When I was a child, I was pretty healthy, but I did do something on a recurring basis: Whenever my father went on a business trip, I ran a low-grade fever.
On the days that I was still in bed when our housekeeper, Frau Menzel, arrived, the first thing she would say is, “Oh your father must be out of town.” Then she’d smile knowingly. I never knew whether she thought I was faking or whether I was really sick. But it is hard to sustain a fake fever over a period of several hours, so she must have believed me.
My parents’ policy was that if I was sick, I was to remain in bed unless I needed to go to the bathroom; otherwise my sick day would look very much like a skip-school day. That would not do, because my mother was a teacher, and my father was a school administrator. What would people think if my parents allowed their daughter to miss school?
So, my every activity needed to be carried out in bed. That meant that my bed soon became littered with Barbies, coloring books, notepads, crayons, scissors, glue—anything that would keep me occupied and quiet.
At lunch time, Frau Menzel would bring me a nice thick salami or ham sandwich and a bowl of homemade soup on a tray, with the requisite ginger ale. If my fever spiked my lunch would also include several orange-flavored baby aspirin.
After lunch, Frau Menzel would wheel in the “American” TV and would turn it on to the Armed Forces Network. AFN’s reception was very poor at our house, especially in my room, and we’d only get fuzzy, grainy images by wiggling the “rabbit ears” or adding tinfoil to them. So, watching TV was almost like listening to the radio.
I’d hang off the side of the bed, frantically working the antennae or repositioning the television in order to get a decent picture. AFN TV was relatively new and quite a novelty. It provided me a window into the United States and what was important to my fellow Americans—soap operas, game shows, commercials. Later, I realized that AFN commercials were all public service announcements created by the government for us, so when I got to the States and watched real commercial TV, it was mind blowing!
Watching, or listening to TV all afternoon got me through until my mother got home from work. If I was lucky, she would have stopped at the commissary and picked me up a TV dinner or some of those frozen bite-size tacos or spring rolls.
Frozen foods were such a treat for me! My mother was a classically trained French chef, and Frau Menzel was an excellent cook, so a TV dinner was a luxurious novelty and only allowed when I was sick. I loved everything about TV dinners. The little miniature compartments of food, the grainy mashed potatoes, the tiny portions of meat and buttered peas, the foil turned back to brown the cobbler!
The exotic-to-me foods like the spring rolls or tacos, commonplace in many of my friends’ homes, to me, were the most marvelously unusual delicacies. In retrospect I think the tacos were miniature shells smeared with plain refried beans and the spring rolls consisted of mostly cabbage and MSG, but to my 10-year-old self, they were delicious.
My mom would bring me up to date on the school news and tell me which of my teachers or friends had stopped by her classroom to inquire about my health. She might even play paper dolls for half an hour with me before she went to make dinner for herself.
In the rare case that my dad telephoned from wherever he was—Italy, Libya, Greece or England—I could tell him that I was sick, and revel in his sympathy. I knew that my infirmity wouldn’t last (it never did) and tomorrow, I would be up and back at school. My day off would fade into a distant memory.
Even now, I still like the way baby aspirin tastes. TV dinners and frozen snack foods, not so much.
I reflect back on the security I felt as a child, knowing that my mother, Frau Menzel, and the Dr. Spock Baby Book would keep me safe and healthy.
I wish that all illnesses, flu, cancer, and all the other horrible, scary diseases out there, could be cured with a day in bed, two baby aspirin and copious amounts of ginger ale and chicken soup.