Taking Temperatures

Written By: Grace Persico

My mother, Joanne: Creamy-white skin, dark brown, coarse, curly hair, bright, light-blue eyes.

This is how she took temperatures:

She’d stoop down until her face was next to her child’s face. For a second or two, in the most tender way, she would rest her cheek on her child’s forehead. She might change the location of her cheek to one of the child’s temples, or to another part of the child’s forehead.

Only if the skin felt warm, she would go through the kitchen drawers full of rubber bands and old receipts, the pantry shelves full of tuna fish cans, old address books and my dad’s favorite Listerine mouthwash. Eventually she would locate the thermometer. It would inevitably be stained from the cough syrup given to another child a month before, or perhaps its protective cap would be missing.

Let’s say the child in question this time is Joan, the fourth child, the second to the youngest. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Joan with her huge cheeks. (The time-period of this piece is late 1989. An essay focusing upon the fifth child, Claire, is forthcoming)

Alphonse, Anne and I would gather around the rocking chair or couch in the living room, wherever our mom had decided to sit with Joan on her lap.

The thermometer was the digital kind which beeps when it detects an accurate body temperature. Even my brother, almost an adolescent at the time, would stay close and wait for the beep.

After about a minute, the beep would come.

If Joan’s temperature were over 99 F, my mom would shoo her other children away. She would slip over Joan’s head a cotton turtleneck bought at A&S and button up a woolen, hand-me-down cardigan over the turtleneck. These items were put on over the pajamas the toddler was already wearing. Joan’s forehead would be kissed, and then, matter-of-factly, she would be placed on the couch with a picture book.

My mom would then begin preparing her cure-all, chicken soup. It would be done soon, a quick affair: The chicken would not be cut up into little pieces, for the children were expected to break up the boiled leg, breast or wing in their own soup-filled bowls. The scrumptious, juicy skin would be left on. Uncle Ben’s “minute rice,” crudely chopped celery, onions and carrots completed the dish.

Joan would be placed in her high-chair: the handmade, wooden one bought by our grandfather in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the one each one of us had sat in.

Alphonse would try to make Joan laugh with his impression of Donald Duck, Anne would be following our mother, chiding Joan for not drinking up her soup while it was hot. And I, Grace, would say something helpful, such as, “Mom, why can’t our chicken be cut into cubes like in the soup I have at Beth’s house?”

Perhaps at eight pm, our father would come home from work (this was a very early home time for him).

Upon hearing the key in the front door lock, my mother would enter the kitchen again. She would put the leftover soup in a pot and start heating it, along with other dinner foods, on the stovetop.

Perhaps Joan was asleep on the couch. After scrubbing and rinsing his hands very thoroughly, my dad would place one of them in a horizontal position on her forehead, covering it completely. He might listen to Joan’s breathing with his stethoscope. He might wake her and peer at her eyes.

He’d carry Joan upstairs to her crib. In the arms of our strong father, Joan’s two-year-old body was as lightweight as a ‘yellow pages’ telephone book. A spunky child with a formidable grip, she would still be clutching the picture book she’d fallen asleep with.

My mother would have followed her husband to the second floor. She would take off Joan’s turtleneck if it were wet with perspiration. She would put a blanket on her and kiss her forehead.

As with each and every one of us, in each and every one of our roles, my mother and father were far from perfect.

Still, beyond any shadow of doubt, here is what they provided to my siblings and I: continuity, structure and a huge amount of love.