(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Wartime hit like the explosion of an artillery shell in the backyard of everyday American life. Pearl Harbor’s “Day of Infamy” rained enormous consequences that touched every aspect of life. No one was spared its impact!
In Mary’s family it touched two of her brothers directly when they were drafted into military service. Both served in the U.S. Army–John in North Africa, and Bud as an officer at the Pentagon. When Bud was drafted he qualified for Officers Candidate School. Upon completion of his training, as a second lieutenant, he was headed for the Pacific Theater. Just before boarding a troop ship he received a change of orders sending him to the Pentagon where he spent the war writing training manuals.
Hugh’s older brother, Floyd, served on the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Merchant Marine throughout the war. Hugh was not drafted. The war did, however, provide a launch pad out of the great depression for him, as it did for many others.
He worked for nearly five years as an assembly line supervisor at the Wright plant in Dayton, building the SB2C Helldiver aircraft. These controversial, carrier-based dive bombers played a key role in decisive battles at Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa…and later in raids on Japan.
Life on the battlefronts was rugged, uncertain, filled with suffering and hardship. Many of those who survived would bear scars for years afterward. Life was also difficult at home. Rationing limited the amount of gasoline available for transportation, as well as food and other commodities for individual and family usage. Lifestyles were altered to fit external circumstances in ways Americans would never have imagined.
In this context, Mary and her family worked their way through various moves and adjustments. In the spring of 1942, Estus Harris helped her and Hugh purchase their first home. It was a one-story brick house on Redmont Avenue in Deer Park, about ten miles from the city. They soon discovered that there were nearly forty children under age six living in that neighborhood!
Although Hughie started school there, this was “home” for only a bit over a year. When Mary found she was pregnant again, she and Hugh scouted out a larger house. They settled on a two-story frame home with three bedrooms located on Glendale-Milford Road in Sharonville. This location was closer to work for Hugh, but it was twenty miles outside the city.
They were now living in a rural area. Hughie continued first grade in a small school where boys played marbles in the school yard during recess, and punishment for misbehavior was often a paddling by the principal.
The house had a large yard and a small nearby airport had a piece of its runway that came up behind the backyard. The airfield was used mostly by small, private planes…but occasionally military aircraft would visit. When a B-25 bomber turned into the wind behind their house and revved its engines for takeoff, the vibrations shook the ground and rattled the windows.
Mary’s third child was born on October 25, 1943, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati. Because of gasoline rationing, and the distance he would have to travel, Hugh was only able to visit a couple of times during her customary post-birth hospital stay. One day Mary discovered just how small the “big” world of Cincinnati and Hamilton County really was. A man walking past her room to visit his wife did a double-take, turned and came back to her door.
“Mary? Mary Townsend?”
She looked up. “Yes, that’s me.” Puzzled at first, she suddenly recognized the voice. It was a man she had dated as a school girl. His wife had given birth and was several doors down the hall. From then on he would drop by to talk about old times when he came to visit his wife. One of the nurses stopped him once and asked, “I see you’ve been visiting in two rooms….” She raised her eyebrows. “Which one’s your wife?” Mary would laugh about that and retell it many times during her life.
The hospital stay was not easy for Mary. Things weren’t right with her baby. He was quite jaundiced–“As yellow as a lemon,” she would say. Even the whites of his eyes were yellow. He also couldn’t nurse. She asked the doctor about it.
“Lots of babies are jaundiced at birth,” he replied. “I’ll have the nurse give him Vitamin K shots. That should clear it up.”
It didn’t! When it was time to take the baby home, he was still jaundiced.
The normal process of naming a newborn had been interrupted, so the Bureau of Vital Statistics called and requested a name. Mary and Hugh talked it over and decided on Paul Robert Harris. This delighted her dad, who was a Rotarian, because the founder of Rotary was named Paul Robert Harris.
Pauley, as they nicknamed him, didn’t improve They took him to a pediatrician every month. On one visit Mary said, “Doctor, it’s been six months now, and Pauley is still jaundiced. Can’t you do something?”
“Now, now, I know its natural for a mother to be concerned. but I think he’s fine. He’s just a little slow.”
“But that’s not the only thing going on here,” Mary insisted. “He cries so much, especially at night. We’re losing sleep trying to comfort him.” The doctor offered no solution.
One day Hughie came home from school with itchy, red blisters on his body. “I don’t feel good,” he complained. “My head hurts.”
When Mary found he had a fever she called the doctor and described his symptoms.
“Sounds like he has Chickenpox. You’ll have to keep him out of school for a couple of days to prevent spreading it to other children. Bathe him in warm water, rub him with unscented lotion, and dress him in soft clothing. You’ll have to wait this out, but it will go away.”
It did, but not before Sissy and Pauley each came down with it. A few weeks later Hughie came home from school saying his eyes itched. She looked closely…there was redness in the whites of his eyes, and even on the inner part of his eyelids.
“He has Pinkeye,” the doctor told her. “It’s going around in the schools right now…highly contagious…easy to spread.” He told her how to treat it and, again, to keep him home from school. Of course, the other children came down with it, too.
The next thing was measles a couple of months later. This also went through the family. When Mary took Paul for a measles shot, the doctor said he wanted to have a talk with her.
“Mrs. Harris, I think you’d better sit down because I have something to tell you that is going to be a shock.”
Nervously, Mary sate down.
“I think we know what’s wrong with Paul. He has spastic paralysis, and he will never be able to lead a normal life. I think you must know this so you can learn to live with it.”
It was a shock! Mary couldn’t take in what she heard. That night Paul went into a convulsion and had to be taken to the hospital for observation. A spinal tap revealed that he’d experienced a hemorrhage at birth that had injured the motor area of his brain.
“I don’t think he can see,” the doctor went on. “I don’t believe his brain will be able to develop. I know this is hard for you. I wish I had better news. My suggestion would be to find a Home to place him in where he can be cared for…then forget about him and go on with your life and your other children. There’s nothing more you can do.”
Mary was not about to take that opinion as final. She took Paul to an eye specialist who examined him. “Paul has a weak muscle in his right eye,” the doctor told her. “This causes him to be cross-eyed in one eye, but I believe this will right itself with time.”
Mary and Hugh had been through ordeals that had tested them. One bright spot had been that he worked the night shift, from three to eleven o’clock, so he’d been home during the daytime to help her. They had worked together, prayed together, and grown in their love in ways that only shared hardship can produce. They agreed that the last thing they would ever do would be to give Paul up to an institutional home.
Every time Mary looked into Paul’s eyes she saw something the doctors had missed. He was alert to his surroundings. There had to be so much more they could discover that would help him have a full life. They pledged their love to each other, and to their family.
They would find a way!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Reflections!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)