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A couple of blogs ago, my friend Lola, who designs beautiful clothing in her shop on Sanchez Street, demanded that I tell a story. And you know what the song says. Well, perhaps a few of you are too young to know what the song says, so I'll tell you: WHATEVER LOLA WANTS, LOLA GETS.
Anyhow, I had been considering telling the story of Dee's return but I thought, no, it's too long, what does it have to do with the pandemic, it won't interest people, etc. etc. But, because Lola wanted a story, I told that one. And the response was, well... a volcanic outpouring of appreciation. And NOW, Lola wants ANOTHER story. So here goes, Lola.
This is not my story. I discovered this story this morning, and I'm going to type excerpts verbatim from the book.
The book is:
Dorothy Bryant self-published this book of essays in 1983. These are excerpts from "In Search of Doctor Nellie" :
It started while I was working on a story about my childhood. Suddenly an image flashed upon me: an old woman standing over my hospital bed where, full of self-pity as I woke to the pain of my tonsillectomy, I whispered an answer to her question.
"Speak up, girl! Who am I?"
Shocked out of my self-pity, I did speak up. "Doctor Nellie Null."
She laughed, grunted, patted my arm and disappeared.
Who was Dr. Nellie Null? I began to question my mother about her. I sent a letter to the newspapers asking, in effect, who remembers Doctor Nellie? The answers came from all over Northern California and beyond....
Terry's summary of Nellie's early life:
Nellie Hollenbeak was born on a farm in Northern California in 1874. She got married at 18. Both she and her husband became doctors. They set up a practice in Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. The neighborhood was then called Butchertown, because that's where the slaughterhouses were located. The Nulls had two children, then divorced, leaving "Doctor Nellie" alone in her Butchertown practice, raising two kids.
Back to Bryant's essay:
The end of the war, in 1918, was the time of the flu epidemic, when Doctor Nellie became the heroic, almost mythic figure her older patients remember. "People were dropping in the streets, turning blue and falling down. We all had to wear masks and a bag of camphor around our necks. Everything smelled of camphor."
Concurrent with the flu epidemic was the diphtheria epidemic, which killed half the children in some areas. Sometimes, with flu and diphtheria, whole families were wiped out. "Dr. Nellie never stopped; she was everywhere," Eloise Hugentobler says. "Sometimes she would come into my mother's boarding house worn out, and she'd sit down at the big dining room table and say, 'Mrs. Fontaine, I'll just sit and rest a minute and have a glass of your wine.' She was like one of the family."
There was no cure, only "Dr. Nellie coming by each day," as Manuel Piver says, "to see if my parents were still alive, take their temperature, try to make them comfortable. I was about eight. The lady next door was Mrs. Giovanetti. You know, Italians always had a pot of soup on the stove. She'd call me and give me a big pot of soup, and I'd feed them that. And whiskey. Everyone said whiskey was the only help. Or a little hot wine with sugar in it." Mildred Adams was one of the lucky children who survived diphtheria. "I remember they gave me whiskey in milk, and Dr. Nellie would come and go, and my father sat by my bed day and night, watching me, reading to me."
From then on Dr. Nellie's office was always packed. She kept daily office hours but made no appointments. People came and waited their turn. They filled the waiting room; the overflow sat on the stairs.....
In 1925 Frank House worked after school in the drug store on the street level of the building. "She must have been about fifty then. The store was owned by Mr. Lomalino, who was pretty old and slow. You know, in those days, druggists made up the prescription right there, a pinch of this, so many drops of that. She'd come down there in a hurry for a prescription and she'd say, 'Oh, get out of the way, Lomie' -- nobody else dared call him anything but Mr. Lomalino---and she'd make up the prescription herself and run back upstairs with it."....
Elsie Orlando Collins remembers, "After I nursed my mother through pneumonia--making flaxseed tea and things like that, there was no penicillin in those days -- Dr. Nellie said to me, 'You'd make a marvelous nurse; did you ever think about it?' I said yes, because in my heart that was what I wanted to be. But my dad didn't believe in educating women. So she said,
'When you get through high school, I want you to take the course at San Mateo Junior College, and if you dad won't finance you, I will.' I never took her up on it. Oh, I don't blame anyone. I could have somehow. And I'll always remember that she believed in me and would have helped me. She helped plenty of others."
Everyone I talked to mentioned money -- Doctor Nellie's lack of interest in it. Her fees were lower than average and often went unpaid. She was inconsistent about sending bills. Many never paid..... Some patients tried to show their gratitude by paying her in goods: a jug of homemade wine, food, linens....
One of the gifts of food which was kept and consumed heartily was Esther Binder's annual pound cake. In 1933 Esther's daughter Betty had been run over by a car. "Specialists operated on her four times. She was in a cast for thirteen months. Doctor Nellie came to see her every other day for months. She saw how hard it was, with the Depression, my husband bringing home little, and I was taking care of foster children, $17.50 a month from the county. I never saw a bill from her or from the orthopedic surgeons..... So from then on, every year I made her a pound cake for her birthday, the eleventh of March. And she would say, 'You could give a million dollars and I wouldn't be any more pleased than I am when you give me this cake,' except one time I made it with margarine and she made a face and told me sternly, 'Next time use butter.'"......
We don't need to idealize or sentimentalize Doctor Nellie Null or her times. No doubt her strong will sent ripples of conflict through her personal relationships. One person wrote me with doubts about her judgment in one fatal emergency. And none of us wants to return to the days before children were immunized against diphtheria.
What we need and what we want to find in our lives is what she stood for: the ethic that placed all human beings above material gain; the good-humored gusto for life; the robust and unsentimental love that expressed itself in effective work; the inner freedom that makes possible a total commitment like hers.
In that sense we are, all of us, in search of Doctor Nellie.
I read an article that said people touch their faces an average of 24 times an hour. I'm sure I'm way above average. My friend Elizabeth suggested substituting a handkerchief when you want to touch your face. That worked for a little while. Any other ideas?
I think it was last August, I discovered The Nettle Man at the farmer's market in Ashland, Oregon.
He's an old bearded hippie who makes tinctures from wild herbs. Nettles are supposed to be good for the lungs. I have asthma, so I bought a bottle. He told me it's more effective if it's warm, with a little water and wine added. I take a dose every morning. Before I started taking it, whenever I got a cold, it would at least slightly go down into my lungs. In July 2019 I ended up with bronchitis. Since I started using the nettle tincture, I have not had any problem with my lungs. None.
I am certain it's because of the tincture. Go to nettleman.com to order some. The part about warm and with wine, he told me in person. I can't find it on his website.
THAT'S ALL, FOLKS!
Lilith Women's Theater | 547 Douglass St., San Francisco, CA 94114