Mary with Paulie in the backyard on Howell Avenue
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Mary and Hugh were motivated now to enlarge their understanding of what was happening with Paul. They consulted more doctors and discovered that spastic paralysis was actually a form of something called Cerebral Palsy. In addition, they found out the cause of Paul’s brain damage was something called the RH factor in their blood. They had never heard of either of these things, and had tests made to determine their RH factors. It turned out that Mary was RH negative, and Hugh RH positive.
“What happens,” their doctor explained, “is that the negative cells actually war against the positive cells during gestation. This causes brain damage. When these factors fought each other in Paul’s brain, the cells in the motor area were damaged. This affected his ability to use his body normally.”
Mary heaved a sigh. “So, what does this mean about Paul’s prospects?”
The doctor explained more about how the brain has different compartments that control different aspects of growth and development. “His lack of motor coordination has nothing to do with his brain’s health in other areas. For instance, this has nothing to do with his thinking ability. That is controlled by another part of his brain that is undamaged.”
Mary was excited! A huge “cloud of unknowing” had been lifted. She could sense the radiance of God himself in hers and Paul’s lives now. Praise to God…there’s hope for Paulie now!”
There was that word, hope, that had come to her when the eye doctor talked about Paul’s vision prospects. Hope brightened her outlook and intensified her sense of life itself.
Things went along smoothly for awhile. Winter came with its snow and ice. One day Hughie came in from school crying with intense pain.
“I fell on the ice,” he said through his tears. “I fell hard. It hurts, and I can’t hardly move.”
When Mary tried to help him out of his heavy winter coat, he screamed. “Where does it hurt?” she asked, trying to calm him.
“In my head.” He was carrying himself rigidly. “I can’t turn my head.” He broke out crying again. A chiropractor who had been treating Paul came into her mind. She called him.
“Keep him as quiet as possible,” the doctor advised. “I’m about twenty minutes from where you live and I’m leaving right now. I’ll be at your house as quickly as I can.”
When he arrived he examined Paul, then gave Mary some directions. “I want you to hold his head in your lap, and we’ll put his feet on the bed.” He got them settled and then used an instrument to check Hughie’s vertebrae.
“My, that was a hard fall,” he said when he’d finished. “One side of his spinal column has slipped up a whole notch. No wonder he’s stiff in the neck and in severe pain. I’m going to do a realignment.”
His treatment worked and Mary thanked God, again, for guiding her to the right resource for the problem at hand.
These experiences triggered something within Mary that had been building up for some time–a spiritual realignment. She realized with new depth that she had a source to rely on for help with everything she’d experienced in these difficult war years. Not only had she struggled with the childrens’ health issues, moving, and rationing, but her brother John had been reported as Missing in Action for a time and that had hit her and her parents hard.
To Mary war was a dirty, disorganized, evil force spurred by the egos of stubborn people that turned God’s creation into turmoil and needless suffering. She had come to believe the tumult of warfare externally was rivaled by an inward commotion–a kind of spiritual warfare. She had struggled within herself over the tasks life was increasingly demanding of her. She had struggled with God.
Mary pulled herself apart from everyone and plunged into a deep process of inner cleansing. She cried and released a flood of long-controlled emotions. She prayed from the depth of her soul.
O God, I have been so self-focused all of my life. I’ve let pride rule me. I’ve tried to make things go the way I wanted. I hid you in a Bible and only talked to you when I felt desperate. I’ve questioned why Paul has these difficulties–why you let him be born this way. I’ve been selfish, and I want to repent. I want to change from the inside out. Lord I no longer blame you or anyone else for Paul’s condition and his needs. You’ve given me a great challenge, so I guess you know I can handle it. Please show me how. I don’t know anything about physical disabilities, but I know you will guide me if I trust you. Lord, I want to trust you!
As she prayed a warm sensation soared in the air around her, entering her body and surging through her whole being. She soaked up God’s overwhelming love. She didn’t have to do anything except let go in order to be filled with the love God already had for her. Now she wanted to be saturated with that love so she could walk in strength born of faith. As her prayer subsided she felt free, clean from the inside-out, and energized.
Mary pulled herself together and emerged a new woman who knew the wonderful power of God’s love flowing through her. God had been loving her from the moment she was conceived, and he loved Paul, Sissy, Hughie–her brother John–everyone she’d been worried about, in the same way. Gone now was the sadness, fear and faltering that had plagued her spirit. In place of that was a joy so complete that she believed she would be sharing it with people for the rest of her life.
As Mary realigned her spiritual life in submission to God, the world that had been war-ravaged for years began to exhibit flashes of hope for peace. The D-Day Landings and ensuing hard-fought battles in Europe brought victory there. Then the momentum shifted in the Pacific battles. Virtual destruction of the Japanese navy in Leyte Gulf, and the victories symbolized by raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, indicated that World War II was reaching its climax. The end came with the horrific bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It was time to realign the world toward peace.
Soldiers came home. The families who had lost loved ones were riddled with grief. Large numbers returned wounded and broken. The war had been a watershed in the history of American life. Nothing would ever be quite the same again. This was the context in which Mary took on her challenging tasks with Paul
As these changes unfolded, Mary and Hugh realized they needed to move again. Living in the country with one car that Hugh needed to go to work made it difficult to keep up with increasing doctors appointments and other needs. They needed to be closer to public transportation.
A large, three-story house in the Clifton area of Cincinnati, near the university, became the solution to that need. It was old, but in fairly good repair, and it was near the streetcar lines, groceries, drug stores and other resources. Clifton School was only a few blocks away, which meant Hughie could walk to school rather than ride a bus. They moved there in May of 1945.
Mary loved this house. It had a large first-floor entrance hall with a wide, open stairway. This floor included a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a “butler’s pantry” that Hugh envisioned turning into a back porch. Another stairway just off the kitchen serviced all three floors. The full basement included a laundry area, coal bin and stoker-fired furnace. Upstairs were a large bath and three bedrooms. The third floor contained a finished bedroom with gabled windows that overlooked the front yard and street. A large back yard with shade trees completed the picture.
Transitioning into this large house after years in very small places was a joyful undertaking. Mary’s biggest challenge came in keeping up with three children and the housekeeping that was now required. She devised a plan where she cleaned one room each day. Hugh’s challenge was to paint the entire house.
While living in Deer Park, the family had attended a Presbyterian church. They found one in their new neighborhood just up Clifton Avenue. Across the street from it was a Methodist church. On their first opportunity in June Mary got the whole family ready and they all went to Clifton Presbyterian Church.
“Strange,” Mary remarked to Hugh as they walked up to the main entrance. “There don’t seem to be any people stirring around. Do you suppose the service has already begun?”
“Maybe so,” Hugh said as they walked up and he read a printed sign tacked to the door. It said, Closed for Vacation, and indicated the church would reopen in two weeks. They looked at each other in disbelief.
“I guess that’s it,” Hugh said. “Let’s go back home.”
“Goodie!” shouted Hughie. “We can go home and play in the yard.”
“Not so fast,” Mary said. “I didn’t get three children up and dressed for church to turn around and go home. We came to worship God, and that’s what we’ll do. I see plenty of activity at that church across the street.”
They walked across to Clifton Methodist Church where they were welcomed with open arms. Mary had attended Price Hill Methodist Church, and Hughie had been baptized there, so the shift seemed natural to her. They went in and were seated in a semi-circular sanctuary with impressive stained glass windows, a pipe organ, and folding doors in the back that opened into a social hall.
People chattering in the pews became silent as the organist began the prelude. A small robed choir came down the center aisle and took its place in a loft to the right of the chancel. Then the pastor, a middle-aged man, opened the service speaking with a strong voice. When the service ended an hour later people gathered around the Harrises and invited them to return. They did the next Sunday, and would remain Methodists the rest of their lives.
After a plentiful Sunday dinner, during which they all talked about all sorts of things, Mary asked a specific question. “How did you like the church we went to today?”
She looked at Sissy who said shyly, “Okay.”
Hughie was more animated. “I wonder what the other church was like? I wish we could’a seen it.”
“I know…but how did you like the one we went to?”
“Like Sissy said, it was okay. The music was loud!” He paused. “So was that preacher guy.”
They all laughed. Hugh raised his eyebrows and nodded. “That’s because he had something important to say.”
Hughie shrugged his shoulders. “I think he should’a said it quieter!”
When she had the children down for naps and they’d cleaned up the kitchen, Mary and Hugh sat on the front porch glider. “You know, it’s amazing how God has realigned things. Me, from a girl who started out on a dairy farm daydreaming about living in the city, to a mother with three kids living in the city’s Gas Light District. You, from a salesman to a factory supervisor. He’s even realigned us with a new church, and he’s going to show us how to meet Sissy’s and Paulie’s needs. God is here with us. I love it.
Hugh pulled her closer. She snuggled against his shoulder. “Thanks for going across the street when the church was closed this morning,” she said. ” I think God led us there for a reason.”
She looked up at him.
He squeezed her. “So do I!”
(Excerpts from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)