When my dad was chauffeur for the Sisters of Providence at the former St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield in the 1950s and ‘60s, my brothers and I would often accompany him to the hospital’s garage on Saturdays. There we’d help him polish the chrome of his 1958 Fleetwood Cadillac, a gleaming black limousine that could seat seven nuns comfortably.
It wasn’t always from the goodness of our hearts that we volunteered for such duties, but for the goodies the Sisters would shower upon us after our chores were done.
The generous nuns thought that Mr. O’Hara’s three middle sons — Jimmy, me and Dermot — were “pure pets” but, in truth, we’d often fight like cats and dogs. Our favorite nuns were Sr. Marie Reparatrice, the Mother Superior, and Sr. Mary Cecilius, who’d allow us to play with the white mice in her laboratory.
“Are you training them to become circus mice?” young Dermot asked her one December Saturday as he gingerly petted a mouse that looked just like Stuart Little.
Sister smiled at his innocent inquiry: “I’m afraid God has other plans for this little fellow.”
Before leaving, she asked if I still wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, and I adamantly answered yes.
So imagine my delight when I opened her gift that Christmas morning to find a “Little Country Doctor” play set. The kit included a plastic microscope, stethoscope, hypodermic syringe, thermometer, spectacles, bandages, cotton balls, candy pills and a certificate stating that I was a full-fledged doctor!
After I pasted my official diploma on our upstairs bedroom door, I called down to the family that my practice was now officially open. Little Eileen was the first to stumble through the door, complaining of a “tummycake” after devouring a box of ribbon candy. I put my stethoscope to her grumbling belly and told her to lay off the sweets before giving her six candy pills to go.
Meanwhile, my older sister Mary was suffering from “melon-cauliflower,” after half our household forgot that her 16th birthday the day before had been lost in the revelry of the season. I drew up my syringe in hopes of lifting her spirits, but when I informed her that she had to take the shot in her bum, she bolted from my bedroom like I was some quirky quack. Gee, talk about touchy patients!
Mickey, the eldest, was next through my door following a lovey-dovey phone call with his high school sweetheart. Noting his flushed appearance, I figured he had a severe case of “romantic heart fever.” I ordered strict bed rest due to his highly contagious disease, but he brushed away my recommendation like I had two heads.
Dermot shortly shuffled in, his Christmas slowly unraveling. He was hoping to receive a “mousey or two” from Sr. Cecilius, but received the game of Yahtzee instead. Worse still, his spring-loaded dart gun had already sprung its spring, and the elastic band on his paddle bat and ball lasted exactly three minutes. I gave him 10 candy pills, along with permission to play with my new Slinky for 30 minutes.
Jimmy was too wrapped up with his new toy drum set to be examined. That morning, after his ear-splitting solo nearly shattered our tree ornaments, he was relegated to take his rowdy-dow drums to the attic where he could pound away to his heart’s content. Being a devoted doctor, I walked up the attic’s creaking staircase and offered him two cotton balls for his ears for a nickel. Rather than buying them, he told me to buzz off and never disturb his “signature” drum rolls again. Gee, talk about touchy musicians!
That afternoon, following our family’s sumptuous Christmas feast, I spotted a few neighboring kids playing outdoors with their new American Flyer sleds. Grabbing my doctor’s kit, I joined the merry throng in hopes — oops, I mean in fear — there’d be an accident. Sure enough, Little Dicky soon wrapped himself around a telephone pole. Lying dazed on his back, I jammed a thermometer into his mouth and unzipped his coat to put my stethoscope to his heaving chest. Meanwhile, all the other kids crowded round to watch my skillful ministrations in awe. I liked that.
Later that evening, with the glow of Christmas on the wane, I finally settled into a game of Yahtzee with Dermot and Jimmy when the phone rang. It was my favorite neighbor, Susan Rupinski, who begged me to make a house call straight away.
“Where are you going?” asked Mom, seeing me grab my coat and doctor’s kit.
“Sue Ru’s,” I gasped. “She thinks her brother Joey has a bad case of ‘ammonia!’”
With that, I dashed into the Holy Night dotted with stars, believing I could cure every malady in the world.