So there we were, the day after the stock market crash, and the day before Halloween 1929, and you would have thought the monsters had come out early. Mim glared at Ephraim as if he were an ogre for refusing to give her prayer shawl to their children if Mim died. Ephraim stared back, as if Mim were possessed.
“I’ll see to Sidney,” I said, but Mim blocked my exit. She handed the prayer shawl to me and practically hissed at Ephraim.
“Florrie has it for now. Satisfied?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. They let the matter drop. I kept that tallis for several months, as I recall, because of what happened to Sidney.
Mim cobbled together a decent Halloween costume for Rachel, who wanted to be the comic strip character Little Orphan Annie. Rachel went to a party, Paul stayed home (saying he’d outgrown Halloween), and Sidney was too little to go out.
A couple of weeks after that, Sidney developed one of his usual colds. A cough and drippy nose. Mim wasn’t the least bit worried, although she stayed home with Sidney while the rest of her family had Thanksgiving dinner at my place. Oscar made plum puddinghe always was an excellent chef. My Aunt Helen and Uncle Edward came. They had decided to sell their mansion in Berkeley and move to a modest place in San Jose while they could still get a decent price. People were worried about finances then, but we didn’t realize how bad it would get.
By the first week in December, Sidney’s cough was much worse. Mim called me one day to pick up Rachel after school, because the doctor was coming. When I saw Mim later, I knew something horrible had happened. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were that blotchy color.
She hugged herself and stared at the floor. “Whooping cough.”
I was devastated. Mind you, thousands of people died every year from whooping cough back then, especially children. And Sidney was so young, not even three. There was not much you could do but try to keep his airway open and get him to keep down enough liquids and food to survive.
“He’ll be fine,” I told her, hoping I was right. “He’s a tough little tyke, Mim. He’ll pull through.”
“I won’t let him die,” she whispered. “I can’t let that happen.”
Week after week, Sidney clung to life. Whooping cough is highly contagious, so he had to be isolated, stuck in a tiny room that smelled of antiseptics and vomit. Ephraim insisted that they put one of those Vapo-Cresolene vaporizers in Sidney’s room. Vapo-Creselene was made from coal tar, which was touted as a powerful disinfectant. Breathing coal tar vapors was common practice for whooping cough for decades. Sidney’s doctor said it couldn’t hurt. He admitted that it probably didn’t help either.
Sidney was a fighter. I stayed with that dear child a few times, and my heart broke as I watched him during his coughing fits. He’d struggle for air, his face turning purple. He’d cough and cough until he threw up what little we’d managed to feed him.
Over Christmas vacation, my Oscar took Rachel and Paul on a skiing trip, but I refused to leave Mim. She was too thin and too tired, but never once did she complain. She had dreamed up a game to distract Sidney and, I think, to give herself something to focus on besides Sidney’s ragged breathing.
Every day, Mim sat by Sidney, and they made up adventure stories about a boy named Charlie and a dragon named Snuffles. Why Snuffles? I’ll never know. Those were the names Sidney picked. Mim supplied the basic story, because poor Sidney could hardly talk without coughing. Sidney added the details.
Every night, after Ephraim came home, Mim rushed to their shop and printed the latest episode of Charlie and Snufflesincluding illustrationson big sheets of paper. The next morning, Mim read the previous day’s adventure to Sidney. If he were well enough, he’d color the illustrations. Then they’d add more to the story. Mim said it was the only time Sidney smiled.
When Mim told me about Charlie and Snuffles, I made the mistake of saying, “What a clever way to entertain Sidney. How does the story end?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t, Florrie. I won’t let it.”
By Sidney’s birthdayJanuary 2, 1930Charlie and Snuffles had more adventures than any boy and his dragon in the history of storytelling.
For Valentine’s Day, Ephraim had the stories bound into a beautiful book dedicated to Mim, who was beyond exhausted, and to Sidney, who was outside riding his new tricycle.