep me comfortable. Mami walks in with a tray of steaming hot tea. I’d heard her approach, the hinges of the large double-doors squeaking, the clip-clop of her slippers, cork against wood, then a click as the large metal key unlocked the room between the salon (living room) and the kinderzimmer (children’s room).
The year was 1960. I was almost seven years old, in the first grade. Mrs. Klob, the teacher, had contacted the Schuldirektor, who called my mother. Mami picked me up and took me in a taxi to our pediatrician, Dr. Weizman.
“The school thinks Rebecca has scarlet fever,” my mother said.
I don’t recall the conversation between the two of them. All I could think of was the painful injections I had endured at the hands of this white-clad, bespectacled, hunchbacked woman. I shuddered with angst. We visited this office for our regular vaccines, and I would always enter it with great trepidation.
Upon returning home, so much happened all at once. Nothing made sense to me at the time. My father left to go to the pharmacy to pick up the indicated medications. I was shoved into the kinderzimmer while my siblings had to stay behind in the salon. Before I knew it, I was all alone in the queen-sized bed that I had always shared with my sister Mona, with our little brother Tomi sleeping in the corner on a tiny cot. My mother placed my favorite doll Sissy next to me under my feather quilt and then exited, locking the door behind her.
“Mona and Tomi cannot come into this room until you feel better,” she explained to me at the very onset of this ordeal.
For her visits to my room, Mami would don a starched white coat, similar to the one Dr. Weizman wore. She would cover her head in what looked like a white shower cap. She always wore a mask. Only her emerald green eyes were exposed, smiling at me and warming my little heart.
Whenever she stayed for a while, she would swarm around me with the movements of a busy bee. “We are going to play now,” she would say. “But first, you must drink this down in one swallow without thinking.” Some distasteful brew would then flow past my palate, down my throat and land somewhere inside, always making me gag. She would then lovingly feed me spoonfuls of sweetened tea until the nasty taste of the medicine had evaporated.
Every day throughout my quarantine, Mami brought in a new project to keep me busy. Mostly, she taught me how to sew doll clothes. She visited fabric stores and brought home dozens of swatches. The variety of textiles satisfied Mami’s creativity, and I went right along with her for the ride.
The pieces of material were stapled together in the corner and had identical zigzag trimming on their edges. Mami taught me to feel the fabrics. She would then explain to me, as one would to a blind person, what the fabric felt like. Cotton, thick wool, thin wool, taffeta, chenille, shantung, linen, velvet and so on. Till today, I can walk into my closet, and in the dark, feel around for the garment I’m seeking. My sense of touch, and my appreciation for it, have been mindfully developed.
Mami would hold the swatches in her hand, spread out like a fan. I would shut my eyes and select one of the swatches. Within minutes, that piece of fabric would be transformed into either a skirt or a top for Sissy, my dolly. These moments were the highlight of my days spent in quarantine. There were days when the fever took hold of me, and all I heard was the rustling of my linen sheets when I would switch from one side of the bed to the other in order to stay cool.
At times, Mona and Tomi would slide gifts under the door. Mona would slide in pages from a coloring book together with a few pencils. Or I would receive a sweet treat, a chocolate wrapped in shiny foil. Or paper dolls with colorful dresses.
I no longer recall the time frame, just the weeks that I was isolated away from my beloved family members. Inadvertently, I have put that period of time to sleep.
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