Letter to my Sister

I have not seen you in over 40 years

March 11, 1947 you (Frances Joan Jennings) were born a blue baby. You were transferred to Boston for a transfusion. You had rheumatic fever but survived. You were the 4th living child of Elsie B. Milligan and Francis G. Jennings. Your siblings were: Thomas J. age 5, Elsie F. age 4, and me (Mary R. age 3).

I don’t remember when you were born but I think it was the same year that I had my tonsils out. And I do remember that. I would have been 3 ½ to 4 years old. There was nothing wrong with my tonsils, but Tommy had tonsillitis and my mother took advantage of the family plan to have them rip out all three tonsils at the same time. I was probably the last to go under the knife and the surgeon was probably tired because he ripped out my uvula as well. What I do remember about that day was the gas they used for anesthetizing us and how sick it made me. I also remember the doctor telling me to count backwards from 100. I was scared that he would think I was stupid because I didn’t know how to count backwards from 100. Anyway, shortly after that, I do remember there being a crib in the room along with the bunkbed (me on the top and Elsie on the bottom) and the single bed for Tommy. So there we were squeezed into that tiny 2-bedroom apartment at 68 Vernon St.

My earliest memory of you was mommy’s worry about your heart because of the rheumatic fever. So she was always cautioning us “Don’t upset Frances because of her heart”. As Elsie and I got to be 7 and 8 years old, and mommy’s health deteriorated, much of the housework fell to us. Naturally, Tommy didn’t have to do much since he was a boy, although he did have to wash the kitchen floor on Saturday night. And you were too little to help. But by the time we were 10 and 11 and you were 6, we began to resent you for not having to do anything around the house because of your “heart”. We were even expected to pick up after you. And you were a whiney, annoying child. Elsie and I would tease you when mommy wasn’t looking just to see if your heart would explode. We had to take care of David too, also a blue baby, who came along 2 years after you, but at least in my memory, he was a pleasant, easy going child.

Here’s a story that I remember so clearly because it was the only time that I remember mommy and daddy being harsh with you:

You were about 9 years old, I think. It was the year Daddy decided that we would have liver for dinner once a week. I think he’d just read “You Are What You Eat”, and was convinced that liver was the best thing for our health. He was probably right because at least I and maybe Elsie were diagnosed more than once with anemia. And liver is full of iron. Of course, mommy’s cooking left a lot to be desired and whenever she tried to cook a piece of meat, it turned out to be as dry and tasteless as shoe leather. And liver, being an unappetizing meat to begin with, was all but inedible. I learned later that if you don’t overcook it and serve it with bacon and sautéed onions, it becomes almost palatable. But that Wednesday night when you were 9, it was the usual shoe leather.

Now, we all come from a long line of stubborn Irishmen. Some would call us pig-headed or obstinate. I prefer to think of myself as determined. I don’t know how you perceive yourself, but we share the same genetic make-up, and this story illustrates that you definitely have the stubborn gene.

So, we were all sitting at the table for the Wednesday liver supper. I don’t know if daddy liked the shoe leather or not, but I know no one else was looking forward to it. But the rule of the house was that you must belong to the “Clean Plate Club” and “Think of the starving people in China” and eat everything on your dish. I don’t think we had a dog at the time, so I guess I must have somehow eaten the shoe leather. Maybe I had a softball game to go to so I just shoveled it in to get out of there quick. BUT YOU were having none of it. You refused to eat even a bite! There was much cajoling, then commanding, then very possibly, a slap or two. BUT YOU wouldn’t eat it. Everyone else had finished their dinner and we wanted to clean the table and wash the dishes so we could go out. BUT YOU wouldn’t eat it. Finally mommy let us clean up all except your plate and she told you that you couldn’t leave the table until you’d eaten your liver. BUT YOU wouldn’t eat it.

When I arrived home from playing softball (or wherever I was), you were still at the table with a full plate. When I got up the next morning you were still at the table, asleep with your head in the full plate. You were finally allowed to leave the table, throw away the shoe leather, and go to bed. I also think that it may have been the last Liver Wednesday! YOU WON!

For that moment, you were my hero. And I noticed that after all the stress that night must have brought upon you, your heart didn’t explode. So I for one, was through with doing chores for you.

It was only many years later in retrospect, that I realized how really cruel that was of our parents. Do you remember any of it?


10 replies on “Letter to my Sister”

This story brings back memories of my childhood. My mother had 7 children in 9 years, not Irish, just a 1948 Catholic. I am the second child and had many of the same jobs, to take care of the youngest. We also had over cooked liver. I put tons of ketchup on it and pretended it was steak.

I was that stubborn when it came to turnips. My mother would mix them with potatoes knowing I did not like turnips. My father saw that I would pick the potato and not the turn up. So he made me put the turnip in my mouth. I refuse to swallow he kept yelling, So eventually I threw up all over the dining room table.

Ah, I learned lots from this story, you aren’t stubborn after all, just very determined. I loved the story and think it’s amazing you are such a good cook since you had a tasteless childhood so to speak!! How about a story about the evolution of your sibling??

Loved your story . Absolutely HATE liver. I lived with my grandmother ,two sisters and an uncle in 1945 to 1947. skinny child my grandmother was a once a week believer in liver. Had to eat it and always threw it up but did not matter had to eat the following week. To this day even the smell makes me nauseous,

I think liver as part of the weekly family food experience must have been fostered on our parents/grandparents in the 1940s/1950s and 1960s as we were all growing up. I can also remember my mother cooking liver and onions for our family in rural Southern Iowa. I actually preferred liver and onions to a weekly dose of canned spam. Thanks for sharing this story about you and your siblings, Mary. Enjoyed reading it.

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