(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Mary didn’t know it starting out, but the next few years would be filled with opportunities and blessings she believed came from trusting god fully in everything.
Alongside caring for Paul, she had the task of nurturing Sissy with her heart condition. Since Sis would be five-years-old in December, Mary wondered if they would take her in kindergarten in the fall. She knew the heart murmur, along with the need for restricted activities, could present a roadblock. She called the city school office for help.
“We have a school over in Avondale that has handicapped children,” the clerk told her. “I’m talking about Condon School–perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
“Condon School….” Mary turned the name over in her mind. “No, tell me about it.”
“It was built nearly twenty years ago to educate children with handicaps. I think they’ve had some kids with heart issues before. I’ll check on that and call you tomorrow.”
The next day she called back. “I’m happy to tell you that Condon School might be able to take Merle. Don’t worry about her birthday being in December…that’s just before the cut-off.” She made an appointment for them to meet with the principal.
Mary was overjoyed as she and Hugh drove up to the school. It was an ornate, stucco, two-story building with a tile roof. The trim on the facade reflected the school’s purpose, featuring numerous crests and trim depicting children. Two medallion-shaped sculptures about three feet in diameter were located between three tall, arched entry ports. After showing them around the school and talking with them, the principal said Sissy could begin in September.
Hughie began attending Clifton School, disappointed at starting again in the second grade. He had attended three weeks before the summer recess, and the principal decided the rural school in Blue Ash did not measure up to the standards in city schools, so he was recycled. The good part was he could walk to school, and sometimes ride on the streetcar, which was fun.
A Condon School bus picked Sissy up each morning at the house, and returned her in the afternoon. Watching his brother and sister go off to school was hard for Paul. As the bus would turn onto Howell Avenue just a few doors up from the house, its brakes would squeal. That was like a signal to Paul, who then let out his own squeal of delightful anticipation.
Mary busied herself learning everything she could about Cerebral Palsy. She heard about a doctor Phelps in Cockeysville, Maryland, who was considered the foremost authority on CP. She just had to meet this man. She called and found he was willing to see Paul. Hugh took a week off from the cabinet and upholstery shop he now operated, and they took Paul to Maryland. Getting to know Dr. Phelps and his methods for treatment opened new doors.
Mary made numerous trips there over the next few years, once with her mother, but usually just with Paul. She would take a night train, arriving in Cockeysville at 8:30 a.m., then get a taxi to the doctor’s location. Being very resourceful, she would wash a few diapers in the restroom when they arrived, and dry them on the waiting room radiator. In the evening she and Paul would catch a night train back to Cincinnati.
Dr. Phelps introduced Mary to a number of things that made a difference in Paul’s day-to-day life at home. He designed an exercise program to strengthen otherwise underused muscles so they would not atrophy. Mary learned these exercises as the doctor introduced them, then at home made a game of them. She would sing little rhymes that fit the movements she was using.
“Pump the water, pump, pump, pump,” she sang as she worked with his arm exercises. It was fun and they laughed a lot. “Here we go loop-de-loop, here we go loop-de-li; here we go loop-de-la, all on a Saturday night.” She and Paul had fun and laughed a lot during these daily routines. They became a time of special bonding.
Hugh offered a suggestion. “Let me make you an exercise table–something so you that won’t have to be down on the floor.” She agreed and he made a soft, padded vinyl table top that he placed on a chest of drawers that stood waist high. It worked beautifully.
He also studied what Dr. Phelps called a CP chair that he had designed. It was something like a bucket seat that was adapted to the special needs of Cerebral Palsy children. Hugh built his own version of that chair, complete with wheels so Paul could sit in it throughout much of the day and be moved around the house. He devised padding and restraints to protectively harness Paul so he wouldn’t harm himself.
In addition, Dr. Phelps prescribed a set of braces to support Paul’s legs and back so he could sit upright, and stand. Then Hugh designed and built a standing table that had a padded table top that could be fastened in front of him. Paul loved standing up and they did many activities on that table.
One particular trip to Maryland occurred one spring week in 1948. The whole family drove to Cockeysville, and after several days with Dr Phelps, drove back by way of Washington, DC, and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was Saturday night before Easter when they stopped at the Pure Village Court outside Harrisonburg. Hughie complained that they’d have to miss the Easter egg hunt back home. Sissy said the Easter Bunny would never find them, and besides, they didn’t have any baskets.
Mary had anticipated all of this. “How do you know the Easter Bunny won’t find you?” she said. “I bet you’ll find a basket for each of you tomorrow just like you would at home.” Sissy wasn’t convinced, but she finally went to sleep.
The next morning the children were delighted to find baskets Mary had hidden around the room. They also went to the gift shop where they bought trinkets…banners, a ceramic bear, carved wooden figures…things that became treasures to them. Mary also found a treasure herself–the Shenandoah Valley itself.
The quaint motel consisted of a restaurant and gift shop surrounded by a group of detached small cottages that offered both privacy and peacefulness. The view of the mountainous terrain combined with the tranquil setting to spur a longing within Mary to live there sometime. She had fallen in love with Virginia.
Not all was pleasant for her during the trip, however. She began to recognize familiar sensations in her body. As soon as they were home she saw her obstetrician, Dr. McFarland. He confirmed what she suspected–she was pregnant. Paul was now four, Hughie eleven, and Sissy seven.
“I can’t be pregnant!” she told Dr. McFarland, decisively. “We can’t have more children.”
Dr. McFarland was concerned. “I realize you have three children and hadn’t planned on another…but you seem too upset just for that. What else is going on?”
Mary’s emotions overtook her. She felt a mingling of fear and shame. Where was her trust in God? She pulled herself together.
“You’re right. It’s not just having another child…we love children. They’re a gift from God and parenting is a rich privilege. It’s…the RH factor. I’m RH positive and Hugh is negative–that’s what caused Paul’s Cerebral Palsy.”
“I understand,” the doctor said with a comforting tone. “Look at me.”
She looked into his eyes.
“I will see that you have a normal, healthy child. You can trust me on that.”
Mary was flabbergasted. “How can you do that?”
“We’ve learned a lot since the end of the war,” he replied. “I was stationed at a hospital in France where I worked with the RH factor and its effects…not just on babies, but on men getting blood transfusions….”
Mary was startled. “Oh! I hadn’t thought of that.”
He gave her a moment. “I will be with you when you go into labor and I won’t leave until the baby has arrived. We can handle this.”
During the pregnancy Mary developed some problems. Dr. McFarland told her she would have to spend several weeks in bed to avoid a miscarriage.
“But…I can’t do that! Who will take care of Paulie? Hugh can’t do it–he has to work. I could send Hughie and Sissy to our parents for a short time, but they can’t take care of Paul.”
“I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but there is an option. There are some really good convalescent homes in the city where he could be cared for until the baby is born. I can help you arrange that.”
Mary was mortified. “No! I can’t!” She remembered when Paul was born and the doctor had suggested she put him in a home and forget about him. She closed her eyes and prayed. Lord, we promised never to put Paul in an institutional home. How can we do this now? Show us an answer.”
Unsettled, she paused, then prayed again. Lord, I promised to trust you in everything, didn’t I? Here I am trying to manage this, letting fear overtake me. I know Paul is precious to you and you will care for him.
When Paul went to the convalescent home, Mary discovered just how much their lives had become entwined. She missed him deeply and found herself crying, sometimes almost uncontrollably. Hugh was patient, then one day he decided she had to get past this.
“Well, Mary,” he said. “I guess the only thing to do is bring Paul home and you will have a miscarriage.”
His words shocked her. She quit crying and tried to connect with things that were positive. She learned to appreciate the love and care he was receiving…and she realized he was learning that others besides her could help him. One nurse, in fact, had connected with him so well that she could tell he had been rocked at home. In spite of it being against the rules, she took it upon herself to rock him each night after lights out. Everybody there spoiled him!
The hardest part was the first week he was away because this was when they weren’t allowed to visit, so they could build his trust. That was hard on both Mary and Paul. When they did visit after that i,t was always on a Saturday. The nurses told her they didn’t need a calendar..they knew it was Saturday just by looking at Paul’s face.
The baby was born on November 23, and Paul came home a month later. They named the child James Alan–Jimmy, for short. Mary held him, cherishing this new life God had placed in her care. Dr. McFarland had made good on his promise as Jimmy was born a perfectly normal child.
Looking back over the past three years, Mary thanked God. So many opportunities had come their way, and she and Hugh had embraced each with faith and trust in God. That had produced abundant blessings in the very places where it had at first seemed they faced only hardships. She felt more complete and competent than ever.
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)