A friend asked me a few years ago, “Pat, why don’t you write that book you’ve always talked about?”
“I already wrote a book,” I replied, “the one for credit union members.”
“No,” she responded, “I mean a book about the tuberculosis sanatorium where your parents met. You’re so passionate about that story when you tell it. I don’t mean to just write any book, Pat! I mean you should write about the lifelong friendships and relationships that were built because of that place.”
I understood what she meant. The Lake Julia Tuberculosis Sanatorium really had become a community. All my life, I had heard my parents and my two older brothers talk about the San and Dr. Mary. As a child, I had grown tired of hearing about those times when we lived back in northern Minnesota, before we moved to Washington. What did those times in the past have to do with my life, I wondered. Dr. Mary this, Dr. Mary that. I often thought, what was she, some kind of a saint?
When I finally visited The San with my mother, my aunt Bernice, and two of my cousins in 1980, nearly thirty years after our family moved away, I finally understood. The doors were chained shut, so Mom walked along slowly outside the abandoned building, peering into basement windows. She stopped at one, wiped the crusted dirt away with her bare hand, and pressed her face close to the glass. “There’s Daddy’s little bed,” she said. A small metal bed frame, bricks from the nearby furnace room strewn around its legs, sat in the center of the room.
“That was Daddy’s bed?” I asked, in awe. Dad had died only a year before, and I missed him.
“That’s right,” Mom replied. “Daddy was janitor and when we met, he lived right down there in that room. I worked in the kitchen and lived over there,” she said, pointing to a two-story house nearby.
“You lived in that house?” I asked, thinking the house looked much too new to have been there in 1930.
“No,” my mother replied. The nurses’ home sat on that same site. All that is left of it now is those front steps where we used to sit and visit. The nurses slept on the upper floors, and the kitchen crew, laundry help, and maids slept in the basement.”
I started imagining my parents as young adults, meeting at this place. I’d always before thought of them as old. This was the perfect setting to fall in love, on the shores of sparkling Lake Julia, thought by some to be the source of the Mississippi River. It was too bad, I thought, that the patients were not able to get out and enjoy swimming, boating, and fishing.
As we stood outside the San, my aunt Bernice approached with tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“There’s Lovers Lane,” she replied, pointing to the driveway leading from the steps that had once belonged to the nurses’ home. “Norman and I used to take walks there.”
Norman was Mom’s younger brother. He didn’t work at the San full time, but he helped with the haying. Mom introduced him to her friend Bernice Bakke, who worked downstairs in the laundry, and they fell in love. Mom’s brother Reuben was groundskeeper at the San for many years; her brother Louis married Inga Lomen, a patient who later became a nurse at the San. I hadn’t thought before about the many family connections to the place.
I glanced up at the high windows of the wards and sun porches where patients had lived, sometimes for many years, while “taking the cure”. I recalled a picture in Dad’s album of a beautiful young lady. On it, she had written, “Elida. Lest you forget me.” Mom said Elida died shortly after that picture was taken. My father kept the photo, and Elida was not forgotten.
That day, I finally understood why my parents talked so much about the San and Dr. Mary. I had been bored because I didn’t understand, because I had never tried to understand. Now I “got it.” This wasn’t just a place to work; it wasn’t just a place to recover or to die; it was a community.
Selfishly concentrating only on my young life, I had closed my ears to hearing about the community where my parents met and fell in love, where they married and had their first child, then their second, where they struggled through my father’s illnesses and his efforts to make a living, where they lived through The Great Depression, and, finally, where I was born.
After our visit, I knew I had missed something important by not acknowledging that time in their lives. I treasured that trip with my mother, my aunt, and my cousins and I hoped to one day return.
That didn’t happen for another seventeen years, shortly after my mother passed away. My husband and I attended a family reunion in White, South Dakota where my aunt Bernice and her three children live. My husband Bob, my cousin Paul, and I decided to drive to Puposky, Minnesota so Bob could see where my family had lived. Nostalgia was tugging at me, telling me to return.
While there, we visited Dr. Jim Ghostley, a retired dentist and son of Dr. Mary Ghostley, the superintendent of the Sanatorium. He had grown up in a log house behind the San along with his sister Cathy, both adopted by Dr. Mary Ghostley. He told loving and remarkable stories of his mother, some that I had heard before, but many that I had not. I learned that she was called a witch for studying medicine, that she campaigned for women’s right to vote, and that she delivered more than 2000 babies, usually receiving only a chicken, a quart of cream, or a promise in payment.
I said to Jim Ghostley, “Someone should write a book about your mother.” Already, I was thinking that someone could be me.
“People always say that,” said Jim Ghostley, but no one ever does it.”
Five years later, we returned again. This time, the sanatorium door was not chained shut. We went in and toured the building, imagining what it must have been like when the facility was open, with its huge windows and high doorways, its terrazzo floors, and the large fireplace in the entry.
I visited Jim Ghostley again, and this time I said I would like to be the one to write the book.
Little did I know when I started the project that my mother would still be telling me about Dr. Mary and the San even after her death. One day while gathering information, I decided to look through my mother’s genealogy papers, a collection of many boxes full of notebooks and photo albums. In those papers, my mother told me all about her job at the San, even how high she washed the walls when she first went to work there as a maid, as well as her later duties as dishwasher. Her notes were rich with detail.
This time I listened.